England,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

Historical Towns Series – Exton, Rutland

Exton Hall
Exton Hall

So we covered Whissendine in the last installment, now we are going to move a few miles away, back towards Stamford, but staying this side of the border, to the village of Exton. Everybody sitting comfortably? Good. Lets start by recapping on a few of the key points covered in the Whissendine post and you will being to see why we had to cover that first, and how it connects. If it helps, feel free to go back and refresh your memories.
So we saw how Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumberland owned the manors of Whissendine, and following his execution by his wife’s uncle William, Duke of Normandy, now William I of England, they passed into the hands of the Countess Judith. Well, this is where it starts to get interesting, right from the beginning. As well as the manors of Whissendine, part of the lands both owned in her own right and “inherited” from Waltheof’s execution by Judith, were the village and surrounding area of Exton.

Exton is a tiny village in Rutland, towards the border with Lincolnshire a few miles to the south. The population is around 500 people, and the village rests in a loose horseshoe pattern, away from the tiny “main” road that runs past both ends of the village. It is a quiet, sleepy village and several of the families are either part of a larger extended family, or workers on the estate of the Earl of Gainsborough, who owns several properties within the village. I personally liken it to the fictional hamlet of Brigadoon, right down to the bridge at the outer edge. Walking through the thatched cottages, centred around the village green is like stepping back in time, but taking the Land Rovers and the Audis with you.
In 1603, Sir John Harington (of the Whissendine Haryngtons, not the toilet Haringtons) entertained the newly crowned James I and James VI at his home in Burley on the Hill. Harington owned a vast amount of land stretching from the top of Burley, overlooking Oakham’s Vale of Catmose 2 miles away, to Exton, the manor of which had come into his family, through marriage in the 14thC. His house, sitting somewhere in the area of the present Palladian style mansion, in its imposing position, hugging the brow of the hill, offered hundreds of acres of parks, woodlands and hunting. James visited ‘the other Burghley’ at Stamford, home of the Cecils, for a couple of days, and then returned to Burley as he favoured the outstanding hunting (the present Earl of Gainsborough enjoys the wardship of the largest free-roaming herd of wild deer in the country – something that has been a significant bonus to the lands for many generations).

The lands had previously been held by David of Scotland as Earl of Huntingdon, through his descendency from Judith, in the 14th Century. In the 15th C, the lands of Exton were inherited by the Haringtons through marriage. Following a further advantageous marriage to a wealthy young heiress, a ward of Sir Richard Sacheverell , possibly through one of the latter’s nieces who were named as his heirs by reason of no issue from his marriage, Sir John Harington I increased those lands substantially. Sir John, who rose to prominence in the Court of Henry VIII, through various actions including his rallying to the Crown during the Pilgrimage of Grace, during which he was subsequently given as a pledge to the leader of the ‘rebellion’ Robert Aske, in return for the guarantee of safe passage to the King’s attendance in Doncaster, for the grievance messengers. He later played an active role in their punishment. He attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and was one of the signatories on the appeal to the Pope for the support of the divorce in ‘The King’s Great Matter’. After being fined for distraint of knighthood, some time before, Sir John was eventually knighted in 1542 following his attendance at the reception for Anne of Cleves.
His son, Sir James Harington became the title holder in the 16th century and built the original Exton Hall, the remains of which still stand. Sir James’ wife, Lucy was the sister of Sir Henry Sidney, who in turn, through his own wife was brother in law to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Artists depiction of Pudding Bag Lane, Exton. This used to be the one end of the road to Exton Hall, however it is now a "dead end" and the public footpath/ private road through the estate is now up to the right here in the front right of the picture.
Artists depiction of Pudding Bag Lane, Exton. This used to be the one end of the road to Exton Hall, however it is now a “dead end” and the public footpath/ private road through the estate is now up to the right here in the front right of the picture.

Sir John Harington was created 1st Baron Harington in July 1603, at the coronation of James I, following many years of service at court, particularly as the servant of the Earl of Leicester, favourite of Queen Elizabeth, in his Netherlands expedition of 1585 and was Keeper of Kenilworth Castle for Ambrose Dudley. He escorted the exiled Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart to her final place of arrest, and execution, Fotheringhay Castle. Following the succession of James I, his daughter Elizabeth, later Queen of Bohemia was given into Sir John’s wardship, until her marriage, when Sir John was requested to escort her to her new life in Bohemia in 1613. Sadly, during the voyage home, Sir John died and the estate passed into the hands of his son, who had been a close friend of the Prince of Wales, Henry Frederick until his death in 1612.

