A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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Willington is a straggling parish, about twice as long as it is broad, with an area of nearly 1,659½ acres, of which 762 acres consist of arable land, 505¾ of permanent grass and 183 of woods and plantations. (fn. 1) The soil is gravel, the subsoil gravel and sand. The principal crops are wheat, barley, peas and beans. The general slope of the ground is from south-east to north-west, the highest point being reached at Mox Hill, 213 ft. above the ordnance datum. The River Ouse forms the northern boundary of the parish, the land in the neighbourhood of the river being liable to floods.
The village, which is somewhat scattered, lies in the north-west of the parish, along a by-road some distance north of the main road from Bedford to Great Barford. At its extreme west end is Manor Farm, built on the site of the old Manor House once the residence of Sir John Gostwick, master of the horse to Cardinal Wolsey, the only remains of which now standing being a rectangular stone-brick building of c. 1520, in two stories, with stepped gables at either end. It is now used as a stable, but its moulded ceiling beams and good arched fireplace on the first floor show it to have been a living-place of good quality in its best days. The entrance doorway is on the west side, and the building seems to have stood by itself, not forming part of a larger house. Further to the east is a double pigeon-house, a most interesting building of about the same date, or perhaps somewhat earlier; it is a tall rectangular stone building, divided into two by a cross wall, and having very remarkable stepped gables, with moulded copings and kneelers, the latter resting on mask corbels which are rather of 13th than 16th-century character. The roof is tiled, and is in two pitches, separated by upright louvres for the pigeons; the entrances are on the south, and are low and narrow four-centered archways.
Adjacent to the manor-house is the parish church of St. Lawrence, with the vicarage farther east. Crools Farm is in the south of the village. The houses which compose the village are chiefly model cottages, planned by the Duke of Bedford about the middle of the last century. In 1903 a station on the Bedford and Cambridge branch of the London and North Western railway was opened at Willington.
In 1086 Hugh de Beauchamp held WILLINGTON MANOR, assessed at 10 hides. It had formerly belonged to Aschil and to eight sokemen. (fn. 4) This manor follows the same descent as the other Beauchamp property, (fn. 5) and on the subdivision of the barony in 1265 passed to Maud de Beauchamp, wife of Roger de Mowbray, (fn. 6) who died in 1266. She married a second husband, Roger Lestrange, who survived her, holding Willington till his death in 1311, when John de Mowbray, his wife's grandson, succeeded to the manor. (fn. 7) He settled it for life, in 1316, on William de Braose, whose elder daughter Aliva he had married. In 1322 John de Mowbray was hanged at York for joining in Lancaster's rebellion against Edward II. (fn. 8) His lands escheated to the Crown, and Hugh le Despenser the younger was granted the reversion of the manor of Willington for himself and his wife. (fn. 9) On the accession of Edward III, however, John de Mowbray's estates were restored to his son John de Mowbray, (fn. 10) who in 1328 acknowledged the rights of his mother's second husband, Sir Richard de Peshale, in Willington Manor. (fn. 11) Three times the latter lodged a complaint against John de Mowbray —once in 1329 and twice in 1332—for breaking into his manor of Willington. In 1329 he stated that the raiders drove off twenty-four horses, sixty oxen, twelve cows, five hundred sheep, two hundred swine (worth in all £300), and 'carried away his goods.' (fn. 12) On the second occasion the horses and other animals driven off are stated to be worth 500 marks. De Peshale further complained that the raiders 'mowed his crops, fished his stews, carried away the fish and crops,' with other goods (sacks of wool and various kinds of grain are enumerated), 'and assaulted his servants.' (fn. 13) During their second raid in 1332 the raiders, in addition to similar offences, are said to have taken from Sir Richard's servants 'some writs of the king which he had sued forth and trampled them under foot.' (fn. 14) In 1362, after the death of John de Mowbray, the right of Elizabeth, his second wife, in Willington Manor was recognized. (fn. 15)
