- "Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world. The High, the Middle and the Low. They had been subdivided in many ways, they have borne countless different names, and their relative numbers, as well as their attitude towards one another, have varied from age to age: but the essential structure of society has never altered. The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim--for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently consious of anything outside their daily lives - is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. Thus, throughout history a struggle which is same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods, the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later, there always comes a moment when they lost either their beliefs in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High." - George Orwell, 1984.
To some extent the history of Vale Royal illustrates such a sequence of transitions, starting with the power-struggles between Henry III, his son Edward I and various parties at around the time of first attempts to break-up the Palatinate of Chester. Conflict of the various interest-groups continued through the Civil War, Williamite revolts and Jacobite rebellions.
- 1 Vale Royal
- 2 Cholmondeley
- 3 The Nun's Grave
- 4 Elections
- 5 White Mischief
- 6 Summary
- 7 Visiting Today
- 8 Related Pages
- 9 Sources and Links
Vale Royal was, from 1974 to 2009, a local government district with borough status in Cheshire, England. It contained the towns of Northwich, Winsford and Frodsham. It took its name from Vale Royal Abbey, formerly one of the largest in England, which was situated near the village of Whitegate near the centre of the district. The name of Vale Royal turns up frequently in any study of Cheshire history, for example in the works of Daniel King once apprentice to Randle Holme and used as a source by Ormerod. King, Holme and Ormerod all illustrate the fascination of the Cheshire gentry with their ancestry.
The original Abbey was founded c. 1270 by the Lord Edward, later Edward I for Cistercian monks. Edward had supposedly taken a vow during a rough sea crossing in the 1260s to found an abbey if he survived. Civil wars and political upheaval delayed the build until 1272, the year Edward's father died and he inherited the throne. The original site at Darnhall was unsatisfactory, so was moved a few miles north to Delamere Forest. John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72) described Vale Royal as follows:
- "VALE-ROYAL, the seat of Lord Delamere, in Whitegate parish, Cheshire; on the river Weaver, near the Northwestern railway, 3 miles SW of Northwich. A Cistertian abbey was founded here in 1266, by Prince Edward, afterwards Edward I.; and was given, at the dissolution, to the Holcrofts. The mansion occupies the site of the abbey; was built in the time of Elizabeth by the Holcrofts; has been greatly altered by modern renovations and extensions; includes a portion of the old abbey in its basement; comprises a centre and two wings; is adorned in front with several towers; includes a great hall 70 feet long, hung round with interesting portraits, some of them by Rubens; was visited, in 1617, by James I.; and was plundered, in the civil wars of Charles I., by the soldiers of Cromwell."
As always, the story is much more complex. This part of it starts with an assassination attempt on Edward I, has a noted Chester "prophet" in the middle and ends with wife-swapping, cocaine-taking, nazi sympathizers and a murder in Kenya.
Transition from the Earls
Like other powerful earldoms along the Welsh marches, the Earldom of Chester was often a potential issue for the Crown and played a significant part in national politics. At their peak a large part of Ranulf de Blondeville's lands were roughly co-incident with the extent of the core of Mercia. Ranulf was therefore in many ways the inheritor of a geographical power-base which dated back to the time of Leofric and the Anglo-Saxon earls. Ranulph was generally loyal to the Crown, but in many ways Cheshire stood apart from England - The king's writ did not run to Cheshire. The chief administrative official, the justice of Chester, was at times neither appointed by the king nor responsible to him. The king derived no benefit from scutages or tallages levied in the county. Royal justices did not visit it; fines and amercements levied there did not reach the king. Only with the Henrician reforms of the 1530s and 1540s, was Cheshire subjected to English justices of the peace (1536), national taxation (1540), and Parliamentary representation (1543). Palatine practices remained in place because they were grounded in a pair of county specific institutions: the county court (presided over by the justice and roughly equivalent to the Queen's Bench) and the Exchequer of Chester (supervised by the chamberlain and roughly equivalent to the Chancery Division), both of which continued in one form or another until 1830. The apartness should be obvious to any visitor: dominating the Cheshire plain from its perch atop a steep bluff, Beeston Castle guards the southern and eastern approaches to Chester, "all too obviously defending the county from England rather than Wales".
The story of Vale Royal illustrates elements of the at times slow transition from local to national governance.
Lies from the start
Manipulation of the historical facts takes root early in the story of Vale Royal. The Monk's version is contained in their own chronicle. Vale Royal's chronicle was written during the early 14th century, and while its precise authorship is unknown, its beginning at least is often ascribed to Peter, Abbot of Vale Royal, around 1338. The chronicler describes the train of events in some detail:
- "while [Edward] was on his way to England, accompanied by a great concourse of people, storms suddenly arose at sea, the ship's rigging was all torn to pieces in a moment, and the crew were helpless and unable to do anything. Utterly despairing of their safety, the sailors called loudly upon the Lord ...[Edward] most humbly vowed to God and the Blessed Virgin Mary that, if God would save him and his people and goods, and bring them safe to land, he would forthwith found a monastery of white monks of the Cistercian order in honour of Mary the Mother of God ... for the maintenance of one hundred monks for ever. And behold, the power of God to save His people was forthwith made manifest; for scarce had the most Christian prince finished speaking when the tempest was utterly dispersed and succeeded by a calm, so that all marvelled at so sudden a change. Thus the ship ... was miraculously borne to land by the Virgin Mary, in whose honour the prince had made his vow, without any human aid whatsoever ... until they had all carried their goods safe out of the ship, the prince remained behind them in the ship, but as soon as the ship was empty, he left it and went on shore; and as he left, in the twinkling of an eye, the ship broke into two pieces"
There are several difficulties with this as an accurate historic record. Edward I's only crusade was the Ninth (or "Lord Edward's Crusade"), in 1270. However the name is somewhat misleading - as the English troops only arrived in the Middle East after prolonged debate and delay. By the time Edward actually arrived the fighting was over and the Treaty of Tunis (October 30th 1270), ending the crusade had been negotiated and signed - including the provision that Edward was not to attack Tunis, and leaving him with no share of the spoils, which included a large indemnity paid to the crusaders to go home. Edward did go on to Acre where there was some confused campaigning and at least one assassination attempt on Edward, with an apparently poisoned dagger. According to the "Templar of Tyre":
- "The Saracen met him and stabbed him on the hip with a dagger, making a deep, dangerous wound. The Lord Edward felt himself struck, and he struck the Saracen a blow with his fist, on the temple, which knocked him senseless to the ground for a moment. The the Lord Edward caught up a dagger from the table which was in the chamber, and stabbed the Saracen in the head and killed him."
