Exton Parish Church and the history of the Earls of Gainsborough

Parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Exton

Parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Exton

My turn to contribute again everybody. So today I’m going to take you on a short tour of my local Church, as discussed by Phoebe in her ‘Historic towns’ series, and discuss some of the residents within, and their family history.

Exton Parish Church – or to give it its proper name the Parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Exton – stands in the grounds of the seat of the Earl of Gainsborough, Exton Park. Although on private land, reached by a footpath cut into the boundary walls of the estate, it has served the as the village church for many years; indeed, there are records of a priest serving the parish going back to the 12thC and it is accepted that parts of the church date back to around that time although the majority is dated to about the 14thC. It is felt that there is a possibility the original church pre-dates the current estate, and the old medieval village surrounded it, before moving away to one side as the estate was founded.

Many old tombs and stones stand in the Churchyard, covered in yellow lichen and moss, their inscriptions illegible, through ravaging over centuries of weathering. Unlike neighbouring churches there doesn’t seem to be many of the 17thC slate stones that the area is known for. Here and there, newer graves are dotted around, the burial ground continues to be in use.

Entering by the small modern door into the porch, we passed through two large wooden studded inner doors into the church. To my left stands the medieval 14thC octagonal font with its ornate facial carvings and decorative brass cover and tucked behind that in the rear corner was the fairly substantial marble tomb dedicated to the resting place of John Harington, Sheriff of Rutland, (died 1524) and his wife Alice Southill. There has been a Sheriff of Rutland (now High Sheriff) since 1129 although the position dates to pre-Norman conquest. Traditional duties were to act as a Shire Reeve, the highest law enforcement officer, of a shire or county, acting for the crown. Nowadays the position is largely ceremonial and includes acting as returns officer in elections, and presenting of High Court Writs where required. Ceremonially a Sheriff would also be required to offer protection to Circuit Judges whilst in court, but those areas of the role are fulfilled by the local police in modern terms.

John Harington (d1524) and his wife Alice

John Harington (d1524) and his wife Alice

Nominations are generally offered to the crown each year in November in the form of “Lites” (a list of three per county) from which they would choose by the pricking of a pin, a tradition said to have begun when Elizabeth I could not find a pen with which to mark her choice. The top person on the list is generally the choice with the other two filling the role in the subsequent two years. No one person can serve more than one year in every three unless nobody else suitable can be found. Notable Sheriffs of Rutland have included the Harington/Noel family for every generation between the 15th Century and the 17th Century, then recommencing in the 19th Century, the Browns of Tolethorpe, one of whom was the founder of the Brownist religious movement from whom the Pilgrim Fathers drew their faith before making their voyage to America; the father of William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Margeret de Clare, widow of Piers Gaveston, favourite of Edward II. Several of the de Bohuns have also served.

On the wall above John and Alice are dedication plaques to the memory of Montague Wriothesley Noel and his wife Christabel. Montague served as commander of the Royal Navy in the Great War, and was killed in World War 2 whilst on active duty in 1941 in the English Channel.

translation of inscription on tomb

translation of inscription on tomb

Crossing the Nave to the far side of the church, we find the tomb of Anne, Lady Bruce of Ross. Anne was the only child of Sir Robert Chichester and his wife Frances Harington, the younger daughter of Sir John Harington, Baron Harington of Exton who was guardian to Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen. Anne was the first wife of Thomas Bruce, Lord Kinloss and Earl of Elgin and mother of his sole heir, Robert, Earl of Aylesbury. She died the day after his birth aged 22 on 20th March 1527 according to her tomb, although other sources claim 1526. Thomas later remarried Diana Cecil of the Burghley family. The noble families of Bruce, Manners, Harington, Noel, Cecil and Wriothesley are heavily intertwined and linked with Exton as a result as you will see.

An intriguing story regarding the father of Sir Robert Chichester, Anne’s paternal grandfather Sir John Chichester, is that during his service at the Lent Assizes in Exeter Castle, from 14th March 1586,

‘A noisome and pestilential smell came from the prisoners who were araigned at the crown bar which so affected the people present that many were seized with a violent sickness which proved mortal to the greatest part of them’.

The result being that amongst others, 8 Judges, 11 of 12 Jurors, and several constables succumbed to the outbreak of “the pestilent smell” – ascribed by modern physicians as Typhus. Sir John Chichester was one of the notables above who died in the period 14th March to 10th April 1586. Many members of the local population were also mortally affected.

Above the tomb of Anne Bruce, on the north wall is a commemorative plaque to young Tom Cecil Noel MC and Bar, RFC who was shot down and killed during the Great War. Tom was the son of the Cottesmore line of the Noel family.

Following the death of Sir John Harington in 1612, his son, Sir John Harington inherited the estate of Exton, and his father’s substantial debts, accrued from his role as guardian of Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James I of England. Sir John jr sold the bulk of the estate to Baptist Hicks, a wealthy businessman with the remainder being willed 2/3 to his sister Lucy, Countess Bedford and 1/3 to his sister Frances Chichester. He died six months after his father and Frances died in 1615. Baptist was married to Elizabeth May, with whom he had two daughters. The older, Juliana married Edward, Lord Noel, who was to become Viscount Campden following the death of Baptist Hicks, who had also procured the seat of Campden House in Chipping Campden. It is the Noel descendants who hold Exton to this day as both Lords Campden and Earls of Gainsborough. Edward was the son of Sir Andrew Noel and Mabel Harington, daughter of James Harington of Exton and Lucy Sidney. See how it all comes together?

