A History of the County of Hertford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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Widford is a small parish of 1,167 acres, of which about two-thirds are arable land and about one quarter pasture. (fn. 1) The commons, which were extensive, were inclosed under an award of 1856. (fn. 2) The only wood of any size is Lily Wood to the west of the village; Marshland Wood, which adjoined Eastwick Wood in the neighbouring parish of Eastwick, was cut down about 1877. The River Ash, sometimes called Widford River, runs in a westerly direction through the northern part of the parish. From north to south the parish is intersected by the road from Hadham to Hunsdon and Stanstead Abbots, whilst at right angles with this another road joins the village with Ware on the west. The Great Eastern railway has a station on the Buntingford branch at Widford, at some distance to the west of the village.
The meadows occupying the low ground by the Ash on the north of the parish are pleasant, the banks of the stream being lined with willows. The ground rises steeply to the south of the river. On the east and west the parish is flat and uninteresting. The soil is mixed, the subsoil clay and chalk.
On a hill on the north-west of the parish are two barrows of unknown date, one of which was opened by the Hon. Richard Braybrook in 1851. It has been suggested that the names Godwyn's Wood and Battles Wood in the neighbourhood may traditionally preserve the history of some local event. (fn. 3) Barrow Farm, to the north, takes its name from the tumuli. (fn. 4) Nether Street is the name of a road, lately re-made and planted with trees, which enters the parish on the east and, after running in a curiously straight line for some distance, is continued as a lane on to the river, and is traceable for some way on the other side, passing close by Barrow Hill. It then joins another lane which here for a little distance forms the parish boundary. Both these lanes are probably ancient trackways. Another old by-road called Crackney Lane or Watery Lane (also ancient, as it forms the parish boundary) ran south from Barrow Farm, passed Crackney Wood, and ran through the south-east corner of the Blakesware estate. This was closed by order of Quarter Sessions in 1878, when a new by-road was made from Widford station. At the same time part of the old main road from Ware to Widford was closed, which to the east of Scholars Hill followed a line to the north of the present road. This was made when the new house at Blakesware was built. The old road joined the present main road a little to the west of Widford station. (fn. 5)
The village is situated along the road to Hunsdon on the high ground to the south of the river. The church of St. John the Baptist and Widford Bury (now a farm) lie further down the hill a little to the west. The rectory is close by the church. At the top of the road leading from the church to the village is Walnut Tree House, the residence of Mr. G. S. Pawle, J.P. The village is built in a straggling way along the main road. There are a good many new cottages and several inns. At the north end of the main street is a smithy. The public elementary school was built in 1875. Considerably to the south of the village, in the main road, is a Congregational chapel, built in 1898. Bourne House, to the north of the village, is the residence of Mr. G. M. Horsey.
The churchyard at Widford is the burial-place of Mary Field, grandmother of Charles Lamb and subject of his poem 'The Grandame.' She was housekeeper at Blakesware, which adjoins Widford on the north-west. The tombstone records her death in 1792. Mrs. Elizabeth Norris, widow of Lamb's friend Randal Norris of the Inner Temple, her son Richard and her daughter Elizabeth, widow of Charles Tween, were also buried here. The original of Lamb's 'Rosamund Gray' is said to have been a native of Widford. (fn. 6) John Eliot, the 'Indian Apostle,' was baptized at Widford in 1604; his father was Bennett Eliot, a yeoman and landowner in the neighbourhood. The version of the Bible in the language of the Massachusetts Indians made by Eliot was printed in 1661 by Samuel Green, successor of Stephen Daye, the first American printer, and is therefore of typographical as well as philological interest.
