A History of the County of Worcester: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1924.
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Birtsmorton is a small agricultural parish lying between Castlemorton on the north and Berrow on the south. Its southern boundary is formed by a brook which flows from Birtsmorton to Longdon. The parish has a total area of 1,291 acres, of which 240 acres are arable land, 871 acres pasture and 14 acres woodland. (fn. 1)
The east of the parish, adjoining Longdon, is low and marshy, but the land rises gently to the west to a height of 307 ft. near Coombe Green Common, which is continued into Castlemorton as Hollybed Common. The chief crops are wheat, barley and beans. The soil is loam and clay and the subsoil red and variegated marl and clay with sandstone.
The western part of the parish is divided into two districts, Birt's Street on the north and Rye Street on the south. At the former are a pound and a Wesleyan Methodist chapel built in 1844. At Rye Street the high road from Ledbury to Tewkesbury passes along the south-western boundary of the parish; the rectory and school are here, about half a mile from the village, which is in the south of the parish on a branch road from the Ledbury and Tewkesbury high road. The church stands near Birtsmorton Court, formerly the home of the Bruts, Ruyhales and Nanfans, the last-named being a family of great distinction in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The house is an interesting building, chiefly of 15th and 16th-century date, surrounded by a moat still filled with water. It is throughout of two stories, with red tiled roofs and brick chimneys, and forms an extremely picturesque group of buildings, seen as it is from all points of view across the water of the moat. The building has undergone many alterations. It was altered and repaired in 1872, (fn. 2) and has recently been restored as nearly as possible on its original lines. It is built around an irregular oblong courtyard, the greater length of which, about 52 ft., is from west to east, the width being about 21 ft. The entrance is on the north side through a stone gateway belonging to an older house, and the hall occupies the middle part of the south wing immediately opposite, with the withdrawing room and other living rooms at the west end and the kitchen and offices beyond the screens to the east. The north wing, running eastward from the gateway, is a picturesque timber building, locally known as the Banqueting Hall, and now stands detached, the return east wing having been destroyed by fire in the 18th century, and the whole of the kitchen and office wing to the east of the hall has been rebuilt in stone at a comparatively late period.
The gateway appears to be of 14th-century date, the inner side of the segmental arch having the characteristic wave-moulding of that period and the outer order a hollow chamfer under a moulded label. Towards the courtyard both orders are plainly chamfered, but the old wall above the arch has been destroyed and an embattled brick parapet added, apparently in the 16th century. Over the arch has been inserted the head of a trefoiled niche—a fragment of the mediaeval building. The arch is 8 ft. wide and 11 ft. in height to the springing. The brick bridge across the moat is modern and was built in place of a wooden drawbridge less than a century ago.
It is probable that the greater part of the mediaeval house was pulled down and the present building, or a large part of it, erected either by Sir John Nanfan before his death in 1446, or by Sir Richard Nanfan before 1506, and that it was subsequently altered by Giles Nanfan in the latter part of the 16th century. Practically all the internal architectural features, apart from the obviously more recent additions, may be ascribed to Giles Nanfan, including the panelling of the withdrawing room and the decoration of the screen at the east end of the hall. The great hall itself remained structurally unchanged as Giles Nanfan left it until the end of the 18th century, when the introduction of the floor and its division by partitions was made. The now detached north wing is thought to have been the hall of the earlier house, and the lower part of its outer or north wall, which rises directly from the moat and is of stone, seems to belong to the mediaeval structure. The floor is an addition of comparatively late date, though earlier than that in the hall. On the south side to the courtyard the lower part of the walling is of brick, but all the rest consists of timber framing filled in with brickwork or plaster. Externally it is 54 ft. in length, but its chief interest lies in the upper room, which occupies the greater part of its western end. This is 37 ft. long by 17 ft. 6 in. wide, and has a very handsome plaster ceiling with moulded ribs, Tudor roses and fleur de lis ornaments, probably erected by Giles Nanfan, and covering what was at first an open timber roof.
