A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1937.
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Bellinge (xi-xii cents.).
The parish of Great Billing covers about 1,386 acres. The soil varies but is composed mainly of red loam while the subsoil is ironstone with some limestone: the crops are the usual cereals.
On the north, where the parish skirts Overstone Park for some little distance, an elevation of 357 ft. is reached and from there the land falls to 301 ft. about the centre of the parish, where the village lies, thence falling sharply to 174 ft. in the extreme south which is bounded by the River Nene. The low land lying along the river, which is liable to floods, forms part of the Northampton Irrigation Farm which extends into Ecton parish. A feeder of the River Nene, which flows out of the lake in Overstone Park, forms the western boundary for the greater part and passes by Billing Lings, to the north-west of the village, where Lord John Cavendish, the owner of Billing at the end of the 18th century, constructed a private racecourse. (fn. 1)
Slightly south of the road from Northampton to Wellingborough, which passes through the centre of the parish, lies the village on the slope of the hill running down to the river; on the west, at the entrance, stands Billing Hall, surrounded by extensive grounds in which there are some remarkable trees. Billing Hall was described by Bridges about 1720 as 'an handsome old house with pleasant gardens adjoining it'. (fn. 2) About 1776 Lord John Cavendish 'completely transformed it from the Jacobean mansion that it was into the solid block it now is'. (fn. 3) It stands on high ground to the east of the church and is a large plain three-storied building of Kingsthorpe stone, with hipped roof and barred sash windows. (fn. 4) Many of the old walls were left standing when the house was rebuilt, one of which divides the main building into halves; and in the course of extensive internal alterations in 1909, in removing some masonry in the great hall, an exterior wall of the Jacobean house was revealed, with two mullioned windows in an excellent state of preservation. (fn. 5) Additions to the house have been made from time to time, chiefly by Robert Cary Elwes. The Hall was sold in 1930 by Mr. Geoffrey Elwes and, a project for converting it into a home for indigent musicians in memory of Gervase Elwes having failed, it was sold again in 1935 to Mr. Hancock, a shoe-manufacturer of Northampton, and by him to Mr. J. P. B. Miller, who has pulled down part of the Hall.
In the village is a bronze memorial tablet to Gervase Elwes (d. 1921), the 'beloved squire' and famous singer.
About a mile south from the village the river is crossed by a stone bridge of some antiquity which was formerly of great importance as part of the thoroughfare from Northampton to Horton on the London road. In 1274 Roger de Wanton was accused of having appropriated to himself for the last four years the tolls of the millstones taken into Northampton, 2d. being exacted from each pair. (fn. 6) The Liber Custumarum of Northampton, drawn up about 1460, orders 'all merchants to pay customs at Byllyng brygge', (fn. 7) and Justinian Bracegirdle, rector of Great Billing, who died in 1625, left money towards keeping the bridge in good repair. (fn. 8) Baker mentions that the tolls, then called the Duchy Tolls, were paid to the Earl of Pomfret in 1820, the bridge being repaired to the centre arch by Billing parish and beyond by Brafield and Houghton. (fn. 9)
The mill held by St. James's Abbey during the Middle Ages lies on the river to the west of the bridge.
Part of the parish was inclosed under an Act passed in 1778. (fn. 10) In 1935 Great and Little Billing were combined to form the civil parish of Billing.
There is a Roman Catholic church, dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was built as a Village Hall by the late Mr. Robert Elwes and was converted to its present use in 1878 by Mr. Cary Elwes, and enlarged in 1926. There is a small Methodist chapel.
