An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 5, Archaeology and Churches in Northampton. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1985.
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2 BILLING, GREAT
Great Billing parish lies to the E. of Northampton and prior to 20th-century boundary changes covered an area of 561 hectares bounded on the N. by Overstone, on the W. by Little Billing, on the S. by Cogenhoe, Brafield and Little Houghton and on the E. by Ecton. Its W. and E. boundaries are formed by Billing and Ecton Brooks respectively and its S. boundary by the River Nene. The subsoil is chiefly Northampton Sands to the N. and Upper Lias Clay to the S. with some Estuarine Series deposits to the N., river gravel to the S. and alluvium along the Nene flood plain and at the sides of Billing and Ecton Brooks. The parish runs from a height of 115 m. above OD at its N. end down a gradual slope till it meets the Nene flood plain at 50 m. above OD. The village lies in the centre of the parish, S. of Wellingborough Road, on ironstone, at 80 m. above OD. The church site lies to the W. of the village and was formerly within the park of Billing Hall, perhaps suggesting the village has moved from an earlier site around the church. The area E. of the church is, however, now built over and there is no indication in the area to the W. of any village remains. The parish is of interest archaeologically chiefly because of the palaeolithic remains discovered below the alluvium of the Nene flood plain and the large number of sites discovered during development, by fieldwork and from aerial photography, especially in the N. and E. of the parish. These reveal a dense pattern of small settlements in the Roman period.
Prehistoric and Roman
A palaeolithic hand-axe has been discovered in Great Billing village (c. SP 810629; Proc Prehist Soc 29 (1963), 383; NM; NDC P10); a bronze flanged axe was found at Billing (copy in NM, original in Oakham Museum; NDC P128; see Little Billing p. 225); worked flints have been discovered at five locations (c. SP 812614; BNFAS 6 (1971), 3; NDC P14. SP 80696389; including a scraper; beside a shallow ditch; NDC P79. SP 81126383; Northamptonshire Archaeol 11 (1976), 185; NDC P83. c. SP 810622; including two scrapers; NDC P88. SP 80046391; a barbed and tanged arrowhead; Northamptonshire Archaeol 10 (1975), 149; NDC P97). Prehistoric pottery, mostly Iron Age, has been recovered from c. SP 815628 (Hall 1978, 162; NDC P81) and Roman pottery from two locations (c. SP 807636; Hall 1978, 162; NDC R96. c. SP 811647; NDC R164).
b(1) Pleistocene Remains, Palaeolithic Artefacts (c. SP 822614), S. of Ecton Sewage Works (partly in Ecton parish; see Ecton (1)). Pleistocene faunal remains, of woolly rhinoceros, horse and mammoth, and palaeolithic artefacts, including a small Levallois flake, were recovered during gravel extraction. A date during an interstadial of the Wurrm glaciation (c. 40,000–35,000 BC) was suggested for the remains (BNFAS 2 (1967), 5; NDC P50) but in current terminology the relevant period would probably be within the Upton Warren interstadial of the midlate Devensian glaciation. Subsequent analysis of the organic silts in which the remains were found yielded a C14 date of 28,225±330 BP (BNFAS 3 (1969), 5). A mammoth tusk was discovered at Ecton Sewage Farm in 1950 (c. SP 819619; NM; NDC P155) and red deer antler from about 5 m. below modern ground level at Billing gravel pit were given to NM in 1965 (NDC P103).
b(2) Pleistocene Remains (c. SP 812614), S. of Great Billing village. Part of a small mammoth tusk in NM, said to have been 'found in the gravel pit at Little Billing between the bridge and the aquadrome' is presumably from Great Billing as the area E. of the aquadrome is in this parish (NDC P161).
b(3) Pit Alignment (?) (c. SP 809634), Worked Flints (c, SP 807634), N. of Great Billing village, on Northampton Sands, at 91 m. above OD. Air photographs (Kemps 125, 126) are said to show pit alignments possibly connecting with the one seen running N.W. from Great Billing (8) (NDC A31). Two flint arrowheads are reported from nearby (BNFAS 7 (1972), 1; 8 (1973), 3; NDC P69).