One version of what happened next is that Edward’s wife Eleanor saved him by sucking out the poison with her mouth. Another account says that an English surgeon was called in to operate on Edward, and he proceeded to cut away the inflected flesh around the wound. In this story, Eleanor started to cry, prompting the annoyed surgeon to ask that she be taken away; since it was better that she should weep now rather than have the whole of England do it later. By some accounts the assassin was a "double agent" ultimately working for Hassan-i Sabbah (c. 1050–1124) but the dates do not fit.
Taking some time to recover from his wounds, Edward did not return to England until mid 1274, after his father Henry III had died (in 1272). By that time, Darnhall Abbey's foundation charter had already been granted. The Victorians were convinced that Edward was sailing from the Middle East, and the legend formed the basis for poetry as in Egerton Leigh's Ballads & legends of Cheshire. The charter mentions the King being "sometime in danger upon the sea", so this cannot refer to his voyage back from the crusade, that was not only at the wrong time and was a journey made largely overland. The vow is well authenticated and so was probably made in the winter of 1263-4 during a stormy voyage from France. In 1266 the general chapter of the Cistercian order authorized the abbots of Buildwas (Salop.), Neath (Glam.), and Flaxley (Glos.) to inspect the site proposed for the new house which was to be a daughter house of Abbey Dore (Herefs.); the monks of Dore had shown kindness to Edward during his captivity at Hereford in 1265. Cooke in 1907 lecture to the Chester Historical Society even goes so far as to suggest that Edward was assisted in his escape by the Cistercians.
Local historian Tony Bostock has suggested that Darnhall may have been the location of a pre-christian religious site (see his WINSFORD: a history). This could have influenced the choice of site.
The Baron's War
Edward intended the structure to be on a grand scale. Had it been completed it would have been the largest Cistercian monastery in the country, but his ambitions were frustrated by recurring financial difficulties. Regardless of Edward's intentions when founding the abbey, the deteriorating political situation and eventual civil war between his father and the nobility — in which Edward played a prominent role — perhaps stalled plans for the abbey's build. The Second Barons' War (1264–1267) had many causes. One major cause was the conflict between the Henry III's autocratic rule, often through favourites, and the wishes of the hereditary barons to have more of a say in government. A perhaps minor but significant cause of the war were the financial problems of Robert de Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby. His once vast weath came from the estate of Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester, whose sister, Robert's grandfather had married. By careful management, the estate had become worth around £1500, which meant that the Ferrers family was among the wealthiest in the country. However the estate was crippled by charges arising from William the 5th Earl's death. Firstly a third of its worth was accounted for by his mother's dower, which included the major asset of Chartley. Nearly half was supporting a debt of around £800 incurred by his father, which the exchequer was calling in. To pay this he had taken a further loan, possibly from Jewish financiers in Worcester. At the time christians were forbidden by papal edict from lending money for interest. Derby's solution to his financial worries was to join the rebel barons and, in February 1264, sack the Jewish quarter of Worcester, destroying all records of his debts. There is liitle doubt that the seemingly psychopathic Derby had a strong personal animosity to Edward: Robert of Gloucester observed that "Of no one was Edward more afraid." Derby however did not prosper, and the rebel alliance fell apart. The "local" aspect of the conflict is illustrated by the fact that, in 1264, de Montfort briefly became Earl of Chester. Given that the King and his son were in captivity at the time it would appear that the earldom was not given freely.
In 1265 the rebel barons were defeated at the Battle of Evesham. Beeston Castle and Chester Castle were soon recaptured. The royalist supporters of Henry III, James of Audley and Urien of St. Pierre, had besieged Luke de Taney, Simon de Montfort's justice of Chester, in Chester Castle for ten weeks. Taney surrendered upon news of de Montfort's defeat at Evesham, and Prince Edward himself occupied Chester, from where he sent out instructions described as his "first recorded act of state" as a "responsible adviser of the Crown", while not getting on with the Abbot and consuming his wine. The whole business is recorded in the Chester Chronicle as follows:
- "Dominus autem Eadwardus apud Herford die Jovis in Septimana Pentecostes de custodia Domini Simonis de monteforti evasit. Quo audito Jacobus de Audethlegio et V.de Sancto Petro, Sabbato sequenti castrum de Beuston nomine domini Edwardi ceperuntetdie Sancte Trinitatis Cestriam venientes de consilio civium, Lucam de Taney cum suis complicibus infra castrum Cestrie obsederunt per decem Septimanas continuas nec tamen illud obtinuerunt propter optimam inclusorum defencionem. Jacobus de Audethlegio factus est Justiciarius. Dominus vero Eadwardus interim associatis sibi Gilberto de Clare et aliis commarchionibus suis Simonem de Monte forti Henricum filium ejus Hugonem Disspenser, Petrum de Monte forti, Radulfum Basset et eorum complices sæpius [d]ebellavit et tandem eos apud Evsham ij. non. Maii in bello campestri prostravit: Winfridum de Bon, Henricum de Hasting, Guydonem de Monte forti in ipso bello captos apud castrum de D.(?) Beuston secum ducendo captivos. Audiens autem Lucas de Taney dominum Edwardum apud Beston venisse ij vigilias Asumpcionis castrum Cestrie reddidit eidem se suosque gratie sue subjiciendo. Quos idem Edwardus ad tempus incarceravit. Et postea paulatim et successive liberavit. Cumque dominus Edwardus multum irasceretur erga Simonem Abbatem Cestrie ingressum monasterii diucius precludens eidem, et multas intentans ei minas eoquod de licencia Domini Simonis de Monte forti et ipso inconsulto promotus esset tandem in primo ejusdem Abbatis adventu apud Beuston vigilia Asumpcionis contra spem multorum, dominus Edwardus divina inspiratione compunctus, ipsum Abbatem clementer admisit et de consilio domini Jacobi de Audithlegio tunc Justiciario Cestrie exitus monasterii adeo plene jussit eidem restitui, quod pro duobus doliis vini Abbatis tempore iracundiæ in familia ipsius domini Edwardi expensis: Alia duo dolia de Castro Cestrie extrahi et eidem reddi fecit Abbati." - But the lord Edward [the king's son] escaped from the custody of Simon de Montfort at Hereford on the Thursday [May 28] in Whit Week. When this was known James de Audley and Urian de Saint Pierre on the following Saturday seized the castle of Beeston in the name of the lord Edward, and coming to Chester on Trinity Sunday, they besieged Lucas de Taney and his accomplices in the castle of Chester for ten consecutive weeks, but did not succeed in taking it, on account of the excellent defence made by the besieged. James de Audley was made justiciary of Chester. In the meantime the lord Edward, Gilbert de Clare and others his fellow marchers being joined with him, made frequent attacks upon Simon de Montfort, Henry his son, Hugo Despencer, Peter de Montfort, Ralph Basset, and their accomplices, and at length completely overthrew them on the battlefield of Evesham on May 6. Humphrey de Bohun, Henry de Hastings, and Guy de Montfort, who were captured in this battle, Edward took with him as prisoners to Beeston castle. When Lucas de Taney heard that the lord Edward had come to Beeston, he surrendered the castle of Chester on the day before the eve of the Assumption [August 13], submitting himself and his companions to Edward's grace. For the time the same Edward imprisoned them, and afterwards gradually and successively liberated them. The lord Edward however was much enraged with Simon, abbot of Chester, for a long time refusing him access to the monastery, and holding out many threats to him, because he had been promoted by the licence of the lord Simon de Montfort, and without Edward having been consulted. At length, on the arrival of the same abbot at Beeston, on the vigil of the Assumption [August 14], the lord Edward contrary to the hope of many, but moved by divine inspiration, graciously admitted the said abbot, and by the advice of the lord James de Audley, then justiciary of Chester, commanded the revenues of the monastery to be so fully restored to him, that for two casks of wine consumed in the household of the said lord Edward, during the time of his anger against the abbot, he caused two other casks to be taken from the castle at Chester, and restored to the said abbot.