In 1086 Gilbert the Cook held Billing of the king (fn. 11) but the estate escheated to the Crown and was granted in moieties, one of which passed to the Mortimers, Earls of March, probably on the marriage of Milicent, daughter of Robert Earl Ferrers, with Roger Mortimer who died in 1215. (fn. 12) This part of the overlordship remained vested in the Mortimers, as of their honor of Wigmore, and was finally merged in the Crown in the person of Edward IV. (fn. 13) The other moiety was apparently bestowed upon William Meschines, and passed by marriage into the de Courci family in the reign of Henry II, (fn. 14) and afterwards through the Fitzgeralds and de Redvers, Earls of Devon, to the de Forz, Earls of Albemarle, on the failure of whose line in 1293 it was inherited by the Lisles of Rougemont. (fn. 15) In 1368 Robert Lisle granted the whole honor to Edward III, (fn. 16) by whom four years after it was bestowed upon John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, (fn. 17) and this moiety of the overlordship was also merged in the Crown by the accession of the latter's son to the throne as Henry IV in 1399.
The manor of BILLING was in the possession of the family of Barry from the middle of the 12th century until the beginning of the reign of Richard II, but little is known of the earlier members. Their chief seat was at Stanton Barry, Buckinghamshire. (fn. 18) William Barry, who gave Billing Church to Leicester Abbey, held 1 fee of the de Courcy barony in 1166. (fn. 19) Ralph, who held land in Billing in 1181, (fn. 20) died before 1202, and his successor Simon, probably his brother, in 1221. (fn. 21) On the death of Simon's son Ralph the manor passed to his brother Peter, (fn. 22) who was holding it in 1240. (fn. 23) Peter's son, Robert Barry, was accused in 1274 of not having paid suit to the hundred court for the last three years. (fn. 24) In 1309 he settled the manor on his son Thomas (fn. 25) and died c. 1320, (fn. 26) his wife Maud surviving until c. 1326. (fn. 27) Thomas, his son, died in 1325 leaving a widow Pernel and a son, Robert, then a minor. (fn. 28) Robert died before 1349, the date of the death of his widow Cecily, when their son William, then 7 years old, inherited the manor (fn. 29) and was in possession in 1368. (fn. 30) Stanton Barry was in the hands of William in 1377 and was inherited by his daughter Pernel, the wife of Hugh Boveton of Yardley Gobion, (fn. 31) but Billing must have been alienated by William before his death as in 1399 it was in the possession of Peter Barentyn (fn. 32) and was subsequently acquired by Sir Nicholas Lilling, who in 1411 made a settlement of it to himself and his wife Mary for life, and after their deaths to Margaret Holand, Countess of Somerset. (fn. 33) Sir Nicholas died in 1417, (fn. 34) and after the death of his wife the manor became the right of the Countess of Somerset, passing to her grand-daughter and heir Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, mother of Henry VII, who married as her third husband, in 1482, Thomas Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby, upon whom she settled the manor. (fn. 35) On the accession of Richard III her lands were forfeited, and the reversion of the manor granted to John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, (fn. 36) the king's favourite nephew, but the grant was never realized, for while the life-tenant, Sir Thomas Stanley, was still alive, Henry VII acquired the throne and annulled the act of forfeiture. (fn. 37) On the death of Margaret Countess of Richmond and Derby in 1509, a few months after that of her son, the manor passed to Henry VIII, as grandson and heir, (fn. 38) and by him was granted in 1513 to Sir John Ferneux, with licence to alienate it in mortmain to the Dean and Canons of St. George's, Windsor Castle. (fn. 39) This grant, however, must afterwards have been rescinded by the king, who in 1525 bestowed the manor upon his illegitimate son, Henry Duke of Richmond. (fn. 40) The latter dying without issue a few years later the manor reverted to the Crown, to which it remained attached for about 50 years. The site and demesne lands were demised to various persons from time to time, Thomas King and Richard Fisher receiving a 21-years' lease in 1545, (fn. 41) the latter receiving a further grant from Elizabeth at an annual rent of £7 13s. 4d. (fn. 42) In 1566 Charles Howard, Lord Effingham, obtained a lease of 21 