A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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The parish of Elstow lies to the south of Bedford, the village being rather more than a mile from the town. There are 1,617 acres in the parish, of which, roughly speaking, two-thirds are arable land and the remaining third permanent grass. (fn. 1) The main line of the Midland Railway Company passes through the parish, and at a point near the north-western border it is crossed at right angles by the Bedford branch of the London and North Western Railway.
Elstow is best known to fame as the birthplace of John Bunyan. He was born in 1628 in a cottage on the eastern border of the parish, close by the little hamlet of Harrowden in the parish of Eastcotts. The family of Bunyan appear to have been long resident in the neighbourhood. A William Bunyan (Buniun) held property in Wilshamstead (the adjoining parish) in 1199, (fn. 2) but the first mention of the family in Elstow that has been found occurs in 1541. (fn. 3) The family were early of some importance, (fn. 4) but their fortunes declined, and Thomas Bunyan, the father of John, was a tinker in none too prosperous circumstances. (fn. 5) John Bunyan passed his early years in Elstow (his parents' cottage has long since disappeared, but placenames such as Bunyan End, Further Bunyan, Bunyan Walk mark its whereabouts). On his marriage he removed to a cottage at the Bedford end of the village. This cottage is the Mecca of many pilgrimages, but it is to be feared that not much of the original structure now remains.
The village green, where Bunyan in his unregenerate days played tip-cat, does not border the road, being screened from it by a row of cottages and entered by a gate. On the western end of it there are remains, in the shape of an octagonal base and stump, of an old stone market cross. In the middle of the green is the old moot hall. It is a 16th-century rectangular building of two stories, and is built of half timber and brick with a tile roof. Originally on the ground floor were several shops and many of the four-centred doorways in the timber frame are still to be seen. These and all other openings on this floor have been bricked up, except the entrance to a single-flight staircase which led to the rooms above. On the first floor were two rooms, a large hall to the west and a smaller room on the east, both being the full width of the building. John Bunyan is erroneously reputed to have preached here, and the upper part of the building is now used on Sunday by the Congregationalists, who rent it from Mr. S. Whitbread. The ground floor is used as a lumber store.
The church is approached from the green. On the south side of it are the ruins of a Jacobean mansion, connected with the road by an avenue of elms. Built by Thomas Hillersdon in the reign of James I (from the materials of the convent), this house was long the residence of the Hillersdon family. It was still standing in 1759, when it was described as being attached to the church and having a large window into the body of it. (fn. 6) Now nothing remains but some ivied walls and a gateway, probably of rather later date than the house, and thought to be the work of Inigo Jones. There is a porch, consisting of a round-headed doorway, flanked on each side by two Doric pilasters, between which there is a niche; over these is an entablature with a pediment. There has been an upper part, but only the bases of its pilasters remain. In the spandrels are cartouches and strap ornament, with strap ornament on the lower pedestals. On the pedestals of the upper story are grotesque heads; over the pediment is a cartouche with the arms of Hillersdon. There are also the remains of a projecting south wing, the walling of which is all of rough rubble, formerly plastered, and containing square-headed windows with transoms. Of these ruins only the lower part is left, entirely overgrown with ivy. About 50 yds. to the south runs a stream from west to east. South-west of the ruins the old fish-ponds of the abbey can still be traced, and to the west is a 16th-century building having some very beautifully carved barge-boards. The village itself, though recent building has detracted somewhat from its picturesqueness, still contains some old plastered cottages with projecting upper stories.
