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Extract from Lyson's Magna Britannia - Bedfordshire (1806)

from the section Parochial Topography

Note: This section relating to AMPTHILL has been modified to replace all old references using 'f' with 's' to make this tract more readily readable.

AMPTHILL, anciently Ameteulle, in the hundred of Redbornstoke, and deanery of Flitt, is a small neat town, pleasantly situated, but in a sandy soil. Its earlier charter for a market bears date 1219 ; it was then held, as it still is, on Thursdays. It was confirmed by a subsequent charter in 1242, with the grant of a fair on the festival of St. Mary Magdalen. The only fair now held is on the 4th of May. The market is not considerable. The town has been much improved by the removal of some old houses which stood very incommodiously in the market-place, where there is now a pump with an obelisk, erected by the Earl of Offory in 1785. There is no town-hall or other public building ; the court of the honour is held in a mean old room called the Moothouse, which, although small, may have been used occasionally as a court of justice, The assizes are said to have been held there in 1684, having been removed thither, as it is said, through the interest of the Earl of Aylesbury : the Epiphany sessions were certainly held there that year. The number of inhabited houses within the parish of Ampthill in 1801, according to the returns made-under the Population Act, was 237 ; of inhabitants 1234. The manor of Ampthill, at the time of the Norman survey, belonged to the baronial family of Albini, from whom it passed by female heirs to the St. Amands, and Beauchamps. William Beaucbamp, who in right of his wife enjoyed the barony of St. Amand, conveyed Ampthill, in 1441, to Sir John Cornwall, a distinguished military character in the reigns of Henry IV. and Henry V. By his gallant behaviour in a tournament at York, in 1401, he won the heart of Elizabeth, the King’s sister, then the widow of John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter. In the glorious battle of Agincourt he was one of the chosen officers who had the post of honour with the Duke of York in the van. Leland says, that he "builded the castelle of Antehill of such spoils as it is said he won in France." It was not till 1433 that he was created Lord Fanhope, and in 1433 Baron of Milbrook. The account which the learned antiquary above mentioned gives from hearsay, of the manner in which Lord Fanhope’s lands came to the crown, and of their being granted by Edward IV. to Lord Grey of Ruthin, as a reward for the part which he took in the battle of Northampton, appears to be wholly erroneous, as Lord Fanhope died in peace seventeen years before that battle, at Ampthill castle, whither he had retired after the death of his only legitimate son, who was slain in France. In 1453, ten years after the death of Lord Fanhope, Henry Duke of Exeter, his wife’s son, entered into a bond of 6000 marks to abide by the arbitration of Sir Thomas Bourchier respecting the manor of Ampthill and other estates. What became of it immediately after, is uncertain. The Duke of Exeter died in extreme poverty. The manor is next to be traced to the noble family of Grey, but whether they became possessed of it by grant or purchase does not appear. Reginald Grey, Earl of Kent, was possessed of it in 1524. Not long after this it came into the King’s hands, probably by an exchange, and was made an honour by act of Parliament. Queen Catherine of Arragon resided at Ampthill whilst the business of the divorce was pending, and was cited thence to attend the commissioners at Dunstaple, but refused to obey their summons. No accounts of Ampthill Castle, or its inhabitants, are to be discovered during the subsequent reigns ; and it is most probable that it was suffered to go to decay. The survey made by order of Parliament in 1649, speaks of it as having been long ago totally demolished. When Fuller, in his "Worthies," mentions Ampthill as one of those three which carried away the credit among the houses of the nobility in Bedfordshire, he meant Houghton Park, then (1662) the seat of the Earl of Aylesbury; and situated partly in Ampthill parish. We are told by Osborn, in his Memoirs of King James’s reign, that the honour of Ampthill, no small present to be made at one time, as the writer observes, was given by that monarch to the Earl of Kelly, It soon reverted to the crown. In 1612, Thomas Lord Fenton, and Elizabeth his wife, resigned the office of high steward of the honour of Ampthill to the king. The following year the custody of the great park was granted to Lord Bruce, whose family became lessees of the honour. The lease continued in that noble family till I738, when it was purchased by the Duke of Bedford. In the 17th century the Nicolls’s were for many years lessees of Ampthill Great Park, under the Bruce’s, who reserved to themselves the office of master of the game. The Nicolls’s resided at the Great Lodge, or capital Mansion, as it is called in the survey of 1649. After the restoration, Ampthill Great Park was granted by Charles 11. to Mr, John Ashburnham, as a reward for the faithful services which he had rendered to that monarch and his father. In 1720 it was purchased of the Ashburnham family by Lord Viscount Fitzwilliam, who sold it in I736 to Lady Gowran, grandmother of the present noble owner, John, Earl of Upper Offory, who, in 1800, became possessed of the lease of the honour of Ampthill, by exchange with the late Duke of Bedford. The site of Ampthill castle; which Leland describes as "standing stately on a hill, with a four or five faire towers of stone in the inner warde, besides the basse courte," has been denoted by a Gothic column, erected in 1770, by the Earl of Offory. It is inscribed with the following lines, from the pen of the late Earl of Orford :