years in reversion at the same annual rent, (fn. 43) but in 1577 Thomas Tallis, the musician, who had served the queen and her ancestors for almost 40 years, and William Byrd, his more famous pupil, petitioned the queen for a lease of Crown lands in reversion for 21 years, of the yearly value of £40, and among the lands granted, in answer to their request, were the site and demesne lands of Billing. (fn. 44) In 1588 the manor and the reversion of the site were sold to Alexander King and Thomas Crumpton (fn. 45) with licence to alienate them to John Freeman of Ecton, who acquired possession in 1590. (fn. 46) The reversionary interest in the site of the manor, which had changed hands many times between 1577 and 1596, was the cause of a dispute in the latter year between John Freeman and Anthony Jenkinson, decided in favour of Freeman, (fn. 47) who died seised of the manor in 1615. By his will, dated 25 February 1614, he left £2,000 to be invested in land for the endowment of two fellowships in Clare Hall, Cambridge, worth £26 each p.a., and eight scholarships of £6 each, to which his kinsmen were to be first preferred and, failing such, scholars born in Northants. and Lincoln. On his death the manor, which was then worth £12 p.a., was inherited by his grand-daughter Katharine the wife of Sir Edward Gorges, bart., (fn. 48) afterwards Baron Dundalk, who about 1628 sold Billing to Sir Barnaby O'Brien, a descendant of the Kings of Thomond. (fn. 49) He became Earl of Thomond in 1639 on the death of his brother without male issue and in 1645 was created Marquess of Billing, but the patent never came into force. (fn. 50) The manor remained in the family for several generations, (fn. 51) but a descendant, George Earl of Egremont, sold it in 1776 to a son of William Duke of Devonshire, Lord John Cavendish, (fn. 52) after whose death, in 1796, Billing was sold to Robert Cary Elwes of Roxby, Lincoln, by Lord John's brother, Lord Frederick Cavendish in 1799. (fn. 53) From that date the manor remained in the Elwes family until the property was sold in 1930.
Many by-laws and regulations were drawn up at the courts of the manor held during the 16th century. At one of these in 1551 it was ordered that no man was to keep more than 30 sheep or 5 cows to a virgate, (fn. 54) and rules as to stubble and pasture were strictly enforced. The extravagant cutting of furze and gorse caused an order forbidding the further gathering for two years. No man was to put a mare and foal above the age of a month in the common fields, unless both were tethered; and the needs of the tenants were duly recorded and industrial implements supplied to them. (fn. 55) In 1562 it was laid down that for each sheepfold there were to be 8½ yards of land and that each husbandman was to sow yearly, for every yard of land, 1 peck of peas. (fn. 56)
The Barry family were great benefactors to the religious houses in Northampton and the mill which was attached to the manor at the Domesday Survey, then worth 20s., (fn. 57) was bestowed in the 12th century upon St. James's Abbey by Simon son of Ralph Barry for a yearly rent of 3 marks and a payment of 70 marks towards the expenses of his pilgrimage to Rome. (fn. 58) The abbey continued to hold the mill until the Dissolution, after which it descended with the manor. (fn. 59) The abbey subsequently received a virgate of land from Robert, parson of Billing and brother of Simon. (fn. 60) In the next century Ralph, Simon's son, lord of the manor, bestowed upon the abbey all the land that William Lovel held, and Robert son of Alexander, another member of the family, gave them land in a field called Depedalehul. (fn. 61) In 1241 Peter, Ralph's brother, granted the abbey 16s. rent in Billing (fn. 62) and in 1274 the abbot was said to have built a fulling-mill at Billing, by which great loss was caused to the king and the town of Northampton. (fn. 63) The value of the abbey's possessions in Billing was £2 16s. in 1291, (fn. 64) but they were returned as worth only 17s. in 1535 (fn. 65) and were absorbed in the Crown lands at the surrender of St. James's Abbey in 1538. (fn. 66) The mill was afterwards leased for varying periods and one of the lessees, Thomas Nicolls, complained in the reign of Edward VI that a stream of water was diverted from the main river to the great harm of the mill by George Fisher, bailiff of Arthur Longueville. (fn. 67) In 1551 it was laid down by the court of the manor that 'the myller there shall serve the tenants before forreners and make them of their greyne good meyle and use them with reasonable toll'. (fn. 68) In 1568 the mill was granted to Thomas son of Thomas Nicolls and to John Smith for a term of 21 years at a yearly rent of £3 8s. 4d. (fn. 69)
