Locked in a church overnight

THE BATTLE OF NASEBY was fought on the 14th of June 1645 between the Royalists, led by King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. It was a victory for the Parliamentarians and the last major battle in the (First) English Civil War (1642-1646), putting an end to any hopes that the king had of winning the conflict. The battlefield at Naseby is about 5 miles southwest of the small Leicestershire town of Market Harborough, which we visited for the first time in July 2021. We dove there, almost accidentally, after having had a frustrating experience navigating the ring road around the town of Rugby without finding a route to its old centre.  Shamefacedly, I must admit that we were completely ignorant of this town’s connections with the Civil War and the Battle of Naseby.

It was at Market Harborough that King Charles had his headquarters before the fight at Naseby. I am not sure which buildings in the town were used by the king, but one of them, still in existence, might possibly have been visited by the royal person. This is the former coaching inn, The Three Swans. Its website informs us with appropriate cautiousness:

“Like most old inns, The Three Swans has become the subject of a number of legends, often passed on with varying degrees of accuracy. One is that Charles I visited the inn on the night before the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. According to surviving records made at the time, the king actually retired for the night two miles down the road at the private house of Lubenham Hall. He was raised from his bed at 11pm by reports of the unexpected arrival of the Parliamentarian army just eight miles away at Naseby. He rushed to Market Harborough to meet his senior General, his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had established his military headquarters in the town.

At midnight they met with several other commanders for a council of war. The venue for the meeting is unknown. It could have been The Swan, or it could just as easily have been anywhere else in the town…” (from a pdf accessed via www.threeswans.co.uk/about/history/).

An information plaque in the town suggests that on the eve of the battle, the king and Prince Rupert conferred in an Inn on Church Street, the site of the present Kings Head Pub. The present establishment was built in the 19th century.

There might be some uncertainty about the king’s whereabouts in Market Harborough before the Battle of Naseby, but there is no doubt where some of his soldiers spent some time as prisoners after the Royalists were defeated. After the battle, the Parliamentarian Provost Marshall had to secure the 4000 to 5000 Royalist soldiers who had been captured during fight at Naseby.         The only building in Market Harborough large enough to house this large number of captives and to secure them was the centrally located church of St Dionysius, which is close to both the Three Swans and The Kings Head. They were held in the church for one night before they were marched to London via nearby Northampton.

St Dionysius church and The Old Grammar School in Market Harborough

The construction of the Church of St Dionysius with its tall tower with steeple was started in the 13th century, but much of its structure dates to the 14th and 15th centuries. High up on a wall at the west end of the church is a depiction of the royal coat-of-arms dated 1660. This was the date when the monarchy, led by King Charles II, was restored in England. Five years earlier, the church was crowded with tired soldiers, who had fought in vain for Charles’s father, who was executed on the 30th of January 1649.

Some, if not all, of the Royalist soldiers, who were about to be incarcerated in St Dionysius, might have noticed a curious structure next to its southern side. Built in 1614, this building, which stands on sturdy wooden posts at least 6 feet high, must have seemed quite new in 1645. It was the grammar school founded by in 1607 by Robert Smyth, a resident of the town who became Comptroller of the City of London’s Chamber and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The structure, which you see today, was funded by Smyth’s money. The school, which is accessed by a staircase, stands raised high above the ground. The space beneath it was created to keep the town’s market dry in wet weather. Many years later, a descendant of this school was established elsewhere in the town. Now known as the Robert Smyth Academy, one of its past students was the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Sir William Henry Bragg.

Today, the centre of Market Harborough is pleasantly vibrant with a good range of shops and eateries. Contemporary life and memories of the town’s history rub shoulders harmoniously in this place that deserves the attention of more tourists.

On our return from Market Harborough and the fascinating Foxton lock staircase nearby, we did manage to find our way into the heart of the town of Rugby, which did not impress us nearly as much as Market Harborough.

He paid with spears and swords

MALDON IN ESSEX is best known for the sea salt, prized by cooks and gourmets, which is produced nearby. The town perches on a hill overlooking a marshy inlet of the River Blackwater and the River Chelmer, after which Chelmsford is named, flows through a lower section of the place. We have visited Maldon several times over the last 18 months and always walked along part of its promenade that provides attractive views over the marshes and streams watered by the Chelmer and the Blackwater. However, it was only during our most recent visit (August 2021) that we walked the entire length of the promenade to its end point, which is out of sight of the town. The promenade ends abruptly, a bit like the end of a pier. There at the furthest extremity of the walkway, there is a tall statue. It depicts a man in a helmet, brandishing a sword in his right hand, holding a circular shield in his left, and looking out to sea.

