Mike Ingram delivers an epic account of the history of Delapre Abbey…
Although the café has been open for a while and the house has been open for weddings and conferences for some time, on 17 March, Delapré Abbey officially reopens its doors to the public with a jousting tournament, a battle re-enactment and an open weekend.
It will be the first time in twenty-six years since the County Records Office vacated the site in 1992, that the paying public will be allowed in (except for heritage open days). Over recent years, the site has been beset with controversy, not least because the work went hugely over budget, costing a reported £8 million (almost £2 million over the original budget), a number of delays, and the enforced closure of the tea rooms run by the Friends of Delapré Abbey.
These controversies are not new to site, and over its history the Abbey has been witness to numerous religious controversies, battles and skirmishes.
The site itself has a long history. During restoration work, Roman cremation burials, shards of pottery and a rare small glass phial were discovered on the site. Nearby, at least six roman pottery kilns and associated remains were also discovered (now buried under the bund which surrounds the site).
Delapré Abbey, or to be absolutely correct, the Abbey of St Mary de la Pré, or “St Mary in the Meadow” was probably first established at Fotheringhay in the north-east of the county around 1100 by Simon Senis I. It was his son Simon Senlis II, who moved it to Northampton around 1145. It was the first Cluniac nunnery to be built in England. The only other Cluniac nunnery in England was Arthington Priory in Yorkshire.
When it moved to Northampton, the abbey was endowed with 3,060 acres of land and Azelina was appointed first Abbess. To maintain the nuns, Earl Simon gave them lands in Hardingstone, the churches of Great Doddington and Fotheringhay amongst others, as well as 250 gallons of wine yearly at Pentecost for the celebration of the Mass. Among numerous other benefactions was the right of collecting a cartload of firewood daily from Yardley Chase. Robert de Chokes gave them the church of Wollaston; Roger de Clare, Earl of Hertford, the church of Broughton; and Bishop Hugh Wells granted them a pension of two marks from the church of Earls Barton. Richard and Ralph de Beseville gave them a fish pond called the Lachemere which is still there today. When Edward III visited the town in 1328, he confirmed all these grants of land and property and gave the nuns timber to build a new refectory.
There were probably no more than twenty nuns living in the abbey at any one time, but when the Bishop of Lincoln visited in 1530, only eleven were recorded as living there. These nuns, for the most part were noble women who spent almost their entire day at the altar and choir. The Cluniac way of life emphasized the celebration of Mass and Divine Office in the most elaborate manner possible. The order was known for its splendour, its lengthy and embellished liturgy, and its richly decorated churches. Normal daily routine for the nuns stressed religious ceremony over study and manual labour and as a consequence there would have been a considerable number of lay workers on the estate.
We do know that much of their land was given over to sheep farming and cloth production. Earl Simon II gave them all the lands that Hugh Grimbold held in Hardingstone, possibly including a mill on the banks of the River Nene then known as ‘Canchesmelne.’ However, it was in the hands of the Crown from 1196 to 1199, when it was given to David, King of Scotland. It was eventually given or restored to the abbey, as the mill of Conches, Kong, Congenes, or Quengions and was known in 1591 sometimes as ‘Quyn Johns’ or ‘Quingeons mills’, but eventually it was generally known as the ‘Nunne mills’. By this time, it was composed of three mills under one roof, a wheat mill standing by itself, plus a gig mill (for bringing up the nap on certain types of cloth) which stood between Nunne mills and South Bridge. Cloth made by the workers was sold on the open market and they had their own merchants, such as a draper named Robert of the Nonnes, who had a shop in Billingsgate in London in 1309-10, and John of the ‘Nonnes de Norhamptone’, whose shop was in Dowgate from 1309 to 1336.
In 1290, Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. On 4 December, the funeral procession accompanied by the King, set off for London. One of the twelve places they stopped was Northampton. Where the King stayed is not known and it is probable, but not certain that Eleanor’s body was rested at Delapré Abbey for the night. Wherever the cortège stopped for the night a cross was erected. At Northampton, it was built on the Kings highway on top of hill overlooking the town. Only three remain, two of them in Northants.
In 1940, just in front of the former laundry, when it was being converted into a cottage, several stone coffins were found. The coffins were reburied where they were found and whilst it has been assumed they are medieval, may be Roman too. During the recent renovations, remains of medieval buildings and a well were found nearby. In late 2016, three probable medieval skeletons were discovered when a services trench was being dug along the south wall and are possibly part of a larger burial site. A detailed report on these bodies has still not been published.
Discipline in the Abbey was not always as strict as their order dictated, necessitating in several visits by the bishop of Lincoln or his men. In 1300, three nuns, Isabella Clouvil, Matilda de Thychemers, and Ermentrude de Newark, were publicly excommunicated with bells and candles for ‘throwing their modesty to the winds’, and ‘abandoned themselves to the hateful lusts of the flesh, and of their own accord given up their innocence.’
