A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1927.
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Willen has an area of 669 acres of land and 9 acres covered by water; about a third is arable land, about two-thirds permanent grass, and there are 6 acres only of woods and plantations. (fn. 1) The soil is mixed, the subsoil gravel and stone. The chief crops grown are wheat, barley, oats and roots.
The road from Newport Pagnell to Fenny Stratford runs through the middle of the parish from north to south, and is crossed about a quarter of the way by another road, along the east fork of which lies the village of Willen, pleasantly situated on rising ground. At its northern end is the church, standing on an eminence commanding beautiful views. On the west side of the church is the vicarage, an 18th-century building of red brick, approached by an avenue of elm trees. The school, built in 1847, and Brook Farm, occupied by Mr. John Nelson Payne, lie to the east.
WILLEN is not recorded by name in the Domesday Survey, but it can be identified with the 4 hides I virgate assessed under Caldecote, part of the neighbouring parish of Newport Pagnell, and held under the Count of Mortain by Alvered. (fn. 4) These two parishes were described as one vill as late as the 14th century. (fn. 5) The estate was afterwards divided, and a portion which remained attached to the honour of Berkhampstead as one-sixth of a fee was later held by the Abbot of Lavendon, (fn. 6) who continued to hold till the Dissolution. (fn. 7) These lands were doubtless then dispersed, as there is no further record of them.
The more important part, assessed at 2 hides, included the Domesday mill. (fn. 8) The overlordship rights over this appear to have been acquired by the Crown during one of the periods when the honour of Berkhampstead was in its possession, (fn. 9) and from 1284–6 onwards this manor was said to be held of the Crown for one-sixth of a fee. (fn. 10) Philip de Kaynes is mentioned as tenant c. 1150, (fn. 11) but the property had passed before 1196 to Roger de Salford. (fn. 12) He was succeeded, probably in 1204, by Hugh de Salford, who then paid I mark for a writ of mort d'ancestor of 2 hides in Willen. (fn. 13) In the following year 7 virgates were apparently successfully claimed against him, possibly as heir male, by Rose de Verdon, (fn. 14) who was possibly the daughter of Roger de Salford. In 1208–9 Rose held 8 virgates in Willen, of which she granted to Hugh 3 virgates and a chief messuage to hold by the service of one knight, the residue being quitclaimed to her by Hugh. Half a virgate which Hugh Grimbald held by enfeoffment of Hugh de Salford was to be held of Rose and her heirs by the service of 2s. 6d. yearly. (fn. 15) These 3 virgates must have reverted to Rose, since no later record of the Salfords or their descendants exists in Willen, and the whole 2-hide manor descended with Farnham Royal (q.v.), which was held by Rose as widow of Bertram de Verdon. (fn. 16) The Verdons subinfeudated Willen to another branch of the family, retaining overlordship rights until the 14th century. (fn. 17) Nicholas de Verdon occurs as their tenant in 1284, (fn. 18) and it may have been his son Nicholas, a minor, for whom the Abbot of Lavendon answered in 1302. (fn. 19) In 1316 John de Verdon was returned as holding Willen, (fn. 20) and in 1327 he received a grant of free warren in his demesne lands at Willen at the request of Robert de Staunton. (fn. 21) Alice widow of Nicholas de Verdon was answerable for Willen in 1346, (fn. 22) but the descent of the manor for the next 150 years has been lost. In 1499 the manor was held by Thomas Malyns of Blunham (co. Bedford), and conveyed by him to John Mordaunt of Turvey (co. Bedford). (fn. 23) It was held by the Mordaunts with Turvey (fn. 24) and with the Castle Manor in Lavendon (q.v.) until conveyed in 1637 by John Earl of Peterborough to his sisters Elizabeth, Margaret and Anne Mordaunt. (fn. 25) In 1640 they united with their brother Lewis Mordaunt (fn. 26) in conveying it to Roger Nicholls and others, (fn. 27) to whom in the following year the earl relinquished his claim. (fn. 28) Nicholls and his trustees transferred their interest in 1653 to John Trevor and Richard Knightley, (fn. 29) and the manor was sold not long after to Col. Robert Hammond of Chertsey (Surrey), the custodian of Charles I in the Isle of Wight. (fn. 30) He died in 1654, leaving three daughters, Elizabeth, Mary and Letitia, as his co-heirs. (fn. 31) His widow Mary, the sixth daughter of John Hampden, the 'Patriot,' to whom Hammond left Willen for life, (fn. 32) married in 1656 Sir John Hobart, third baronet, (fn. 33) and with him conveyed the manor in 1672 to Herbert Thornedicke, clerk, and Barnabas Clay, clerk, (fn. 34) as a preliminary to its sale by Elizabeth Hammond, Sir Edward and Mary Massie, Phineas and Letitia Preston (the daughters of Col. Hammond and their husbands), to the celebrated Dr. Richard Busby, of Westminster School, later in the same year. (fn. 35) Dr. Busby died in 1695, and by his will, proved in February 1697–8, bequeathed the manor to trustees for the foundation of a lectureship in divinity. (fn. 36) It is still held by Dr. Busby's trustees.
