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Birchmoor Church

The light blue shows the area highlighted as Birchmoor churchyard in 1661 [X1/33]
The light blue shwos the area highlighted as Birchmoor churchyard in 1661 [X1/33]

The earliest reference to Birchmoor is in assize records of 1227. The Domesday Book of 1086 refers to three virgates of land in Woburn held from the King by Herbert, one of the king's reeves. The 13th century Hundred Rolls specifically say that this land was at Birchmoor. This would account for the fact that the parish church was built at Birchmoor, being a royal liberty, rather than further south in the modern village of Woburn.

When Woburn Abbey was dissolved in 1538 an account of its property was taken by the ministers of the Court of Augmentations, established in 1536 to deal with the property and income of all the dissolved religious houses. The accounts for Bedfordshire were published in two volumes (Numbers 63 and 64) by Bedfordshire Historical Record Society in 1984 and 1985. Woburn Abbey, as might be expected, held the Rectory (i.e. the position of Rector, not the parsonage) of Birchmoor and Woburn Chapel. This suggests that at some point the royal liberty of Birchmoor may have been granted to the abbey.

The chapel in Woburn is mentioned as early as a coroner’s roll of 1269 and may have been built around the time that the right was granted to the abbey to hold a weekly market on a Friday and an annual fair in September – 1245. This, no doubt, encouraged the growth of Woburn at the expense of Birchmoor and so necessitated a separate chapel.

All this suggests that Birchmoor was originally the main settlement and Woburn a lesser hamlet. It is puzzling, however, that Birchmoor is not mentioned in Domesday Book whereas Woburn is and that the charter of Aspley Guise of 969 mentions Woburn rather than Birchmoor.

Also puzzling is the fact that Woburn means "winding stream" and this stream, which becomes Crawley Brook when it crosses the parish boundary, flows past Birchmoor Farm and the site of the churchyard and loops round the village of Woburn, which lies to the south-east, passing close to Pinfold Pond. On the face of it the name "winding stream" would fit Birchmoor better than the modern Woburn. Perhaps this means that the area we know as Birchmoor was called Woburn at the time of the Domesday Book and that the name gradually came to be applied to the hitherto smaller settlement to the south after this had become the dominant settlement following the creation of Woburn Abbey and, more particularly, the granting of its market and fair.

Birchmoor Church stood somewhere just south-west of Birchmoor Farm. A map of Woburn made by Sir Jonas Moore in 1661 [X1/33] shows the churchyard as being in the bend of the road, now a footpath, leading from Birchmoor Green towards Aspley Lane as shown at the head of this page. Former County Archivist Patricia Bell [CRT130Woburn14] notes: “It doesn’t appear that Birchmoor was finally demolished until the early seventeenth century, when tradition has it that Sir Francis Staunton of Birchmoor (who died in 1639) used the stones to rebuild the church tower at Woburn”.

Certainly the church was still extant in 1500 as John Shynglehurst laid down in his will [see Bedfordshire Historical record Society Volume 45, page 3] that he wished “to be buried in the churchyard of the parish church of Brichemor” and gave his best beast as mortuary fee to maintain “the great bell of Brichemor”. He also gave 20d. to the church and 8d. to “the chapel of Saint Mary of Woburn”. Woburn church is still referred to as a chapel as late as a deed 1522 [R6/63/1/3].