In 1366 John de Mowbray, son of the abovementioned John, complained that Elizabeth his father's widow had committed waste by destroying the trees, digging up the land and allowing the buildings to fall to decay. Amongst the items mentioned are two courts, two dwellings, four rooms, two kitchens, two granges and various outbuildings, two houses called 'Yathous,' two dovecots and one chapel. Some thousands of trees are also enumerated, including oaks, ashes, elms, hazels and white thorns, apple trees, pear trees, plum trees and cherry trees. Elizabeth replied that one dwelling was pulled down because it was unsafe and the other was blown down in a gale, the cottages were pulled down because the tenants had died of the plague, probably the plague of 1362, which was felt severely in Bedfordshire. John de Mowbray recovered damages against Elizabeth, estimated at £938 18s. (fn. 16) An inquisition on Elizabeth's estates was held at Willington in 1376 on account of the minority of the next heir, John de Mowbray, son of the lastmentioned John de Mowbray, who had died in 1368. (fn. 17) John de Mowbray, who was created Earl of Nottingham at the coronation of Richard II in 1377, was succeeded in 1383 by his brother Thomas de Mowbray, subsequently Duke of Norfolk and Earl Marshal. He was banished by Richard II in 1399 and died shortly afterwards. (fn. 18) Thomas his son and heir was a minor and the custody of Willington Manor was granted to Sir Thomas de Rempston. (fn. 19) Thomas de Mowbray was executed for high treason in 1405, and the manor passed to his brother John de Mowbray, who died in 1432 and was succeeded by his only son John. (fn. 20) After the latter's death in 1461 his son, another John de Mowbray, entered into possession of the manor. (fn. 21) He died in or about the year 1476. Anne Mowbray his daughter and heir was the last of the direct line of Mowbrays. At her death in 1483 the manor passed to the Howard family as in the case of Stotfold (fn. 22) (q.v.). When the Norfolk estates were forfeited after the battle of Bosworth Field, Willington Manor was granted by Henry VII to John de Vere Earl of Oxford and to his heirs male. (fn. 23) In 1489, however, Thomas Howard, the representative of the Norfolk family, was released from prison and restored to his earldom of Surrey. The forfeited estates, which had been granted to the Earl of Oxford, were restored to him. The Earl of Surrey was created Duke of Norfolk in 1514 for his services at Flodden Field. He was succeeded by his son Thomas Duke of Norfolk in 1524, (fn. 24) who sold Willington in 1529 (fn. 25) to Sir John Gostwick, whose ancestors in Willington can be traced back to 1209. (fn. 26) Gostwick's letters to Cromwell show that he made use of court influence to his own advantage by appropriating to himself adjacent lands and properties belonging to dissolved priories. Two of these letters are dated at Willington. (fn. 27) After the death of Sir John Gostwick in 1545 the manor of Willington passed first to his son William, who died in the same year, and then to his brother William, who died in 1549. (fn. 28) Both left directions that their bodies were to be buried in Willington Church; that of the former in the chancel, that of the latter 'in the aisle of the Chapel lately builded.' William especially bequeathed 'one Turkey Carpet to Robert, my son, to have after the death of Anne, my Wife.' To another son he left certain feather beds. (fn. 29) An inquisition was taken in 1581 on the estates of John Gostwick, the son of William. (fn. 30) His son William, who was sheriff for the county of Bedford in 1595 and was created a baronet by James I in 1611, died in 1615, leaving a son and heir Edward. (fn. 31) There is an account of a visit paid by Archbishop Williams, when Bishop of Lincoln, 'to the mansionplace of Sir Gostwick in Bedfordshire' for the purpose of hallowing a chapel there. (fn. 32) This Sir Edward Gostwick died in 1630, (fn. 33) and there is a laudatory inscription to him and his wife on a conspicuous monument in Willington Church. His son and heir Edward is mentioned by Archbishop Williams as having been born deaf and dumb but yet able 'to enter into the marriage state with a young lady of a great and prudent family.' (fn. 34)
Edward Gostwick was succeeded, probably about 1665, by his second son William, who was Sheriff of Bedfordshire 1679–80 and member for the county from 1698 to 1713. (fn. 35) He was succeeded in 1719–20 by his grandson William, who sold the manor of Willington in 1731 to Sarah Duchess of Marlborough. (fn. 36) In 1779 it was purchased by the Duke of Bedford, and remained in the possession of the Dukes of Bedford until 1902, when it was sold to George and James Keeble of Peterborough. (fn. 37) Further alienation has since taken place and the property has been broken up, Colonel Frank Shuttleworth of Old Warden and Messrs. Mark Young of Sandy being now the principal landowners in Willington.
