Northampton. Once upon a time, it was one of the most important towns in England with a history few other English towns can boast. It was a place where national decisions were made, and a place where kings and queens regularly stayed. During the reigns of the Plantagenet kings, Parliament met here more often than at any other place in England.
Today, it is a historical wasteland where the past, particularly the medieval past, has been almost entirely forgotten. Visit places like Shrewsbury, Ludlow or even Winchester today, and it can quickly be seen that the historical heartbeat of these towns still beats strong and loud and a sense of civic pride issues from every pore. One of the main reasons for this is they still have many old buildings which serve as reminders of their past. Not so Northampton. Today it is tired and dirty, but would this be the case if a few more reminders of our past still survived?
Sadly, the town’s turbulent history has meant that most of its early buildings have been destroyed by fire and war. The last fire in 1675, in six hours, destroyed around 700 out the towns 850 buildings including the original All Saints church. And, most of the buildings that were fortunate to survive were then torn down with unprecedented barbarity and short sightedness, all in the name of progress. Even our castle, one of the largest and most important Royal castles in medieval England was systematically destroyed, first by King Charles II because the town was rebellious, and then the remains were dismantled to make way for the railways. When the railways announced their plans, the town was in uproar. Even the local council objected, however the railway company refused to listen and destroyed it anyway: all in the name of progress!
One of the few reminders of our past that survives today is Queen Eleanor’s Cross. In recent months even that was in imminent danger of crumbling, until campaigners highlighted its plight and the Borough Council finally stepped up to give it much needed maintenance. Whilst this undoubtedly saved it, unlike its sister at Geddington, there are still no signposts to proclaim its existence or suitable parking spots, so people can stop and see for themselves its beauty and history. Another survivor of the towns medieval past is the chapel of the Hospital of St. John Baptist and St. John Evangelist in Bridge Street which was founded before 1307 and part of a much larger complex. The chapel is now an excellent restaurant. Then there is Delapré Abbey; although precious little of the actual medieval nunnery survives, the later building has been extensively renovated at huge cost (although it remains on English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ register).
Throughout the medieval period, the town was an important religious centre with nine churches for a population of around 2,500 in the fifteenth century, all established before 1130. However, only three of these, St. Peters, Holy Sepulchre and St. Giles survive intact today. All Saints was largely destroyed by the fire and had to be rebuilt. St. Peters is one of the most beautiful Norman churches in England. The tower arch is richly carved with chevrons and zigzags, whilst the capitals on the columns offer a catalogue of birds, fantastic beasts, grotesque faces, foliage, scrolls. One of the best carvings is of a man emerging from the mouth of a monster, clinging to trees loaded with giant pine cones. Another treasure is a tombstone decorated with a man’s head surrounded by wheels, a creature resembling a cat, winged dragons. The church is one of the towns jewels, all but forgotten. whereas it should be shouted from the roof tops and visitors encouraged (like all the medieval survivors).
Although much changed, Holy Sepulchre is one of the four remaining round churches in England, dates from the early 12th century, It was from here that in 1239 the nobility of England assembled to hear a sermon by a Papal Legate. Richard Earl of Cornwall (Henry III’s brother), the future King Edward I, Gilbert Marshall and nobles too many to count took the cross swearing an oath on the altar that they would lead their troops that year to the Holy Land on the ninth crusade.
St Giles Church importance is often forgotten, but until the reign of Henry VII, it was the centre of municipal life of the town. In its spacious nave, the Town Assemblies were always held and here, too, or in the churchyard the Mayors, Bailiffs, and other Town Officers, were elected. From an architectural point of view the church is also interesting having parts with Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular styles. The tower however, is comparatively new, the original having collapsed in 1613.
Within the town walls were the houses of no less than seven different orders of friars which accounted for over a quarter of the town. There were the Cluniacs, the Dominicans or Black Friars; the Franciscans or Grey Friars, the Carmelites or White Friars; the Austin Friars; the poor Clares; and the Friars of the Sack. One of the most important was the huge St. Andrews Cluniac Priory. It was founded between 1093 and 1100 by Simon de Senlis for monks from the powerful priory of La Charité-sur-Loire, France and all its early Priors were French, appointed in France. All the other towns churches were controlled from here and it must have given the town a distinctly continental feel. Today it lies under a good part of Semilong and was the scene of the heaviest fighting during the 1264 battle.