Both the Swan and the Red Lion Inns are old hostels, possibly of early 17th-century erection. The latter was kept in 1638 by John Newell, (fn. 7) of whom it is recorded that, being dissatisfied with the restrictions lately imposed upon brewing, he continued to brew as before. Moreover, Gabriel Newell, a relative who lived with him, attracted the attention of the law by visiting all the innkeepers and alehouse-keepers in the neighbourhood and obtaining their signatures to a petition to the king offering him 20s. per annum from each brewer to be allowed to brew as before. Incidentally, Gabriel exacted a fee of 12d. from each signatory. (fn. 8)
In a field about a quarter of a mile south of the church five gravestones could be seen in the early part of the 19th century. The earliest decipherable at that date was one in memory of Samuel Ballard, who died in 1695, the latest that of another Samuel Ballard, ob. 1758. (fn. 9) It is not known whether the place where they lie is consecrated or unconsecrated ground. The Ballard family were resident in the parish as early as the 15th century. (fn. 10)
Several articles thought to be of the Roman period, including some good specimens of Samian ware, were dug up in this parish in 1851, in a field about a mile and a half from the line of a supposed Roman road. (fn. 11)
The great bulk of the parish has a uniform elevation of some 100 ft. above sea level, but the ground rises 30 ft. on the south-eastern border. The soil in the north is gravel, in the centre and south loam and clay, whilst the subsoil is clay. The principal crops grown are wheat and barley. There are brick-works in the parish. Formerly lace-making employed many of the women, but this home industry has now nearly, if not entirely, died out. Elstow was inclosed in 1797. (fn. 12)
The following place-names have been found in documents dealing with the parish:—Thorlbeacre, le Waterforwes, Longpeselyngton, Bradyngton Brook, le Bootstake and le Holkedole (xv cent.); Bedford Hole, Nonnesgore, Romere, Poltenbanke, Barnebread, Bakehouse Croft, Piper Bawke, Preswell, Galowe Pece and Conygre (xvi cent.).
In the time of the Confessor Elstow was held by four sokemen of the king. (fn. 13) William I gave it to his niece, the Countess Judith, the widow of Waltheof Earl of Huntingdon. She founded a nunnery at Elstow and endowed it with the vill, (fn. 14) which in 1086 was assessed at 3½ hides and valued at 100s. (fn. 15) The abbess and nuns held the manor in free alms of the honour of Huntingdon until the dissolution of the monasteries. (fn. 16) It was confirmed to them by charters of Henry I and Henry II. (fn. 17) The abbess held a view of frankpledge in the vill, (fn. 18) and her tenants were free from attendance at the sheriff's tourn. (fn. 19) She had a gallows, pillory and ducking stool in Elstow, and enjoyed rights of free warren under a charter of Henry I. (fn. 20) In 1325 Edward II, whose suspicions were aroused concerning the intrigues of Roger Mortimer, sent the latter's mother Margaret to dwell at Elstow with her servants at her own expense, strictly charging the abbess not to allow her outside the gates of the convent. The reason he gave was that suspicious assemblies were wont to meet wherever she resided. (fn. 21) David de Strabolgi Earl of Atholl passing through Elstow in 1331 was robbed of six horses valued at the high price of £200. (fn. 22) In 1408 the abbess is found complaining that a body of armed men had attacked the nunnery by night with ladders, axes, and bows and arrows, and, after grievously wounding one of her servants, carried off Agnes Crokebarowe. (fn. 23)
The abbess surrendered the manor to the Crown in 1539. (fn. 24) It was then valued at £30 17s. 3½d. (fn. 25) The king attached it to his newly-created honour of Ampthill. (fn. 26) Though the manorial rights remained in the hands of the Crown until the reign of Edward VI, (fn. 27) the site of the monastery with the demesne lands was granted by Henry VIII to Edmund Harvey in 1541. (fn. 28) The latter's daughter Isabel married Sir Humphrey Radcliffe, (fn. 29) who received a grant of the property in 1553. (fn. 30) He held it by payment of a fee-farm rent of £85 17s. 10d. (fn. 31) He was a younger brother of the Earl of Sussex, and resided at the Abbey House till his death. (fn. 32) A monument to him is still to be seen in the church 'indecently,' as Cole says, (fn. 33) placed in the middle of the east wall over the altar. His Elstow property appears to have been divided at his death; one share