A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1924.
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Earmundeslea, Aermundeslea (vii–x cent.); Leia, Lega (xii cent.); Legh (xiii cent.); Besilsly (xv cent.); Bessell's Lee (xvi cent.).
Bessels Leigh is a small parish containing just over 900 acres. Its boundaries are thus given in a charter of 959 (fn. 1) : 'First from Sandford (fn. 2) to the foul stream, along the boundary hedge out to the cot (fn. 3); thence along the boundary to hazel ditch; along the street out to Stirian pool; along the ditch east to the Was (fn. 4); thence to Hroc Lea (fn. 5) northward; along the ditch to the upward hedge down; as far as up to Snoddes Hill, upward to the Hoar stone; thence to the old wolf-hedge; thence along the slad, as far as Laecesford (fn. 6); thence along the Lucring back to Sandford.' These boundaries correspond closely with the modern limits of the parish. (fn. 7)
The modern manor-house of Bessels Leigh stands on the western boundary of the parish. Its grounds are skirted on the south-east side by the high road from Faringdon to Oxford. The old manor-house stood near the church, and formerly consisted of a double quadrangle, with an L-shaped wing projecting towards the south. Traces of stone foundations (fn. 8) are still visible on the site, and a short distance to the west is a stone-lined well of considerable depth. The only portion of the structure still standing is the western of a pair of 17th-century gate-piers to the front, which are immediately west of the churchyard.
Bessels Leigh was the residence in turn of the families of Leigh, Bessels, Fettiplace and Lenthall. The Bessels family, according to Leland, were men distinguished for feats of arms. He had seen monuments at Bessels Leigh which recorded how one of them 'fawghte in Listes with a strange knight that chalengyd him, at the whiche Deade the Kynge and Quene at that tyme of England were present.' (fn. 9) The only Bessels of whom much is known, however, is Sir Peter of the early 15th century, and his will shows him rather as a man of peace, with an interest in the upkeep of highways and bridges. (fn. 10) It has a curious clause, however, leaving £600 to his executors to make restitution for any wrong done by his ancestors. (fn. 11)
At the time of the Civil War Bessels Leigh was the property of Speaker William Lenthall, 'that weak tool of a rebellious Parliament.' (fn. 12) In 1644, when the Parliament was occupying Abingdon, 3 miles away, a party of Royalists took possession of the Speaker's house. Major-General Browne wrote from Abingdon: 'The house is very strong, and they will be very ill neighbours to us. I am preparing a party to go thither this night to remove them, but the issue we must refer to the Almighty. (fn. 13) Browne's party was successful in dislodging the enemy, and as he could not spare a garrison to hold the house he ordered his men to break down the walls and doors so as to render it useless to the other side. (fn. 14)
Fifty years later the house was serving a very different purpose. Wood mentions in 1694 a 'solemn ball at Besell's Lee in the house of Sir John Lenthall, performed by 50 or 60 maides, virgins of quality, that are sojourners there . . .' (fn. 15) Hearne mentions twenty years later that there had been a noted boarding school here, and drily remarks that this 'occasioned a more than ordinary resort thither of the young Oxford schollars.' (fn. 16) The school seems to have had a very short existence, and nothing more is known about it. Owen Price, a well-known schoolmaster and writer on grammar, who was ejected from his post at Magdalen College on the Restoration, (fn. 17) afterwards taught at Bessels Leigh; but he was dead in 1671, and can hardly have given lessons to the 'virgins of quality.'