b(4) Iron Age Settlement, Enclosure (SP 80516409; fiche Fig. 21), E. of Lings Wood at Blackthorn Thicket, on Northampton Sands, at 100 m. above OD. A double-ditched enclosure, discovered by aerial photographs (Air Photographs CUAP ZV 16; BNFAS 2 (1967), 32; 6 (1971), 3; 7 (1972), 13; NDC A5 (A)) was excavated by the NDC Archaeological Unit in 1972–3. The enclosure covered an area of about 0.25 hectares overall with an entrance on its E. side. The inner ditch was approximately 3 m. wide by 1.5 m. deep and the outer ditch 2 m. wide by 1 m. deep. No traces of an internal bank or palisade were discovered but there was evidence for a possible stone revetment at the entrance. Within the enclosure were 28 pits and the remains of a house site, which was defined by a gully enclosing an oval area of about 7 m. by about 5 m. The occupation of the site appeared to have been short-lived for there was no evidence of any re-cutting of the ditches or for more than a single house phase. The pottery suggests that the site was in use during the 2nd-1st centuries BC (Williams 1974b, 44–63; NDC P73).
b(6) Enclosure (?) (c. SP 814630), E. of Great Billing village, on Northampton Sands at 80 m. above OD. Air photographs are said to show a large, rather indistinct, enclosure (BNFAS 5 (1971), 12; NDC A45).
b(7) Iron Age Settlement (?) (c. SP 822614), S. of Ecton Sewage Works, on alluvium/river gravel, at 50 m. above OD. Pits and ditches containing Iron Age pottery were discovered during gravel extraction (BNFAS 2 (1967), 6; NDC P50).
b(8) Enclosure (SP 80526391), Roman Pottery, Ditch (c. SP 806640), E. of Lings Wood, on Northampton Sands, at 99 m. above OD. Air photographs (CUAP ZV 16) show a single-ditched sub-rectangular enclosure about 0.3 hectares in area. A pit alignment is said to run N.W. from this enclosure towards another enclosure (Great Billing (3)) on aerial photographs not seen by NDC (BNFAS 2 (1967), 32; 6 (1971), 3; NDC A5 (B)). The area of the enclosure was trial trenched in 1972 but no features were recognised. A shallow ditch with Roman pottery in its fill was seen in the same area in the sides of builders' trenches in 1974 (NDC R47).
b(9) Iron Age Settlement (?), Roman Settlement (?), Kiln Material (c. SP 813614), S. of Great Billing village, on alluvium/river gravel, at 50 m. above OD. Iron Age and Roman pottery, some from ditches, kiln furniture, including part of a pedestal and many fire bars, animal bone, burnt stone and Roman roof tile were discovered during gravel digging from 1956 onwards (BNFAS 6 (1971), 3; NDC R5).
b(10) Roman Settlement (?), Kiln Material (c. SP 818623), S.E. of Great Billing village, on alluvium/Upper Lias Clay, at 56 m. above OD. Late 1st-2nd century AD pottery, two fire bars and a quantity of fired clay (kiln roofing material (?)) were discovered during the digging of a new drainage channel (Northamptonshire Archaeol 11 (1976), 185; NDC R123).
b(11) Roman Enclosures, Iron Age Pottery, Worked Flints (c. SP 805644), N. of Lings Wood, on Estuarine series deposits, chiefly clay, at 106 m. above OD. Indistinct cropmarks on aerial photographs, not seen by NDC, are said to suggest rectangular enclosures in the area around SP 805644 (BNFAS 6 (1971), 3; NDC A3) and parts of enclosures can be seen in the background of a further aerial photograph (CUAP ZV 16) at SP 80456446 and SP 80596429 (BNFAS 7 (1972), 13; NDC A5 (C)). Roman pottery, of 1st-4th centuries AD, and other finds are reported from the same area (BNFAS 6 (1971), 3) while ditches containing Roman pottery are reported at around SP 803644 (NDC R207) and SP 80496441 (NDC R177). Some, at least, of these features are likely to be an outlying part of the farm complex excavated at Overstone in 1972 (Overstone (2)). Iron Age pottery and worked flints recovered from the same area attest to a prehistoric presence (BNFAS 6 (1971), 3; Northamptonshire Archaeol 12 (1977), 208; NDC P11, 77, 90).
b(12) Roman Settlement, Worked Flints (c. SP 811635), N. of Great Billing village, on Northampton Sands, at 95 m. above OD. Cropmarks are recorded at SP 81186355 and Roman pottery has been recovered from the same area (NM Records; NDC A6, R4). A yard area paved with limestone and associated with Roman pottery was discovered at SP 81256335 (Northamptonshire Archaeol 11 (1976), 186; NDC R119) while a scatter of Roman pottery of 2nd-3rd century AD was found at SP 81136346 (BNFAS 7 (1972), 12; NDC R3 (C)). Worked flints have also been discovered in the same area (SP 81136352; BNFAS 7 (1972), 1; NDC P108).