In 1311, another Nun, called Agnes de Landwath, was excommunicated by the Bishop of Lincoln for giving up her religious beliefs and for wearing a velvet gown in the choir instead of her habit. Things had got so bad that in 1316, even Abbess Margery de Brock, who had been appointed in 1297, was excommunicated, and Simon, the Vicar of Rothersthorpe, was appointed ‘Master’ to oversee them. By the end of the century, Northampton had become a hotbed of heresy and during September 1393, Agnes Nowers, an apostate nun presumably from the Abbey, was arrested and held in the castle for associating with Lollards. They were in trouble again in 1435, when it was found several nuns had not been properly professed. It was also found that instead of dining in the refectory every day, the nuns were only dining there three times each week, and the Abbess had not been keeping the accounts.
In 1460, the tranquillity of the Abbey was disturbed by Yorkists and Lancastrians fighting the first large scale battle of the Wars of the Roses. For many years it had been thought that the battle was fought on the banks of the River Nene. However new, original and exhaustive research by the Northamptonshire Battlefield Society has proved that the battle was fought between the Abbey and Hardingstone. They have also shown that the battle was far more complicated than first thought, taking place in three phases. The first of which was a large skirmish on the outskirts of the Abbey before the Yorkists attacked the town itself, and then finally the assault on the encamped Lancastrians. The Battlefields Society consulted on the early stages of the battlefield rooms which feature as part of the new renovation, to ensure that the Abbey had the latest research available.
Thousands were killed in the battle. The Lancastrians were excommunicated by a Papal Legate before the battle so were likely buried where they fell in mass graves now under the parkland. The Yorkists had proper Christian burials and although rumour persists that some lie in the ‘Walled Garden’ of the Abbey, it is unlikely they are there, if anyone it will be nuns. The soldiers were more likely buried in mass graves at the now lost church of St. Leonard’s, which is on the northern side of the modern Ransome Road, opposite the Abbey (soon to become part of a new housing estate).
In 1536 Henry VIII began to suppress the monasteries. On 16 December 1538, the Abbess, Clemencia Stock was forced to agree to a deed of surrender. The Convent was emptied, and the doors closed. Their furniture and household goods were sold and two chalices and a pyx (a container for consecrated bread) were taken to London. The following year, the buildings and demesne lands were let to a tenant and in 1543 were exchanged by the Crown for other lands with John Mershe of London.
On 13 February 1548, the Abbey was brought by Anne Saunders of Harrington, Northants, and her third husband Andrew Wadham. Soon after, they built a range of rooms on the site of the old nunnery. Anne’s first husband was Sir Bartholomew Tate of Laxton, Northants. The Tates had made their fortune as Mercers and brewers and several had been Lord Mayors of London. Henry VII knighted Bartholomew Tate, then mayor of London, for his services in the ‘well guiding’ of the City and the victualing of the royal army after the Cornish rising of 1497. Bartholomew and Anne had a son, also called Bartholomew. Bartholomew junior was probably brought up either on his father’s Coventry manor at Whitley, or by his mother’s family. It was Bartholomew junior who appears to have made Delapré the principal family seat. He was soon making a name for himself in the county, becoming an escheator in 1560, Justice of the Peace by 1582 and no doubt helped by his cousin Sir Christopher Hatton, Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1585. Tate died on 23 April 1601 and was buried at Hardingstone. His son William inheriting Delapré Abbey.
William was an associate of Richard Knightley of Fawsley Hall, a conspicuous member of the growing Puritan faction in Parliament. In November 1588, Knightley was involved in the printing of the Marprelate tracts, written against the ecclesiastical authorities by an unknown satirist using the pseudonym Martin Marprelate. The secret press was captured in 1589, and Knightley was arrested, though subsequently released. Tate seems to have used Delapré Abbey as a centre for local Puritans. In 1603, he brought the physician John Cotta to the area from the University of Cambridge. Cotta may have even lived at the Abbey and was famous as a witch hunter and wrote numerous books on the subject including one of the earliest witch hunting manuals in England, “The Triall of Witch-craft” in 1616. Cotta was still in Northampton in 1623, and possibly as late as 1650.
Tate was appointed High Sheriff of Northamptonshire for 1603-04. In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot which was led by Robert Catesby from Ashby St. Ledger in the county, Tate mustered the militia and led a raid on Harrowden Hall near Wellingborough where members of the plot were thought to be hiding. He then led the inquiry into Gunpowder plotters’ lands the following year. He was knighted in 1606 and in 1607, Cotta and Tate were accused of spreading libel against local opponents. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward, 11th Lord Zouche of Harringworth and together they had seven children. After serving another term as MP for Northamptonshire in 1614, William died at Delapré on 14 Oct. 1617. Before he died, he made his father-in-law, Lord Zouche, both his executor and guardian of his eleven year old heir, Zouch Tate.
