Tuesday, June 30, 2009

J. L. Carr and St Faith's, Newton in the Willows

A few years ago a friend gave me a copy of The Last Englishman - Byron Rogers' biography of J. L. Carr. A Yorkshireman, Carr was a primary school headmaster from Kettering who had great success late in his life as a novelist and publisher of eccentric small books.

One chapter of the biography deals with Carr's attempt to save the Medieval church of St Faith's at Newton - Newton in the Willows, if you prefer its more romantic name - near Geddington. When he discovered it in the 1960s it was in the process of being closed down by the diocese of Peterborough. The fittings were moved to other churches or stolen by intruders and the interior was further damaged by archaeological excavations.

Thanks to Carr's efforts the building was saved and is now a field centre, run by a charitable trust. I approached it across the fields from Geddington last Saturday and found everything padlocked when I arrived. Even when an operating church is locked you are allowed to sit in the porch to shelter - I have even been taken home and given a cup of tea by a woman doing the flowers.

Newton was also the site of a great house owned by the Treshams - whom we met recently at Rushton - but the only thing left from that estate is the 17th century dovecote near the church.

There is another, darker story from Newton in the Willows: the story of the Newton Rebels:
1607 was just a few years into the reign of James I. Times were hard. Harvests had been poor, the weather bad, and the population was growing. Food was expensive and hard to come by. The enclosure of common land by local landowners, especially the Treshams of Rushton, a notorious Roman Catholic family – hard up since the involvement of Frances in the Powder Treason only two years earlier - and their cousins at Newton, was the last straw.
Trouble had been building up in Northamptonshire since May Eve, probably after a few drinks to celebrate May Day, a traditional festival which also marked the beginning of the season when animals had been permitted to graze on the common land in nearby Rockingham Forest.
Discontent spread across north Northamptonshire, and to Leicestershire and Warwickshire throughout May. The events at Newton were the culmination of the Midlands Revolt when King James feared that after hearing reports of 3000 at Hillmorton in Warwickshire and 5000 at Cotesbach in Leicestershire, the situation was becoming out of control. A gibbet was set up in the city of Leicester as a warning not to get involved. It was torn down by the people.
The protesters called themselves diggers and levellers – terms that would be more familiar when heard again in the Civil War.
Over 1000 peasants gathered from Rockingham Forest - men, women and children - led by Captain Pouch. He was a tinker whose real name was John Reynoldes. He claimed to have authority from the kingdom of Heaven and to have a pouch which contained "that which shall keep you from all harm". Following the events of 8 June, it was found to contain nothing more than a piece of green cheese.

The armed bands formed of local men were reluctant to be involved and the gentry had to rely on their own servants to support them. The rebels refused to obey the orders to disperse, and continued to pull down hedges and fill in the enclosing ditches. The King's proclamation was read twice. Still the rebels refused to give way.

Finally, the gentry and their troops charged, and over 40 peasants were killed. Prisoners were taken, imprisoned in St Faith's Church, and the ringleaders tried, hanged and quartered. Their quarters were hung in towns across Northamptonshire as a clear message.

At St Faith's today there is a memorial to the men who were executed: "May their souls rest in peace."

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