The house is said to have been destroyed in 1784. (fn. 18) It once contained a well-known portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family, attributed to Rowland Lockey, which belonged to the Lenthall family. (fn. 19)
The 79 acres of woodland which the parish contains lie for the most part round the manor-house. More than 500 acres are in cultivation, (fn. 20) and wheat, oats, barley and turnips are grown. The soil is loamy sand on a subsoil of Portland Beds. There is now no trace of the quarry from which Sir Peter Bessels gave the stones for the building of Burford and Culham bridges in the town of Abingdon. (fn. 21)
BESSELS LEIGH is almost certainly to be identified with the 'Lea' which belonged to a Saxon Earmund, and by the end of the 7th century had given the name 'Earmundeslea' to the whole of his large estate in the neighbourhood of Abingdon. (fn. 22) Of Earmund himself nothing is known. About 80 hides at 'Earmundeslea' were said to have been granted to Abingdon Abbey by Cissa, (fn. 23) confirmed by Caedwalla, (fn. 24) and seized (fn. 25) and then restored by Ini. (fn. 26) The charters set forth in the abbey chronicle in support of the story are unreliable, but they are possibly based on a sound tradition. (fn. 27) 'Earmundeslea' seems to have included all the original estate of the abbey in the neighbourhood of Abingdon. (fn. 28)
During the ninth century 'Earmundeslea' was again lost to the abbey, this time owing to the depredations of the Danes. (fn. 29) Most of it was restored in the middle of the 10th century, when the name was described as ancient and uncertain in its application. (fn. 30) The greater part of the 'Lea' itself was regranted to the abbey by Edgar between 959 and 968. (fn. 31) His charter of 959 gave 5 hides in Earmundeslea, the boundaries of which, (fn. 32) as stated above, correspond more or less closely with the modern boundaries of Bessels Leigh. (fn. 33) Possibly this charter never came into operation, for six years later 'Leoie'—the old name is never again used—is included in a grant made by the same king of 50 hides in Marcham. (fn. 34) Finally in 968 Edgar made a grant of 30 hides in Cumnor, (fn. 35) an area which has been shown to include the northern portion of the 5 hides in 'Earmundeslea.' (fn. 36)
How much of Bessels Leigh the abbey did in fact recover before the Norman Conquest it is difficult, in this confusion of grants, to decide. The land held of the abbot in 1086 was and had been assessed at only 1 hide. (fn. 37) There was land, however, for five ploughs, and the value had risen since the reign of the Confessor from 40s. to £4, (fn. 38) so that the estate may have been of greater size than is indicated by the assessment. It appears that the Abbot Faritius recovered land in 'Lega,' with other estates that had been seized by the Danes, from Henry I. (fn. 39) This grant no doubt put the abbey into possession of the whole vill, in which it retained an overlordship till the Dissolution. (fn. 40)
In the reign of Edward the Confessor the tenant of Leigh under the abbot was Norman, (fn. 41) who held land in the neighbouring vill of Tubney also. (fn. 42) Shortly after the Conquest, however, the Abbot Adelelm followed here his customary plan of enfeoffing a foreign tenant to hold by knight service. (fn. 43) This tenant was apparently the William who was holding Leigh in 1086, (fn. 44) and was chamberlain to Henry I. (fn. 45) When Faritius first became abbot, William refused to render him the knight's service due from his holding, and he omitted to send a knight when the king called out forces against his brother Robert of Normandy. (fn. 46) The abbot bore with this for the moment, and sent another knight, but as soon as peace was made he proceeded against William. He proved that knight service had always been rendered by the tenant of Leigh in the time of the Conqueror and the Abbot Adelelm, and William was held to have forfeited his estate by his refusal. He was allowed to retain it, however, on payment of a fine of £10 and an acknowledgement that he was the abbot's man and bound to render him due service. He had further to swear not to sell the land or put it in pledge. (fn. 47) The successor of William was Aschetil or Anskitil, who received Little Chesterton or Kingston in Warwickshire in exchange for Tadmerton from Abbot Faritius in 1104, (fn. 48) and is subsequently (fn. 49) returned as holding Leigh and Chesterton together for two knights' fees. (fn. 50)