passed to his son Sir Edward Radcliffe, afterwards Earl of Sussex, (fn. 34) and another to his daughter Frances, wife of Henry Cheeke, some time secretary to the Council of the North. (fn. 35) Henry Cheeke was member for Bedford 1572–83, during which period he resided at Elstow. (fn. 36) His son Thomas Cheeke quitclaimed his right in the Elstow property to Edward Radcliffe in 1598 (fn. 37); the latter levied fines of his property in 1599 (fn. 38) and 1612, (fn. 39) and in 1616 both he and Thomas Cheeke sold their rights to Thomas Hillersdon for £700. (fn. 40) The latter died in 1623 seised of property in this parish described as one-half the site of the monastery with the advowson and lands and tenements belonging, (fn. 41) but Thomas his son and heir suffered a recovery of the whole property in 1631. (fn. 42) He died the same year while still under age and a ward of the king, leaving as heir his son Thomas, aged eighteen months. (fn. 43) His wife Margaret took for her second hus band Thomas Huet (fn. 44); she held Elstow during the minority of her son, and in 1651 she placed the property in the hands of her brother Rowland Litton and James Huxley, (fn. 45) probably acting for Thomas Hillersdon, who came of age that year, and who suffered a recovery of the property in the next year. (fn. 46) He held a court at Elstow in 1663, (fn. 47) and was still living in 1676–7. (fn. 48) William Hillersdon, who succeeded, died in 1725, (fn. 49) and was succeeded by a son Thomas, who survived him but three years. (fn. 50) The manor then passed to William's daughter Elizabeth, the wife of Denis Farrer of Cold Brayfield, (fn. 51) whose second son Denis appears to have taken the surname of Hillersdon and succeeded to the property. (fn. 52) He barred the entail in 1753, (fn. 53) was High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1756, (fn. 54) and died in 1787. (fn. 55) The manor after his death was divided among his four daughters, Harriet wife of Capt. James Hadden, (fn. 56) Anne, Sarah and Elizabeth, (fn. 57) who sold their rights in it in 1792 to Mr. Samuel Whitbread, M.P., (fn. 58) in whose family it has remained down to the present day. The present lord of the manor is Mr. Samuel Whitbread of Southill.
Henry II granted the nuns a yearly fair at their manor of Elstow on the vigil, feast and two days following the Invention of the Cross, (fn. 59) 3 May. This grant caused discontent among the burgesses of Bedford, and they appear to have harassed those persons passing through the town on their way to the fair. An undated writ of the 12th century (fn. 60) peremptorily ordered the reeve and burgesses of Bedford to see that no harm came to those attending the fair. (fn. 61) Record exists of a robbery that occurred at Elstow Fair in 1294, when Beatrice de Baleok and others stole a ewer and a brazen spoon from the booth of William de Saint Briavells, a London merchant. (fn. 62) The value of the tolls of the fair was assessed at the time of the Dissolution at £7 12s. (fn. 63) There are at the present day two annual fairs at Elstow, one held on 15 May and the other on 5 November.
The manor of MAIDBURY or MAYDEBURY is a so-called manor which appears in the 16th century, and though the capital messuage was in Elstow the greater part of the lands appear to have lain in Wilshamstead and Cardington. Maidbury as a place-name occurs as early as the reign of Edward II, (fn. 64) while the name of Thomas Maydebury appears as witness to deeds concerning land in Elstow in the latter part of the 15th century. (fn. 65) This property appears to have belonged to the nuns of Elstow, and Richard Fitz Hugh died seised of it in 1557. (fn. 66) Another Richard Fitz Hugh in 1583 alienated the property to Thomas Deacons, (fn. 67) and it remained in the hands of Deacons' family until about 1639, when Edward Deacons owned it. (fn. 68) The latter's widow Mary appears to have taken for her second husband George Halfhide, and with him alienated the property to Gilbert Morewood in 1647. (fn. 69) A few years later the property was divided into moieties between his two daughters Grace wife of Symon Benett and Frances the wife of Sir Thomas Gresley, bart., (fn. 70) who alienated their rights to Thomas Rich in 1656. (fn. 71) The last mention of this property occurs in 1682, when Edmund Pye and Anne his wife conveyed it to Robert Stevenson and John Wagstaffe. (fn. 72) There is still a Medbury Farm on the southern boundary of the parish, which is a modern house built on the site of an older one.