Due to the high costs of entertaining Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir John’s estate was bordering on bankruptcy and in an effort to ease the financial situation, King James granted the new Baron Harington the patent to mint lead farthings. These proved unpopular and the venture failed. On 18th February 1614, Harington sold the Lordship to Sir Baptist Hicks, a wealthy businessman, and died nine days later. In his will he left two thirds of the remaining estate to one of his sisters, and the other third to his other sister. His mother in turn sold her remaining interests in the county shortly thereafter. The estate and title of Exton remain within the extended Hicks-Noel family to the present including the associate titles of Viscount Campden (a title that was conveyed on Hicks in 1628, and passed to his son in law, Edward Noel upon his death) and slightly more recently, Earl of Gainsborough, a title conveyed upon Edward Noel’s eldest grandson, in 1682.
During the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, in an effort to prevent attack by Parliamentary forces, the local population burned down Campden House, (Hicks’ other legacy) in Gloucestershire, but Exton Hall remained standing and active, with various extensions until the land was inherited by Gerard Noel Noel in 1798 upon the death of his uncle Henry, 6th Earl Gainsborough, who died without issue. Gerard changed his name from Edwards to keep within the family parameters however the titles became extinct. In 1810, Sir Gerard was hit with a run of bad luck, firstly a business venture failed, leaving his finances somewhat critical, and then shortly afterwards, Exton Hall suffered a fire which destroyed a large portion of the building.

John Linnell Bond was given the task of designing a replacement, a modest mansion of three Tudor-style gables with Venetian windows was the result, built close to the original Hall, and this served as the family home for around 40 years until extension work began under the dreams of Henry Roberts in the mid 19thC. Roberts was an acquaintance of leading evangelical preacher, Baptist Wriothesley Noel, 11th son of three times married Gerard (who had 18 children by his first wife and one by the local vicar’s daughter) who in turn introduced him to his eldest brother and their father’s heir, Charles after their father’s death in 1838. In 1841, Charles had been able to secure the reinstatement of his family titles. He in turn married four times.

The work on the new Hall effectively made it four times bigger than its humble beginnings, with Jacobean features and incorporating details from the original old Hall. As it neared completion, Charles’ heir, another Charles, and daughter in law Ida converted to Catholicism, perhaps a slight at his Grandfather who had been a vocal opponent of Catholic emancipation. In 1867 the younger Charles succeeded his father, and a week later his wife, Countess Ida, died suddenly. Her body was buried within the foundations of their Catholic Chapel. The Chapel, thought by many to be an eyesore which detracts from the beauty of the House it abuts, is now in use for catholic weddings, a commercial enterprise that recent Earls have introduced, as part of the growing trend for ‘country house weddings’. With the backdrop of the lake and the follies, Fort Henry and the Dovecote, in the beautiful landscaped gardens, one can see why these weddings prove popular.

The Exton Parish church is also maintained in the grounds of the estate, although pre-dates the old Hall. Records indicate that Exton held a vicar in around 1225, and it is felt that parts of this Church do indeed date to that period with later 14thC additions, which now form the majority of the church fabric. Several of the Noel/Harington dynasties are buried within the Church, with many fine memorials and tombs, including an alabaster tomb for Sir John Harington (d.1524) and his wife Alice (Southill), and one for John’s grandson James Harington (d.1592) and his wife Lucy complete with carvings representing their 18 children. Despite being on Private land, the church is a public place of worship, and villagers continue to enjoy many religious and community events. The present Earl of Gainsborough inherited following the sad passing of his father, the 5th Earl, Anthony Gerard Edward Noel, peacefully at home in Exton, December 2009 aged 86.

Interior of Exton Church
Interior of Exton Church

Other reminders of the past, include the twin gatehouse lodges at one edge of the park estate, at the end of what is known locally as ‘The Avenue’ or ‘Queen of Bohemia’s ride’, a long straight road lined with trees on either side that cuts right through the heart of the extensive lands of the estate and links Exton to other villages in the area. More about those later. Along the Avenue you will find Barnsdale Garden centre, once famous for Geoff Hamilton’s Gardener’s World on BBC Television. Although not the only claim to television fame, car enthusiasts will perhaps recognise the surrounding countryside for the many exploits of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond in BBC’s Top Gear, including one episode which was filmed in and around the village of Exton, most particularly the Fox and Hounds!!!