The Barry family were benefactors to St. Andrew's Priory also, for Simon son of Ralph bestowed a virgate upon it, formerly held by Simon Mason. (fn. 70) A charter confirming this gift by Simon's son Ralph (fn. 71) was inspected in 1316, when the bailiff of the hundred exacted suit from the tenement. (fn. 72) In 1291 the priory's possessions in Billing were estimated at £1 (fn. 73) and in 1443 it received 16s. as rent of the tenement. (fn. 74) In 1535 the priory's estate in Great Billing was worth 7s. 0½d., (fn. 75) and it was merged in the Crown lands on the surrender of the monastery in 1538. (fn. 76)
In 1223 Alexander son of Ralph Barry bestowed upon Sulby Abbey 1 pound of wax for providing lights in the dormitory of the brothers, (fn. 77) to be taken every Michaelmas from the toft which Alwin Pruin held, a gift which was confirmed by his son Robert about 20 years later. (fn. 78)
Other lands in Billing were held by the priory of Bradwell, Bucks., and were of the yearly value of 16s. in 1291. (fn. 79) In 1526 Cardinal Wolsey received a grant of the priory and its possessions (fn. 80) and in 1528 he bestowed them upon his college at Oxford, (fn. 81) but the gift probably never took effect, as after Wolsey's disgrace in 1531 they were given by the king to the priory of Sheen, Surrey. (fn. 82) The priory of Sheen surrendered in 1539, (fn. 83) and its possessions, including the lands in Billing, were given to Arthur Longueville in 1543, (fn. 84) whose ancestors held land in Great Billing (fn. 85) and had been patrons of Bradwell Priory. (fn. 86) A survey of the priory's possessions, taken in this reign, mentions the estate in Billing as consisting of a messuage and an orchard with a yardland, held at will by Edward More, a husbandman, at the yearly rent of 16s. The dwelling-house itself was in decay for want of walling and large timber, and the outbuildings were all ruinous. The only trees on the ground were apple-trees. (fn. 87)
The church of ST. ANDREW stands in a somewhat isolated position on the west side of the village, commanding a pleasant view to the south and south-west across the Nene Valley. Originally it was within the village, but a former lord of the manor diverted a road and got rid of the cottages adjoining the church so as to increase the quiet and amenity of his abode, (fn. 88) leaving the building standing alone in a field just outside the park wall.
The fabric consists of chancel, 29 ft. by 14 ft.; clerestoried nave of four bays, 44 ft. 6 in. by 14 ft. 10 in.; north and south aisles, 9 ft. 6 in. wide; south porch; and west tower, 10 ft. square: all these measurements being internal. There is also a chapel, now used as an organchamber and vestry, on the north side of the chancel, 24 ft. 6 in. by 14 ft. 6 in., built in the 18th century as the burial-place of the lords of the manor.
The earliest part of the building is the middle pier of the north arcade which is of late-12th-century date, the only remaining fragment in situ of a Norman church whose dimensions can only be conjectured, but which at least must have had a north aisle. The pier is circular, with square abacus, early leaf ornament in the capital and moulded base with foot ornaments. The rest of the building is mainly of c. 1290–1300, to which period the chancel, nave arcades, and tower belong. The south aisle appears to have been largely rebuilt in the 15th century, the doorway being of that date. The tower was formerly surmounted by a spire, which, being struck by lightning in April 1759, fell on the church, doing great damage. It was never rebuilt and the tower now terminates in a plain parapet into which semiclassic panels from the old house of the Thomonds, rebuilt in 1776, have been introduced. About this time the exterior of the building seems to have assumed the appearance it has since to a large extent preserved, the rubble walls being covered with stucco (fn. 89) and 18thcentury urn ornaments and other classic features added. The parapets of the nave and aisles are plain, but the former are ornamented in the same way as that of the tower. The roofs are low pitched and leaded.
