A History of the County of Bedford: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1912.
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The parish of Woburn has an area of 3,446 acres, of which about 2,000 are permanent grass and about 700 arable land. The county is thickly wooded, the plantations covering about 700 acres. (fn. 1) The soil is Lower Greensand, with a subsoil of gravel, and the chief crops are wheat, oats, barley, peas and beans. The ground rises from 300 ft. in the north of the parish to 500 ft. in the south. The village is situated midway on ground rising from 370 ft. to 386 ft., and occupies both sides of the road from Leighton Buzzard to Newport Pagnell. It is neat and clean in appearance and is now well lighted by gas; but in the early part of the 19th century the lighting was very bad, and Stephen Dodd, (fn. 2) writing in 1818, complains of the lack of lamps.
The reservoir is kept for the use of the fire brigade, and the water supply is at present obtained from private wells; waterworks are, however, now being carried out at Birchmoor, a little distance to the north of the town.
The principal buildings are grouped round the wide space formed by the junction of the two roads leading from Leighton Buzzard to Newport Pagnell. Here is the town hall, built in 1830 on the site of the market hall erected in 1737 by the fourth Duke of Bedford. Lord Verulam in 1768 (fn. 3) spoke of the market hall as 'not very superb,' and the lower story was for long used as a shambles. The present town hall was restored in 1884 at the expense of the Duke of Bedford, at which date the library of the Woburn Institute was removed from the building to the new institute in Leighton Street, where there are also reading and billiard rooms. Another modern building is the cottage hospital, built in 1903; but there are still some fine Georgian houses in a good state of preservation standing in the Market Square. The old church of St. Mary, of which little remains, stands back from the High Street. Adjoining the churchyard is an Elizabethan building used as an infant school. The modern church of St. Mary stands to the eastward of the main street on a fine site near the gates of Woburn Park. The Wesleyan chapel is in the High Street and the Congregational chapel up a passage from Chapel Street.
At the southern entrance to the town is the 'Royal Oak,' a thatched half-timber inn; the Sun Inn is a building of similar character. Of the Eleanor Cross which formerly stood in Woburn, probably in the market place, no trace now remains. It was begun in 1292, rather later than most of the other crosses. A great part of the work was done by Ralph de Chichester, and the total cost of the whole cross was £60 6s. 8d. (fn. 4)
The vicarage is on the northern outskirts of the town, not far from Birchmoor Green, a group of cottages built along an open space. From here a by-path leads north-west to Birchmoor Farm, the old manor-house of the Stauntons in the 17th century. The stream which flows past the farm passes Horse Moor Farm higher up. In the south of the parish it also crosses the grounds of Utcoate Grange, which belonged to Woburn Abbey before the Dissolution.
Formerly the manufacture of lace 'was the usual employment of the poor' of Woburn, but this industry has now disappeared. (fn. 5)
Woburn has several times been devastated by fire. On the first occasion, 13 September 1595, the cause of the outbreak was 'a simple old woman, as simple and seelie, as ever I knew almost, slow in speech, deafe in hearing and which is worst of all very dull of understanding and sense,' (fn. 6) who threw the old straw of her bedding into the fireplace. Her cottage having caught fire, 'the Lord raised up even at that very instant a great and mighty wind to carry it from one house to another,' (fn. 7) and the houses being very dry, owing to a previous drought, some 130 buildings perished in the flames. Of a second fire in 1645 some account is given below. A third fire in June 1724 destroyed thirty-nine dwelling-houses and damaged others, and such distress was caused that petitions for help signed by the justices, churchwardens and overseers of Woburn were sent to neighbouring parishes. (fn. 8)