Zouch, like his grandfather became a staunch Presbyterian and a member of House of Commons for Northampton on the Short Parliament from 13 April to 5 May 1640. In 1640 the Mayor and Corporation of Northampton went out to Delapré to tell him that without his knowledge they had unanimously elected him as member for the Borough for the Long Parliament which ran from 1640 until 1648. When the Civil War broke out, on 9 August 1642, Zouch was part of a Committee of seven sent to Northampton by Parliament with Instructions for the Putting the Militia in Execution, and the Preservation of the Peace of the County. Zouch built the west front seen today and extended the east side including the kitchen with its huge fire-place and on the possible site of the chancel of the convent church, he built a dairy and a number of outbuildings.
In 1642, Zouch sent troops on a raid on Wellingborough, bringing back a considerable number of prisoners including a lame Rev Thomas Jones. According to Royalist propaganda, Rev Jones struggled to walk, and they made a bear taken from the barber, chase him but he managed to climb on the bears back, who carried him to the town. During the same year Prince Rupert attacked the town from Hardingstone Hill, near to the Eleanor Cross but was driven off.
In 1644, Zouch was chair of the Committee for the reform of the Lord General’s Army. In Parliament on 9 December 1644, Zouch moved that “That no Member of either House of Parliament shall during the War enjoy or execute any Office or Command Military or Civil”. It would become known as the Self-denying Ordinance and the beginning of the New Model Army that would be victorious at the Battle of Naseby.
After the Battle of Naseby, a series of 39 of the Kings letters were captured. They were presented to Parliament and almost all of them were individually witnessed as accurate by Zouch, Miles Corbett or Edmund Prideaux. It was these letters that would form the basis of the trial and execution of King Charles I.
Zouch married Catherine Allington, granddaughter of Margaret Spencer of Althorp and they would have two boys, William who followed in his father’s footsteps and Zouch who joined the army, fighting in Tangiers, where he was wounded, and in the Revolutionary Wars in Ireland in 1685.
Delapré remained with the Tate family until 1749 when it became part of the marriage settlement when Mary Tate married Captain, later Admiral, Charles Hardy. Mary Tate died less than 18 months after the marriage.
By the mid 1750’s Hardy was spending little time at Delapré, and in 1756 the house was advertised as being for rent in the Northampton Mercury, saying that the coach house and stables for 20 horses had been lately built. In 1762, it was rented by Lyon and Litchfield, two local surgeons to house their patients undergoing inoculation. Two years later, Hardy sold the estate including the manor of Hardingstone for £22,000 to Edward Bouverie, at the time M.P. for New Sarum. He was the younger son of Sir Jacob Bouverie, 1st Viscount Folkestone and his first wife, Mary Clarke, the daughter of Bartholomew Clarke of Hardingstone. Edward married Harriet Fawkener, the daughter of Sir Everard Fawkener, silk merchant and diplomat. The Bouverie’s had three daughters, Harriet Elizabeth, Jane and Diana Juliana Margaretta and three sons, Edward, John and Henry Frederick Bouverie. The youngest child, Diana, although acknowledged as a Bouverie was, in fact, a Spencer. Her mother Harriet had an affair with Lord Robert Spencer, youngest son of the 2nd Duke of Marlborough and Diana was their child. She was referred to as the ‘tell-tale Bouverie’ as she looked so much like her natural father, and he left virtually everything he owned to her in his will.
In 1765/6, Edward enclosed the open fields at Hardingstone, making him one of the pioneers of the early enclosure movement in Northamptonshire and in the early 1770s built one of the earliest model farms at Hunsbury Hill, which was then part of the estate. In 1790 he became MP for Northampton. Peace was shattered again on 4 April 1795, when food wagons were attacked near the Queen Eleanor’s Cross. Boxes and bags of supplies were cut open and the contents including meat taken. The Yeomanry had to be called out to restore order. Edward Bouverie died in September 1810, aged 72, leaving behind him a disorganized mess and debts which his family knew little about. A year later, Harriet married Lord Spencer. He was succeeded by his son Edward who was immensely popular in Northampton. It was this Edward who, between 1820-40, rebuilt the small seventeenth century south-west wing as a large library in the “gothic taste.” He died in 1858, aged 91.
