Historical Towns Series- Stamford, Lincolnshire

It came to my attention, during casual chit-chat that many people go about their lives, doing the usual things: go to work, take the kids to school, shop. You know the sort of thing. But we seem to go about it half the time with our eyes painted on, as my Nana used to say. So I decided to start a new series, about local history, and the things under our noses that we take for granted or simply hadn’t realised. I’m going to start with a look at a town which is well-known to me, and is steeped in history, more than many people realise. Stamford, in Lincolnshire.

Due to its proximity to Ermine Street, and later the Great North Road, the Romans first built the town of Great Casterton, just outside of Stamford, close to the River Gwash. In AD 61, Queen Boudica chased the famous IX legion over the river, somewhere close to where the Bloody Oaks services now stands. Popular local legend claims that the ghostly legion still marches across the adjacent Empingham road, and disappears over the modern dual carriageway. Following the Anglo-Saxon invasion some centuries later, they chose to build a settlement on the nearby River Welland which now forms part of the town of Stamford. A later settlement, this time Danish, faced them across the river. In 972. King Edgar ‘the peaceful’, father of Aethelred ‘the Unready’ bestowed borough status on the town of Stamford.

St Leonard’s Priory, the remains of which still stand, dated back to around 1082, after the original, sources claim built by St Wilfrid in 658, was destroyed by the later invading Danes. The Priory was not a profitable concern and at its dissolution under Henry VIII had a little over £7 in the coffers. It was said that the amenities within the priory were so meagre that visiting monks were reluctant to stay there, and the few resident brothers were so small in number that they didn’t bother to get up for Matins.

Legendary King of the Britons, Bladud, supposed father of King Lear who is mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, and claimed to have ruled for a period of twenty years at some point between 863 BC and 500 BC, upon his return from Athens, founded Bath where he installed magical healing springs, in tribute to his cure from leprosy, and then a University in Stamford. What is known is that in 1333-4, a group of secessionists, unhappy with conditions at Oxford University, broke off and opened their own rival university Brazenose College, Stamford. Oxford and Cambridge Universities retaliated by petitioning King Edward III, and the students were forced back to Oxford where they were then obliged to swear an oath against reading Lectures from Stamford. The oath was scrapped in 1827.

The remains of the college now forms part of the 16th century founded Stamford school, which continues to operate as a Public (private school in USA) school for boys. In the early part of the 20th century, Stamford became the home of Charles Reeve Beechey, when he taught at Stamford School, prior to and during the Great War, until being persuaded to join the war effort by his seven brothers who also fought. Sadly Charles and four of his brothers, two of whom were also teachers, were killed in action. Famous schoolboys at Stamford School include William, Lord Burghley and Ralph Robinson, who translated Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ into English.

Notable produce from the Medieval period included pottery, ‘Stamford ware’, a popular high quality woven woollen cloth – Haberget – and Collyweston slate, quarried just outside of Stamford town. Four quarries, two each at Barnack and Clipsham, provide Stamford stone. The stone from Clipsham is found on York Minister. Collyweston is also famous for being the home of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor following her vow of chastity in 1499, with agreement of her husband, Thomas Stanley, she lived there alone.

Following the death of Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, in 1290 her funeral procession passed through Stamford and stopped overnight on its way from Lincoln to Westminster. A memorial Eleanor Cross was erected, in the vicinity of the Drum and Monkey public house (recently demolished). Only a small piece of the original cross remains, excavated in the 19th century by town antiquarian William Stukeley, who traced the position of the original cross based on transcripts. For many years, the small marble rose segment has been on display in the now closed Stamford Museum, the display being transferred to the Stamford history display in the town library. In the 21st century, a modern interpretation has been designed and built based on that carving, and now stands some half a mile away in the town centre, on Sheepmarket.

Facing the Sheepmarket is the motte from Stamford Castle, built shortly after the Norman conquest and demolished due to severe disrepair in the 15th century. Upon the motte now stands the local bus station. At the bottom of the motte stands the small remaining section of the castle, adjacent to the footbridge onto Stamford Meadows which straddles the River Welland. Small sections of the town perimeter wall also remain. In the early 13th Century, William de Warenne, 5th Earl of Surrey was resident in the Castle and looked out over the meadows from his window. He was amused to see two bulls fighting, ostensibly following their escape en route to the cattle market on the far side of the river. As the butchers struggled to separate them, one took to its heels and fled into the town. The Earl gleefully jumped onto his horse and chased the bull through the town. Finding the chase to be fun, he granted the Meadow to the butchers on the proviso that every year on 13th November, they would provide a bull to lead the bull run. This festival took place every year until 1839. The Meadows remains undeveloped and is now a favourite picnic spot for the residents of the town.