Between 1338 and 1498, thirty-nine of the forty Benedictine general chapters (a kind of annual general meeting) was held here. The first Franciscans or Grey Friars, otherwise known as the Friars Minor first arrived in England in 1224 with four priests and five laymen. One of the priests was Richard of Kingsthorpe, an Englishman by birth and a distinguished preacher. They quickly established themselves at Northampton. Also, outside the west gate was St. James Abbey founded by Austin Cannons at the beginning of the twelfth century, and where twenty of their general chapters were held between 1237 and 1446. Outside the south gate was the afore mentioned Cluniac nunnery of St Mary de la Pré. Now better known simply as Delapré, it was one of only two Cluniac monasteries for women built in England (the other being Arthington Priory in Yorkshire). The Rood-in-the- Wall of Northampton was the name of a lost chapel on the west side of the upper part of Bridge street. It was not a simple chantry chapel, but was managed by a Fraternity, held a small amount of property in the town, and possessed its own seal.
The late Saxon town of Northampton was centred on the crossroads of Marefair and Gold Street on one axis and Horsemarket and Horseshoe Street on the other. The northern and eastern extent of the town was defined by parallel lines of streets comprising Scarletwell Street, Bearward Street, the Drapery and Bridge Street on the one hand and Bath Street, Silver Street, College Street and Kingswell Street on the other. Simon Senlis is credited with enlarging the town and building the wall around it around the end of the eleventh century. At this time, St Giles Church was outside the walls which probably ran along the back of the modern Derngate where a high tower called Foulkestower stood
The town was enlarged again in the late thirteenth century under Henry III, and laid out on a geometrical plan, with the market place in the centre. New walls were built, and the town was also divided into four wards named after the points of the compass. These new walls were crenelated and wide enough for six people to walk side by side. These walls were used by the guards and night watchmen who spied through the battlements on visitors as they came in and out of the town. They were also frequently used by the inhabitants when they wished to take the air, as short cuts and to avoid the muddy lanes below in winter. The walls starting at Regent Square ran down the Mounts (the name coming from the Civil War gun bastions built along the wall), down York Road, approximately around the A5123 to the castle. They continued past the castle, roughly along the A5095 to Mill Lane and along St. Georges Street back to Regents Square. All the latter, being part of St. Andrew’s Priory.
Each of the four wards had a fortified gatehouse leading out of the town. Each had rooms over a large gated archway. The North Gate stood where Regent Square now stands. The West Gate was next to the castle and in the area of the present railway station. The East Gate which stood at the end of Abington Street led to the counties Cathedral at Peterborough (part of Northamptonshire until 1965, when the Soke was merged with Huntingdonshire). It was considered the largest and tallest of the four gateways and was embellished with coats of arms.
The south gate, however, which was the entrance from London, was the most important. It was separated from the bridge by a considerable interval, which was eventually built over. Close to the gate, just outside the wall, was the hospital of St. Thomas and an older bridge chapel, also dedicated to St. Thomas, which stood partly on the bridge piers on the further or Cotton side of the water. There was also a second strong gateway on the south side on the bridge itself and a third, St Leonard’s Bridge, on the boundary of Delapré Abbey. Now culverted over it was considered as having two of the earliest and best proportioned arches in the county.
Often overlooked, Northampton’s Market Square, originally called the Chequer, is one of the oldest and largest in England. It was the site of one of the four great royal fairs that included foreign traders. The first reference to these fairs is one which was held around 1180 on All Saints’ Day in All Saints’ Church and churchyard. In 1235, Henry III forbade the selling of goods in the churchyard of All Saints and ordered that the Market be moved to a piece of waste ground north of the churchyard, where it has remained ever since. It was here that King Edward IV with sword drawn, saved the Duke of Somerset from certain death at the hands of an angry mob by giving them 250 gallons of best wine. Whilst the mob got very drunk they made their escape. Eighteen years later, it was from the same square that the soon to be King Richard III took his first steps towards the throne. Its last medieval building, the Peacock Hotel of which parts had survived since 1456 was knocked down in 1960, and is now Peacock Place; all in the name of progress.
