Rutland is the smallest county in England, at around 147 square miles with a population of only 35,000 people. Made up of several small villages, it nestles quietly between several larger counties, including Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, and Cambridge in the East Midlands. At its longest point it is 18 miles north to south and at its widest point, 17 miles east to west. It is a charming quiet area, rural and recently voted the best place to live in England. As we journey through this tiny county, there is a wealth of history and it becomes obvious how much this tiny little county has contributed to History.
Whissendine – Whissendine is a sleepy village, situated on the edge of the border with Leicestershire. Although there are not many markers left to show its progress through time, as with the rest of the county, its heritage spans both Common Era millennia. And arguably you will agree, Whissendine had a key role to play in the development of Britain. So let’s have a quick look around….
Evidence discovered during archaeological work and exploration show that Rutland was home to several Celtic settlements prior to the Roman conquest. One burial – that of a young girl – was uncovered during construction work on the Burley Road at the edge of Oakham, possibly dates back 6-8000 years. The “invaders” built their own settlements in the neighbourhood before the two began to co-exist. Remains of Roman villas and religious buildings have been discovered in the locale, particularly in nearby Thistleton, Langham and one villa in Whissendine itself. As the Romans eventually left in the 4th Century, and the Anglo-Saxons moved in, they took the area on as their own and a period of large scale occupation began.
Prior to and at the time immediately following the Norman Conquest, the lands were divided into four manors, held by Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland and Huntingdon. By 1076, two of the manors were still in his possession, until he was “relieved” of them by reason of execution, in favour of his wife Countess Judith of Lens, niece of William the Conqueror to whom he had been married for six years, and had three small children. Generally when executed, any lands held were forfeit to the Crown, but perhaps due to the familial connection, and the distinct possibility that it was Judith who provided the necessary information to provide William with the charges of treason for which the Earl was beheaded, she was given his lands in her own right. Part of these lands also covered the village of Exton which we will come to shortly.
Judith’s older daughter Maud would later marry twice, her second husband being David I of Scotland, by whom their son Henry, 3rd Earl of Northumberland would make her the Grandmother of both Malcolm IV and William the Lion of Scotland. Judith’s son Uchtred of Tynedale meanwhile would marry Bethoc, daughter of Donald III of Scotland, and their daughter Hextilda later married Richard Comyn, and is the ancestress of the Comyns. Uchtred’s descendants also included 16th century Protestant martyr William Tyndale.
Later descendants include Divorgiulla of Galloway who inherited some of the manors through her father Alan of Galloway and mother Margaret of Huntingdon, through her brother John le Scot, whose sister Isabel married Robert the Bruce. Divorgiulla is cited to have married first Nicholas de Stuteville and then John de Balliol, by whom she had John Balliol, King of Scotland, although some sources claim Alan’s sister was also called Divorgiulla, and details remain jumbled, with one marrying de Balliol and the other de Stuteville, it would seem that they may actually be one and the same person. The de Morevilles inherited part of the lands, by rule of King David I, which were then forfeited by Richard de Moreville who joined young King Henry against his father, but then they were returned and passed on to Alan Galloway through his mother, The marriage of Alan and Margaret “reunited the manors” which were later held by the Bruces as Constables of Scotland, as honour of Huntingdonshire.
Divorgiulla’s daughter Joan married into the Wakes, through whom we derive the Lords Wake and Earls of Kent, of whom one heiress of manors in Whissendine, Joan stands out, marrying one Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and following his demise, Edward, Prince of Wales aka The Black Prince. Her son Thomas Holland, Lord Wake passed the lands down to his son, then Grandson who was executed by Henry IV upon his accession to the throne upon which the manor was forfeit. It was later returned first to his mother, then to his widow, before passing to her husband’s brother Edmund’s sisters; Edmund had died childless. The eldest one of these, another Joan married into the Grey family… yes I reckon you are getting the idea now.
In 1336, Rutland Chief Keeper of the peace, Sir John (de) Wittlebury who held one manor of Whissendine, sought petition for legal attachments to various villains of the area, resulting in retaliation by several members of the local community, including the Harrington (Haryntgton) brothers, John, Richard, Walter and William, Baldwin Harrington and the brother of the Vicar of Whissendine, John le Warner who stormed the manor causing a skirmish resulting in the injury of several servants and Sir john’s son Thomas. A further complaint was made, which was answered by Richard Harrington and Robert Crowe, when they returned and murdered Wittlebury.
Anyway, by the late 17th Century, due the repeated carving up of the original four manors and the resulting land disputes the entirety of the remainder of the Manors of Whissendine landed into the hands of the Sherards, later to be the Earls Harborough, who owned the village until the 1860s, with their main residence being the nearby Stapleford Park. Not much remains now, although the remains of one manor house, now part of a farm, near St Andrews Church, still exists with earthworks documented in the grounds up on the east (much older) side of the village. The brook is thought to have been part of the moat for another of the manors. Moorhall Manor on the outer edge of the village, is also evident with the old Moor Lane, a mud-track, still running into the village in one direction. The earthworks remain quite prominently and well-preserved. Another has the later 16thC Manor built on the same ground on Station Road.
