A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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Melchbourne, a parish of 2,637½ acres, lies 12 miles north of Bedford. It is well wooded in the south, there being some 300 acres of woods and plantations; the remaining area is arable land and permanent grass in almost equal proportions. (fn. 1) The soil is strong clay, and the chief crops produced are wheat, beans and peas. Melchbourne village, once a place of some importance, lies in a cul-de-sac leading from the road that runs between Knotting and Dean. It is very small, consisting of a few ancient stone and thatched cottages grouped round the church, with one or two larger houses. The Cottage, now unoccupied, stands in well-wooded grounds, and was formerly the dower house of the St. John family. (fn. 2) The vicarage, a modern building, is opposite. About half a mile east of the village is Woodleys, the residence of Mr. Townley, also a modern house, with wood mills adjacent.
There was at one time in Melchbourne a preceptory of the Knights of Jerusalem. Its site can still be traced to the south of the Cottage, and it is thus described by Leland, writing in the 16th century:— 'Here is a right fair place of square stone standing much upon pillared vaulte of stone, and there be goodly gardens orchards and ponds and a parke thereby.' (fn. 3) The Knights Hospitallers had the right to hold a weekly market on Friday, and an annual fair on the vigil, feast and morrow of St. Mary Magdalene. (fn. 4) The site of the old market cross is at the junction of the lane from the village with the road to Knotting.
Melchbourne is the seat of Lord St. John of Bletsoe, whose house stands in a fine park of 400 acres, of which the grounds are well wooded and include two ornamental lakes. Melchbourne House was originally built by Sir William Weston, the last Prior of the Hospitallers. (fn. 5) The present house, built on the remains of the earlier one, is a large red-and-yellow brick building with stone dressings; the lead rainwater heads are dated 1741. The interior presents no special features; the principal staircase is of stone, with light iron balustrade, and has a domed plaster ceiling.
Melchbourne can boast that John Warren, the rector of the parish in 1643, was one of the ten Bedfordshire clergymen who refused to sign the Solemn League and Covenant, preferring to suffer ejection. (fn. 6)
The Bishop of Coutances held MELCHBOURNE MANOR in 1086. It was then assessed at 10 hides, and was worth £8. In the time of the Confessor, Burret held it, when there were six sokemen there. (fn. 7) After the death of the Bishop of Coutances his property reverted to the Crown. It passed some time in the 12th century to Alicia de Clermont, who gave the manor and church of Melchbourne to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. (fn. 8) In 1199 the manor was confirmed by King John (fn. 9) to the Hospitallers, in whose hands it remained until the Dissolution. (fn. 10) Edward VI in 1549 granted Melchbourne Manor to the Earl of Bedford. (fn. 11) Dugdale states that on the refounding of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, in Mary's reign, this manor again formed part of the endowment. (fn. 12) However this may be, the Earls of Bedford continued to hold Melchbourne (fn. 13) until 1608, when Edward Earl of Bedford conveyed it to Oliver St. John. (fn. 14) The manor has remained in the hands of the St. John family down to the present day, (fn. 15) Lord St. John of Bletsoe being the present lord of the manor.
In 1338 the Knights Hospitallers owned in Melchbourne 633 acres of arable land, 60½ acres of meadow, several pasture worth 40s. and common pasture worth 20s. They had two windmills worth 40s. and a dovecote worth the rather unusually high amount of 10s. There were 26 customary tenants on the land. The total profits and rents of the manor amounted to £79 9s. 0½d. (fn. 16) A grant of free warren to the knights by Henry III was confirmed by Edward I in 1279–80. (fn. 17) In 1292–3 a licence that sounds curiously modern was given to the prior—namely, to lay an underground conduit for water in Melchbourne, and to take up the road to repair the pipes when necessary. (fn. 18) In 1345 a certain John le Barkere protested against the manorial right by which the Prior of the Knights Hospitallers claimed 3 gallons of beer from everyone who brewed and sold. John had not given the beer, and the prior had seized his horse. The protest, however, was ineffectual, and the prior's right to distrain in cases of default was confirmed. (fn. 19) Two windmills are mentioned in the 14th-century extent of the lands of the Hospitallers. (fn. 20) There were also two mills in the parish in 1594. (fn. 21) Courts leet and baron and a free fishery were parcel of the manor in 1755. (fn. 22)
The church of ST. MARY MAGDALEN consists of a chancel, nave, north and south aisles and west tower. With the exception of part of the tower, it was rebuilt in 1779 in classic style. The windows have round heads and plain unmoulded architraves, and the columns and arcades of the nave are in the Roman Doric style, as is also the south porch. The belfry windows of the tower are the only signs of the former Gothic church, and of these there are two on each side, each consisting of two lights with tracery under a pointed head. In the south aisle is a brass inscription to Richard Paveley, who died 1377, and Joan his wife.
There are four bells: the first by Islip Edmunds, London, 1764; the second by Thomas Russell, 1716; the third of 1626, inscribed 'Non verbo sed voce resonabo domini laudes'; and tenor, inscribed 'Feare God & obey the Prince 1601,' bearing a shield with three bells.
The registers previous to 1812 are in three books. The first has baptisms and burials 1706 to 1790 and marriages 1706 to 1754; the second marriages 1755 to 1812; and the third baptisms and burials 1790 to 1812.
The church of Melchbourne was given with the manor to the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem by Alice de Clermont. (fn. 23) In 1176 Bartholomew Bishop of Exeter, arbitrating in virtue of a mandate of Alexander III in a dispute between the Hospitallers and the convent of Thorney, decided that the former should retain Melchbourne Church, paying, however, a rent of 10s. to the prior and convent. (fn. 24) From that time the right of patronage has followed the same descent as the manor. In 1329 the prior and brethren made fine to the king for having obtained land in Riseley without licence for the maintenance of 'the chaplain who celebrates divine service daily in the chapel of Melchebourne.' (fn. 25) Licence for the appropriation in mortmain of the church of Melchbourne was obtained by the prior in 1378. (fn. 26) The value of the rectory in 1535 was £5 10s. 6d. (fn. 27) The present patron is Lord St. John of Bletsoe.