"In days of yore here Ampthill's towers were seen,
The mournful refuge of an injur'd queen ;
Here flow’d her pure but unavailing tears,
Here blinded zeal sustain'd her sinking years :
Yet Freedom hence her radiant banner wav'd,
And love aveng’d a realm by priests enslav'd.
From Catherine’s wrongs a nation's bliss was spread,
And Luther’s light from Henry's lawless bed."

The present mansion at Ampthill is situated near the, foot of the hill, yet sufficiently elevated to command a prospect over the vale of Bedford, broken by the fine trees in the park. It was built about the year 1694, by the first Lord Ashburnham. The Earl of Offory has a small collection of pictures at Ampthill; amongst which may be noticed an original portrait of Sterne, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This mansion felt very severely the effects of the dreadful storm on the 19th of August: 1800 : not less than 700 panes of glass were broken in the west front by the hail-stones ; which, by persons of the strictest veracity, were affirmed to have been seven inches in circumference, and of a flat form. The town of Ampthill, and many of the neighbouring villages, were in an equal-degree sufferers ; scarcely a window, which was exposed to the storm, escaped being broken.

The grounds of Ampthill, which are disposed on a steep-natural bank behind the house, afford some very beautiful scenery. A survey of Ampthill Park, taken by order of Parliament in 1653, describes 287 trees as being hollow, and too much decayed for the use of the navy. These oaks, thus saved from the axe by the Commissioners report, remain to the present day; and, by their picturesque appearance, contribute much to the ornament of the place.

The church of Ampthill contains little that is remarkable. The figures of Lord Fanhope and the Dutchess of Exeter, mentioned by Sandford, have been removed from the east window of the aisle. The only monument of note is that of Robert Nicolls, of Ampthill Park, Governor of Long Island; who, being in attendance on the Duke of York, was slain on board his ship in 1672. A cannon-ball, said to have been that which occasioned his death, is inlaid in the marble within the pediment ; and on the moulding is this inscription :

"Infirumentum mortis et immortalitatis."

The benefice is a rectory in the patronage of Lord Offory.

In the year 1654, the name of Colonel Okey, the regicide, occurs in the parish register, attesting the celebration of marriages as a justice of peace. About that time he purchased the honour of Ampthill, as part of the confiscated property of the crown, and resided, it is probable, at the Park. The signature of Edmund Wingate the arithmetician, occurs also as a justice the same year. He resided at Wood-end, in Harlington.

About a mile from the town of Ampthill is a hospital, founded in 1690, by Mr. John Cross, for twelve poor men and a reader, and for four poor women. The reader has fifteen pounds per annum, the others ten pounds. They must be unmarried. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and the Bishop of that Diocese, are visitors.

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