Woburn was staunchly Parliamentarian in its sympathies. In May 1642, before the outbreak of hostilities, Lord Keeper Williams set out from London to join the king at York, and was arrested at an inn in Woburn by the constable, who locked him up in a room and sent to a justice of the peace for a warrant. But before this could be obtained and before the party in pursuit of him came up his servants managed to obtain his release, and he continued his journey after three hours' imprisonment. (fn. 9)
In November 1645 a sharp skirmish took place at Woburn between the townsfolk and a party of Royal Horse. Though the loss on both sides was but slight, considerable damage resulted to the town, as under cover of the confusion of the fight 'some desperate fellows of the neighbourhood' pillaged the north end of the town and burnt some twenty-seven houses, (fn. 10) and the inhabitants were forced to apply to the Parliament for help in their distress. (fn. 11) Charles I passed through Woburn and stayed at the abbey on three occasions between the years 1644 and 1647. (fn. 12) On the last occasion he was a prisoner under the guard of Colonel Whalley, (fn. 13) and during his few days' stay the 'army proposals' were submitted to him there. (fn. 14)
Apart from the house of Russell but few natives of Woburn are known to fame, but, as Stephen Dodd says, 'if this town has produced no very distinguished characters, it has at least experienced the fortunate absence of notoriously bad ones.' (fn. 15) Among those who have done credit to the town are Thomas Gurney (1705–70), a schoolmaster, who invented the system of shorthand bearing his name (fn. 16); John Facey (1766–1826), a geologist of note in his day, who acted as agent to the Duke of Bedford for some years (fn. 17); and the two literary Quaker brothers, Jeremiah and Benjamin Wiffen, the elder of whom (referred to in Noctes Ambrosianae as 'the best scholar among a' the Quakers') acted as librarian at Woburn Abbey for many years. (fn. 18)
Among those who do less credit to the town are Stephen atte Clyve, who in 1393 broke into the house of John Brasier by night and stole a pair of silver 'bedes' and another of garnet worth 26s. 8d. and a quantity of linen and woollen cloth worth 20 marks (fn. 19); and Roger Brisey and Mabel his wife, who in the reign of Edward I bribed the sheriff, John de Cheney, with £20, so that they should not be kept in chains until the day of the gaol delivery. (fn. 20)
The park which surrounds Woburn Abbey is one of the finest in England. It extends into the parishes of Husborne Crawley, Steppingley and Eversholt, and has an area of 5,000 acres. It is well stocked with deer of all kinds, whilst in special paddocks are many beasts not often found in English parks, such as llamas, yaks, zebras, Indian cattle, camels, gnus, buffaloes, and wild horses.
Francis Duke of Bedford was granted a licence to keep deer in the park in 1690. (fn. 21) At the beginning of the 18th century the stock of deer was very low, and in 1703 the duke was obliged to borrow from the Duke of Rutland in order to fulfil his obligation of sending two bucks to Trinity College, Cambridge. (fn. 22) On the other hand, at the beginning of the 19th century, the Archdukes John and Lewis of Austria wrote (1815), 'we had never seen a park so full of deer as that of Woburn.' (fn. 23)
The park is well wooded and there are several fine lakes. The main entrance is on the London road, while there are smaller gates by the church, in Ridgmont and in Eversholt.
An object of special interest in the park is the building depicted in the well-known picture (by G. Garrad) entitled 'Woburn Sheep Shearing.'