Towards the courtyard the elevation of the house is entirely of timber and plaster on a low stone base, but on the south side facing the garden the front is broken up by gables flanking the great chimney, the lower part of which is of stone. On either side of the chimney the timber framing is filled in with stone and brickwork, but the windows are of more recent date, and the whole is under one low-pitched roof carried eastward over the rebuilt servants' wing. The 'screens' are 6 ft. 9 in. wide, with a small room above overlooking the courtyard and traditionally styled 'Wolsey's Room' or 'study.' (fn. 3) The timber framing towards the courtyard is severely constructional, and the chief feature of the elevation is a large double-transomed window of four lights to the hall, across the middle of which the later floor is carried. The outer door at the end of the screens is the original one of oak with wicket, but the inner door is modern. The hall floor is flagged, and the fireplace is on the south side, opposite the window. At the east end, high up in the wall in front of the screens, and now visible only from the corridor of the floor above, are three large plaster panels with emblazoned shields of arms, probably set up by Giles Nanfan, one of them being that of his second wife Elizabeth Southwell, the others those of Cornwall of Burford and of the family of Lord Audley of Walden. The Southwell coat places this work after 1580, in which year Giles Nanfan's first wife died, and it is therefore later than the panelling in the withdrawing room on which the arms of his first wife appear.
The withdrawing room, which measures about 25ft. by 18 ft., is the most interesting room in the house. Externally, like the rest of the west wing, it has been encased in brick, and the chimney, which is on the west side, rebuilt. All the windows also at this end of the house are modern. Internally, however, the room remains unaltered as left by Giles Nanfan. It is panelled in oak its full height all round, and the ceiling is divided by moulded beams into six large compartments, each filled with ornamental plaster work. The fireplace is elaborately carved in oak with three round-headed panels containing shields of arms, each with helm, crest and mantling. The middle one bears the arms of Nanfan, and on either side are the arms of Elizabeth Harley, Giles Nanfan's first wife, and of Maud Cornwall his grandmother. The date of the panelling thus falls between 1572, when Giles succeeded to the estates, and 1580, the year of his first wife's death. On the south side of the fireplace is a doorway in the panelling leading to a recess or 'hiding place' behind the chimney, from which a passage is said to have proceeded under the moat. The wainscot is divided into bays by carved pilasters with Corinthian capitals carrying an ornamental oak frieze. All the detail is of very good Renaissance character, and the frieze is remarkable for containing a series of painted shields of arms of neighbouring gentry, sixteen in number, with the name of the bearer of the coat inscribed under each.
The statesman William Huskisson was born in 1770 at Birtsmorton Court, and his baptism is entered in the parish register. (fn. 4)
The population is now chiefly agricultural; the women were formerly employed in glove-sewing. (fn. 5)
The common lands in this parish were inclosed by an Act passed in 1836, the award being dated 28 July 1845. (fn. 6)
BIRTSMORTON is not mentioned by name in the Domesday Survey, but it is probably to be identified with the 2½ hides of land previously held by Alwi then held by William Fitz Baderon of the Abbot of Westminster's manor of Longdon. (fn. 7) William Fitz Baderon was the ancestor of the Monmouth family, (fn. 8) of whom Ralph de Monmouth in 1166 answered for a knight's fee in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, held of the Abbot of Westminster. (fn. 9) Subsequent deeds show that Birtsmorton belonged to the honour of Monmouth, (fn. 10) which was given by John de Monmouth to the king's son Edward, Henry III confirming the grant in 1256. (fn. 11) In 1267 Prince Edward granted the honour to his brother Edmund, (fn. 12) who was created Earl of Lancaster in the same year, (fn. 13) and thus the honour of Monmouth became incorporated in that of Lancaster.
