The King's England - Northamptonshire -
County of Spires and Stately Homes
Edited by Arthur Mee
The Good grocer and the Wicked LawyerTowcester. It is all tranquil here except on market days, but it was not always so for it claims to be the oldest town in the county, and history has not passed it by. Britons, Romans, Saxons, and Normans have all had a share in its making. It is on Watling Street and Roman Legions marched through it on their way to build the Great Wall. The Saxons built a church here and Alfred's son issued a mandate for fortifying the town with a wall during the conflict with the Danes. In their turn the all conquering Normans arrived and the work of their masons is yet to be seen in the church, which has served the people from medieval times down to ours. During the Civil War it was the only Royalist stronghold in the county and the tides of changing fortune surged round it. In coaching days Towcester was an important stage between London and Holyhead, and travellers would break their journey here. Dean Swift was among the more famous travellers who called on journeys to and from Ireland, and the Talbot Inn has a carved oak chair which rested his weary limbs.
Apart from the church few witnesses remain of the town's long story, but there is a Tudor house in Market Square and in the main street are some fine dwellings leading to it, as well as the Pomfret Arms, which had bronze figures in niches over its doorway and a measure of fame as the Saracen's Head of Pickwick Papers.
At the corner of Market Square, serene under the wing of the modern town hall, is another handsome veteran, the Chantry House, built solidly of stone, with a doorway and a room with oak beams and over mantel all boasting their 15th century origin. From this old house it is but a few steps to the churchyard, where, in the shade of a fine tree beside the River Tove, sleep the forefathers of this ancient town.
Towcester Church, which has two ancient mass dials, one outside and one now inside by the rood stairs, has in it the work of many centuries, the earliest being two pillars which were part of a Norman doorway and are now worked into the modern chancel arch; they are carved and there are also traces of Norman carving above the south arcade. The crypt, reached by a doorway from the sanctuary, is 13th century, and the arcade, with their lofty piers, come from the 13th and 14th centuries. On the arch of the south chapel is a jester's head, probably 600 years old, and in the 14th century wall-recess in this chapel, protected by glass, is a fresco of the Pelican in Piety, the blood with which she is feeding her hungry and eager young making a decided splash of colour.
The clerestory and the massive tower, with a row of angels watching over its deeply recessed doorway, are 500 years old, and so in the font. Most of the windows are medieval, three at the east end of the sanctuary being 14th century, and several a century younger. They have, alas, lost most of their ancient glass, though a few fragments remain in the south chapel. But the most interesting is the east window, a Diamond Jubilee memorial with the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the tracery above a fine portrayal of the Crucifixion, a group of soldiers standing at one side of the cross and Our Lord's friends on the other.
Much of the woodwork in the church is old, beams in the roofs telling of their 17th and 18th century origin, and the chancel roof bearing the date 1640, when it was built at the cost of Sir Robert Banastre whose monument is at Passenham. Some Jacobean panels have been worked into the modern pulpit, and in the sanctuary is a chair bearing the date 1627 carved with the initials of a bailiff who use to sit in it. A long stall lined with carved panels has been filled with glass cases to hold valuable black-letter books with chains still attached; they include the Treacle Bible of 1568 and Bishop Jewel's Apology. Even more interesting is the organ, with its carved medieval ornaments; it was given by the Earl of Pomfret in 1817, but was originally in William Beckford's fantastic Fonthill Abbey, part of his world-famous collections there.
A strange monument has the figure of a priest on a high-raised tomb in memory of William Sponne, Archdeacon of Norfolk, rector here from 1422 to 1448 and a great benefactor to the town, who left a bequest to pave its streets. He is wearing a cassock, surplice and tippet with fur lined sleeves and collar. His figure has suffered badly at the hands of ignorant restorers. It was originally a painted chalk figure with a wooden head and hands, but by a deplorable error of judgement the head was cut off and replaced by an ugly stone head at least a century older. The original head and hands have since been found in the 14th century crypt, but they had not been replaced when we called. Below the tomb, and visible through the arcade, is a stone skeleton.
A small painted monument on the south wall, in alabaster, is to Hierome Fermor, who died in 1602, and his wife Jane; they are kneeling under a double arch, and the dress is very clear and full of detail. He was MP for Brackley in Armada Year, and the son of the first of the Fermors of Easton Neston.There was born in Towcester in the 15th century Richard Empson, the son of a sieve maker, who soon escaped from the restraint of his father's occupation and became the great man of the town. He bought land round about, became MP, and was made Speaker, and Henry the Seventh liked him greatly because he was one of the men who collected fines and taxes from those who offended the crown. He was one of the most hated men in the realm, and when the king died he lost his best friend. Henry the Eighth, safe in the possession of the hoard Empson had built up in his father's coffers, declared him a tyrant and put him in the Tower. He was sent to Northampton to take his trial with his colleague Edmund Dudley, and they were beheaded together on Tower Hill.
Here there were born in 604 a grocer's son named Thomas Shephard who became a Puritan preacher and was compelled at last, by persecution, to cross the Atlantic, where he took an active part in founding Harvard. He went out on a crazy ship which was overladen and more than once seemed likely to drown its 200 passengers. Prayers were offered for their safety as the ship tossed to and fro outside Yarmouth, and thousands watched it in the storm, but after throwing guns overboard the passengers were relieved to find the ship ploughing forward and getting out to sea, and at length they arrived at Boston. Shephard's wife dying from the effects of the voyage. he wrote pamphlets and books, and his industry was remarkable for a poor pale looking man of whom a poet wrote:
Scarce ever more of goodness crowded lay
In such a piece of frail mortality.
- "The King's England - Northamptonshire, County of Spires and Stately Homes" Edited by Arthur Mee. The Caxton Publishing Company Ltd, Special Edition by arrangement with Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. p330, the section on Towcester. Transcribed by David Wilcock, 20th March 2009