The right of holding a court, a view of frankpledge and a halmote was attached to Willington Manor, and Court Rolls are preserved at the British Museum dated between the years 1463–70, from which it appears that the courts were held twice yearly and the halmote once a year in May. (fn. 38)
Sheerhatch Wood formed an important part of the manor of Willington. When John de Mowbray in 1366 entered an action, already alluded to, for waste against his father's widow Elizabeth, the trees destroyed are set out evidently in round figures. The most numerous were the elms and ashes, of which 6,000 of each are said to have been cut down. Elizabeth pleaded that 'the trees were blown down by the gale, except some which were cut down for the repair of the manor-houses, and that the whitethorn trees and ash-trees died naturally.' (fn. 39) John de Mowbray, on account of Elizabeth's waste, recovered the wood and also a grove of 10 acres (fn. 40) (perhaps the present Compton Grove to the north-west of Sheerhatch Wood), stated to be parcel of Willington Manor held as of the barony of Bedford.
The priory of Newnham owned lands in Willington which in 1291 were valued at £1 1s. 10d. (fn. 41) In 1385 they received a grant of free warren which extended over their lands in Willington. (fn. 42) At the Dissolution all lands which the priory of Newnham held in Willington were granted to Sir John Gostwick, (fn. 43) who held Willington Manor, in which this property became henceforward absorbed.
The church of ST. LAWRENCE consists of a chancel 32 ft. 8 in. by 17 ft. 2 in., nave 47 ft. 5 in by 16 ft. 4 in., a north aisle 43 ft. by 11 ft. 3 in., a chapel to the north of the chancel 33 ft. by 17 ft., and a west tower 11 ft. 5 in. by 12 ft.
The church is a very interesting example of the latest phases of Gothic work, and it is doubtful whether any part, except perhaps some of the masonry of the south wall of the nave, is anterior to the 16th century. The chancel is fine and well-proportioned and of the best detail and workmanship; it appears to be older than the adjoining north chapel, which on the evidence of an inscription was built by John Gostwick, 1541, and is extraordinarily good Gothic work for the date. The south windows of the nave and all the north aisle of the nave belong to the decadence of Gothic art, with uncusped tracery and poor and starved details, and are probably the latest work in the church.
The east window of the chancel is a fine one, taking up almost the whole width of this wall; it consists of five cinquefoiled lights with moulded jambs and main and secondary tracery under a two-centred arch and label. The original intention was to vault the chancel in stone, and the vaulting shafts remain at the north-east and south-east. On the south side of the chancel are two windows of three lights each, of which the middle is trefoiled and the two outer cinquefoiled under embattled transoms; the arches and labels of these windows are four centred with perpendicular tracery and the jambs are moulded. Between them is a small priest's doorway with moulded jambs, of which the inner order is four-centred and the outer square; in the spandrels are trefoils. Over the door on the outside is a quatrefoil bearing a shield in the centre. There is a chamfered piscina in the east end of the south wall of the chancel.
On the north of the chancel is an arcade, the arches of which are four centred, springing from piers consisting of four half-round shafts attached to a square with the angles chamfered off, and similar responds, each shaft having a moulded semi-octagonal capital and base. On the north side of the east respond is a panel having a four-centred head beneath a square one, with carving in the spandrels. The east window of the chapel consists of three cinquefoiled lights with moulded jambs and a two-centred head with perpendicular tracery. In the interior, on each side of the head of this window, is a quatrefoiled panel. There are two windows in the north wall of the chapel, of the latest form of Gothic detail, consisting of three cinquefoiled ogee lights with tracery over. Between these windows is a square buttress in three stages, and at the north-west angle a diagonal one. The chancel arch is in two orders, the inner of which springs from an attached shaft to the respond, having a semi-octagonal capital and a modern circular base. There is a pointed arch with continuous moulding, the section being that of a window without the glazing groove, opening from the east end of the aisle into the chapel.