The East Window, dedicated to the last "protestant" Earl of Gainsborough, Charles Noel. Circa 19thC From this point, all the later Noels were raised as Catholics, and are interred in the Catholic Chapel attached to Exton Hall.

The East Window, dedicated to the last “protestant” Earl of Gainsborough, Charles Noel. Circa 19thC
From this point, all the later Noels were raised as Catholics, and are interred in the Catholic Chapel attached to Exton Hall.

Edward and Juliana, were given land for a home in nearby North Luffenham, where they built a substantial house, ruins of which remain today at foundation level. During the Civil War C1640s, Edward, on the side of the Royalists, offered sanctuary in his house to local villagers, when they were over-run by Parliamentarian forces rampaging on the lookout for food and horses. Accounts vary as to the circumstances; however, despite an assurance reached by both sides that nobody would be harmed as long as the required provisions and horses were supplied, a shot was fired from within the house – most likely by a nervous or irate villager, and the house was subsequently sacked as a result. Edward was taken as a prisoner to Oxford Castle, along with his son, the Hon. Henry Noel, where they both died in around 1643. Edward’s second son Baptist Noel succeeded him as Viscount Campden, the Luffenham seat in turn went to Baptist’s son Henry who was born as his Uncle Henry and grandfather Edward died. Juliana and Edward, possibly also Henry, are buried in Chipping Campden.

Baptist Noel is also buried in Exton church. Born in 1642, he was a politician, MP for Rutland and Lord Lieutenant of Rutland. He was married four times, his first marriage to Lady Anne Fielding, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh; his three children from this marriage all died young. His second marriage was to Ann Lovett, their only son was stillborn. Thirdly to Hester Wootton, with whom he had six children, including his heir, Edward. Lastly to Elizabeth Bertie, daughter of Montague Bertie, 2nd Earl Lindsey. From this marriage there were nine children including Catherine, who would later go on to marry John Manners, Duke of Rutland, as his third wife following his scandalous divorce from his first wife, Anne Pierrepoint, as a result of her adultery, at which point he bastardized all the children born during the union, the death in childbirth of his second wife, Diana Bruce, daughter of Robert Bruce, above named son and heir of Thomas Bruce and his first wife Anne Chichester. Told you it all comes around…… The monument is noted with the others as monuments significant to British History, and is the most magnificent within the church. Designed and built by Grinling Gibbons, the tomb depicts Baptist and Elizabeth, kneeling in Roman Attire, and surrounded by carvings of his 19 children.

Another fine tomb is the Kelway monument. Robert Kelway was the father of Anne Kelway, who was the wife of John Harrington, first Baron of Exton, you know the chap – he who was guardian to Elizabeth of Bohemia. Buried here are Robert, possibly John (who passed away on his way home from delivering Elizabeth to Bohemia, so it isn’t confirmed whether he was interred here or at sea) and his first son, named Kelway for his grandfather to whom the couple was extremely close, Anne being his only child. Baby Kelway died at 21 weeks old, in 1570, however the monument does mention daughter Lucy (later countess of Bedford) as still living. John’s later children, John Jr and Frances are obviously yet to be born and as a result are not mentioned.

Two Nollekins memorials are present within the Church, one dedicated to Lt-General Bennett Noel and one to Elizabeth Noel and her two husbands. There are also plaques and monuments to James Noel, one of the nineteen children of Baptist Noel, who died aged 18. He is depicted again in Roman attire, wearing a wig. Close to the Kelway monument is the memorial and plaque to Henry Lewis Noel, dedicated by his daughter Emilia. The final monument to the family is that of James Harrington and his wife Lucy, which is strikingly similar to the Kelway monument which stands opposite. James was the father of John Harington, and has been attributed with building the now ruined Exton Hall, alongside which stands the newer replacement. They also had 18 children.

At the east end of the church, alongside the altar, is the earliest tomb, dating to the 14th Century – that of Nicholas Grene, an early ancestor of the family. Overhead is the glorious East window with its stained glass memorial depicting the parable of the sheep and goats, dedicated to the final Earls, prior to the family’s 19th Century conversion to Catholicism. Since that time, internments of the Noel family have taken place in the Catholic Chapel, St Thomas of Canterbury, attached to the new Exton Hall, starting with the Countess Ida in 1867 who died suddenly a week after her husband Charles Noel inherited the title from his father Charles Noel Noel (ne Edwardes). Ida’s body was the first one to be interred, in the foundations of the chapel, at that point still under construction. Following the earlier death of Henry Noel, 6th Earl of Gainsborough in 1798, without heir, the title had become extinct.

Charles Noel Edwardes’ father was Gerard Edwardes, illegitimate son of Lord Anne Hamilton and his mother Lady Jane Noel, daughter of the 4th Earl, Baptist Noel. Following Henry’s death, they changed from the patronymic Edwardes to their maternal name Noel by Royal Licence after retaining the lands but not the title by special remainder from Parliament. Charles Noel Noel as he now was known, was subsequently created 1st Earl of Gainsborough under its second creation. Gerard and his first wife Diana Middleton had eighteen children; following her death her remarried his long-term mistress Harriet Gill, daughter of the local vicar, with whom he had a daughter Harriet Jane; finally, after her death three years later he married Isabella Evans.

Well now, I hope you enjoyed the trip around the church with me, and the photographs I have added. Please accept my apologies for anything blurry, however I didn’t have my spectacles on at the time. I’m sure you will agree however, for a little tiny village church, Exton certainly contains more than its fair share of amazing monuments to an intriguing family history. Next stop will hopefully be the Catholic chapel; however I need to sweet-talk the present Earl for that. Maybe a quiet chat in the pub one night…..? Watch this space!

Paula