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Ackhampstead – The chapel that vanished

Ackhampstead no longer exists, though for eight hundred years its 465 acres nestled quietly just off the road between Lane End and Frieth. All that is left today are a large earth platform, a ditch running across the next field, a clump of trees with the remains of some flint walls and the word “Ruin” on the OS map.

The Earthworks in Ackhampstead chapel
Earthworks in Ackhampstead chapel

Ackhampstead is not mentioned in the Doomsday book but a pre-conquest account implies it existed as it was given to Abingdon Abbey by Edward the Confessor and his queen, Eadditha, “from sorrow at the under-nourishment of the younger monks.” The earliest known explicit mention of the chapel is in 1242 when it was referred to as Ackhampstead or Chyssobock in the registers of the Bishop of Lincoln.

Interestingly, in 1429 Thomas Chaucer, son of the famed poet, was the “Esquire for life” of the “manor of Ackhampsted,” indeed he was buried only a few miles away in Wallingford.

The last curate, the Rev. Fredrick Menzies and arguably the villain of our piece, considered it of “No architectural value with no graves inside or out”. He also claimed that there was no road whatever, which was palpably untrue! Perhaps he disliked the area as he also referred to the district as “almost heathen, many of the people being un-Baptised” – though he admitted the congregation “usually consisted of 80 or 90 individuals” – which must have been a very tight fit in such a tiny chapel!

On 12th August 1847, the residents of the Cadmore End part of the parish met and resolved to move the chapel nearer to their own houses as it was “more convenient”, though presumably not for the 56 residents of Ackhampstead! Two years later at a Consistorial Court of the Diocese on 28 April 1848, the decision was made to build a new church at Cadmore End. A plan to move the responsibilities for the Chapel over to the curate at Hambledon seems to have fallen by the wayside – not least by the dismantling of the building to provide stone for the new church!


The site of Ackhampstead chapel

Oxford’s County and City Herald reported that the court was presided over by Dr Phillimore, chancellor of the Diocese; promoters were the Rev. Edward Brietzake Dean, vicar of Lewknor “and others”; the opposers were Sir William Robert Clayton, Bart., Joseph Townsend “and others”. There was a discussion as to whether Dr Phillimore could hear the case and it was thought the Bishop should preside over it. However Dr Phillimore “corrected” this view by announcing that “nothing can be more complete than the surrender of all his powers to me”. He also reported that the bishop had considered that the move would “promote the spiritual advantage of the district”.

Dr Phillimore’s power to pull down the chapel was also contested, but again his view held sway, despite the fact there was no written authority for him to do this.

If you visit the chapel on a quiet sunny day you can almost hear the echos of thoughts on sharp practices!

Bisham Abbey

Close by the Thames near Marlow, Bisham Abbey has witnessed a rich slice of English history. But Bisham (the name of the Abbey, like the village, should properly be pronounced as ‘Bizum’) was a Priory, not an Abbey, for much of its life, and most of what we now see is, in fact, a Tudor mansion. It was originally built around 1260 as a preceptory of the immensely powerful Knights Templar. On the suppression of that Order, it passed into the hands of William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, who then built a priory here for Austin Canons in 1337. The nearness of this Priory to Windsor Castle would have led to heavy claims on this community’s hospitality.

In July 1536, Bisham Priory was surrendered to Henry VIII on the suppression of the monasteries. Uniquely among all the monasteries of England, it was then selected by the fickle King to be re-established on a grander scale as an abbey. In December 1537, a charter was granted to this new abbey of the Holy Trinity. It lasted, however, for only six months before the Abbot, John Cordrey, and his monks were again forced to surrender Bisham Abbey to the King’s appointees.

During its complex history, Edward II used this establishment to imprison Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, the wife of King Robert the Bruce, and her female relatives in 1310. Following the dissolution, it served for about two hundred years as the main residence of the Montacutes, who became Earls of Salisbury. One of that line of illustrious Earls, who merits mention by Shakespeare, was Richard Neville, known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker, the wealthiest and most powerful English peer of his age. A principal protagonist in the Wars of the Roses, he lies buried somewhere in the grounds of Bisham Abbey. It was probably also a virtual gaol for Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, who was imprisoned by her sister, Queen Mary, around the period 1555 and 1558. An ancient holy well close by still bears Elizabeth’s name.