A several fishery in the water of Willen was appurtenant to the manor from the 15th (fn. 37) to the 17th century. (fn. 38) One mill was held with the manor in 1499, (fn. 39) and two water-mills are mentioned in 1641. (fn. 40)
Lands and rents in Willen were granted with the advowson to Tickford Priory, and were held under the priory in 1489 by John Broughton with Broughton. (fn. 41) After the Dissolution this property was leased in 1541 by King Henry the Eighth's College to Anthony Cave for seventy years. (fn. 42)
In 1228 Henry III confirmed to Snelshall Priory a tenement given by Geoffrey Gibbewin who had held it of Hugh de Salford. (fn. 43)
The church of ST. MARY MAGDALENE consists of a small apsidal chancel, nave measuring internally 44 ft. 6 in. by 24 ft., west tower 8 ft. 6 in. by 6 ft., and two vestries, one on the north and the other on the south side of the tower. It is built of brick with limestone dressings, the brickwork having now acquired a rich brown tone, and the roofs are covered with lead.
A church has existed here from the 12 th century, (fn. 44) but the ancient structure, having probably fallen into decay, (fn. 45) was removed in 1680, and the present nave tower and vestries were built by Dr. Richard Busby, head master of Westminster School, from designs, it is said, by his former pupil, Sir Christopher Wren. No traces are now left to indicate the character of the earlier structure (fn. 46) The apse was added in 1862, and the whole church was then restored.
The nave is lighted from each side by three tall round-headed windows, with moulded external architraves, and there are three similar but narrower windows in the modern semicircular apse. A moulded cornice and plinth are carried round the walls of the nave, the angles of which have rusticated quoins, and there is a pediment at the east end with a circular opening in the centre. The walls are plastered internally, and an oak panelled dado, reaching to the window sills about 7 ft. 9 in. above the floor, is continued all round the church. The nave roof is concealed by an original plastered ceiling having the form of a segmental vault intersected by the round arches over the windows. It is divided into large blue-tinted panels by wide foliated bands, and is further enriched with cherubs and foliated bosses. On the bands inclosing the central panel are two open Bibles and the date 1680. The large windows are filled with good modern glass having subject panels on white grounds. At the west end of the nave is a round-headed doorway to the tower set in a wide recess, above which is a shield inscribed with the name Jehovah in Hebrew. A shield over the modern chancel arch is charged with a hexagram.
The tower is of three stages, the lowest of limestone and the others of brick with limestone dressings, and is surmounted by a deep moulded cornice and pineapple-shaped pinnacles. The lowest stage is entered by a tall round-headed doorway on the west, the effect of which is enhanced by being set back near the inner face of the wall within a deep hollow splay, made continuous in arch and jambs, and having before it a semicircular platform approached by five steps. The second stage is lighted by a large circular window on the west, and the bell-chamber by two tiers of two-light windows on all sides, the lower having segmental heads and the upper round heads. Both the lowest stages have rusticated quoins, upon which stand tall Corinthian pilasters rising through the full height of the bell-chamber and clasping the angles. Access to the second stage is gained from the ground floor by a narrow stairway with a barrel vault constructed in the thickness of the north wall.
The tower is flanked on the north and south by brick vestries, which are entered by doorways in the ground stage and lighted by square-headed windows. A moulded cornice is continued round both vestries and across the west face of the tower, and the west walls have curved half gables with foliated ornaments against the tower at the top and pineapple pinnacles at the feet.
The internal fittings, including the oak seating of the nave with panelled doors and shaped ends, and the organ case, date from the late 17th century and are good examples of the period. The font has an octagonal bowl of white marble enriched on the upper edge with cherubs' heads and conventional scrolls connected by festoons of drapery, and at the bottom with acanthus leaves; both the baluster-shaped stem and the square base are of black marble. The elaborate oak cover has a band of cherubs' heads at the base, a domical top with floral enrichments, and an urn-shaped finial. The altar stands upon twisted legs, and the altar rails, now placed in front of the quire stalls, are supported alternately by solid panels and twisted balusters. The hexagonal pulpit with bolection-moulded panels and moulded cornice stands at the south-east of the nave, and against the north wall opposite is the organ, the upper portion of which, enriched with Corinthian pilasters, foliated carving and deep cornice, overhangs the keyboard and is supported at the outer corners by modern twisted columns. The western entrance doors and the doors to the vestries are all of oak and date from the late 17th century. There is a chest of the same period in the south vestry, and in the chancel is a carved chair of about 1620.
A collection of books, principally of a theological character, dating from the 16th to the 18th century and formerly housed in the south vestry, is now preserved at the vicarage. They were presented by Dr. Richard Busby, patron of the living, in 1695, and by the Rev. James Hume, rector of Bradwell, about 1730, and number 620 volumes.
The church was bestowed before 1150 by Philip de Kaynes on Tickford Priory. (fn. 47) A perpetual vicarage had been appointed before 1223, and its endowments included land and a toft belonging to the church. (fn. 48)
The advowson was held by the priory (fn. 49) until its dissolution in 1524, when the patronage reverted to the Crown. (fn. 50) In 1526 rights in it were quitclaimed by Anne St. Leger, daughter and co-heir of Thomas late Earl of Ormond, and by Sir George St. Leger, kt., her son and heir-apparent, to Cardinal Wolsey (fn. 51) to whom it had been given for his college at Oxford by the king earlier in the same year. (fn. 52) After the cardinal's attainder, it was assigned to the refounded college called Henry the Eighth's College. (fn. 53) The presentation was made by the college in 1544, (fn. 54) but on its surrender in 1545, (fn. 55) the advowson reverted to the Crown by which it was retained until 1676 when a grant was made to Heneage, Lord Finch. (fn. 56) He was to convey the advowson to Dr. Richard Busby, the purchaser of the manor, with which it has since descended. (fn. 57)
The rectory has always descended with the advowson, save for a temporary alienation to Charles Bagehot and Bartholomew Yardley in 1587. (fn. 58)