Before the Conquest WIDFORD was held by Edred, a thegn of King Edward. It was the land of the Bishop of London in 1086, when it was assessed at 3 hides, 2 of which were in demesne. There were two ploughs on the demesne and three others on the manor. There was meadow for two plough teams, woodland for fifty swine (fn. 7) and a mill. (fn. 8) Another hide was held of the Bishop of London by a certain Tedbert, the successor of Alward, who had held of Archbishop Stigand in the time of King Edward. (fn. 9) These are the only entries given in the Domesday Survey, but whether they refer to the land which was afterwards given to the abbey of Bermondsey by Ivo de Grentmesnil is not clear. It has been suggested that the 'Wadford' which was given in exchange by Hugh de Witvile to Hugh de Grentmesnil for five houses in the city of Leicester (fn. 10) is Widford in Hertfordshire. (fn. 11) Widford, however, does not seem to be elsewhere spelt Wadford (fn. 12); also there is no hint of such a transaction in the Survey under Hertfordshire, and there is nothing to account for the disappearance of the Bishop of London's estate. But the manor seems to have been acquired in some way by Ivo de Grentmesnil, son of Hugh, and to have been given by him to Bermondsey in exchange for 'Andretesbury.' (fn. 13) It was confirmed in 1118 by Robert Earl of Leicester, to whom part of the Grentmesnil estates were pledged. (fn. 14)
The manor remained with Bermondsey until the Dissolution. The prior and convent had view of frankpledge there, assize of bread and ale, infangentheof, quittance of shires and hundreds, sheriff's tourns and sheriff's aids. (fn. 15) It was one of the estates of which the notorious Adam de Stratton obtained a grant from the convent in the reign of Edward I. He was evicted in 1277 because he had no royal confirmation of this grant, (fn. 16) but the next year he again obtained possession, this time to hold at a rent of 1d., whilst he quitclaimed to the prior a rent of £100 in which the prior was bound to him. (fn. 17) Ultimately he was convicted for forging charters which would give him the fee simple of the lands he held in fee farm of the priory. (fn. 18) Widford then came to the Crown and was granted back to Bermondsey, with a rebuke for having 'indiscreetly and improvidently' leased it to Stratton. (fn. 19) In 1317 the manor was leased to Geoffrey de Stokes and his wife Alice for their lives at a rent of 12 marks. (fn. 20) The convent was heavily in debt about twenty years later to William de Cusancia, keeper of the king's wardrobe, and obtained licence to lease the manor again for a sum to be paid in advance or at a yearly farm, in order to relieve their estate. (fn. 21) It was accordingly leased in 1342 to Richard de Wylughby and his wife Joan for their lives. (fn. 22) The monastery surrendered in January 1537–8. The extent of the manor as given in the Valor of 1535 included 32 acres of wood. (fn. 23)
In 1544 the king granted Widford to Sir Richard Southwell (fn. 24) of Horsham St. Faith, co. Norfolk, (fn. 25) one of his councillors. In the same year Thomas Lewyn, clerk, who was apparently a trustee for Southwell, had licence to alienate the manor to the use of Mary Leech, wife of Robert Leech, alderman of Norwich; also a field called Newnneye Wood alias Woodfield beside Newnneye (Nimney) Wood in Ware. (fn. 26) This Mary Leech, who in another place is called Mary Darcy alias Leech, must have been Mary daughter of Sir Thomas Darcy of Danbury, co. Essex, who afterwards became the second wife of Sir Richard Southwell. (fn. 27) In 1558 she as Mary Darcy alias Leech of Horsham St. Faith, co. Norfolk, alienated the manor to Robert Adams, a yeoman of Widford, (fn. 28) who died seised of it in 1580. In 1589 his son and heir Henry Adams conveyed it together with forty messuages, a water-mill, free warren, free fishery and view of frankpledge to Bartholomew Barnes, sen., and Bartholomew Barnes, jun. (fn. 29) A Bartholomew Barnes, probably the younger, citizen and mercer of London, settled it in 1608 on Elizabeth, one of his three daughters, the wife of Roland Backhouse, (fn. 30) also citizen and mercer of London. Their grandson, William Backhouse (son of Nicholas, a younger son of Roland), created a baronet in 1660, sold it with the water-mill, warren, fishery, and frankpledge to William Bird (fn. 31) of Martocks in Ware. Thomas Bird, according to Chauncy, was lord of the manor in 1700. (fn. 32) Before 1741 it was acquired by William Parker of Haling in Croydon, (fn. 33) whose daughter Elizabeth married her cousin William Hamond. (fn. 34) Their son, William Parker Hamond of Haling, died in 1812; his son of the same name suffered a recovery in 1814, (fn. 35) and in 1829 sold the manor to Nicholas Parry of Little Hadham. It descended to his son Nicholas Segar Parry, (fn. 36) who devised to Mr. H. D. ParryMitchell of Merivale, Atherstone, Warwick, the present lord. (fn. 37)
Widford Bury was sold by Mr. Parry-Mitchell to Sir Martin Gosselin in 1889 and is now the property of Capt. Alwyn Gosselin of Blakesware. It is an L-shaped building, with timber-framed walls covered with plaster; there is little of interest in the house, which probably dates from the 17th century. A little to the north-west of the house is an early 17th-century dovehouse; it is of brick, octagonal on plan and has a thatched roof. None of the cots now remain. Between the house and the churchyard is an old brick wall about 65 yards in length, part of which formed the outer wall of what may have been the eastern wing of the Bury; it appears to be of 16th-century date. At the north end, beside the stile into the churchyard, the wall is returned westwards. A four-centred arched doorway and part of a moulded brick window, now blocked, are visible on the east side; on the west face are a large fireplace and a wide four-centred arch. The wall is now about 8 ft. high. At the south end of the wall is a round-arched gateway of brick with moulded arch and imposts. The gateway is flanked by plain pilasters, with remains of a frieze and moulded cornice above. The pilasters have moulded plinths, and the capitals also are moulded, but they appear to have belonged to narrower pilasters. The wall at this point is 3 ft. in thickness. The gateway is probably of early 17th-century date, but some old materials may have been re-used in its construction.