While de Montfort had held Chester Castle (see Earls of Chester), he had reached an arrangement with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, de Montfort. Earlier in 1265 de Montfort offered Llywelyn the sum of 30,000 marks in exchange for a permanent peace, in which Llywelyn was acknowledged as the Prince of Wales. The treaty established an alliance between Llywelyn and de Montfort, an alliance cemented by the widower Prince agreeing to a betrothal between himself and de Montfort's only daughter Eleanor. The favourable terms - that the fealty of all the Princes, Lords and Chieftains of Wales be recognised as belonging to Llywelyn by right of sovereignty - indicated de Montfort's desperate need for a counter to the power of the English Marcher Lords. This treaty of Pipton was something that Edward would neither forget nor forgive. Perhaps the monkish writer of the Chester Chronicle also provides a hint why Edward chose to be so lavish in his promises to the Cistercians. In October 1265 Humphrey (V) de Bohun died in captivity at Beeston Castle from injuries he had sustained at Evesham. Henry de Hastings was not apparently captured at Evesham but held out at Ely until shortly before his death in 1268. Guy de Montfort was held at Windsor Castle until spring 1266, when he bribed his captors and escaped to France to rejoin his exiled family. Guy and his brother, Simon the Younger, wandered across Europe for several years, eventually making their way to Italy. He was captured off the coast of Sicily in 1287 by the Aragonese at the Battle of the Counts and died in a Sicilian prison.
In 1266 negotiations were completed for the establishment of a Cistercian monastery in Darnhall in Cheshire. This was to be paid for with the manor house and estate of the Earls of Chester, which were now firmly back in royal hands, following the death, at Darnhall of the last Earl John Canmore, and the failure of his heirs to reclaim much of his estates. On 2 August 1270, on the eve of Edward's departure on crusade, a foundation charter was issued for the monastery of St. Mary, Darnhall: the monks were given the site of the house, Darnhall and Over manors, Langwith Hay in Wheldrake (Yorks), and the advowsons of Frodsham and Weaverham (Ches.) and of Ashbourne and Castleton (Derb.). It is likely that the original plan had already been modified as the endowment was hardly sufficient to support 100 monks and, according to a later tradition, the house was founded for a community numbering only 30. The process of foundation was slow: in January 1271 Henry III appealed to the abbeys and convents of England for theological books for the abbey which his son had "begun to found" at Darnhall and the first colonizing monks from Dore did not arrive until February 1274.
After the Second Barons' War (1264–1267), the Ash Brook was dammed to drive three water mills and to make pools to keep fish. The Cistercians built the abbey on the north bank of the new lake. However the land was not suitable for the grand scale of building envisaged, and the locals were not cooperative, so the monks left Darnhall to found Vale Royal Abbey. The abbey of Darnhall was re-established in "a precinct of the manor of Darnhall called Whetenehalewes and Munecheneswro", which Edward I, according to Ormerod "caused to be named Vallis Regalis", cf. Orm2 ii168. The first of the three names suggests that the place may have belonged to the nuns of Chester, who had estates hereabouts. In 1338, the earlier names of the site were so interpreted, "it was called Munechenwro which means Monks' Wood…because munechene means monk or nun, while wro means wood…the place was also called Quettennehalewes , which means Holy Wheat or Wheat of the Saints … for quettene is wheat and halewes saints".
In 1277 the King and Queen and numerous great nobles arrived at Over to lay the foundation stones of the new Abbey. In 1281 the monks moved from Darnhall to temporary accommodation on the Vale Royal site while the Abbey started to rise around them. King Edward had vast ambitions for Vale Royal. It was intended to be an Abbey of the first importance, to surpass all the other houses of its order in Britain in scale and beauty and provide a fitting symbol of the wealth and power of the English monarchy and Edward's piety and personal greatness. The plans for the buildings reflected this, and just to cement its importance Edward presented the abbey with a fragment of the "True Cross" such as often seemed to be an important purchase for any pious visitor to the Middle-East: St Johns in Chester had one too, and St Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine had bought three complete "true" crosses.
The nave of the abbey church was the longest in the country and the chapels surrounding the eastern end of the chancel were more akin to the Spanish cathedral of Toledo than the austerer designs for great churches in England. Royal masons under the leadership of Walter of Hereford, one of the foremost architects of his day, started work on a huge and elaborate high gothic church the size of a cathedral. It was to be 116m long. The design was cruciform in plan with a massive central tower and probably two other towers on the western end of the nave. The Black Prince commissioned a new east end for the chancel in 1359 with 13 chapels arranged in an elaborate chevet or fan shape, echoing the east end of the cathedral at Toledo in Spain. Some of these were square, some polygonal; each of the transepts also had a row of three chapels on its eastern side. South of the church stood a cloister, 42m square, surrounded by the domestic buildings of the house, which were to be of a scale and grandeur to match the church.