The chancel has an east window of three trefoiled lights, with internal angle shafts, but the mullions and tracery have been renewed, and in the north wall are two original square-headed windows now opening to the vestry. The two windows on the south side are modern, and between them is a priest's doorway. The two modern pointed arches to the vestry take the place of a former round-headed one of 18th-century date. (fn. 90) The chancel arch is of two chamfered orders, the inner springing from half-octagonal responds with moulded capitals and bases, like those of the nave arcades. The chancel walls are plastered and there is a plaster ceiling. No ancient ritual arrangements are visible. In the east gable outside is a panel with the initials of Lionel Moody, rector, dated 1687, probably recording some repairs to the chancel at that time.
The arches of the nave arcades are of unequal span, the two westernmost on either side being of less width than the others, and all slightly vary from one another. The north arcade seems to have been set out from the middle column, which was perhaps the easternmost one of the Norman church, the western limit of which would be retained, and the south aisle would follow. The pillars on the north are circular, but the moulded capitals and bases of the two outer ones are similar to those of the Early Decorated piers of the south arcade. The arches are all pointed and of two chamfered orders, with a plain hood-mould terminating in heads. On the south the pillars have a triple shaft on each face, and the hood-mould over the second arch from the east consists of nail-head ornament, no doubt from the remains of the late-12th-century church. There are also two mask terminations used on this side.
The windows of the aisles and clerestory are all modern, but at the east end of the south aisle is a 14thcentury reredos consisting of three crocketed ogee niches: the middle recess, which is higher than the others, is said to have contained an inscription in distemper, (fn. 91) but this is no longer visible. The north aisle is open at its east end to the vestry by a modern arch, and the walls being all plastered internally no ritual arrangements in connexion with the aisle altars can now be traced.
The tower is of three stages with short diagonal buttresses and a tall lancet window on the west side in the lower stage. The middle stage has small trefoilheaded windows north and west, and the bell-chamber openings are of two trefoiled lights with hood-moulds. The tower arch is of three orders, the inner resting on responds with moulded capitals and bases. The porch is of 18th-century date, but has since been rebuilt. It has a semicircular arch with gable and urn ornaments. The inner pointed doorway has a crocketed hoodmould terminating in blank shields.
The octagonal pillar font is of late-15th-century date, with panelled sides and moulded top. The pulpit, chancel screen, and other fittings are modern.
In the chapel, or vestry, against the north wall is an elaborate marble monument to Henry, 7th Earl of Thomond, who died at Great Billing in 1691, with figures of the Earl and Countess kneeling, an infant in swaddling clothes between them, and five daughters below. There are also several 19th-century tablets to members of the Elwes family, one of them by Flaxman with female figure in bas-relief. (fn. 92) In the chancel floor is a brass plate with rhyming inscription to Justinian Bracegirdle, rector (d. 1625), 'Who four and fifty winters did afford this flocke the pasture of God's heavenly word'. (fn. 93)
There are three bells, the first by Alexander Rigby of Stamford 1684, the second undated from the Newcomb foundry (16th century) at Leicester, with an imperfect inscription, and the third, of 15th-century date, by John de Yorke of Leicester, 'in honore Beate Marie'. There is also a priest's bell dated 1664. (fn. 94)
The plate consists of a cup and paten of c. 1682, a flagon by John Bodington 1697, the gift of Lady Henrietta O'Brien in January 1698–9, a bread-holder of 1703 given by Lady O'Brien in 1804, and a modern chalice and paten. (fn. 95)
The registers before 1812 are as follows: (i) baptisms 1662–1811; (ii) marriages 1664–1762; (iii) burials 1662–1810; (iv) marriages 1754–1812; (v) burials 1810–12. (fn. 96)
The churchwardens' accounts begin in 1771.