The annual Woburn sheep-shearing was a function of considerable importance in the agricultural world for some years. It was established by the fifth duke in 1797, and was attended by many distinguished persons, but was allowed to lapse after 1821. (fn. 24)
Queen Elizabeth visited the abbey in 1572. The following letter from Francis Earl of Bedford to Lord Burghley (dated 16 July 1572) referring to this visit is of considerable interest: 'I am now going to prepare for her majesty's coming to Woborne, which shall be done in the best and hastiest manner I can. I trust your lordship will have in remembrance to provide helpe that her majesty's tarriing be not above two nights and a daye, for, for so long tyme doe I prepare. I pray God, the rowmes and lodging there may be to her majesties contentation for the time. If I could make them better upon such a sodayn, then would I, be assured they should be better than they are.' (fn. 25)
The following place-names have been found in this parish:—Armsall Tonge, Baghehella Biggyngefeld, Carswell, Cherlewood Heath, Crouchecrofts, Chalvecrofts, Losewod. (fn. 26)
The boundary of the men of Woburn (Woburning a gemacre) is mentioned in 969 in the Aspley charter. (fn. 27)
In the time of Edward the Confessor Alric, a king's thegn, held Woburn, and there were six sokemen there who held 2 hides. (fn. 28) After the Conquest the property was granted to Walter Giffard, and in 1086 it was assessed at 10 hides and valued at £5. (fn. 29) Walter Giffard's tenant was Hugh de Bolebec, who (either himself or his son Hugh) became seised of the manor in chief. Hugh the younger included Woburn in the original endowment of the Cistercian Abbey of Woburn, which he founded in 1145. (fn. 30) This grant was confirmed by King Stephen, (fn. 31) Henry II and later sovereigns, (fn. 32) and the abbey continued to hold the manor in frankalmoign till the dissolution of their house in 1539. With the traffic brought by the needs of the abbey a town sprang up, and in 1245 Henry III granted the monks the right to hold a market on Fridays 'at the chapel of Old Woburn' and a yearly fair there in September to last for three days. (fn. 33) In the 13th century the abbot claimed the right to hold a market, (fn. 34) a view of frankpledge and the right to gallows, (fn. 35) and in 1299 he obtained a grant of free warren. (fn. 36) Two additional fairs at Woburn were granted to the abbot by Henry VIII in 1530, the one in March and the other in July. (fn. 37)
In 1315 the abbey buildings suffered much from a fire caused by lightning. (fn. 38)
At the Dissolution the manor of Woburn was valued at £67 1s. 5d., (fn. 39) and there exists a letter from George Giffard to Thomas Cromwell, dated September 1538, advising him to ask the king for it, which he doubted not the king would give him 'for the asking.' (fn. 40) He does not appear to have acted on this advice, but the Woburn property was included in those monastic lands of which he was appointed chief steward the next year. (fn. 41) In 1542 Woburn Manor was annexed to the newlycreated honour of Ampthill. (fn. 42) Edward VI in 1547 granted the manor, with the monastery buildings and granges, the fairs, the weekly market and all appurtenances, to John Lord Russell, (fn. 43) who was created Earl of Bedford two years later. (fn. 44)
The manor has remained the property of the Russell family down to the present day, Herbrand eleventh Duke of Bedford being the present lord.
Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedford, stands to the south-west of the village of Woburn, on the site of the Cistercian house founded by Hugh de Bolebec in 1145. There is no trace of the original monastic buildings remaining, but a local tradition states that the present house stands exactly on the site of the old cloister. A drawing of 1661 contains no indication of any work earlier than the latter part of the 16th century, but a pen-and-wash drawing at the abbey, of the first half of the 19th century, though apparently copied from an earlier source, seems to show that at some time the monastic dwellings were adapted to the use of their secular owners.
With the exception of a bay and a half of the north range, the house was almost wholly rebuilt about 1746 from designs by Henry Flitcroft. The house forms a complete rectangle, with its longer sides on the east and west, inclosing a quadrangle.
The principal entrance is on the eastern side, and owing to the westward fall of the ground opens into the first stage of the building. Thus on the eastern front are only two stages, while on the internal or quadrangle side of the same range, and throughout the rest of the house, are three stages. On the east, north and south ranges, on the quadrangle side, the lowest stage is occupied by service corridors, stores, kitchens, &c. In the west range a principal corridor opens into the West Hall, which occupies the centre of the range, and looks out into the park towards an ornamental lake and long vista of trees beyond it.
The design of the building, which is in freestone, is extremely plain. On the east side the principal entrance consists of an Ionic portico with pairs of plain columns. Above the entrance an octagonal clock cupola rises, surmounted by a circular Ionic colonnade with a cap and vane. On the north, where the ground drops to a small hollow, the greater part of the façade continues the plain elevation of the front, but the last two bays, in the ground stage of which are the kitchens, are of an earlier and more elaborate design, with a wall arcade inclosing the windows and slightly varied panels below them. This is a remnant of early 17th-century work which escaped in the general reconstruction by Flitcroft. It contains a strange apartment known as the 'Grotto,' in which the vault and walls are decorated with elaborate patterns of Tritons and sea-monsters in high relief in shells set in stucco.