The church of ST. MARY and ST. HELENA is a mere fragment of the nave of the monastic church 89 ft. 6 in. by 21 ft. 2 in., with north and south aisles 9 ft. 8 in. wide, and a detached bell-tower 16 ft. 2 in. by 12 ft. 10 in. to the north-west.
The monastic church was cruciform, with the cloister on the south side, and part of the western range of claustral buildings remains, converted at the end of the 16th century into a fine house, now itself an ivy-covered ruin.
The church was begun early in the 12th century, and three bays of the 12th-century nave remain, of plain and simple character, with no triforium, and single clearstory windows without a wall passage. Early in the 13th century two bays were added at the west and a fine west front begun, but probably never finished. The outer walls of both aisles have been practically rebuilt in recent times. The blocking walls inserted after the Suppression at the east end of the nave and aisles have also been partly rebuilt.
The wall blocking the main span, and now forming the east end of the church, is pierced by three windows, two side by side, of three cinquefoiled lights and modern mullions and tracery, and over them an entirely new window also of three cinquefoiled lights of different design. In the east ends of the aisles are windows of like character; that in the south aisle is entirely new, but the jambs and head of that in the north are old. Between the two lower east windows of the nave is a square stone bracket richly carved; another to the north is carved with foliage, resting upon the shoulders of a life-size human figure, by local tradition a portrait of the miscreant Fawkes de Breauté, and there is a smaller and plainer bracket to the south. The three eastern bays of the arcades have semicircular arches in two square orders, springing from rectangular piers recessed at the angles, with square moulded abaci. The two western bays have pointed arches in three orders with deeply hollowed mouldings. The inner order of the second arch from the west on the north side, facing the nave, is decorated with dog-tooth ornament, in this particular differing from the rest; at the points of the arches and at the springing are sprays of foliage. The piers here are massive octagons with foliate capitals.
Both clearstories have been rebuilt, and are alike with a row of six windows, in two chamfered orders, the three towards the east having semicircular heads and plain splayed internal jambs, the other three being pointed, with banded jamb-shafts, having foliate capitals and moulded bases. In the north aisle are four and in the south aisle three three-light windows, all modern. The north doorway is a modern copy of 12th-century work, with a semicircular arch decorated with zigzag, and pairs of shafts with scalloped capitals in each jamb. Some original 12th-century voussoirs with zigzag ornament are used up in the rear arch. Over the doorway is a 12th-century tympanum with the seated figure of our Lord between St. Peter and St. John, and above it a 12th-century trefoiled opening. In the second bay of the north aisle is a 15th-century doorway, now blocked, with the Passion emblems in the spandrels, and in the south aisle another doorway of the same date, with traceried spandrels. Over this door is a square-headed window of two trefoiled lights. In the south aisle is a 13th-century trefoiled piscina recess.
The west front of the church preserves the remains of a fine 13th-century façade with three doorways and arcaded buttresses, the most perfect part being the end of the north aisle, with a doorway and window of beautiful detail. The doorway is blocked up but retains its wooden door, which is supposed to be the original of Bunyan's wicket-gate.
The west doorway of the nave is in two richlymoulded orders with foliage in the hollows of the mouldings and jamb shafts with foliate capitals. Over the arch is a square 15th-century label, and the west window above is plain 16th-century work of three uncusped lights with three-centred heads, all the upper part of the wall being of late date. At the south-west angle of the nave are a square buttress in five stages and a stair turret to the roof.