Following the Great War, a memorial was commemorated by the Noels in a space opposite the village green, next to what is now the Community Hall. Mentioned on the memorial are four members of the extended Noel family who were killed in action. A further plaque mounted within the outer wall of the memorial garden commemorates the 15 men of Exton, including what appears to be two set of brothers (unconfirmed) and four men from nearby Whitwell who also lost their lives. The Hon. Captain Robert Edward Thomas More Noel is listed on both, being as he was a member of the Noel family AND from the village of Exton. Captain Noel was an officer of the 6th Batt. Royal Fusiliers who were attached to the 1st Batt. Nigeria Regiment. He was killed in action in the fight to gain control of German East Africa, later Tanganyika, in what is now Tanzania. He is buried in Dars es Salaam War Cemetery. Roger Charles Noel Bellingham was killed in Ypres in 1915, during his service with the Royal Field Artillery.

Maurice Dease VC is the third named person on the Noel Memorial, as his aunt, his father’s sister Mary Dease, married Charles, 3rd Earl Gainsborough, eldest son of Charles 2nd Earl and his wife Ida, as mentioned above, following the death of his first wife during childbirth. Maurice was not only the nephew of Countess Mary, but he was the first Victoria Cross winner of the Great War, following his tremendous act of valour. Having joined Sandhurst in 1910, despite being a poor shot, by outbreak of World War 1, Maurice Dease had obtained the rank of Lieutenant, and led as machine gun officer, in the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. He mobilized with his unit arriving in Le Havre on 14th August 1914, and following a week of awaiting instructions and so forth, marched out to Mons on 22nd August, arriving in the evening, where he set up his two machine guns in a key position defending the railway bridge over the Salient loop in the canal.

As the bridge came under attack the next day, the small unit suffered many casualties. Bodies began to pile up, as the German infantry attack seemed relentless. But all day, Dease ran between the two guns under his command, and kept up the fire often stepping in himself when the men were killed or injured. Despite being wounded twice, he refused to leave the position to get medical assistance. He was unable to walk, but still insisted on dragging himself as best he could between the two guns, to prevent the enemy getting through. Sadly, he obtained a third fatal wound, and as he lay dying and the machine guns stood silent, a fellow officer requested volunteers to take up the fight. Private Sidney Godley immediately took Dease’s position and continued what his officer had started, until the rest of the unit were forced to pull back. Godley kept up his onslaught until all the unit were at a safe distance and then broke his now disabled gun up before tossing the pieces into the canal. Severely wounded, Godley was the only man remaining in position when the Germans broke through, and he was taken prisoner.

Lieutenant Steele, after retreating a safe distance, rested in a field near to the Hospital at Mons, where he took two sheets of paper and on each wrote out a recommendation for each of the two men. He was worried that he too would become a casualty before having chance to detail the valour he had witnessed. Both Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley were awarded the Victoria Cross. When it came to a decision as to who should be classed as first award, aside from the warrant dictating that awards would be considered in order of rank, Dease was the automatic choice, as it was stated that his action and subsequent death took place before Godley had taken his position with the gun. Dease’s war lasted just nine days. *Three other Victoria Crosses were awarded that day in other similar key positions in and around Mons. Private Godley survived the war, and died peacefully in 1957 in Essex.

Also named on the war memorial is Tom Cecil Noel, MC and Bar, who joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers on probation on his 17th Birthday in December 1914 before achieving his rank of 2nd Lieutenant in September of the following year. In September 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry, before transferring to the RFC, later RAF, serving as an observer/gunner in a two seater Bristol F2.B on 20 squadron. Gaining 24 ‘kills’, 22 while flying with Captain Dennis Latimer, as a Pilot Officer (Observer) on 22 August, 1918 they were shot down. Noel was killed, and Latimer was captured. On 13th September, posthumously, Pilot Officer Noel received a bar to his Military Cross. He is buried in Perth (China Wall) Cemetery in Ypres and commemorated on the memorials at Eton College, Exton, Great Casterton, Little Casterton , Cottesmore and his home village of Ashwell (future posts on these), some of you will remember Ashwell from my article on civilian recipients of the Victoria Cross, Reverend James Adams.

I’m going to stop there, now you have gained a sense of the history of this beautiful little village. Prepare yourselves in a week or so for more delving into the rich history of Rutland.