The west range, which contains the state and other principal apartments, has a fine west front, absolutely symmetrical in design, with a slightly projecting central compartment, in which are the central door and two windows of the West Hall, and rising from the string above them, four well-proportioned plain Ionic three-quarter columns of two stages height support a pediment inclosing the ducal achievement. On either side are plain wings, with five windows in each stage, those on the first stage being surmounted by pediments and having balustrades at the sills. The three corresponding windows between the columns of the central compartment have broken pediments and their balustrades are set out to the faces of the columns. In the side wings the walls terminate at the sill level of the third stage, and are finished with a balustrade, the windows of the third stage being dormers. Flanking the side wings are two projecting portions of three full stages, with a single plain window in the ground stage, a group of three windows, of which the central one has a round head rising above the other two, in the first stage, and a single semicircular window with two mullions in the top stage. These flanking portions are finished with plain parapets on modillioned cornices. Flanking these again are two rusticated portions of a single stage, with round-headed doors and a balustraded parapet. That on the north contains offices connected with the kitchens, but that on the south forms the end of a kind of undercroft or corridor below the terrace of the south side, which contains the library and private apartments. The south front looks upon a formal garden separated from the park, which rises rapidly on this side, by a ha-ha; it is of two stages only with pedimented windows on the ground stage (which, as has been shown, is level with the first stage on the west) and square windows below a deep cornice and balustrade on the first stage. The last two bays at each end project slightly, and the windows of the ground stage in these bays are sunk in blind arches. This wing contains the private apartments and the library.
On the inner side of the quadrangle the first two stages have continuous corridors. That on the first stage forms a gallery communicating with all the principal rooms in the house, and is also a picture gallery containing a remarkable series of family and other portraits, beginning at the middle of the east side to the south of the principal entrance with portraits of the first earl by Holbein and including examples of all the great English portrait painters. Also in the east wing a number of cases set in the wall, to the north of the principal entrance, contain fine specimens of rare china, for the most part Sèvres. This corridor is wider in the western than in the other ranges and is known as the picture gallery, and from it open the state apartments. In the centre of the west wing is the Queen's Saloon, so called from the visit of Queen Victoria in 1844, which rises to the full height of the two upper stages, and has a rich coved ceiling. It is lavishly decorated in French blue and gold brocade, and contains a fine portrait of the fourth Duchess by Gainsborough and a series of enamels by Bone, reproducing the contemporary portraits of the earls and dukes from the first earl, with their consorts. This salon opens northwards into the Queen's drawing-room, similarly decorated and containing good examples of Cuyp and Ruysdael. Next to this is a smaller room, the Queen's dressingroom, in the same style, with a fine portrait of Cuyp by himself over the mantel. Beyond this again and forming the north-west angle of the wing is the Queen's bedroom, decorated in white and gold with yellow hangings and containing pictures by Hayter, Landseer and others, among them two portraits of Queen Victoria and the well-known picture of the trial of Lord William Russell.
Next to this room, in the north wing, are the Prince Consort's dressing-room and sitting-room, in the latter of which are many fine pictures by Reynolds. A room in the same range contains some picked specimens of Sèvres displayed in cases. In two rooms in this range are also painted Chinese wall-papers, probably contemporary with Flitcroft's building, of fine design and in excellent preservation. Southward from the Queen's Saloon, the dining and breakfast rooms lead to the south wing, in which the westernmost room is known as the Canaletto Room and contains a large series of Canalettos of Venice. In an adjoining room known as the 'Museum' is a fine Canaletto of Covent Garden Market, which has, of course, been in the hands of the Dukes of Bedford for some generations.
Beyond the Canaletto room is the library, a pleasant sunny apartment, decorated, where the books leave space for decoration, with portraits of artists by themselves. Beyond the library are sundry private apartments, and from these a covered way continues eastward to the sculpture gallery, a well-lighted building 138 ft. by 25 ft., with a low central dome supported on eight magnificent coloured marble columns, brought from Rome by the fifth duke. It contains, besides the famous Lanti vase, several good pieces of ancient sculpture and a large number of works by Canova, Westmacott, Thorwaldsen and Edgar Boehm. Beyond this, curving from an eastward to a northward direction, the camellia-house and a high stone wall with glass-houses on top of it lead to the riding-school and tennis-court, which stand parallel with the east front of the house, screened from it by a high wall which is flanked by stables, grooms' quarters, &c., to north and south, forming a quadrangle in front of the house, in the centre of which is a magnificent cedar tree.