Opening from the west bays of the south aisle is a room, now used as a vestry, with a good 13th-century rib-vault springing from a central pillar, the curve of the ribs being broken back above the springing in order to fit them to the capital and responds. The central pillar is octagonal with concave faces to the shaft and a foliate capital, a very beautiful piece of late 13th-century design. The windows of this room are all modernized or new; there is a door on the south, probably a late insertion, and another to the church at the north-east, which is original.
The tower is of the 15th century, and stands detached from the church to the north of the west end. The walls are divided by strings into four stages, with diagonal buttresses, and are crowned with an embattled parapet, from which rises a small lead spire. There are two windows in each face of the top stage, each of two uncusped lights with transoms. The entrance doorway is on the east, and the stair turret, lighted by three quatrefoils, at the north-west.
The font, which dates from the 15th century, is at the west end of the south aisle; it is octagonal with traceried panels, standing on an octagonal pedestal, at the foot of which are grotesque heads. The font has one plain side, having formerly stood against a wall. In the west doorway of the north aisle is a disused pre-Reformation octagonal pulpit, with tracery panels of late Gothic style.
In this church are several interesting monuments and brasses. In the floor of the north aisle is a fine brass of an abbess, with a marginal inscription and one shield of the four which were set at the angles of the stone. It bears, quarterly 1 and 4 defaced, (2) and (3) a cheveron impaling a chief indented; above the head is a matrix for another figure and also for a scroll. The inscription is: 'Orate pro anima domine Elisabeth Herwy quondam Abbatisse monasterii de Elnestow, que obiit … die mensis … anno domini millesimo quingentesimo … cujus anime et omnium fidelium defunctorum de [us propicietur].'
The brass of Lady Margery Argentine has lost the
four shields at the angles and part of its inscription:
'Margeria bis viduata, filia Radulphi
. . . . .
… de turre Ricardi.
Hac jacet in fossa data [sunt ubi vermibus] (ossa Cujus) ut alta petat loca florida pace perhenni
Spiritus ista videns trini pulses pietatem. Amen.
Obiit autem Anno dĈ MCCCCXXVII … in vigil' scĩ
At the east end, above the communion table, is an alabaster Renaissance monument of the Doric order in two bays, with kneeling effigies of Sir Humphrey Radcliffe, 1566, and his wife Isabel Harvey, facing each other. His quartered shield is: (1) Argent a bend engrailed sable, for Radcliffe; (2) Or a fesse between two cheverons gules, for Fitz Walter; (3) Argent a lion sable crowned or in a border azure, for Burnell; (4) Or a saltire engrailed sable, for Botetourt; (5) Gules three lucies hauriant argent, for Lucy; (6) Argent three bars gules, for Multon; (7) Or powdered with fleurs de lis sable, for Mortimer; (8) Argent an eagle sable standing on a child in a cradle vert swaddled or, for Culcheth. The shield of his wife is quarterly of seven: (1) Gules a bend argent with three trefoils vert thereon, for Harvey; (2) Sable a lion argent in a border gobony sable and argent, for Neyrnute; (3) Or three harts' heads caboshed gules; (4) Argent a bend gules with three harts' heads caboshed or thereon; (5) Argent a chief vert with two molets or therein; (6) Sable six molets argent; (7) Argent six crosslets fitchy gules and a chief indented azure. Above the monument is a shield of Radcliffe impaling Harvey. Behind the capital of the left column are the arms of Robert Radcliffe, first Earl of Sussex, the father of Sir Humphrey Radcliffe of Elstow, impaling two coats. The first is France quartered with England, (2) Bohun of Hereford, (3) Bohun of Northampton, (4) Stafford, which are the arms of his first wife Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of Henry second Duke of Buckingham. The second is Azure a bend, which is perhaps a repainted coat of Stanley, for his second wife Margaret daughter of Thomas second Earl of Derby. Behind the capital of the right column is a similar shield, with the arms of Edmund Harvey of Elstow, Lady Radcliffe's father, impaling Wentworth differenced with a molet, for her mother Margaret, daughter of Sir Giles Wentworth, kt.