The estate was inherited by Edward’s eldest son Everard William. He was educated at Harrow and St. John’s College, Cambridge before entering the Army as a Cornet in the Royal Horse Guards in April 1812. He was promoted Lieutenant in October 1812, he was sent to the Peninsular where he fought during the latter part of the War, receiving the General Service Medal for his services at the battles of Vittoria and Toulouse. Returning home in 1814, he then fought with the regiment at Waterloo, where he was wounded, and remained in the service thereafter as a regular officer. After successive promotions, he served as Colonel from 1845 until 1853 when he retired on half-pay. In 1854, he was made Major-General, and was appointed Colonel of the 15th Hussars in 1859, a position he occupied until his death. He received his final promotion to General in 1868. Everard made a name for himself as a horse breeder, several of which he raced, including Pyrrhus The First, who won the Derby in 1846. He was also involved with the Pytchley Hunt, planting a number of copses around the estate for foxes. He was Equerry to Queen Victoria and built schools at Hardingstone and Far Cotton.
It was Edward and Harriet’s third son Henry Frederick, who rose to military and diplomatic fame. On 31 December 1808, Sir Henry embarked for Portugal with the 1st battalion ‘Coldstreams’ and on 27 April 1809 was appointed aide-de-camp and assistant military secretary to Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley. He was with Wellesley at the Battle of Talavera on 27–8 July, where he was wounded above the right knee and temporarily deafened after being knocked off his horse. Henry described Talavera as ‘the most desperate battle that ever was fought’. It was also after this battle that Wellesley famously said “…the battle was certainly saved by the advance, position, and steady conduct of the 48th”. The 48th Foot would eventually be renamed the 1st Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment. Soon after the battle, Wellesley was given the title Duke of Wellington. Henry was knighted on 12 April 1815, the same year as Waterloo. On 1 October 1836 he was appointed governor and commander-in-chief at Malta, where he was credited with building several new roads and vastly improving the island’s water supply. In 1846, he was approached to be commander-in-chief in Canada, however, in his own words, ‘being grown old and puffy and blind, I wisely declined.’ Sir Henry fell ill at Woolbeding House in Sussex and died there on 14 November 1852.
On Everard’s death in 1871 at the age of 85, Delapré passed to his nephew, John Augustus Sheil Bouverie, who had been a policeman in the Irish constabulary before becoming a corporal in the army. Imagine his surprise when he discovered he had inherited such an estate! Disaster struck the Abbey in June 1893, when a fire broke out in the servant’s quarters at the back of the house. It quickly spread and devastated almost all the East Wing, originally built by Zouch Tate. In the later part of the nineteenth century, the main staircase was rebuilt. A conservatory was also added at the east end of the south range, joining it to the 18th century orangery in the garden. On John Augustus’ death in 1894, he was succeeded in turn by his son of the same name who died in 1905, and then by his daughter, Mary Bouverie. In 1896, the estate was let to John Cooper, a boot and shoe manufacturer from Croydon, who lived there with his wife, seven sons and one daughter until his death in 1906. The sons, who were mostly in the family business, hunted with the Grafton Hounds and kept their own pack of foot beagles on the estate.
Mary Bouverie did not come to Delapré until the spring of 1914. She was considered one of the best of “squires,” and frequently opened her park and garden to the public, holding functions, parties and agricultural shows.
In September 1940, war came to Delapré and the abbey was requisitioned by the War Office. Its exact role is not known, although anti-aircraft or searchlight mounts could be seen in the old car park before they were obliterated by the new car park. Mary Bouverie moved to Pond House, Duston, however, the following year she sent for her bailiff and told him she wanted to die at Delapré. Rooms in the stable block were prepared for her and she died there on 20th January 1943. During April 1945, a Lancaster of 50 Squadron was in low flight over the Abbey. The Lancaster was one of eight on detachment for the first day of ‘Operation Exodus’ – a large scale 12-day airlift to repatriate some 75,000 recently liberated British prisoners of war to Britain. Its wing struck the trees and it crashed into the ground somewhere where Brackmills now stands. The Lancaster was on fire and of the seven crew, only two RAF air gunners survived, one seriously injured, the other only slightly. Local man, Albert Brown who despite the danger, ran to the crash site and rescued the survivors. He was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery.
In 1946, Mary Bouverie’s nephew and heir, Major Uthwatt Bouverie, sold Delapré Abbey with 586 acres of land to the then Northampton Corporation. The War Office relinquished the house in 1948, when it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works. The County War Agricultural Committee moved in and stayed until 1953. In November 1957, the Trustees of the Delapré Abbey Repair Fund were given right of entry, to repair the building and adapt it for use as the Northamptonshire Record Office and as the headquarters of the Northamptonshire Record Society. After the Records Society vacated the building it began to fall into disrepair. In 2001, the Friends of Delapré Abbey were formed to campaign for the Abbey and its Parkland to remain accessible to the public rather than being leased to a private organisation. They were joined in 2006 by the Delapré Abbey Preservation Trust, who on formation were also publicly committed to preserving and protecting Delapré Abbey for the benefit of the people of Northampton. Go ahead for its restoration finally came in 2013.