Work on the claustral buildings has been shown by excavation to have been less grand and some of the work may never have been completed to the original plan. As was usual in the plans of Cistercian monasteries, the claustral buildings formed a quadrangle around the cloister garth. The church formed the northern side of the cloister. The refectory and kitchen on the south side of the cloister were later remodelled as a south wing of Holcroft's house. On the east side was a large chapter house whose foundations and tiled floor have been located by ground survey and trial excavations. There is now no trace of the chapter house above ground. The size of the cloister garth (the area within the claustral buildings) was one of the largest in England, measuring 39m by 35m. The interior of the cloister, together with the large chapter house, have never been fully excavated but there are indications that considerable remains lie immediately below the ground surface. Further remains of ancillary buildings have been located in a trial excavation in the garden of Bell Cottage to the south of the southern claustral buildings. Stone was obtained by quarrying into the side of Eddisbury Hill followed by on-site trimming to avoid needless carriage, and then transported to the abbey site by one-horse and two-horse carts. The distance traversed would be about six miles. It was recorded that in a period of three years over thirty-five thousand journeys were made to carry stone, with some carts making two round trips a day.
Survey work around the site of the present house has also established that there were more remains of monastic buildings and related drainage works to the west of the present house frontage extending beneath and to the south western side of the present access road. Originally these buildings were located within a much larger precinct which would have been enclosed by a boundary wall. This would have been approached through the White Gates which gave their name to the hamlet with a church at the entrance to the present country house grounds. There is now no trace of the wall nor of the original gates which must have formed an impressive feature at the entrance to this large precinct. However, it is clear from the distance of Whitegates from the claustral buildings that the area of this precinct was large and probably bounded on the northern side by the River Weaver. The river would have supplied the monastic complex with water and there would have been an elaborate system of drainage and water management connected to the buildings
Early during construction, England became involved in war with Wales. As the treasury was thus in need of resources, Vale Royal lost all of its grants, skilled masons and builders. When work resumed in the late 14th century, the building was considerably smaller than originally planned. The project encountered other problems. The abbey was mismanaged and poor relations with the local population sparked outbreaks of violence on a number of occasions.
Henry III died in 1272 and was succeeded by Edward I. Relations between the new king and the Welsh prince swiftly deteriorated, not least because of Llywelyn's continued alliance with the de Montfort family. In 1276 Edward declared Llywelyn a rebel and the following year amassed an army to march on Conwy. Edward's men confiscated the substantial corn harvest in Anglesey, depriving Llywelyn's men of vital food supplies and forcing the Welsh prince to surrender. This led to the Treaty of Aberconwy, which guaranteed peace but limited Llywelyn's power to the west of the River Conwy. Although he retained the title Prince of Wales, he was no longer the overlord of other Welsh rulers. Although Llywelyn initially refused to acknowledge Edward as his sovereign ruler, he eventually paid homage to the king. In return Edward allowed Llywelyn to marry Eleanor de Montfort, who had been imprisoned in Windsor Castle. The pair married at Worcester Cathedral in 1278.
Building work was halted in about 1290 when royal patronage was withdrawn. After 1283 and the deaths of both Llywelyn and his brother Dafydd, Edward had embarked on a full-scale project of English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. Edward I's frequent military campaigns put a great financial strain on the nation. Edward had raised money by borrowing and other exactions on the English Jews. By 1290 he had exhausted that resource and expelled them. This not only generated revenues through royal appropriation of Jewish loans and property, but it also gave Edward the political capital to negotiate a substantial lay subsidy in the 1290 Parliament. He then turned to the church. In 1294, Edward made a demand of a grant of one half of all clerical revenues. The exact reasons for Edward's displeasure with the abbey are not clear but building money may have been diverted by the abbot to other purposes; royal displeasure was certainly incurred for that or some other reason since in 1290 the master of the works, Walter of Hereford, was informed that:
- "..the king has ceased to concern himself with the works of that church, and henceforth will have nothing more to do with them".
When Walter of Hereford sent to the royal Wardrobe to claim the robe he was annually issued as part of his contract, he was told this would be the last time, and he would receive neither wages nor robes from then on. Walter was soon in charge of building operations at Caernarfon Castle. 1290 also saw the death of Eleanor of Castile which had a major effect on Edward I. Queen Eleanor had left it a legacy of 350 marks in her will, with the intention of establishing a chantry at the Abbey in her name and contributing generally to the ongoing works. Twenty years later, the abbey was still owed over half this amount from her executors. By 1291 they were in arrears to the tune of £1,808; the King authorised a one-off payment of £808, but the remainder went unpaid until 1312, five years after King Edward's death.
In 1353 some disturbances seem to have broken out in Cheshire, for the Black Prince as Earl of Chester marched with Henry of Grosmont, now Duke of Lancaster to the neighbourhood of Chester to protect the justices, who were holding an assize there. The men of the earldom offered to pay him a heavy fine to bring the assize to an end, but when they thought they had arranged matters the justices opened an inquisition of trailbaston, took a large sum of money from them, and seized many houses and much land into the prince's, their earl's, hands. This was a major hit to the economy as the plague had just swept through Cheshire killing a third of the population. On his return from Chester the prince is said to have passed by the Abbey of Dieulacres in Staffordshire, to have seen a fine church which his great-grandfather, Edward I, had built there, and to have granted five hundred marks, a tenth of the sum he had taken from his earldom, towards its completion; the abbey was almost certainly not Dieulacres but Vale Royal. Work resumed and continued, with various setbacks, until about 1380. During a great storm on 19 October 1359, much of the nave (including the new lead roof installed by the previous abbot) was blown down and destroyed. The arcades of the unfinished nave were reduced to rubble. The destruction ranged "from the wall at the west end to the bell-tower before the gates of the choir", and the timber scaffolding collapsed "like trees uprooted by the wind".
In 1368 the master mason William de Hepleston received a commission from the Prince of Wales to recruit masons and workmen to work at Vale Royal. John de Helpstone worked in Chester and built the Watertower adjoining the City Walls between 1323 and 1325: he may have been a relative.
The history of the first four abbots, probably written by Abbot Peter in the 1330s, contains several accounts of attacks on the abbey and its superiors. The first abbot, John Chaumpeneys, was said to have overthrown the enemies "who would have attacked his house", while his successor, Walter of Hereford, prevented a group of armed men from forcing a passage through the precinct and defended the rights of his house in the courts against the justice of Chester. The third abbot, John of Hoo, complained that the justice, Robert Holland, had prevented the abbey and its tenants from enjoying their forest privileges and had denied the abbot custody of prisoners taken for offences in the abbey's manors. Abbot Hoo, who seems to have been a stern disciplinarian capable of expelling errant monks from the convent, cited the ill will of the common people, as well as his infirmities when he successfully asked royal permission to resign his office. His successor, Richard of Evesham, who had a reputation for sanctity yet guided the house safely through the 1316-18 famine, also had to face local hostility: he was attacked while collecting tithes and in 1320 one of his monks was attacked at Tarvin and one of his servants was killed at Darnhall. The servant, John de Budworth, passes into history with his head being used as a football by his attackers who were members of the Oldyngton (Oulton) family.