In the churchyard is buried Mrs. Dora O'Connor, who died in 1933, aged 103. She was daughter to Cary Charles Elwes of Billing Hall. To the north-east of the churchyard is a Roman Catholic burial ground for members of the Elwes family since they adopted that faith in the time of Mr. Valentine Cary Elwes (c. 1868).
The church of Great Billing was given to Leicester Abbey, soon after its foundation, by William Barry, lord of the manor, and confirmed by Henry II shortly afterwards. (fn. 97) In 1250 Roger de Wanton unsuccessfully claimed the advowson in right of his wife Julia, a descendant of Simon Barry, (fn. 98) and in 1269 the abbot gave the advowson to Roger and Julia in exchange for lands elsewhere. (fn. 99) Subsequently Robert Barry evidently obtained the advowson, which he alienated to the Crown in 1281. (fn. 100) Henry VI exchanged the advowson in 1440 for that of Eton, Bucks., with William Whaplade and others, (fn. 101) but Edward IV re-exchanged them, thus recovering Billing advowson, (fn. 102) which remained vested in the Crown until the reign of Elizabeth. In 1291 the value of the church was £8 (fn. 103) and it was returned in 1535 as worth £19. (fn. 104) Elizabeth bestowed the advowson and rectory upon Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor, and his heirs in 1579, (fn. 105) on whose death in 1591 they passed in accordance with the terms of his will to his nephew, Sir William Newport, who assumed the name of Hatton. (fn. 106) On the latter's death, without male heirs in 1597, the right of presentation was inherited by Sir Christopher Hatton, a cousin of the Lord Chancellor. Sir Christopher died in 1619. (fn. 107) His son Christopher, who was then a minor in ward to the Crown, (fn. 108) was created Baron Hatton of Kirby in 1643 and was succeeded in 1670 by his son, another Christopher, raised to the peerage in 1683 as Viscount Hatton of Gretton, (fn. 109) who sold the advowson in 1706 to the Master and Fellows of Brasenose College, Oxford, in whom it is vested at the present day. (fn. 110)
In 1625, when the advowson was temporarily in the Crown, Daniel Cawdry was presented to the church. He was a parson of strong presbyterian views and was one of the leading members of the Assembly of Divines appointed by Parliament in 1643 for the regulation of religion: he was averse to personal violence being used against the king, but refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity in 1662 and was therefore ejected, dying shortly afterwards at Wellingborough where he had retired. He was the author of numerous pamphlets, both against Anglicans and Independents. (fn. 111)
Billing Hospital. By his will dated 25 February 1614 John Freeman gave a tenement for the accommodation of four aged widows and one aged widower and he also gave to the inmates 40s. a piece yearly out of certain lands in the parish of Holbeach. These payments were increased by Sir Edward Gorges and Katharine his wife to £6 apiece as recited in indentures of lease and release dated 6 and 7 October 1691. The original hospital was pulled down and a new building erected on land set out by the Inclosure Commissioners in 1778 in lieu of the original site. The property now consists of four cottages with gardens and stock producing about £35 yearly in dividends.
The Church Field. On the inclosure of the parish an allotment of 2½ acres was made to the churchwardens in lieu of land in the open fields anciently appropriated to the repairs of the church. The land is let for £4 yearly which sum is applied towards church expenses.
Brake Money. On the inclosure of the parish a piece of land awarded to the lord of the manor was charged with an annual payment of £4 in lieu of the right of the poor to cut bracken.
George Wortley Lovell, by codicil to his will proved in P.C.C. in 1848, gave £130 to the rector and churchwardens upon trust to apply the interest in the distribution of meat to the poor. The legacy was invested and the dividends amounting to about £3 10s. yearly are distributed in doles by the rector and two trustees appointed by the parish council in place of the churchwardens with the Brake Money.
The several sums of stock are with the Official Trustees of Charitable Funds.