John de Monmouth is said to have given the manor of Birtsmorton to Ranulf Brut (Brute, Bret), probably the one who was living in 1166–7. (fn. 14) Robert Brut held the manor in the reign of John, (fn. 15) and John Brut was in possession in 1241, (fn. 16), when he was required by the Abbot of Westminster to do suit at the hundred of Pershore. In 1250 Ranulf Brut settled on John de Ruyhale and his wife Nichola and John's heirs a carucate of land in Birtsmorton (evidently the manor) which Nichola held in dower of Ranulf's inheritance. (fn. 17) In the same year John gave to Ranulf and his wife Sidonia half a virgate in Birtsmorton. (fn. 18) This land remained in the possession of the Bruts until 1361 or later, (fn. 19) but the manor passed before 1301 to Richard Ruyhale, (fn. 20) who in 1327 paid subsidy for his lands here. (fn. 21) By 1343 he had been succeeded by John Ruyhale, who presented to the living in that year. (fn. 22) In 1344 he settled the reversion of the manor (held for life by Lora, widow of Richard Ruyhale the elder) on his son Richard Ruyhale and Margaret, Richard's wife, in tail with remainder to his other sons William and John. (fn. 23) Richard Ruyhale was in possession in 1346, (fn. 24) and a Richard Ruyhale presented to the church in 1398–9. (fn. 25) He was probably the Richard who died in 1408, leaving a son Richard. (fn. 26) The latter died while still a minor in 1415, and his uncle and heir Edmund Ruyhale granted the manor to John Merbury, Edward Brugge and William Poleyn, probably as trustees. (fn. 27) They in 1421 gave the manor to Richard Oldcastle and his wife Elizabeth, widow of Richard Ruyhale the elder. (fn. 28) Richard Oldcastle died in 1422, (fn. 29) and though Elizabeth did not die until six years later (fn. 30) this manor seems to have reverted to Edmund Ruyhale's trustees, who sold it in 1424–5 to John Nanfan, (fn. 31) Thomas Charlecote or Pratt and Isabel his wife, in whom the remainder was vested under a settlement made by Edmund Ruyhale, (fn. 32) conveying their interest in the manor in 1444–5 to Nanfan. (fn. 33) In 1431 Sybil de la Bere held the manor under a life grant from John Nanfan. (fn. 34) John was a member of an ancient Cornish family (fn. 35) and was Sheriff of Cornwall (fn. 36) and of Worcestershire (fn. 37) and esquire of the body to Henry VI. (fn. 38) His will is dated 1446, (fn. 39) but he was alive in 1447, when a money grant was made to him 'in consideration of his long service to Henry V in his wars of France, where he was taken prisoner and ransomed at great cost.' (fn. 40) His son John Nanfan was justice of the peace for Cornwall and for Worcestershire in 1451, (fn. 41) Warden and Governor of Jersey and Guernsey in 1452 (fn. 42) and 1457. (fn. 43) John Nanfan died shortly before 1477, (fn. 44) and in 1483 his son Richard Nanfan was appointed collector of subsidies for Cornwall. (fn. 45) He was Sheriff of Worcestershire in 1485, (fn. 46) commissioner of the peace for Cornwall (fn. 47) and esquire of the king's body. (fn. 48) He was knighted in 1488–9 before being sent on an embassy into Spain. (fn. 49) In 1492 he was appointed to attend the king in the peace negotiations with France, (fn. 50) and became deputy at Calais (fn. 51) at about that time. (fn. 52) At Calais he was a patron of Wolsey, who was his chaplain. Sir Richard Nanfan died in 1506–7. (fn. 53) He left no legitimate children, but a natural son John Nanfan succeeded to Birtsmorton according to his father's will (fn. 54) after a suit with Sir Richard's widow. (fn. 55) John's heir was his son William, who died in 1572 and was succeeded by his son Giles, (fn. 56) who settled the manor in 1582 on himself and his second wife Elizabeth. (fn. 57) He died at Berrow in 1614, and, his son William having predeceased him in 1612, was succeeded by his grandson John Nanfan. (fn. 58) The latter died about 1677 (fn. 59) and was followed by his son Bridges, (fn. 60) who had been obliged to compound for delinquency in 1651. (fn. 61) Bridges represented the county in the Parliaments of 1680–1 and 1685. (fn. 62) He died in 1704. (fn. 63) His only daughter and heir Catherine married four times, her first husband being Richard Coote, second Lord Coloony and first Earl of Bellomont, (fn. 64) who was Governor of New York, where he died in 1700. Their eldest son Nanfan died in 1708; the earldom then passed to his younger brother Richard, (fn. 65) who in 1713 was lord of Birtsmorton, (fn. 66) possibly acting for his mother, whom he succeeded in the estate on her death in 1737. (fn. 67) He died in 1766, and Lady Judith Coote, his only surviving child, inherited Birtsmorton, (fn. 68) which she devised, before her death, unmarried, in 1771, to her distant cousin Charles Lord Coote of Coloony, in whose favour the Bellomont earldom had been re-created in 1767. (fn. 69) He sold the estate in 1779 to Colonel Edward Monckton, (fn. 70) who presented to the church in 1791. (fn. 71) Between 1791 and 1797 (fn. 72) it was acquired by John Thackwell of Rye Court, who died in 1808. (fn. 73) He bequeathed Birtsmorton to his second son William, (fn. 74) who died childless, his successor being his elder brother's son, John Cam Thackwell. He died in 1892 (fn. 75) and was succeeded by his son John Thackwell. In 1898 it was sold to a younger branch of the family represented by Major-General William de Wilton Roche Thackwell, from whose daughter Mrs. Penrose Thackwell it passed in 1911 to Mr. F. R. BradleyBirt, owner of the neighbouring estate of the Berrow, the two estates thus becoming again united under the same ownership. His nephew Mr. F. B. Bradley-Birt is the present owner of Birtsmorton Court and lord of the manor. (fn. 76)
A mill is mentioned as an appurtenance of this manor in 1344–5. (fn. 77) A wind-mill and a water cornmill were standing here in 1713. (fn. 78) There are no mills in the parish now, but Miller's Court, which stands near a brook not far from the Castlemorton boundary, may mark the site of an ancient mill.