Another cedar tree on the north side of the house, close to the kitchen and the older portion mentioned at the beginning of this account, is remarkable as being the breeding-place of paroquets, which may be seen—and heard—even in snowy weather, flying in flocks about the tree. The whole of the park is stocked, not only with deer, but also with many exotic animals and birds. Demoiselle cranes and Japanese storks cut wild capers before the western windows of the house. Emus may be seen peacefully facing an English winter. Giraffes have been imported into an English landscape. The magnificent open spaces, fine timber and abundant water of the park form an almost natural habitat for creatures which afford constant novelty and amusement.
The park contains several groups of farm buildings, all erected during the 19th century. Their material is red brick and their style is an unpretentious approximation to that of 16th-century domestic architecture.
The monks had two granges in Woburn, Utcoate alias Hudicote and Whitnoe alias Whitnow. The former was situated some distance to the north-west of the abbey buildings beyond the Dunstable road. The abbot in the early half of the 14th century leased the great ox stall and dairy at Utcoate, with various crofts, and closes 'with quick hedges and dikes,' the right to take bracken on Charlewood heath and common at Utcoate at all times of the year to Simon Cole, Isabella his wife, and Robert his son to hold for their lives. (fn. 45) There was a 'warren of coneys' at Utcoate, which Henry VIII in 1539 leased with the grange to John Williams for twenty-one years. (fn. 46) In 1547 the grange was included in the grant made by Edward VI to Lord Russell, (fn. 47) and it is now the property of the Duke of Bedford. In 1306 the Abbot of Woburn was concerned in a suit respecting the boundaries of Utcoate. He claimed that a pasture (fn. 48) called Horthornes was within its boundaries, whilst Adam de Osgodby maintained that it was in Wavendon in Buckinghamshire. (fn. 49) At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries Utcoate was valued at £35 3s. 4d. yearly. Whitnoe Grange was situated to the south of the abbey within the precincts of the modern park. Sir Francis Bryan in 1545 had a grant of it, (fn. 50) and two years later it, like Utcoate, was granted to Lord Russell. (fn. 51)
The property which afterwards became known as the manor of BIRCHMORE does not appear to have been a 'manor' in the strict sense of the term. Its origin must be sought in the Birchmore lands of the monks. Though no record of such grant has been found, it appears possible that the abbot before the dissolution of his house leased or sold the Birchmore lands to Edward Staunton, the bailiff of Woburn. (fn. 52) This seems the more possible as the Birchmore lands find no mention in the subsequent royal grants of the rest of the abbey's property, and that when the first documentary evidence regarding this 'manor' is found under the date 1612 it concerns the tenure of one Francis Staunton, (fn. 53) a descendant of Edward Staunton. Francis Staunton, who was knighted at Bletsoe in 1621, (fn. 54) died seised of the manor in 1639. (fn. 55) It remained in the hands of the Staunton family until the end of the century, (fn. 56) when, on the death of Stavely Staunton, it passed temporarily to his widow and her second husband Montagu Pickering, whom she had married in 1679. (fn. 57) It afterwards went to Stavely Staunton's daughter Elizabeth, the wife of Sir Gilbert Pickering, first cousin of Montagu Pickering, (fn. 58) and through her to her son Sir Edward Pickering, who in 1747 sold it to the Duke of Bedford. (fn. 59) The duke's descendants have continued to hold it down to the present day. The old manor-house was converted into a farm-house, and is still standing.
Three virgates at Birchmore were in the time of the Confessor held by five sokemen of the king. (fn. 60) In 1086 they were held by Herbert, a king's bailiff. (fn. 61) King Henry granted them to Pharus de Boulogne, (fn. 62) and their further descent is the same as that of the manor of Eaton Bray (q.v.).