It was the fifth abbot of Vale Royal who had to deal with the most determined and persistent hostility from the abbey's tenants at Darnhall and Over. Abbot Peter, who held office between 1322 and 1339, was an energetic defender of the rights of his house and, by later repute, a man of great wisdom. In 1328 the abbey came under attack from several quarters. Its claim to Kirkham church was challenged by the archbishop of York and was defended by Walter Welsh, the cellarer and Abbot Peter's closest associate. The abbot appeared in person at the Northampton parliament to claim rights of estover and pasture which were being withheld by forest officials; having obtained charters of confirmation he immediately returned to Vale Royal to deal with his rebellious tenants. The tenants, aggrieved by exceptionally harsh exploitation, had carried their complaints against their new landlords, together with their plough-shares, directly to their former lord but were told by Edward, "as villeins you have come and as villeins you shall return". On their return the abbot had seized their goods and thrown them out of their houses. The dispute reached a climax in 1328 when the bond tenants, whose claims to trial by jury and to the leasing of their land without licence were denied in the manor court, rose in arms and their ringleaders were imprisoned. The men of Darnhall attacked the abbot and cellarer as they were travelling through Rutland and killed the abbot's groom. They were captured and eventually submitted to the abbot but not before three of their leaders had tried to lay further bills of complaint in the county court. Probably in the course of a later attack on the houses, crops, and possessions of Vale Royal in 1339 Abbot Peter and his cellarer (Walter le Walche) were killed.
That the state of the people of Darnhall was a complete serfdom or vassalage to the monastery of Vale Royal is illustrated by the fact that they could not marry their daughters out of the manor without permission. The monastery tenants had to resort to the abbey mills and pay pasturage for their hogs. When any native of nearby Darnhall died, the Abbot became entitled to:
- "His pigs and capons, his horses at grass, his domestic horse, his bees, his pork, his linen and woollen clothes, his money in gold and silver and his vessels of brass."
In fact the Abbot stripped the dead of everything leaving him nothing, by all accounts, but his winding sheet.
Relations with the gentry were no better in the later middle ages than they had been with the tenantry years earlier, and the gentry also often came to blows with the monks. The abbey was involved in feuds with a number of the prominent local families, frequently ending in large-scale violence. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Vale Royal was beset by other scandals. Many abbots were incompetent, venal, or criminally inclined, and the house was often grossly mismanaged. Discipline grew lax; disorder at the abbey during this period prompted reports of serious crimes, including attempted murder. Abbot Henry Arrowsmith, who had a particular reputation for lawlessness, was hacked to death in 1437 by a group of men in revenge for a suspected rape by one of the abbey's monks: the vicar of Over drove his sword several times through the abbot's throat to make sure that Arrowsmith was dead. Although the abbey was taken under royal supervision in 1439, there was no immediate improvement, and Vale Royal of the General Chapter, the international Cistercian governing body, during the 1450s. The chapter ordered senior abbots to investigate the abbey, which the abbots concluded was in a "damnable and sinister" situation in 1455.
Vale Royal was closed in 1538 by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the Monasteries campaign, although not without controversy. In the course of the proceedings, the abbot was accused of treason and murder, and he in turn accused the King's men of fraudulently forging the abbot's signature on essential legal documents.
The buildings and estate were sold to Thomas Holcroft who demolished most of the abbey buildings and sold or re-used the materials to build his country house on the site. He remodelled the west range of the claustral buildings of the abbey to create the core of the house which now stands in the middle of the site. Holcroft made his fortune mainly by speculation in monastic lands. Initially he was appointed by Thomas Cromwell to assist the commissioners for the Dissolution of the monasteries in Lancashire. He went on to act as receiver of monastic estates. He then moved into the leasing, purchase, development and resale of lands. He spent a total of £3,798 on monastic estates. As chantries and colleges of secular canons were swept away in a later round of dissolutions, Holcroft served as commissioner for chantries in Cheshire, Lancashire and Chester in 1546, commissioner of goods of churches and fraternities for Cheshire in 1553. Vale Royal had become riven by political dissension long before it was dissolved, and as early as 1529 an inquiry, probably under the reformer Rowland Lee, had deposed the abbot and sought to bring the abbey under stricter discipline.
As dissolution became more certain, Abbot John Hareware or Harwood began to lease out the abbey lands wholesale to realise what value he could, coming into direct conflict with Thomas Cromwell, who had himself appointed steward of Vale Royal. As commissioner, Holcroft accepted surrender of the house on 7 September 1538. However, the abbot then challenged the validity of Holcroft's commission and denied that the surrender had taken place. Holcroft responded with a litany of charges of sharp practice against the abbot. He claimed Hareware had tried to get leases ante-dated and that he had tried to get sole permission to remain in the abbey. He had got personal possession of the abbey plate and numerous other items and cash, allegedly to pay off creditors. Holcroft pointed out that the abbot had run down the property disastrously by leasing demesne lands, depleting stock and felling 5000 trees. The abbot and his monks were compelled to leave in December. Holcroft initially leased the property and bought it outright in 1544.
After the dissolution of the abbey the monk's church at Whitegate was made parochial (Statute 33 Henry VIII, cap. 32, v. Orm2 ii145) and the newly created parish of Whitegate or New-Church consisted of Darnhall township, part of Over township (the demesne lands about the site of the abbey, shown as Whitegate township in 1831, together with Gavel Green, Salterswall, Brook Ho, Sutton Grange and Knights Grange), and most of Marton township (all except a few fields about Marton hamlet and Marton Ho), and part of Weaverham township (Hefferston Grange, Earnslow Grange, Conewardsley , Weaverhamwood and part of Sandiway 203, 207, 207, 210, 208infra ). The parish of Whitegate was divided into two parts (v. Orm2 ii145, ChetOS viii264), Darnhall (containing only Darnhall township), and Newchurch (the rest).
In Cheshire the Reformation can be seen in the broader context of the conversion of a feudal heirarchy to a land-owning gentry. The situation in Cheshire was in some ways unique because of the county's Palatinate past and a degree of independence from the rest of England. Ever since the Crown annexed the earldom in 1237, the integration of the Palatinate with the nation had been under way. But it was the sixteenth century which saw the decisive conclusion, after which the men of the county, or at least the elite, accepted that they were part of the English political nation. This was not to be the end of it: family feuds would continue into the Civil War and linger on as the Jacobite cause.