In the chancel floor is a memorial slab to Mary wife of Thomas Hillersdon, 1689, with his arms of a cheveron with three bulls' heads thereon in an engrailed border, impaling two bends vair and a quarter with a demi greyhound running therein, which are the arms of Forth.
Another memorial slab is to Robert Lovett, a London merchant, 1657, and to Elizabeth wife of Robert Crompton, 1693, with the arms of the three running wolves which play upon his name; and another with his arms is to John Hillersdon of the Inner Temple, 1684.
On the wall of the south aisle is a marble monument with two Corinthian pilasters to Thomas Hillersdon, 1656, with a shield of his arms, and on the right a shield with a bend cotised and three crescents on the bend. On the top of the monument is a shield of the one impaling the other.
There is another mural slab to John Hillersdon, 1684. In the north aisle is a mural monument to Lovetus Crompton, son of Robert Crompton, with the arms: Argent a chief vert with three pheons or therein. Another shield has Crompton impaling Gyronny or and azure a bend ermine with three unicorns' heads razed thereon.
Another monument to Robert Crompton son of Thomas Crompton of Creswell, Stafford, 1681, has his arms: Or a chief vert with three pheons or therein quartered with (2) a cheveron ermine between three crosslets, (3) Gules, three scimitars argent with hilts or, and (4) Argent three running wolves sable.
There are five bells, the treble cast by Christopher Graie, 1655; the second bearing 'Praise the Lord, 1602,' by Hugh Watts; the third by John Keene; the fourth is an alphabet bell; and the tenor is by Newcombe of Leicester, 1604.
The advowson of the church of Elstow followed the same descent as the manor (q.v.). The present patron is Mr. Samuel Whitbread of Southill. Originally the nave of the conventual church was used as the parish church, but, as in the case of many other Benedictine houses, inconvenience being caused to the prioress and nuns by the services of the laity, a parochial chapel, dedicated to the honour of St. Helen and founded by one Ivota, (fn. 73) was built in the churchyard of the monastery, and to it the services of the parishioners were transferred. The date of the foundation of this chapel is uncertain, but the licence for the services was given by Thomas Bishop of Lincoln in 1345. (fn. 74) In the 13th century the rectory was divided between the prioress and the incumbent, and in 1291 the two rectors each received £4 13s. 4d. yearly. (fn. 75) The convent, however, being impoverished, was not satisfied with this arrangement, and in 1343 obtained licence to appropriate the other half of the church. Thenceforward the prioress received the profits of the two parts of the rectory, paying a priest to look after the cure of souls. (fn. 76) The value of the rectory at the time of the Dissolution was £10. (fn. 77)
There was a chantry in the chapel of St. Helen before the year 1302. (fn. 78) When the chapel of St. Helen was made the parish church this chantry seems to have lapsed. Thomas atte Brigge in 1347 granted land to the value of £1 5s. 6d. yearly for the foundation of another chantry, afterwards known as the chantry 'juxta pontem.' (fn. 79) The first institution to this chantry was made in 1389. (fn. 80) In 1547 the value of the chantry lands was £5 1s. 3d., out of which a payment of 32s. was due to the king as representing the late monastery. (fn. 81) There were also lands to the value of 24s. 3d. gross for the support of a lamp and an obit, out of which had to be paid 18d. to the king and 23½d. to Sir John Gascoyn. (fn. 82) The commissioners reported that there was no incumbent, that the grammar school had lately been allowed to lapse, and that the number of those of age to be received as communicants was 320. (fn. 83)
The Poor's Estate, the origin of which is unknown, consists of 7 a. 3 r. 24 p. in Elstow, 6 a. 1 r. 14 p. in Kempston, and 8 a. in Wilshamstead, producing a rental of £28 10s., which is applied in the distribution of bread to poor widows and in doles of money