Bisham Abbey

After its dissolution, Bisham Abbey was given by King Henry VIII to his former Queen, Anne of Cleves. Following Anne’s death, Bisham Abbey passed onto Sir Thomas Hoby, the man who was responsible for the custody of Princess Elizabeth during the reign of Mary Tudor. It was the Hobys who demolished the monastic church on the site while adding the fine bay window to the northern end (see photo) and, in 1560, an imposing brick tower. After her accession, Queen Elizabeth I appointed Sir Thomas as Ambassador to France. It is his wife, Dame Elizabeth, who is purportedly the tormented ghost who haunts the Abbey. A son, curiously named Thomas Posthumous from being born after his father’s death, is believed to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comic figure of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

When the Hoby line ran out, the Abbey passed into the hands of the Vansittarts, the first member of that family to live there, George, having made his fortune in India. Adding Neale to the family name in due course, this family and its descendants held the Abbey, the estate and village, up until 1965 when death duties necessitated their sale. The Abbey, which had been let to the Central Council for Physical Recreation as a memorial to two brothers in the family who were killed in the Second World War, was then purchased as the CCPR’s first residential site. Bisham Abbey still remains in the hands of a successor body, Sport England.

Stonor House in the Chilterns, a few miles outside Henley, now provides a home for furniture, portraits, china and other objects of interest which came from Bisham Abbey, the families of these two houses having had links. A comprehensive history The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton was published in 1973.

Jeff Griffiths

War and Peace in Medmenham

I recently explored Medmenham, the peaceful village next to two sites on which AiM has worked and whose main street has picture postcard pretty houses. Parked incongruously in the forecourt of one house are two naval cannon – see photo – above which the Blue Ensign flies. A notice explains that they are two of the original seven naval guns dragged 1,500 miles overland by the crew of HMS Powerful in order to relieve the siege of Ladysmith in February 1900. Winston Churchill, acting as a Boer War correspondent, was among the relief force. On their return home, the sailors from the Naval Brigade paraded their guns through London. This led in 1907 to the inter­-port field gun competition that was a highlight of the Royal Tournament until its demise in 1999 but which has now been revived as part of the Windsor Military Tattoo.

 Two of the original seven naval guns used in the siege of Ladysmith
Two of the original seven naval guns used in the siege of Ladysmith

The Church has a fine bas relief memorial plaque to a parishioner killed defending the beach-head at Dunkirk in 1940. In its churchyard is the grave of another soldier, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, the war correspondent and military historian whose life was not without controversy. Formerly secret files now released revealed MI5 suspicions of leaks of the plans for the D-Day landings, and that Liddell Hart had known all the details three months before the invasion. Winston Churchill had demanded Liddell Hart’s arrest but MI5 instead placed him under careful surveillance.

As those of us present at the unveiling of the hill fort interpretation boards learned, Sarah Churchill, the actress daughter of the wartime Prime Minister, worked for some years at the RAF’s Imagery Intelligence Unit in the requisitioned Danesfield House. Winston himself, we were told, would pay visits to his daughter and receive first hand briefings at what was then RAF Medmenham. Next door to Danesfield House, in the SAS Company’s grounds where the hill fort also extends, we were shown a prototype of the ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by Barnes Wallis. (At Hurley, just across the river and the location for US Naval Intelligence in WW II, models of the ‘swimming tank’ that went ashore on D-Day were tested in the former monastic fish pond.)

Medmenham, which could have served from its idyllic appearance as a wartime Ministry of Information “this is what we are fighting for propaganda” English village, revealed links with warfare right across the centuries. Not only does it have two neighbouring prehistoric hill forts but the one above Medmenham also probably housed Hugh de Bolebec’s Norman castle. On Ferry Lane stands a symbol of a conflict which saw the humbling of the British Army by the Boers but which we now associate with our armed forces’ pageantry.

Sir Basil Liddell Hart
Sir Basil Liddell Hart

Men with links to Medmenham straddled a great leap in the development of warfare. In the person of Liddell Hart was someone who was gassed in World War I and who later controversially claimed to have propounded theories which were then used against the allies during World War II with the practice of Blitzkrieg, lightning attacks dependent on speed and surprise. Two years before Ladysmith, Winston Churchill had taken part in the British Army’s last meaningful cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. When he visited RAF Medmenham four decades later its personnel were involved in locating the launch sites of ‘Doodlebugs’, the earliest type of military cruise missiles.

By Jeff Griffiths