In 1360, Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan, Fair maid of Kent, later wife of Edward, the Black Prince, died. He was buried in Stamford at the Greyfriars Priory. When Joan died in 1385 at Wallingford Castle, she left request that she wanted to be buried with him. Their graves are now somewhere in the gardens of the Priory Care Home, which stands in the former grounds of the Priory. The gatehouse of the Whitefriars Priory still stands across the small roundabout from Greyfriars, at the edge of what is now the grounds of the 19th Century Stamford Hospital. This however is contested by several historians who feel that due to their close proximity, they may have been part of the same monastic community. I would hesitate to agree on this theory as the gatehouse and surrounding walls face on to the Greyfriars, meaning that the area in which Joan and Holland are buried would fall outside the precincts, unless evidence for a Greyfriars church building or burial ground can be proven outside of the walls.

In 1470 the Battle of Empingham, also known as the Battle of Losecote field, took place in a field adjacent to the Great North Road, now at the side of the A1, just a couple of miles away from the aforementioned crossing place of Queen Boudica. One of the conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, it was here on the 12th of May that Edward IV and Richard of Gloucester found that their brother George, Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick had crossed to the Lancaster side. The battle was over in minutes as Edward brought forth Lord Welles, and executed him in full view of both his own army and that of the enemy. As the Lancastrian forces charged forward with cries of ‘a Warwick, a Clarence’ (giving the game away somewhat) the Yorks let one volley of cannon fire. The enemy turned and fled, allegedly shedding their coats in the process, leading to the legend that this was how the Battlefield, and thus the battle got its name. In reality, many fields in the area have the same name, often given to a cottage with a pigsty from the old English ‘Hlose-cot’. The wooded area next to the battlefield was later to become known as Bloody Oaks, however there is no reference to this before at least the late 17th century, when a local highwayman was reputedly hung there.

In between these two major points, some sources suggest a minor skirmish took place during the English civil wars during the 17th Century. To date I have been unable to track down further details of this battle. However, it isn’t beyond the realms of fantasy as several other documented skirmishes and sieges did take place during this period in the area.

In 1485, wealthy town resident William Browne, a wool merchant, founded an alms house, Browne’s Hospital for 14 poor folk, 12 men and 2 women, which still stands today, Its frontal exterior facing onto the still partially cobbled Broad Street. The George Hotel on the old High Street, which runs over the bridge on the Welland, and up through the adjacent parish of St Martins Without, is one of the several coaching inns still open at the present time. Many of the buildings in the town centre date to the 17th century with over 600 of them having listed status. The George is alleged to date to possibly 947 AD.

Further up the road, is the parish church of St Martins, where the Cecil family are traditionally interred, including William, Lord Burghley, chief secretary to Queen Elizabeth I. At the top of the road, is Cecil’s 16th Century mansion Burghley House, and its grounds. Another large country house, Tolethorpe Hall, stands just outside of Stamford on the road to Little Casterton. Formerly the home of the de Tolethorpes in the 11th to 14th Century, the Burtons in the 14th to 16th Century and later the Brownes in the 16th to 19th Century. Robert Browne (c1550 – 1633) is famous as the founder of the Brownist religious movement, who later moved briefly to the Netherlands. It was followers of his doctrine who were labelled as religious dissenters and separatists, and were to move to the Netherlands and then return to England before becoming known as the first settlers to the new colonies in America where they emigrated in the early 17th century to escape persecution.

Tolethorpe Hall was sold almost derelict in 1967 by the later owners, the Eatons, who owned it from the 19th century, to a farmer who passed it on to the Stamford Shakespeare Company in 1977. After some renovation work, the company have dedicated the site as an open air theatre for their three month annual summer season.

Stamford has had several notable residents in more recent times, including author Colin Dexter, acid bath murderer John George Haigh, Robert of Ketton, medieval theologian and translator of the Qu’ran and conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent. Several popular TV shows and films have also been filmed in and around Stamford, including period drama Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and The Da Vinci Code.

In 1968, a previously unknown species of dinosaur, Cetiosaurus Oxeniensis was discovered in a quarry at Great Casterton. At 49 feet long it is one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons found in the UK, and dates back 170 million years to the Jurassic period. It is now housed at the New Walk Museum in Leicester.

I hope you have enjoyed your little trip around this fascinating and lovely historical town as much as I have enjoyed showing you around. Join me soon when we move a few miles further up the road into Britain’s smallest county.

Phoebe