Widford Mill, mentioned in the conveyances recited above, was situated just outside Widford in the parish of Ware, close to the site of old Blakesware. (fn. 38) It was pulled down about twenty years ago. There was an earlier one, which seems to have been within the parish of Widford, the site of which is probably marked by Mill Mead on the south side of the river close to the flood-gates. (fn. 39)
The church of ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST consists of chancel 21 ft. by 18 ft., small north organ chamber, nave 43 ft. by 18 ft. 6 in., north vestry, south porch, and west tower 11 ft. square, all internal dimensions. The church is built of flint with clunch dressings, except those of the tower, which are of Barnack stone; the roofs are tiled.
A church stood here in the 12th century, but the only details of that period still existing are some fragments now built into the walls, though portions of the nave walls may belong to the older building. The chancel and west tower are chiefly of 14th-century date. During the 15th century the tower arch was reconstructed and windows inserted in the chancel. During the 19th century the church was repaired several times, the spire rebuilt, and the organ chamber, vestry and south porch erected.
The three-light window (fn. 40) in the east wall of the chancel is modern. In each of the side walls is a window of two cinquefoiled lights, with rectilinear tracery, of the 15th century. The south doorway of the same period has a four-centred arch, over which is a modern label. In the south wall an early 12th-century cushion capital set on a shaft now forms a credence shelf. This fragment of the former church, along with several others now in the nave, was discovered near the tower arch during repairs early in the 19th century. In the same wall is a recess 4 ft. 3 in. wide, with splayed edge and pointed segmental arch, which may have inclosed a tomb; it is of 14th-century work. On the chancel walls are some remains of distemper paintings. On the east wall, north of the window, is the figure of a knight.
South of the window is the figure of a bishop in cope and mitre, carrying a crozier. (fn. 41) On the north wall is a figure seated on a rainbow, with a sword placed horizontally above his uplifted hands; beside it is a small figure of an angel with a Tau cross. There is no chancel arch.
The only old window in the nave is the most easterly one in the south wall, which is of two cinquefoiled lights with flowing tracery, of about 1350; one other window in the same wall and one in the north wall are of modern stonework. The north doorway, which now opens into the modern vestry, is of late 14th-century work and has an arch of two moulded orders. The oak door with its ironwork is of the same period. On the north wall outside is a projection which contained the stair to the rood-loft, but no opening is visible inside. The south doorway is similar to that in the north wall; built into the wall above it are some fragments of a 12th-century arch with zigzag moulding. Near the eastern end of the south wall is a small roughly formed piscina with credence shelf; it is of brick, cemented, and is of early 16th-century work. The nave roof retains some old tie-beams.
The west tower is of three stages, unbuttressed, and is finished with an embattled parapet and modern copper-covered spire; a turret stair at the south-east angle gives access to the belfry. The tower arch, of the full width of the tower, is of three continuous moulded orders. The 14th-century west doorway is of two moulded orders and label with returned stops; of the same date is the window above, of two cinquefoiled lights with a cusped opening in the head. On each face of the belfry stage is a window of two trefoiled lights, all of modern stonework.
The font dates from about 1420; it is octagonal, and on each side of the bowl is a square panel containing a cusped circle, the centres being carved with various devices such as the head of a nun, a lion, flower ornaments, &c.
The paintings on the chancel ceiling were executed by Miss F. C. Hadsley Gosselin between 1881 and 1883. (fn. 42)
There are six bells: the treble by Mears & Stainbank, 1890; the second recast by John Taylor, 1869; the third by Robert Oldfeild, 162–(incomplete date); the fourth is a 15th-century bell inscribed 'Sancta Katerina Ora Pro Nobis'; the fifth by Robert Oldfeild, 1624; the tenor by Lester & Pack, 1766.
The registers are in four books as follows: (i) baptisms 1562 to 1644, burials 1558 to 1676, marriages 1558 to 1660; (ii) baptisms 1674 to 1762, burials 1674 to 1757, marriages 1674 to 1752; (iii) baptisms and burials 1763 to 1812; (iv) marriages 1754 to 1812.
The advowson of the church of St. John the Baptist was appurtenant to the manor until the sale of the latter by William Parker Hamond to Nicholas Parry, when it was reserved by Hamond. It was bought about five years ago by Captain Alwyn Gosselin, and the last presentation was made by trustees, he as a Roman Catholic being unable to present. (fn. 43)
A burial-ground for Roman Catholics was made near the churchyard by Sir Martin Gosselin shortly before his death in 1905. (fn. 44)