William de Leigh was holding two knights' fees of the abbot in 1166. (fn. 51) A certain Richard of Warwickshire came south to transact some business with him and made a grant to the infirmary in return for the abbot's consent to the transaction. (fn. 52) William de Leigh is mentioned in Warwickshire in 1180. (fn. 53) His successor, who lived in the reign of John, was known as 'Robert de Kingeston. (fn. 54) Probably the Felice de Leigh who is the next tenant of the estate (fn. 55) was Robert's widow. She and her son William are mentioned in 1220. (fn. 56) William was still holding a knight's fee at Leigh and another at Kingston in the middle of the century. (fn. 57) He seems to have been succeeded by Thomas, who in 1251 granted to William de Leigh, perhaps a brother, a hide of land in Leigh to hold of him for life; at the same time William son and heir of William quitclaimed to Thomas any claim he might have on it after his father's death, and received in return an annuity. (fn. 58) William, the son of Thomas, was in possession in 1292, when he granted a messuage and 2 carucates here, with the advowson of the church, to one Thomas de Leigh for life, (fn. 59) with reversion to his own heirs. Thomas was the tenant in 1316, (fn. 60) but John de Leigh, evidently the heir of William, (fn. 61) was lord of the manor in 1327. (fn. 62) He had a grant of free warren here and in Kingston in 1332, (fn. 63) and was still living in 1348. (fn. 64)
By the marriage of Katharine, daughter and heir of this John de Leigh, with Thomas Bessels the manor passed into the Bessels family. (fn. 65) Like Earmund, the earliest known tenant, this family gave its name to the manor instead of being named after it. Katherine and Thomas were probably living at Leigh in 1359, when the latter made John de Sloghtre, parson of the church of Leigh, a feoffee for his manor of Buckland. (fn. 66) They had at that date a son John, who was his father's heir at the latter's death in or about 1378. (fn. 67) He predeceased his mother, however, as did his son John, who died a minor, (fn. 68) so that at Katharine's death in 1405 her heir was her second son Peter. (fn. 69) Probably the manor of Leigh had already been granted to Peter, for it does not appear among her estates. It was conveyed to him and to various other persons for his use in 1412. (fn. 70) He was then a knight. (fn. 71) Sir Peter was noted for his deeds of charity and his gifts to religious houses, and by his will he directed that all his manors should be sold by his co-feoffees in alms for his soul. (fn. 72) He died childless in 1424, and Robert Cramford, a distant cousin on his mother's side, was returned as his heir, (fn. 73) though he can have had no claim to the estates held by the Bessels family before the marriage with Katharine Leigh. Subsequently Thomas Somerton, one of the co-feoffees in the estates, claimed to be Peter's next-of-kin. (fn. 74) The history of the manor during the next few years is involved, because Sir Peter's will was not very honestly performed. Margery, his widow, and one of the executors of his will, had a life interest in Leigh, (fn. 75) and her second husband William Warbleton (fn. 76) held it in her right in 1428. (fn. 77) In or about 1438 Thomas Somerton complained that Margery and William had made no attempt to sell Peter's Oxfordshire manors and the reversion of Leigh, but had declared their intention of carrying out the purposes mentioned in the will without a sale. (fn. 78) In 1444 John Michell and his wife Elizabeth, whose part in the business is not clear, quitclaimed the manor to William and Margery, (fn. 79) and a settlement of Bessels Leigh on Margery's heirs was made in 1471. (fn. 80) It is strange after this to find Margery and William complaining that Thomas Somerton had on his own authority sold the manors and embezzled part of the purchase money. (fn. 81) In 1484, when Margery died, she was possessed of no lands in Berkshire or elsewhere (fn. 82); they had all been put into new settlements, with remainders to various persons. Evidently the reversion of Leigh belonged, with that of Grafton and Radcot in Oxfordshire, (fn. 83) to William Bessels and his wife Alice. William was son and heir of Thomas Bessels (fn. 84) and probably a distant cousin of Sir Peter. (fn. 85) He was in possession of the manor in 1487 (fn. 86) and died in 1515. (fn. 87) The reversion then belonged, after the death of Alice, to William's daughter Elizabeth, wife of Richard Elyot and widow of Richard Fettiplace, with a further remainder to her son John Fettiplace in tail. (fn. 88)
Richard Elyot, who was a judge of distinction and the father of the author of The Governor, died in 1522. (fn. 89) In 1535 'Mr. Phetiplace of Beselles Lyghe' was in possession of the estate. (fn. 90) Edmund Fettiplace, the son and heir of John, died in possession in 1541, leaving a son and heir John, a minor. (fn. 91) A settlement was made in 1570 on John and his wife, with remainder to his son Bessel and Bessel's wife Helen. (fn. 92) John died in 1580 (fn. 93) and was succeeded by Bessel, who was Sheriff of Berkshire in 1585. (fn. 94) He died in 1609, when his heir was his son Richard Fettiplace, already a knight. (fn. 95) John, the son of Richard, succeeded him in 1614 (fn. 96) and died six years later, leaving a son and heir Edmund, a minor. (fn. 97) Edmund had livery of the manor in 1634, (fn. 98) and in the same year sold it to William Lenthall of Burford (fn. 99) (co. Oxon.).
