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Bedfordshire Links with Henry VIII

Document giving the Manor of Ickwell to John Barnardiston 1543

Letters Patent of 4 July 1543 signed by Henry VIII giving the Manor of Ickwell Bury to John Barnardiston [Ref.HY1]

In this article local historian Dorothy Jamieson looks at how the reign of Henry VIII impacted on the County.

Henry’s links with the County begin before his reign. His grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, was born in Bletsoe. She is said to have been a pious, well-educated lady who organized her grandson’s household at Eltham palace when he was young. Bletsoe was even then the home of the St. John family, who were descended from Margaret Beaufort’s son by her first, non-royal, husband, Sir John St. John. It has been said that Sir John St. John, who died in 1559, was educated alongside Prince Henry. The plaque on his splendid tomb in Bletsoe church describes him as ‘this most illustrious man’ and says that he was appointed by Henry VIII to be guardian and chamberlain to princesses Mary and Elizabeth and that he became chamberlain elect to Elizabeth when she became Queen. Sir John’s daughter, Margaret, married John Gostwick’s son William and after being widowed very young married Francis Russell, who later became the second Earl of Bedford.

William Gascoigne of Cardington would have been known to the King because of his post as Controller of Cardinal Wolsey’s household. He was described as ‘a rough gentleman; preferring rather to profit then please his master.’ After Wolsey fell out of favour with the king William Gascoigne retired to Cardington. He may have helped his son and John Gostwick find positions with Cardinal Wolsey which led to their employment with the King. Henry Vlll’s nurse, Ann Launcelyn, came from the neighbouring manor of Cople and inherited her father’s manor there. 

The Mordaunt family held the manor of Turvey from the early thirteenth century. Sir John Mordaunt of Turvey succeeded to the manor in 1475 and was Speaker of the House of Commons in 1487. His son and grandson, both also named John, served Henry VIII. The elder was knighted in 1520 and went with the King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France that year.  He was made baron Mordaunt of Turvey in 1533. 

The text displayed alongside his tomb in Turvey Church says that he rendered many public services. Either he or his son received Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London when she came to be crowned that year and took part in her trial three years later. One of them carried the banner at Jane Seymour’s funeral in 1537 and was a Privy Councillor to Queen Mary from 1553 to 1558. The elder Sir John died in 1562 and his son in 1571. 

John Gostwick, who bought Willington manor in 1529, served the king for over 30 years and was an important administrator at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. He was appointed Treasurer and Receiver-General of the First-Fruits and Tenths  (to collect from clerical benefices monies that had previously been sent to Rome) at a salary of £100 a year. He was to collect and account for all the profits which accrued to  the Crown from the dissolved religious houses, as well as carrying out other commissions for the King. His salary was     raised to £300 a year to cover his board, lodging, and robes for himself, his clerks and servants. Gostwick was a commissioner for the dissolution of some religious houses in Bedfordshire and must have had very mixed feelings when he was part of the jury that sentenced the Abbott of Woburn and two of his monks to death because they refused to sign a declaration to say that they accepted Henry as supreme head of the church in England. They were found guilty of treason and hanged in 1538.

John Russell was a trustee of Henry’s will and acquired lands in Woburn, and the title Earl of Bedford, after Henry’s death. He was descended from a family of merchants, based in Devon, but served his king well and was said to have been one of the Henry VIII’s truest friends. He acquired a vast fortune and great estate during his lifetime.

Most ordinary people would not have had direct contact with the King, but his officials, the commissioners, judges, and tax collectors, would have influenced their lives. They may have seen Royal parties as they passed through Bedfordshire on their way to and from the north of England and Wales. The Royal party frequently stopped at Dunstable and Ampthill en-route to the manor of Grafton, in what is now Grafton Regis, south east of Towcester.

Royal visits would have stimulated business in Dunstable and Ampthill and the accounts of new buildings in Ampthill Park clearly show that local builders, suppliers of materials and carriers benefited financially from these developments. The new buildings were ordered by the Duke of Norfolk and the accounts for 1533 to 1539 show the involvement of Henry’s Master Carpenter and Surveyor of Works, James Nedeham, or Needham, who designed the roof for the Great Hall in Hampton Court and purchased property in Hertfordshire after the dissolution of the monasteries.

Henry VII had received Ampthill Castle and Great Park in 1508 when Richard Grey, 3rd earl of Kent, was in financial difficulties, and it is said that Henry Vlll visited Ampthill almost every year, often in the autumn. Although Henry usually had little patience with failure, the heavily indebted Richard Grey, third Earl of Kent, a member of a family established at Wrest Park from the fifteenth century, was an exception. Despite his financial failures he continued to be welcomed at court until his death in 1523. Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was detained at Ampthill while annulment proceedings were under way in the Lady Chapel of the Priory church in Dunstable in May 1533. Henry had secretly married Ann Boleyn in January that year and she was already pregnant before his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled.

From 1542 Ampthill became the administrative head of a new royal estate, the Honour of Ampthill, which included many of the lands of former priories and monasteries in the County and in Buckinghamshire. Anne of Cleves was later granted lands in Ampthill as part of her divorce settlement. When John Leland journeyed through Bedfordshire in the 1530s he described Ampthill Castle as being ‘on a hill with 4 or 5 stone towers in the inner ward as well as a lower courtyard.’ It had its own chapel with stained glass windows.

As elsewhere, Bedfordshire was much affected by Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540 or 41. He had planned to use the money for educational projects, but much of it went to finance improvements to the navy and to build coastal defences against the French. Two Bedfordshire men, George Acworth of Luton and Sir William Gascoigne of Cardington were members of the Reformation Parliament.

The change-over of land ownership when the monasteries were dissolved was on a scale comparable with that which occurred after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The finances were handled by Courts of Augmentation. The Bedfordshire Court of Augmentation was based at Ampthill Castle under  William Chambers, who seems not to have been a Bedfordshire man (see Beds Historical Records Society Vols.63 & 64). 

The sudden availability of land led to landed gentry enlarging their estates and land speculators buying lands which they later sold at a profit. In Bedfordshire several local families enlarged their estates. These families included the Barnardistons of Ickwell, the Botelers of Biddenham, the Burgoynes of Sutton, the Crawleys of Luton, the Luke family, the St. Johns of Bletsoe and the Gostwicks of Willington.

Many monks and nuns were given pensions, some of them very generous. Younger men may have married or taken livings as vicars elsewhere. Some lay members of their staff may found employment with the Crown or with the new owners of the church lands and buildings. There is little evidence to show how Bedfordshire people felt about the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Protestant reforms were spreading throughout Europe, so perhaps people waited to see how things would work out. Some evidence suggests that both the Mordaunts of Turvey and John Gostwick of Willington performed their public roles as obedient servants of the king, but continued to be loyal to the Catholic Church in private.