The Cholmondeley family descends from William le Belward (or de Belward), the feudal lord of the barony of Malpas in Cheshire who acquired the lordship of "Calmundelai" (as it was spelt in the Domesday Book) through his wife Beatrix, daughter of Hugh de Kevelioc Earl of Chester. Their eldest son David le Belward inherited the feudal barony of Malpas and was the ancestor of the Egerton family. The second son, Robert le Belward, became feudal lord of the barony of Cholmondeley, which he passed to his son Sir Hugh de Cholmondeley (or "Chelmundeleih"), who adopted the new surname. The present country house on the site incorporates substantial parts of the south and west ranges of the abbey plus Holcroft’s Tudor house.
During the Civil War the parliamentarian Sir Thomas Aston exercised all manner of outrages and intolerable taxes. In March 1642 he:
- "plundered Weaverham and the countrie about, they carried old men out of their homes, bound them together, tyde them to a cart, drave them through mire and water above the knees, so brought them to that Dungeon where they lie without fire or light, and now through extremities are so diseased that they are readie to yield up the Ghost."
Like many long-standing families the Civil War is remembered in what are most likely myths. The following, concerning the keeping of a Chillingham herd being recorded in 1848:
- "During the Civil Wars the whole family were very active in support of the Royal cause and consequently suffered severely. A detachment from General Lambert's army then engaged in besieging Beeston Castle plundered Vale Royal and after stripping it of every valuable article of decoration or furniture burnt one of the wings which appeared to have been the refectory of the Abbey from the marks on the bare walls which were standing till within these few years. With this event tradition has connected the singular tale of the household being for some time solely supported by the milk of a white cow which had found means to escape from the soldiers who had seized and were conveying her to their camp with the other cattle. Whatever might be the truth, it is certain that her posterity has been preserved from feelings of gratitude and white cows with red ears of the very same breed are still kept at Vale Royal."
In the 96 years from 1734 to 1830, representatives for the county of Cheshire were drawn from only five families. These can be identified from Ormerod's table as Crewe, Cotton of Combermere, Davenport of Capesthorne, Egerton of Tatton and Cholmondeley of Vale Royal. Of the ten members who served, four remained until they died and six sat for between 12 and 34 years. Elections were rarely contested. The Cholmondeley family remodelled the exterior of Vale Royal during the 18th century, and Thomas Cholmondeley carried out extensive work in the early 1800s. Substantial alterations were carried out under the auspices of Edward Blore in 1833 and by John Douglas from 1860. Sold soon after the Second World War, it was turned into a private golf club. The building remains habitable and contains parts of the medieval abbey, including its refectory and kitchen. The foundations of the church and cloister have been excavated.
Sir Hugh Cholmondeley (the elder: 1513 – 6 January 1596) married first Ann or Amy Dorman in 1540/41. She was the coheiress of Sir George Dorman of Malpas. She was buried at Malpas on 18 April 1571. All the children of Sir Hugh the elder are from this marriage. Subsequently Sir Hugh married Mary, the daughter of Sir William Griffiths or Gruffydd of Penrhyn. She was the widow of Sir Randall Brereton of Malpas but this union produced no further issue. Mary is buried at Malpas with an impressive monument to her and her second husband.
Mary, Lady Cholmondeley (1563–1625) was a British litigant in a long dispute over her father's estate. She was born as Mary Holford in late 1562 or January 1563 to Christopher Holford and his second wife Elizabeth Mainwaring at Holford Manor, Great Budworth, and baptised on 20 January 1563. Mary is historically notable as a consequence of the legal disputes over Holford Manor and the estates of her father, Christopher Holford, who died on 27 January 1581, when Mary was 18. Her father's half-brother, George Holford of Newborough, was the next male-heir of the Holfords, but the recently married Mary challenged his legal claim to the land. She married Hugh Cholmondeley (the younger) around 1581. The case would not be resolved until friends prevailed upon the litigants, about 1620, to take equal shares: Mary Cholmondeley received the Holford manorhouse and George Holford received the manor of Iscoyd in Flintshire (a parcel of land which had also been the subject of complex disputes).
Her husband, Sir Hugh Cholmondeley the younger (1552–1601), was MP for Cheshire in 1585, knighted in 1588 and High Sheriff of Cheshire for 1589 (but see note below). Her eldest son Robert was created Earl of Leinster in 1646; another son, Hugh, was the ancestor of the Marquesses of Cholmondeley; while yet another son, Thomas, was the ancestor of the Barons Delamere of Vale Royal; her daughter Lettice Cholmondeley married Sir Richard Grosvenor, 1st Baronet of the Grosvenors. In 1604 she had received a grant of special grace from James. Dated 21 May 1604, it applied to "homicides, felonies, transgressions, and other offences committed before the death of Elizabeth I". The deed also referred to "acts of rape, incest, buggery and witchcraft". The circumstances which led to this deed are unknown, but the wording may be a "catch-all" formula.
In 1615, the widowed Mary Cholmondeley bought Vale Royal Abbey and its surrounding land for £900. Some accounts suggest that she purchased it from the Pershalls (who had acquired it from the Holcrofts) when the Pershalls were in financial distress (they eventually went bankrupt) - certainly the Cholmondeleys were to add to their estates by purchase from the Pershalls (of whom at least one was to die as a debtor in the Fleet prison). She rebuilt the old hall, and in 1625 added a half-timbered wing. James I held court at Vale Royal for three or four days in August 1617 (see: Leche House for more on this) and visited Chester for a few hours. The brevity of James's visit may have disappointed the citizenry of Chester, for the Corporation assembly book records that:
- "the streetes to be cleansed, houses to be outwardly beautified if his Maiestie should happilie by his presence so honor this Citie"
King James dubbed Mary Cholmondeley the "bolde lady of Cheshire" because she rebuffed his offer to advance the political careers of her sons (for which the King probably wanted a significant financial contribution). She lived at Vale Royal from 1616 to her death.
The family history of the Cholmondeley's of Vale Royal is often misquoted. There is scope for some confusion between Sir Hugh the elder and the younger and Thornber mentions that indeed the Dictionary of National Biography has Sir Hugh the elder married to Mary Holford. Thornber also informs us that the monument at Malpas indicates that it was Sir Hugh the elder who was Sheriff of Cheshire again in 1588. Some authors have Mary Holford being married to Cholmondeley at the age of 15, others even have an earlier marriage between Mary Holford and Christopher Converse.