The 6th Earl Harborough is a popular character of legend in the area for two reasons. Firstly, he was a shareholder in the Oakham Canal, and as a result refused permission for the new railway to be built on his land, forcing the railway company to go around his Stapleford property with a sharp curve known as Lord Harborough’s Curve. The confrontations between Stapleford and his men, and the railway workers became known as the battle of Saxby, with up to 300 men at a time being involved in the frequent skirmishes.
His other legacy involves his wife Eliza Temple of Stowe and his mistress Emma Love who was so beloved by the Earl and gave him at least two children, that he had her installed in a small mansion in the grounds of his park. In his will he directed that the house was to remain hers for her lifetime and to be bequeathed by her in any manner she chose. When the Earl died in 1859, his widow obviously smarting about having her rival living so close by for several years, ordered her immediate removal from the grounds. Eliza was happy to go, but not without her property and so sympathetic builders removed the majority of it for her, and rebuilt it brick by brick almost in its entirety in the village of Whissendine where it continues to stand to this day and is now known as Harborough Cottage. Other versions of this story exist, but this is my personal favourite.
Several other houses have been added to the village over the centuries, many of which remain today, although perhaps remodelled in many instances. If one looks closely at the stonework for example on the cottages on Station Road (formerly North Road) one end cottage remains pretty much as built, with stonework and a thatched roof. Next door features partial stonework, topped by later brick, and a newer roof, and the remaining two cottages are all but later remodels. Stoup cottage opposite the Church on Main Street, is now a large single whitewashed cottage however if you look carefully, you can see the outline of medieval stonework to the level of the upper windows, topped by later stone/brick and a newer roof. One original window remains to the front, nestled beside a newer window. Until the last of them were demolished in the 1960’s and 1970’s there were a number of small two roomed thatched dwellings built out of mud, one room on each floor with a ladder to connect. They had no utilities and a range cooker hiding in one corner. All were occupied.
St Andrews Church dates back to the 13th Century, with later additions. A previous Church was recorded on the site in the 12th Century although the footprint has been lost. It has a spireless tower of around 100 feet in height, made of Barnack stone. Inside the Church are two 13th century broken coffin lids, origins unknown, and a 14th century octagonal font. The screen between the south transept and aisle originally sat in St John’s College chapel, Cambridge. The tomb of Bartholomew Villers and his wife who were interred within, has disappeared. The Church is locally claimed to have been built under sponsorship of Joan of Kent in memory of her husband, Edward the Black Prince.
Outside in the Churchyard is the grave of Jane Mann who died in 1785, at the age of 41 whilst trying to birth her NINETEENTH child.
‘Lamented loss. For Thee at Memory’s Call
The Heart still saddens and the big tears fall
For Thee both Instinct & affection Mourn.
In lisping Infants and in Children Groan:
For Thee the Husband sorrowing.
Let sudden Death this moral wide
Religion is the Guardian’
Also buried within the Churchyard, is Nanny Toon, ‘The Whissendine Witch’. Annie lived in a mud cottage on Horton’s Lane at the end of the nineteenth century, and was reputed to be particularly mindful of local farmers who overloaded their milk-carts. Anybody breaking her limits would have a curse put on them preventing their milk turning into butter. The local carter was a recurrent offender. Annie Toon is said to have been murdered by the local villagers by means of being covered in a barrel of treacle. Interesting story, probably not true – one can’t really expect a mob of angry villagers to bring about the abrupt demise of an apparently evil old lady and then lovingly inter her in a prestigious position within the local Churchyard, up close to the Porch, can one?
Whissendine has no War memorial within the village, popular legend states this is because the village lost no men during the two world wars, however inside the church there is a memorial to 19 men of the village who lost their lives during the Great War. A Prisoner of war camp was in existence in World War 2 for the internment of Italian prisoners of war, on Stapleford Road. The village was also decimated somewhat by the plague outbreak of 1348. The Lord-Lieutenant of Rutland traditionally lives in Whissendine to the present, past holders of the title have entertained several high status visitors, including Edward III who stayed at one of the Manors.
There had been a mill on the land of one manor which had been bestowed, by Earl Simon III, on the Abbey a couple of miles away at Burton Lazars in the 12th century. This land and the mill was taken back by Earl David from Richard de Moreville who had gifted 123 acres to the Templars (more on that in another post). The windmill still stands, and following a 2006 purchase, has been lovingly restored and continues to actively operate. If you visit the tea room, you can expect a tour of the windmill, and purchase a small bag of flour if you want one.
Separating the East side of the village from the West somewhat, near the brook that runs through the two side, is a parcel of common land known locally as the Banks. Each year in March there is the traditional “letting of the banks” where all interested parties gather and bid on the land using the pin and candle method. The decisive bid is the one offered last before the candle burns low enough to allow the pin to drop. The successful bidder then gets to rent the bank as grazing and pasture land for the following year at a cheap rate. Another village custom is “Feast Week” which has been running mid-July each year since around 1846 before gradually fading out of popularity between the two wars, before being enthusiastically reintroduced around 25 years ago.
Whissendine in 2015 is an intriguing blend of very old and quite new, with all stages of progression evident in between. Definitely worth a browse if you are in the area. Stay with us for further journeys into Rutland’s historical past.
My thanks to Kate Sanderson, Peter Smith and the millennium committee of Whissendine.