The church of ST. PETER AND ST. PAUL is a crucifrom building consisting of chancel 21 ft. by 14 ft. 6 in., aisleless nave 49 ft. 6 in. by 20 ft. 3 in., north and south transepts 11 ft. wide, south porch and west tower 10 ft. square, all these measurements being internal. The transepts differ in size, that on the north having an internal depth of 14 ft. 6 in. from the face of the nave wall, while on the south side the projection is only 10 ft. 9 in.
With the exception of the porch, which is a modern timber structure on a stone base, the whole of the building is of 14th-century date, the original plan having remained unaltered and the fabric itself having undergone little change except by way of restoration. Internally, however, it appears to have passed through the usual vicissitudes of the 17th and 18th centuries, and before the restoration of 1877 (fn. 79) was filled with square pews and had a tall, narrow semicircular plastered chancel arch and square-headed openings to the transepts. In the restoration some portions of the walls of the south transept and at the east end of the nave and chancel were taken down and rebuilt, a new chancel arch and arches to the transepts were inserted, and many of the windows were renewed. The old roofs were also removed, new open-timbered roofs of pitch pine being substituted and the porch was erected. (fn. 80) The tower was restored in 1895.
The church is built throughout of grey rubble masonry with red stone dressings and the roofs are covered with modern red tiles overhanging at the eaves. The chancel has diagonal buttresses of two stages, but, with the exception of the tower, the rest of the walling is unrelieved by buttress or stringcourse. The chancel roof is considerably lower than that of the nave, and the east window is modern and of three lights with reticulated tracery. There are two windows on the south side of the chancel with a priest's doorway between, all modern. The window on the north side is only slightly restored and is of two trefoiled lights with an opening in the head. There are no traces of mediaeval ritual arrangements and the floor is level with that of the nave. The walls, like those of the rest of the building, are plastered internally.
The west walls of both transepts are blank and the two end windows, facing north and south, are each of three trefoiled lights with reticulated tracery, the tracery, however, being all modern. The east wall of the south transept is also blank, but that in the north is pierced by an original window of two cinquefoiled lights with a large quatrefoil in the head.
The nave has three two-light windows on each side and north and south doorways, the former built up, between the first and second windows, counting from the west. The windows are all original and have trefoiled lights with quatrefoil in the head, but are without labels. The doorways have plain fourcentred heads and may be later in date. The south door is new, but retains its old iron hinges and ring handle.
The tower has a chamfered plinth and externally is of two stages divided by a string-course at rather more than mid-height. It has diagonal buttresses of four stages stopping below the string, and a vice in the south-west corner. It terminates in a hipped red tiled roof behind a straight parapet. The west window is of two trefoiled lights with a quatrefoil in the head of rather later type than those in the nave, the perpendicular lines beginning to appear. The belfry windows are of similar pattern, the quatrefoil, however, giving place to a plain opening. The north and south sides of the tower are blank in the lower stage except for small slits, and the tower arch is sharply-pointed and of two chamfered orders continued to the ground, the opening being only 7 ft. wide. It is filled in the lower part by a modern screen, and the ground floor, which is now used as a vestry, has been apparently covered originally with a stone vault, the wall ribs and springers of which remain.
The font is ancient and consists of a circular stone basin chamfered on the under side standing on a circular stem and chamfered plinth, and is probably of late 12th or early 13th-century date. The pulpit is modern. There is an old circular wooden almsbox, and some ancient painted heraldic glass has been inserted in the top lights of the nave windows and a fragment in the west window of the tower. Habington records the existence in the 17th century of a great deal of heraldic glass, but most of this had disappeared before 1780, (fn. 81) though Nash states that 'some figures' then remained in the east window of the chancel.