William Lenthall died in 1662, and was succeeded by a son John. (fn. 100) The latter was Sheriff of Oxfordshire in 1672 and died at Bessels Leigh in 1681. (fn. 101) His son William succeeded him and died in 1686, (fn. 102) leaving a son and heir John. (fn. 103) William Lenthall, who was holding the manor in 1763, (fn. 104) was the son of John. (fn. 105) He was succeeded by his brother John, who seems to have left the manor of Bessels Leigh to his second son, William John. (fn. 106) The latter was succeeded by his son Kyffin John William Lenthall, who had a son and heir Edmund Kyffin. (fn. 107) Edmund Kyffin Lenthall died in 1907 and left the estate to his cousin Edmund Henry Lenthall, (fn. 108) whose sister Miss Lenthall is the present lady of the manor.
The church of ST. LAWRENCE consists of a chancel 30 ft. by 15 ft., nave 34 ft. by 13 ft. 9 in. and south porch, total length 64 ft., all the measurements being internal.
A church consisting of a nave and chancel existed here in the 12th century. Of this structure the west wall and possibly some other portions are still standing, but the church appears to have been considerably altered and perhaps lengthened in the 13th century and windows were inserted during the two subsequent centuries. In 1632 the building was restored and the chancel arch inserted; the south porch and bellcote are probably of the same date.
The chancel has a late 13th-century east window of three trefoiled lights under a pointed head; the rear arch is cinquefoiled. In the north wall is a two-light window of the middle of the 14th century with a pointed head and a chamfered rear arch. In the south wall there are two square-headed windows, both of two lights and of 15th-century date, and between them is a priest's door. The eastern window has the recess carried down to form a sedile, and in the east jamb is a shallow niche of uncertain use. Further east is a trefoil-headed piscina, the bowl of which is apparently the scalloped capital of a 12th-century column with a square abacus and drain hollowed in the centre. There is no chancel arch, but the nave is divided from the chancel by a timber lintel resting on two massive posts, the framing above being plastered. On the east face is painted a coat of six quarters of Lenthall. It is of the 17th century, but has probably been repainted, as the colours are incorrect. On the west face is the inscription, 'This church was beautified and repaired in the year 1632 by the Hon. William Lenthall, Master of the Rolls and Speaker of the Parliament of England and again by his descendant William John Lenthall, in 1788.' The soffit of the lintel has pierced ornament and Jacobean pendants. The chancel roof of the trussed rafter type is ceiled, but the embattled oak plate is of the 15th century.
In the north wall of the nave is a square-headed two-light window of the 15th century, and there is a similar one opposite it in the south wall. The north doorway is blocked, but the lower part of the jambs and an oak lintel are visible externally. The south doorway has inner and outer semicircular arches of the 12th century, but altered and restored in the 18th century. The west window is of three trefoiled lights similar to the east window, but without a rear arch. There is a small modern west gallery. Externally on the north side of the nave there is a square projection containing a rood stair and formerly lighted by a loop now blocked. There is no indication of the rood doorways inside the building. In the west end of the south wall the sill of a blocked singlelight window is visible externally. The west wall has three flat buttresses of the 12th century and on the gable is an early 17th-century bellcote with two semicircular arches containing as many bells. The nave roof is modern, but has a 17th-century cornice, ornamented with cherubs at intervals holding shields with the Lenthall quarterings. The early 17th-century south porch has wooden sides and outer archway and stands on a stone base with seats on each side. The building is covered externally with a continuous roof of stone slates.