The following is believed to be correct for the line at Vale Royal:
- Hugh Cholmondeley (the elder: 1513 – 6 January 1596) = Amy Dorman;
- Sir Hugh Cholmondeley the younger (1552–1601), son = Mary Cholmondeley (1563–1625) - Mary purchased Vale Royal;
- Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, born 2 March 1594/5. Sheriff of Cheshire 1638, died 3 January 1652/3;
- Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, born 15 September 1627, Sheriff of Cheshire in 1660; MP 1669, died 26 February 1701/2
- Charles Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, born 12 January 1684/5, MP 1710, died 30 March 1756 - "Nixon" prophecy;
- Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, born 1726, MP 1756, died 2 June 1779 = Dorothy Cowper of Overleigh, Chester;
- Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, born 9 August 1767, Sheriff of Cheshire, MP 1796, created Baron Delamere of Vale Royal 17 August 1821, died 30 September 1855;
- Hugh Cholmondeley, 2nd Lord Delamere, born 3 October 1811, Colonel of the Royal Cheshire Militia, died 1 August 1887;
- Hugh Cholmondley, 3rd Lord Delamere, born 28 April 1870 succeeded to the title at the age of 17, died 13 November 1931 - went to Kenya;
- Thomas Pitt Hamilton Cholmondeley, 4th Lord Delamere, born 14 August 1900, died 13 April 1979 - Thomas sold Vale Royal;
The traditional ballad "Lord Delamere" is included by Egerton Leigh in his Ballads & Legends of Cheshire (1867), but there is no historical evidence that the events it concerns actually took place. The story is that when King James proposesd a new tax, Lord Delamere asks if he can take all the poor of the land to Cheshire and hang them as it would be better than starving to death because of the proposed tax. Another lord, either French or Dutch, says Delamere deserves to die for insulting the king, but Devonshire, fighting on behalf of Delamere, who is under-age, kills the lord and finds he is wearing the king's armour. While Child's version refers to Cheshire, other versions of the ballad refer to Lincolnshire rather than Cheshire. It would appear that the tax is associated with the Corn Laws.
The ballad has been associated with the Cholmondeleys but that makes no sense. The Delamere title used by the Cholmondeleys only came into existence later than the flight of James II. The only "Lord Delamere" who lived during the reign of a James was Henry Booth (13 January 1652 – 2 January 1694), son of George Booth, Baron Delamer (without the final "e") and Lady Elizabeth Grey. Booth became Lord Delamer in 1684, when he was in his 30s. Booth was a Member of Parliament, Privy Councillor, Protestant protagonist in the Revolution of 1688, Mayor of Chester and author. At a treason trial in the House of Lords in January 1685/6, Delamer was accused of participation in the Monmouth Rebellion, and the presiding judge in the case was "Hanging" Judge Jeffreys, as Lord High Steward, sitting with thirty other peers. The defence secured an acquittal. During the Revolution of 1688, Booth declared in favour of William of Orange, and raised an army in Cheshire in support of him. After William was installed as William III, he made Booth chancellor of the exchequer in 1689. He wrote a number of political tracts, which were published after his death as The Works of the Right Honourable Henry, Late L. Delamer, and Earl of Warrington. He also authored a tract in vindication of his friend, Lord Russel. He was created Earl of Warrington on 17 April 1690. He became mayor of Chester in October 1691.
The association with Cheshire and the Cholmondeley "Lord Delamere" possibly arises from the modification of an existing ballad after 1821 as the Corn Laws were a major issue at the time. Earlier versions of the ballad appear to relate to Lord Delaware or De-la-ware. Delaware lived in the time of James I.
Robert Nixon was a legendary prophet of Cheshire. Many accounts about him appear to be in conflict with each other and he most likely never existed in reality. At least one account has Robert Nixon being born in c. 1467. In this account, he is the son of John Nixon during the time of Edward IV (28 April 1442 – 9 April 1483), who leased a farm in the parish of Over from Vale Royal Abbey. The account has him alive at the time of the battle of Bosworth (1485) and later taken to the court of Henry Tudor. Another account of Nixon states that he was born during the reign of James I (1603–25) and that he was for some time in the service of Thomas Cholmondeley, master of Vale Royal after 1625, before being taken to James' court. There are also two claimed homes for Robert Nixon: one says he was an illiterate dullard who was born in Bark House on a hill between Over and Whitegate. Alternatively, another source claims Robert Nixon lived at Bridge House near the Forest of Delamere. The mention of Henry Tudor and James I are interesting: Henry Tudor visited the monastery on his trip to Cheshire in 1492 and the next monarch to set foot in the county was James I who stayed at Vale Royal in 1617.
Nixon is the claimed source of various prophecies circulating in the early 18th Century and published in leaflet form. Many of the prophecies relate to the Cholmondeley family who were living at Vale Royal Abbey mansion at the time of the 1714 and 1745 Jacobite rebellions, but it was another branch of the Cholmondeleys (George Cholmondeley, 2nd Earl of Cholmondeley and his son James) who supported William III, George I, and were more involved with the Jacobite risings. By the late 17th century the Nixon prophecies, largely sourced from Thomas the Rhymer and others in "The Whole Prophecies of Scotland, England, Ireland France …", published in Edinburgh in 1603 and running into several editions, was being read as a pro-Jacobite text. It seems the prophecies of Robert Nixon were invented or modified to suit the political situation at that time. John Oldmixon, a Whig supporter of the new Hanoverian monarch in 1714, and noted on the title-page as editor, reissued the prophecies with an alteration to the last lines, proclaiming King George by name; but by the 1838 edition the text had reverted to the earlier reference to Richard. Oldmixon's version appears to have been based upon that printed by Abigail Baldwin before 1713 and parodied by Henry Fielding in his 1749 novel "The History of Tom Jones":
- "..all the prophecies I have ever read speak of a great deal of blood to be spilt in the quarrel, and the miller with three thumbs, who is now alive, is to hold the horses of three kings, up to his knees in blood. Lord, have mercy upon us all, and send better times!"
For Fielding to make an effective pun out of the prophecies of Nixon he must have expected them to be known to his own intended audience.
Abigail Baldwin and her husband were frequently accused of publishing seditious pamphlets. Richard Baldwin was summoned to answer a case that he had published libels against the prosecution in a case involving the Earl of Shaftesbury. He was found guilty by the Lord Chief Justice but he was released within a week after promising to behave better. He did not and the Baldwins were frequently in trouble. In 1690 he found himself in Newgate Prison for High Treason. Unusually he obtained bail. His wife continued as a publisher after his death, being at one time the publisher of "The Tatler". It is claimed that Abigail Baldwin was also involved with the publication of the "Female Tatler". The "prophecies" of Nixon were republished in 1719 as "The Life of Robert Nixon" by William Ewers, and were in their 21st printing in 1745.