The statue overlooking the sea is a sculpture of Byrhtnoth, Ealdorman of Essex, an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat or high official, who lived during the reign of Ethelred the Unready (c996-1016). Byrthnoth died during the Battle of Maldon on the 11th of August 991. The battle was fought by the Anglo-Saxons against an army of Viking invaders. It is said that before the battle, the Vikings offered to sail away if they were paid with gold and silver. Byrhthnoth was recorded as replying that he would only pay the attackers with the tips of his men’s spears and the blades of their swords.

After the battle, the then reigning Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, advised Ethelred to pay off the Vikings instead of continuing the fight against them. According to an article on Wikipedia, this payment of 3,300 kilogrammes of silver was the first example of the so-called Danegeld in England. This was a ‘tax’ paid to the Vikings in exchange for them desisting from ravishing the territory which paid it.

So, the statue depicts a participant in a defeat of the English (Anglo-Saxons), and much loss of life amongst the Viking invaders. It was created by John Doubleday (born 1947) and unveiled in 2006. Byrhtnoth stands on a tall cylindrical base decorated with bas-relief depictions of scenes of life in the 10th century and moments during the Battle of Maldon. A plaque embedded into the promenade’s pavement near the statue gives more background to the historical event. It reads:

“Byrthnoth, represented by the figure standing on this monument, was the principal voice in rejecting the policy of appeasement which dominated the court of King Ethelred in the closing years of the 10th century. The leading military figure of his time; he was probably aged 68 when he confronted the Vikings at the battle of Maldon. He surrendered his life in defence of the people, religion and way of life represented in the lower relief panel of the column. Above it you will see aspects of the battle in which he died. Around the base is a quotation from his final prayer as recorded in the surviving fragment of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon.’”

The poem, mentioned above, was written in Old English. However, much of it has now been lost.

Apart from the statue, Maldon has much to offer the visitor. Along the quayside, there are several old Thames Barges with their maroon/brown sails and a lovely pub, The Queen’s Head Inn. Church Street climbs from the riverside to the High Street which is lined by several old houses; a disused church, now a museum; an attractive parish church; and plenty of decent places to eat and drink. Within easy reach of London, this is a delightful place for a day out or as a base for exploring rural Essex.

Victoria slept here once

LOVINGTON BAKERY AND CAFÉ in Wincanton (Somerset) provides a superb range of breakfast items, all prepared beautifully. No effort was spared to ensure that we had a most enjoyable breakfast. The café, which is housed on the Market Place close to the Town Hall, is almost opposite a former coaching inn, once called ‘The Greyhound’.

The elegant three-storey building that used to be the Greyhound has a centrally located archway that has a cobbled driveway passing beneath it. There is a bas-relief depicting a royal coat of arms above the archway. A cast-iron inn sign showing a greyhound with its broad neck collar remains suspended over the pavement above the archway. An oval panel above the archway but at the level of the roof has a faded painting of a greyhound.

The Greyhound was built in the 18th century, probably by the local builder Nathaniel Ireson (1685-1769), whose impressive funerary monument, which includes a handsome statue and carvings of builder’s tools, can be seen in the graveyard that surrounds the town’s large church of St Peter and St Paul.  The building was first mentioned in parish records in 1743 and advertised as being “new” in 1760 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1238740). The greyhound is the armorial symbol of the Churchey Family of Tout Hill.

In 1825, when the future Queen Victoria was a child aged about six years, she visited Wincanton and stayed for one night at The Greyhound. This visit is recorded on a plaque attached to the building. Where she was going, I have not yet been able to ascertain, but she was not the only royal visitor to be associated with Wincanton. In 1688, William of Orange (reigned 1698-1702) not only visited the town but also his Dutch troops fought and won a battle against troops loyal to the deposed King James II in the town. After his victory, he spent a night in Wincanton A plaque attached to a picturesque old building not far from the former Greyhound inn commemorates the Battle of Wincanton (20th of November 1688).

The Greyhound is one of many pubs (former and still working) that line the main road through Wincanton. In the olden days before motor transport superseded horse-drawn transport, these inns served as staging posts for travellers, places for being fed and for resting overnight. The Greyhound no longer serves the traveller but houses a gallery and has also become part of a housing unit. We spent the night in a modern hotel not far from the modern highway (the A303), which takes traffic past Wincanton rather than through its winding hilly streets. From our bedroom window, we can see a concrete factory and a tall sign advertising a KFC food outlet. Had Victoria been staying here, I am certain that she might have said or thought “We are not amused”.