b(13) Roman Settlement (?) (c. SP 810642), W. of Rectory Farm, on Northampton Sands/Estuarine Series deposits, at 95 m. above OD. Indistinct cropmarks may indicate a complex of features at about SP 810642 (Air photographs NDC A7; NDC R123, 124). A large number of Roman finds has been made in the same area: enclosure ditches (?), containing 2nd-4th century AD material, are recorded at SP 81126410 to SP 81166400, SP 81176371 and SP 811639 (Northamptonshire Archaeol 11 (1976), 185; NDC R117, 118, 120); scatters of Roman pottery have been discovered at around SP 811640 (NDC R3 (A)), SP 81076400 (NDC R3 (B)), around SP 810643 (NDC R3 (D)), SP 81216415 (NDC R135) and SP 81006400 (NDC R121) (BNFAS 7 (1972), 12; Northamptonshire Archaeol 10 (1975), 153).
The 'enclosure' recorded at SP 811638 (BNFAS 5 (1971), 39; RCHM Northamptonshire II, Billing (1)), was trial trenched in 1973 with negative results and the indistinct cropmarks are no longer thought to be of archaeological significance.
Medieval and Later
An early to middle Saxon potsherd has been found during fieldwalking at around SP 818631 (NDC AS 31). Medieval pottery has been found at three locations (c. SP 815628; NDC M127. c. SP 819632; NDC M148 (A). c. SP 818631; NDC M148 (B)).
The development of the church is obscure but straight joints above the central piers of the nave arcades may represent the W. corners of an early nave occupying the eastern part of the present nave. The extension of the nave to the W. can be dated by the insertion of the present central pier on the N. side which appears to be of the second half of the 12th century. This addition probably brought the nave to its present length since the two W. bays are equal but narrower than the two E. bays. The E. and W. piers were replaced in the mid 13th century. The S. arcade dates from c. 1275 but it probably replaces an earlier arcade since it respects the uneven spacing of the N. arcade. The chancel is a double square. These proportions may indicate a 13th-century or, if the tracery in the windows is at all authentic, early 14th-century date. The tower is probably also of 13th-century origin although the dimensions given in Bridges suggest that the W. wall may have been moved outwards after his time, perhaps c. 1759 (Bridges 1791 I, 406). In the late 14th century the arches of the N. arcade, the E. responds of the nave, and the tower and chancel arches were rebuilt. The reredos in the S. aisle and the S. doorway may also belong to this period. The N. chapel was added in the late 17th century and the tower, nave and N. aisle extensively repaired c. 1759 (Baker 1822–34 1, 24). The church was refenestrated in the mid 19th century and the chancel and N. chapel were restored by E.F. Law c. 1867. (VCH Northamptonshire IV 72–3)
A priest is recorded in one of the Billings in 1086 (DB f. 227d) but this may refer to Little Billing. Great Billing Church was certainly in existence by the mid 12th century when William Barre granted it to Delapre Abbey, Leicester, and it was included in a royal confirmatory charter of 1165 (Bodl Laud Misc 625 f. 6v-7r; Mon Angl 6, 466).
The N. wall is pierced by a two-bay arcade inserted in 1867 by E.F. Law. At the W. and E. ends of the wall are two straight-headed Perpendicular windows with two trefoil-headed lights and pierced spandrels, the window to the E. probably being in situ. Above the arcade are dwarf shafts of 1867 intended to support a new vault or roof, which was never built. The three-light E. window has Geometric tracery of the 19th century but original shafted jambs to the rear-arch. In the E. gable above the window is a date-stone inscribed LM/STP 1687. Two urns formerly on the E. corners of the chancel are now in the churchyard. In the S. wall of the chancel are two two-light windows with quatrefoil tracery, probably not medieval since they lack rear-arches. The S. doorway has a two-centred head. The chancel roof is ceiled.
North Chancel Chapel
The chapel was built in the late 17th century, perhaps in 1687 corresponding with the chancel datestone. It was the funerary chapel of Lord Thomond, whose monument by Bushnell stands against the N. wall. There are two vaults below, one for the Thomond family, the other for the later, Elwes, lords of the manor. The original quoins survive at the N.W. and N.E. angles but the two windows are 19th-century Gothic. On the external face of the E. wall is a large blind window or panel surmounted by an open segmental-headed pediment on brackets. The E. gable is also segmental. The roof is ceiled.