The old church of ST. MARY THE VIRGIN was pulled down in 1868, and was rebuilt as a mortuary chapel, 39ft. 6 in. by 18 ft. 7 in. The old tower was preserved, but so much repaired and altered that nothing but the lower part of the walls shows any old masonry. The chapel is built in 15th-century style, and contains nothing of interest beyond the alabaster mural monument of Sir Francis Staunton, 1630, with kneeling figures of himself and his family, and some modern tablets to members of the Russell family. The chapel stands a short way to the south of the tower, and is connected with it by a passage, on each side of which is a window of three cinquefoiled lights.
The tower is in four stages, with diagonal buttresses at the angles, surmounted by crocketed pinnacles, and is crowned by an embattled parapet and an octagonal stone lantern capped by a small crocketed spire.
There are eight bells, the treble and second by Mears & Stainbank, London, 1877, and the rest by Mears, 1829.
The plate consists of two chalices, patens and almsdishes of 1802, all silver gilt, given by John Duke of Bedford in 1811. There are two modern glass silvermounted flagons given by the present duke in 1901.
The books of register are—(1) 1558 to 1653; (2) 1653 to 1711; (3) 1712 to 1743 (all entries); (4) 1743 to 1801, marriages till 1754 only; (5) marriages 1754 to 1775; (6) marriages 1775 to 1804; and (7) baptisms and burials 1802 to 1812.
The new church of ST. MARY, consecrated in 1868, consists of a chancel 50 ft. 3 in. by 26 ft. 4 in., a nave 84 ft. by 24 ft. 3 in., north and south aisles each 16 ft. wide, and a tower at the south-west angle over the west bay of the south aisle 19 ft. 10 in. square. The whole church is vaulted with stone; at the east end are two single lights, with a circular window over them; on each side of the chancel are three single lights. The nave arcades are in five bays, springing from coupled columns, with foliate capitals. The aisles are lighted by a single light to each bay of the nave arcade, and also in the east end of the south aisle and west end of the north aisle. There is one very large bell, weighing 55 cwt., by Mears & Stainbank, 1868.
The advowson of Woburn Church follows the same descent as the manor (q.v.), being attached to the abbey prior to the Dissolution, and passing eventually to the Dukes of Bedford. Until recently Woburn Church was exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop of the diocese.
All trace of Birchmore Church, formerly existing in this parish, has long since disappeared, and the place where it stood is not known. (fn. 63) The advowson followed the same descent as the manor of Woburn (q.v.). In 1308 the abbot obtained licence to appropriate the church. (fn. 64) Under the terms of the appropriation the church was to be served by one of the monks, but a secular priest was to be associated with him for the administration of the sacraments. The abbot, however, in 1399 obtained licence to dispense with the secular priest. (fn. 65) The tithes of the church were valued at £2 13s. 4d. at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. (fn. 66)
The almshouses in Bedford Street, founded in pursuance of the will of Sir Francis Staunton, kt., 1635, were by an Act of 1760 granted to John Duke of Bedford and his heirs, who should erect twelve almshouses and provide £30 a year for the use of the inmates, and keep the same in repair. The annuity is charged by the Act upon the manor-house of Birchmore and other lands therein specified. There are now twenty inmates.
The Free School, (fn. 67) originally founded in 1582 by Francis Earl of Bedford, is regulated by a scheme of the Charity Commissioners of 1 February 1884. The trust estate consists of the schoolhouse and £406 18s. 10d. consols, with the official trustees, representing the redemption in 1875 of a rentcharge of £10, and accumulations of income, producing £10 3s. 4d. annually.
In 1710 John Fountain by will charged his lands in Whittlebury with £20 yearly for the poor in bread, which is duly distributed by the churchwardens.
In 1793 William Underwood by will left £100, income to be distributed in bread on 1 January. The legacy is represented by £160 12s. 10d. consols, with the official trustees, who also hold £157 17s. 11d. consols in respect of a legacy in 1859 by will of Elizabeth Green, Thetford. The yearly incomes of the two charities, amounting to £7 19s., are applied in pursuance of a scheme of 15 March 1904, in donations to the poor, also in clothes and coal.