At the entrance to the south transept, with its east end set against the wall, is an altar tomb of late 15th or early 16th-century date with panelled and carved sides and end, the brasses of which have been lost. It is sometimes known as the 'Arundel Tomb,' and was probably erected by Jane widow of the first Sir John Nanfan in memory of her three husbands. 'On it are the figures of Sir Renfrey Arundel her first husband, Sir John Nanfan her second husband, and at the west end that of Sir William Houghton her third husband; her son John Arundel, Bishop of Exeter (fn. 82) her sons John and Sir Richard Nanfan, and all her daughters.' (fn. 83) The matrix of the brass shows it to have represented a female, and it was probably that of the lady herself. There were also four shields of arms, one in each corner. Nash has recorded the inscriptions painted on the ribbons which decorate the sculptured sides, but these are now illegible, though traces of colour remain. He describes the tomb as follows:—
On the right (north) side is a bishop in his robes praying, with this inscription 'Lord John Arundel Bishop of Chester and son to Renfreye Arundel.' In the second compartment a man armed except his head and hands, kneeling, with this inscription 'Sir Renfreye Arundel, kt.' and behind him another figure kneeling. In the third a man armed and praying as before with this inscription 'Oumphrey Arundel,' and behind him a lady praying and over her written 'dame Elizabeth Lygon,' and after her another woman. On the south side a man armed and praying with this inscription 'John Nanfan squire for the body with King Henry the Sixth.' In the second compartment a knight, armed and praying, with this inscription 'Sir Richard Nanfan, knt.'; behind him 'John Nanfan brother to Sir Richard.' In the third a gentlewoman with her hat turned up as a chaplet and written 'Elizabeth Bollys sister to them both.' At the foot of the monument a man armed; on his right hand Mary Magdalene holding in her hand an alabaster box of precious ointment; on the left hand the same saint covered with her hair; above her this inscription 'Sir William Houghton.' (fn. 84)
On the south side of the chancel is a mural monument to Bridges Nanfan (d. 1704) and his wife Catherine (d. 1702) daughter of Sir George Hastings, and on the opposite side a large marble monument, with full-length reclining figure, to William Caldwell, Rear-Admiral of the Red Squadron in the Baltic, who died at Birtsmorton in 1718. He was the second husband of Catherine Countess of Bellomont, daughter of Bridges Nanfan. She died in 1737, and is also commemorated on the monument.
In the east wall of the nave to the south of the chancel arch is a stone carved with the arms of Nanfan impaling Harley, with the initials and date W. N., G. N., 1572. (fn. 85)
There is a ring of four bells: the tenor was cast in 1630 by T. Hancox of Walsall, the treble and second, by John Martin of Worcester, are dated 1665, while the third is of pre-Reformation date and bears the inscription in small Gothic characters with initial capitals '+ Misit [missus] De Celis Habeo Nomen Gabrielis.' It was probably cast c. 1450 by Robert Crowch of London. (fn. 86)
The plate consists of a cup and cover paten of 1571, with the usual floral band ornament and the date engraved on the bottom of the cover; a paten of 1660 with the arms of Nanfan and initials and date K N H, 1693; and a paten and flagon of 1740, each inscribed 'Belonging to the Church at (fn. 87) Brutes Morton in Worcestershire 1740.'
The advowson of the church, which is mentioned in 1291, (fn. 88) belonged from early times to the lords of the manor. (fn. 89) Mr. John Thackwell presented to the church in 1800, (fn. 90) and bequeathed the advowson to his third son, the Rev. Stephen Thackwell, who was both patron and incumbent till his death in 1858. (fn. 91) The advowson was then sold to Conway Pilson, (fn. 92) from whose son Arthur Pilson it was acquired in 1899 by Mr. F. R. Bradley-Birt. His nephew, Mr. F. B. Bradley-Birt, is the present patron. (fn. 93)
The school, founded by will, 1703, of Rev. Samuel Juice, a former rector, is endowed with a tenement and a close in Rye Street in Birtsmorton, and another tenement with 6 acres in the parish of Eldersfield, the rents thereof to be applied for educational purposes. The rental value of the property is about £12 a year.