The nave was much damaged in 1759 when the former spire was destroyed by lightning. The four-bay N. arcade is not uniform. The W. respond and its capital are polygonal but the westernmost pier is round with a round moulded capital. The centre pier has a round shaft but a square capital carved with lozenges and leaf forms at the angles. The easternmost pier and E. respond are similar to those at the W. There is a straight-joint above the centre pier. The two bays to the W. are shorter and have taller arches than those to the E. The arches are all double-chamfered. The clearstorey windows are 19th-century replacements in 18th-century openings. The wide chancel arch is of two orders, the outer continuous, the inner carried on polygonal responds and moulded capitals, similar to those of the E. responds of the nave. The four-bay S. arcade is unlike the N. in style although the bays follow the same irregular spacing as on the N. The piers are quatrefoil in section, each 'foil' being formed of three clustered shafts sharing a common capital. The central shafts are keeled. In the bases each separate shaft is expressed. The arches have hood moulds, undecorated except for the second from the E. which has dog-tooth ornament. There appears to be a break above the centre pier, corresponding with that on the N. The clearstorey is the same as on the N. The tower arch is of three chamfered orders; the innermost is carried on polygonal half-shafts. The nave roof is ceiled. The parapet is formed by Elizabethan balustrading, allegedly brought from the old Billing Hall when it was replaced by a new house in 1776. In the nave is an octagonal Perpendicular tub font, like a well-head, with tracery panelling on each face.
The N. aisle was rebuilt after 1759; the classical quoins survive at the N.W. angle. The four windows in the N. wall are 19th-century Gothic. The arch to the N. chapel is c. 1867. The W. window matches those in the N. wall but the rear-arch appears to be medieval. The roof is ceiled.
On the E. wall is a reredos of c. 1400, which has a tall central recess with an ogee arch, flanked by two smaller recesses also with ogee arches. The S. doorway is probably contemporary. It is two-centred but has a crocketed hood mould with stops of foiled shields. The windows in the aisle are 19th-century Gothic like those in the N. wall, and replace 18th-century windows with pointed heads (Clarke). The roof is ceiled.
The tower rises in three stages, without set-backs. The diagonal buttresses rise only to the second stage. The W. window is a lancet with a trefoil-headed slit above. The belfry openings are of two lights with trefoil heads. The parapet, like that of the nave, is Elizabethan and has pierced oval panels.
b(15) Earthworks (centred on SP 81066299), at N. end of Great Billing village, on Northampton Sands, at 83 m. above OD. A number of low linear banks, situated in a paddock which fronts on to Penfold Lane, are perhaps the remains of toft and croft boundaries of the medieval village. There is also a level platform in a sports ground immediately E. of the paddock which bears no relationship to the present day recreational facilities (NDC M404).
b(16) Fishponds (SP 805629), lie W. of the church in the valley of an S.-flowing stream, on Upper Lias Clay and alluvium between 55 m. and 68 m. above OD. The valley contains four ponds and the fifth pond extends up a tributary valley to the N.W.
The upper pond is very small, only 9 m. by 21 m. Below it is a larger one 12 m. by 60 m. with a third and larger one 16 m. by 140 m. below it. The lowest pond is slightly curved in plan and is 20 m. by 100 m. All these ponds are water-filled and with stone or brick dams of 18th or 19th-century date. The upper two have brick retaining walls along their edges. The pond in the tributary valley is now dry but was formerly 20 m. by 180 m. As they stand all these ponds appear to be of 18th-century date and part of the landscaping of the surrounding parkland which was associated with the now demolished Billing Hall. They presumably therefore date from just after 1776 when Lord John Cavendish erected the hall. However, it is possible that the ponds were only remodelled at that time and that they are medieval in origin.
(17) Cultivation Remains. The common fields of the parish were formally enclosed by an Act of Parliament of 1778 (VCH Northamptonshire IV, 70), though there had been piecemeal enclosure prior to that date. Four fields are mentioned in the Great Billing Glebe Terriers, Debdale Field, West Field, Sixes Field and Moors and Nether Field. Ridge-and-furrow of these fields could be traced on the ground or from aerial photographs over most of the parish prior to the extensive development of the 1970's which has obliterated much of its pattern (Hall 1978; NDC M89). (FSL 6565, 1947–9, 1915–7; V58–RAF–1122, 0175–80, 0231–42)