The chancel is fitted with 18th-century box pews; those in the nave have been cut down in modern times. The communion table is of late 17th-century date, with carved and twisted legs. The stone font has a rusticated cylindrical stem and a circular bowl enriched with swags of foliage, and is perhaps local work of the 18th century, but may be earlier. The south door retains some ancient ironwork and the upright guard bars of the east window have ancient scrolled heads. The centre of the chancel is paved with 13th-century slip tiles, formerly in the sacrarium. They are of geometrical design in sets of four, and their preservation is so perfect that there is some doubt as to their antiquity. In the centre of the sanctuary is a floor slab to Sir John Lenthall of Bessels Leigh (1681), and bearing a shield with the quartered coat of Lenthall impaling a saltire, for Andrew. On the south chancel wall is a painted inscription to William third son of William Lenthall (1639), and on the north wall is a carved marble tablet to Susannah wife of Charles Brome of Sandford (1717), with a shield of Brome impaling Franklin.
The plate includes a cup, London, 1635, inscribed 'The communion cup of the parish church of Besselsleigh. June, 1635.' The cover-paten of the same date is inscribed' of Besselsleigh.' There is also an almsdish given in 1845 and a plated flagon.
The registers previous to 1812 are as follows: (i) mixed entries 1659 to 1715; (ii) mixed entries 1715 to 1812 (marriages to 1754 only); (iii) marriages 1754 to 1812.
Among the payments due to the altar of Abingdon Abbey in the 12th century was the sum of 5s. from the chapels of Tubney and Bessels Leigh. (fn. 109) Probably the church was at that time subject to the church of Appleton. In 1291 it appears as an 'ecclesia' from which a pension of 22s. was due to the Abbot of Abingdon. (fn. 110) In 1390 the pension was only 18d. (fn. 111) The rector of Leigh paid 4s. to the account of the sacristan of the abbey in 1396–7. (fn. 112)
In the 16th or early 17th century the living was annexed, with the consent of the Fettiplace family, then patrons of both churches, to that of Appleton. (fn. 113) An agreement was made between Sir Richard Fettiplace and Peter Yate, then rector of Appleton, by which Peter was to accept a sum of £10 in lieu of tithes from Bessels Leigh Manor. (fn. 114) So 'subtylely and cautelously' did Peter draw up the agreement, however, that he was able afterwards to claim the tithes, and did so in 1616. (fn. 115) It does not appear that the connexion with Appleton Church was of long continuance.
The advowson of Bessels Leigh has always belonged to the lords of the manor. (fn. 116)
In 1812 William Selwood, by his will, gave £100, the interest to be applied in the purchase of 'foulweather jackets' for poor men of the parishes of Bessels Leigh, Cumnor, and Appleton, successively. The trust fund consists of £152 7s. 7d. consols, producing £3 16s. yearly, which is applied in the distribution of overcoats for poor men of the said parishes exposed to the weather, such as milkmen and roadmenders.
In 1863 the Rev. Christopher Cleobury, by his will proved at Salisbury 31 December, gave £50, the income to be distributed among the poor in bread, fuel, or clothing on St. Thomas's Day. The legacy was invested in £55 4s. 10d. consols, producing £1 7s. 4d. yearly.
In 1865 Mary Mutrie, by her will proved at Oxford 9 August, bequeathed £333 6s. 8d. consols, the income, subject to a life interest which determined in 1900, to be distributed in fuel and clothing to the poor. The endowment now consists of £344 8s. 2d. consols, producing £8 12s. yearly, which is expended one half in clothing and one half in fuel.
The several sums of stock are held by the official trustees.
In 1907 Edmund Kyffin Lenthall, by will proved at Oxford 20 November, bequeathed £100 for the repair of the body of the church exclusive of the chancel. The legacy was invested in £101 10s. Straits Settlement 3½ per cent. stock, in the names of the Rev. E. M. Walker and two others. It produces £3 11s. yearly.