St. Botolph and Æpslea

I keep stumbling across Anglo-Saxons. Last week I discovered Peace Meadow. This week’s wanderings took me to the Bedfordshire village of Aspley Guise where I discovered an Anglo-Saxon saint. After a good start we got totally lost in the woods (mud! mud! glorious mud!). The walk was rather longer than it should have been, but it was a glorious winter morning, so not too much of a hardship. When we found ourselves again we ended up at the Church of St. Botolph.

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Who was St. Botolph, I wondered? I have seen the dedication before, but had no idea where it came from. Thanks to Google I now know that he was a 7th century East Anglian saint, who founded a monastery near Aldeburgh in Suffolk. He died in 680 but his monastery survived until it was destroyed by Danes in 870. His relics were then divided between Ely, Thorney, and Westminster Abbey. Churches dedicated to St. Botulph were built at the four gates of the City of London, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate. Three of these survive, but Billingsgate was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. St. Botulph, whose remains wandered about the country, became known as the patron saint of wayfarers and travellers.

St. Botolph’s church itself is largely Victorian, thanks to over enthusiastic restoration and rebuilding work, although there has certainly been a church on the site since at least the late 12th century. Aspley itself first appears very much earlier in an charter of the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar dated 969, in which he grants 15 hides in “Æpslea” to his thegn Alfwold with dire threats of hell fire to anyone who might try to hinder the gift. As translated by George Herbert Fowler this reads:

“In the name of our Lord Jesu Christ. Every generous gift of kings should be strengthened by the witness of writings, lest after-ages, from ignorance, fall unhappily into a distraught error. Wherefore I, Eadgar, by permission of divine grace King and Chief of all Albion, grant to my faithful servant called Alfwold by name known to the learned of this island, and to his heirs for ever, a certain piece of land, to wit [the land of] fifteen husbandmen in the place which by the vulgar is called Æpslea; so that he, while life be with him, may hold it as he wish wit hall that is useful – to wit, fields, pastures and woods – and after the term of his life may leave it freely to whatever heirs he will. But be it aforesaid that the land is free from all burthen of land service, three things excepted – to wit, warfaring, and the repair of bridge and castle. If therefore any one wish to change our gift to something else than we have settled, may he be cut off from the fellowship of Holy Church, and be wretchedly punished by the everlasting flames of the pit, along with Judas the betrayer of Christ and his accomplices, unless he shall have made good his fault against our decree by fitting amends. The land aforesaid is bounded by these marks from place to place”.

The charter then goes on describe the boundaries of the land in detail, in terms which are a miniature natural history of the 10th century parish: “thence on to the white moor, and afterwards by a fen to the chief field, up to the little knoll; thence to the apple tree where three land boundaries meet” … “from the deer-gate over the heath to the combe” … “from the maple tree on to the long corner, always by the High Wood to the tall thorn tree”. It is extraordinary that a single document can paint such a vivid picture of the landscape as it was over 1000 years ago. Unfortunately given that I could not follow even a modern set of directions without going astray – although I would normally consider myself to have a reasonably good sense of direction! – I wouldn’t fancy my chances of managing to walk the bounds of Anglo-Saxon Æpslea even if the apple and maple trees were not long gone. [You can find the full text of the charter here]

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Honest Old Thomas Cotes

On New Year’s Day we decided to walk off some of the festive overeating and over drinking with a country walk at the Buckinghamshire village of Wing. The village is blessed with an extraordinary Saxon church, possibly dating from as early as the late 7th century and with a 9th century (the earliest in the country). The church was open, so we took advantage and went inside. I have been many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a memorial plaque on the south wall. The inscription reads:

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Honest old Thomas Cotes, that somtime was porter at Ascott Hall, hath now (alas) left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have a roome in heaven. This is that good mans grave reader, prepare for thine, for none can tell but that you two may meete to night, farewell.

He dyed the 20th of November 1648

Set up at the apoyntment and charges of his friend Geo. Houghton

Above the inscription is an image of Thomas Cotes, holding out his arms (presumably to heaven), with his hat and key beside him.

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Wing also boasts a National Trust property, Ascott House. I assumed that this was where Thomas Cotes was porter, but a bit of research showed it was not quite so simple. The present Ascott House is based on an early 17th century farmhouse, very much altered and extended by the Rothschild family in the 19th century. When Baron Meyer de Rothschild bought the farmhouse in 1873 it was known as Ascott Hall, and Ascott Hall is where Thomas Cotes was said to be porter. However, it seems most unlikely that a mere farmhouse would have had a porter’s lodge, especially as there was a great house close by. This was the original Ascott House, which stood on a site to the south-west, nearer to the village.

The old Ascott House was built on the site of a medieval priory by the Dormer family in the 16th century. In 1554 it provided lodgings for Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth on her way to London as her sister’s prisoner. Jane, a daughter of Sir William Dormer of Ascott, was a favoured lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary who later married into the Spanish nobility, so the Dormers must have been seen as safe custodians for the princess. In the early 17th century the Dormers were a family on the rise. Sir Robert Dormer was created Lord Dormer of Wing in 1615 and his grandson, another Robert, was created Viscount Ascott and Earl of Caernarvon in 1628. The earl fought on the Royalist side during the Civil War and was killed at the first battle of Newbury in 1643. The Victoria County History says that his son, the 2nd Earl of Caernarvon, “kept great hospitality at Ascott House, and his fine bowling green, which can still be traced, was much appreciated”. In 1645 King Charles I stayed at Ascott while his army sheltered nearby. We can imagine “honest old Thomas” the porter granting admittance to his beleaguered King. Unfortunately, in the early 18th century Ascott House fell into disuse and decay; today only earthworks remain to mark the site.

Thoughts on the imagery of the monument to Thomas Cotes and the role of a porter in the 17th century can be found in this blog post, “I pray you remember the porter” by Early Modern Whale. I can’t add any more information about Thomas, but his benefactor George Houghton was sufficiently affluent that his will had to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury when he died in 1655.