Whilst few of the buildings survive today, many of the streets in which they were built remain. So, today we can still walk in the footsteps of our medieval ancestors, kings and queens. Whilst the town currently portrays itself today as the home of shoes, this has only been true for a small fraction of its long and distinguished history. It was, for all the medieval period, a nationally important trading centre for wool, cloth, corn and horses. In 1202, Northampton was one of eleven towns which purchased the right to buy and sell dyed cloth. By the fourteenth century the town had a national reputation for fulling and dying with 300 cloth workers. As late as 1712 it was said that Northampton is famed for the best horses in England.
This is reflected in many of the present street names which drip with the towns history. On the cattle market days the cattle were penned in the Market square, the sheep in Sheep street, the horses in Horsemarket (the Franciscan Priory also fronted this road), the mares in the Marehold, (which has now been corrupted into Mayorhold). Fish Street was a street on much the same site as the present one, and where the fish stalls or fish shambles were situated. Corn was sold on Cornhill (now called the Parade), at the upper side of the Market square; malt on Malthill, on the east side of the square; Butchers’ Row was the name given to the series of movable butchers’ stalls or shambles in the Market square. whilst wood for fuel was sold to the east of All Saints’ churchyard, a site that still bears the name of Wood hill. In the time of Edward II, the road now known as the Drapery was called the New Drapery, with Mercers’ Row frequently referred to as the Old Drapery. The Drapers only occupied the west side of the road, whilst the opposite side nearest the Market square, was called the Glovery or Gauterie. Scarletwell Street is mentioned in a British Museum charter of 1239 and was famed for its waters which were used in the dyeing of red cloth for the Royal Court.
Horseshoe Lane was the continuation (as now) of Horsemarket, on the south side of Gold street. It is described in a deed dated to the reign of Richard II as “ Horseshoe Lane or Smithies’ Lane,” and was the residence of the shoeing smiths of the town. The street now known as Derngate used to be known by the less pleasant sounding Swinewell Street but where the towns higher status houses were situated. Gold Street was full of inns and private residences and originally used to extend further west than it does today, to Quart Pot lane (now Doddridge street). It took its name from the working goldsmiths who had shops at its eastern end. Silver Street was the residence of the silversmiths and part of the towns Jewry (the fifth largest Jewish community in England), whose Synagogue now lies under the new bus station. King Street, which once connected Silver Street with Horsemarket, possibly had some connection with a royal approach to the king’s castle. Walking down St. Andrews Road today will take you through the middle of the lost castle.
College Street, although now famous for its defunct chip shop, takes its name from the College of All Saints. It was founded in 1460 and stood on the west side of College Lane, opposite the end of College Yard, and consisted of a priest’s house for the warden and fellows and a garden. The collegiate residence was of sufficient importance to deprive the southern half of Silver street of its former name. It was used as a hospital for the sick during the plague of 1603 to 1605.
The earliest Town Hall is first documented in 1285, when the justices in eyre held their session for the borough ‘in the common hall’. The Guildhall or ‘Gihalda,’ is mentioned in the charter of Richard II of 1385, as the place where the mayor and bailiffs hold their pleas. It was situated in a little close, adjoining a lane going from the Mayorhold to Scarletwell Street. The second Town Hall, stood on the corner of Abington Street and the modern Wood Hill. It was apparently of 14th century origin with a third story added in the 15th century. This too was knocked down to make way for the modern Guildhall in the 1860’s.
From King John’s reign there are references to houses outside the walls when burgesses of the town raised the rents to excessive levels. To the north and east, where the town fields extended to the villages of Kingsthorpe, Abington and Weston, there were houses outside the North Gate along the Market Harborough road round the churches of St. Bartholomew and St. Lawrence. Outside the east gate, St. Edmund’s End grew up round St.Edmund’s church and St. James End around the Abbey.