The nave is separated from the aisle by an arcade in three bays, of two moulded orders, springing from piers like that of the arcade between chapel and chancel, with moulded capitals and bases. In the east respond is a rood staircase, with upper and lower doorways. Over this arcade is a clearstory of three windows of two uncusped lights each, with moulded jambs and four-centred heads. The south doorway of the nave is in two orders, with a four-centred head and label and continuous jamb and arch moulds, and opens to the south porch, in each side of which is a square-headed window consisting of three uncusped pointed lights under a square label. The outer doorway of the porch has a very low depressed arch, almost amounting to a flat top with round corners, springing from moulded jambs, the inner order of which has an attached shaft with a moulded capital. The arch mould is ornamented with a row of small diamond-shapel panels. Over this doorway is a small niche with a projecting sill and canopy, the soffit of the latter being carved to represent small vaulting ribs; the jambs have small attached shafts, which have been broken. The walls, in common with those of the remainder of the church, have embattled parapets. On either side of the south doorway is a window of four lights, each of which is divided into two stages, the lower having pointed cinquefoiled heads immediately beneath a transom bar, the upper having four-centred heads and tracery with no cusping. The north wall of the aisle also has two windows, with the north doorway between them, which has a pointed head and moulded jambs and label. Each window has three plain lights without cusping under a four-centred head, the jamb moulds being like those in the opposite wall of the nave.
The tower arch is in two chamfered orders, springing from responds with moulded capitals. The tower itself is divided by strings into three stages, terminating in an embattled parapet, and supported by a diagonal buttress at each angle; in the top stage in each face is a window of two lights under a square label. The west door has been blocked up, and over it is a modern window of three lights. On the south side of the tower are a plain chamfered doorway and four small lights to the staircase.
The roofs are of low pitch, and are all old, though a good deal repaired; that of the chancel is in three bays, and the braces rest on delicately carved wooden corbels, as in the chapel. The nave roof in four bays, and the aisle in seven, are ornamented with foliated bosses at the intersection of the timbers, and the wallplates are embattled. Under the west tower is a modern panelled octagonal font. There is some 16th-century carved tracery in some of the benchends, which are themselves in some cases old.
In the north chapel is a fine Jacobean tomb of alabaster and black marble, with an alabaster effigy in plate-armour lying on a mattress under a wooden hearse-canopy painted to represent marble; the figure is coloured and gilt in perfect condition. On the pedestal is an inscription to Sir William Gostwick, bart., who married Jane Owen, daughter of Henry Owen, and died 1615. There is a shield of the baronet at the west end; at the opposite end are his arms impaling Owen. In the north-east angle is a late Gothic altar-tomb of stone, on which is a marble slab with the indent of a brass and inscription; a modern painting of the Gostwick arms is on the south side of the tomb.
On the north wall is a Renaissance monument to Sir Edward Gostwick, kt. and bt., 1630, and his wife Anne, eldest daughter of John Wentworth of Gosfield, Essex, 1635. There are two kneeling figures under canopies, and beneath these the figures of five girls and two boys, also a cradle with an anchor of hope.
Under the arch between the chancel and chapel is an altar-tomb to Sir John Gostwick, kt., of Willington, and on the east wall of the chapel are two helmets, one of which was worn by him at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Under the communion table is an altar-slab with five crosses. In the nave is a slab to Robert Howgill, vicar, 1643. In the floor of the chancel are several gravestones of the Gostwick family and one slab and brass plate with a forged inscription to Robert Gostwick, 1315, evidently of 19th-century date, and on the south wall of the chancel another old helmet. On a bracket attached to the east respond of the nave arcade is an iron hour-glass stand, and in the west doorway of the tower, which is now blocked up, are a 13th-century coffin lid and part of a 13th-century capital. There are in the north chapel a number of mediaeval tiles, the earliest being some incised tiles probably of early 14th-century date.
The plate consists of a flagon given by Charles Gostwick, 1697, crest a griffin displayed, date mark 1691; a communion cup, silver gilt, presented by William Gostwick, 1686; a paten lid, date mark 1685; and a large foot-paten, presented by Sir William Gostwick, kt. and bart., 1685, date letter illegible. Arms: Gostwick impaling Boteler.
Simon de Beauchamp, grandson of Hugh de Beauchamp, granted the advowson of Willington Church to Newnham Priory as part of his endowment of that foundation in 1166. (fn. 46) Its value in 1291 was £2 13s. 4d. (fn. 47) It remained in the hands of the priory until the Dissolution, when it was valued at £12. (fn. 48) It was granted in 1539–40 to Sir John Gostwick and Joan his wife. (fn. 49) From that time the history of the advowson is the same as that of the manor (q.v.) until the present Duke of Bedford sold it in 1902 to Mr. G. Keeble of Peterborough, who is the present owner.
The fraternity of Blunham owned certain lands in this parish, valued at the dissolution of the chantries at 16d. yearly. (fn. 50)