The earliest of the Nixon prophescies relating directly to Vale Royal is one in which he apparently stated that an eagle would build its nest at Vale Royal. Holcroft (1505/6-58) apparently had an eagle in his arms, so the prophecy was "proved". That the prophecies long had an association with Vale Royal is evidenced by "The Patrician" from 1848, where the following is recorded:
- "The library is very large and valuable among its most choice rarities are writings called The Prophecies of Nixon the famous Cheshire Prophet these are preserved with the greatest care no stranger being permitted to see them."
One particular link between the Nixon prophecies and the Cholmondeleys is recorded by Lysons (Magna Britannia, 1810) and concerns the birth of an heir to the Cholmondeleys in 1685. Thomas Cholmondeley, son of Hugh, had died in January 1652/3, leaving a second Thomas to inherit the estates. Thomas II married Jane Tollemache but all his sons were dead by the end of 1679, and Jane had died in childbirth in 1666. Thomas then married Anne St John and an heir, Charles, was born in January 1684/5 when Thomas was in his late 50's. The sub-text here is the "miraculous" arrival of a genuine successor just when hope had almost run out. This follows a typical pattern of the use of prophecy for propaganda purposes: (a) a prophet is stated to have said that X would happen (in this case the birth of a Cholmondeley heir), (b) it is shown that such did happen, so an as yet unfulfilled prophecy (a Jacobite heir) must also be true. Typically, the first event is something that is both well-known locally and also surprising. The year would also have been memorable as James II became king in February 1685, resulting in the rapid defeat of the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion in England and Argyll's Rising in Scotland.
Jacobite support in the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland was rooted partly in specific religious communities and among those whose political beliefs encompassed the core Stuart doctrines of divine right, sacred kingship and indefeasible hereditary right. However, the motivation of individual Jacobites varied widely across the Stuarts' former realms: establishing motivation is complicated by the fact that "by and large, those who wrote most did not act, and those who acted wrote little, if anything". Historians have characterised the movement in a variety of ways, including as a revolutionary extension of anti-Court, "Country" ideology; an aristocratic reaction against a growth in executive power; and a simple conflict between feudalism and capitalism. In England and Wales, Jacobitism was often associated with the Tories, many of whom supported James's right to the throne during the Exclusion Crisis. Tory ideology implied that neither "time nor statute law [...] could ameliorate the sin of usurpation", while shared Tory and Jacobite themes of divine right and sacred kingship may have provided an alternative to Whig concepts of "liberty and property".
Traditionally Nixon is supposed to have predicted his own death, stating that if he went to see the king he would be starved or suffocated to death. Legend has it that the king ensured that Nixon had access to the kitchens at all times. However Nixon was not only a dullard but also a glutton and was forever tasting meat - usually by licking it while it was being dished-up. To prevent him doing this when the king was called away he was locked in a cupboard, where he was forgotten and perished. Antiquarian Egerton Leigh in his Ballads & legends of Cheshire effectively claimed that Nixon never existed and noted that while "the lower orders" of Cheshire will believe any story about him, all that he had himself investigated proved to be untrue.
The existence in print of the Nixon prophecies raises the interesting issue of who the target audience was meant to be, given that literacy rates among "the lower orders" would have been low and books and pamphlets an expensive luxury. The literacy rate in England in the 1640s was around 30 percent for males, rising to 60 percent in the mid-18th century. For those with the right to vote, who might be seen as another target audience the numbers are even smaller: a survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people - less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million.
The area around Vale Royal played an important part in the Industrial Revolution. The starting date for that is normally taken around 1707 when Abraham Darby, a brassfounder at Bristol, patented a "new" method of casting iron pots. His pots were thinner, and hence cheaper than those made by older means. In 1709 he acquired Coalbrookdale Furnace and succeeded in smelting iron using coke. Vale Royal Furnace was built by Thomas Hall for the Cheshire Partnership in 1696. It was most unusual in being a considerable distance from any source of iron ore. They used haematite ore from Furness and west Cumberland, brought by sea to Frodsham, and mixed with some Staffordshire ironstone. The consequent need for road transport in the area undoubtedly had an impact on the development of local turnpikes. When Abraham Darby died in 1717, only 39 years old, it was Thomas Baylies who took up the the Coalbrookdale Company's expansion plans which included the purchase of the Vale Royal furnace in Cheshire. In 1718 Thomas Baylies formed a new partnership, The Vale Royal Company, to operate the furnace. And to raise the necessary capital for the new venture he recruited three powerful partners one of which was Charles Cholmondeley (12 January 1685 – 1756) of Vale Royal Abbey. Charles Cholmondeley was scathing about the debts that soon piled up. In a letter in 1729 he wrote -
- "The melancholy state of my affaires hath often turned my head & my resolution hath failed me, the fretting hath once or twice given me a fit of illness, to see myself bought into such unfortunate circumstances by the obstinacy of one man (Richard Turner) & being engaged with him in that unlucky partnership has lost me £10,000 besides other disadvantages"
The Vale Royal furnace was probably never financially viable. It had been set-up to use charcoal from Delamere Forest and only limited water-power was available to operate bellows. The failed venture forced Cholmondeley to make an assignment of his estate for the benefit of his creditors.
Mostly however, the industrial history of the area is concerned with salt. On 25 March 1724 an agreement was drawn up between Charles Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, William Toft, apothecary of Middlewich, and George Wilkinson, "late of Middlewich and now of Winsford", yeoman for a lease of the Winsford Salt Works and a brine pit for £80 a year. Salt is associated with the ‘wich’ settlements of the Weaver Valley: Leftwich, Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich: "wic" being an Ango-Saxon place name element associated with craft activity. It was industry that led to the development of the Bridgewater Canal (for coal) and the Weaver Navigation (for salt). The real growth of Winsford began after 1796, following George Dudley’s prospection for brine. He struck a powerful source and opened the first works in Winsford that used brine pumped from boreholes. Much of the land at that time was owned by Thomas Cholmondeley who let out plots on 50 year leases. Prior to investing in the Vale Royal Furnace Charles Cholmondley had objected to the development of the Weaver Navigation on the grounds that this would be detrimental to his agricultural interests, however the real reasons were probably the traditional aversion of land-owners to having their land purchased and the effect of the Navigation on his own salt interests as it would concentrate both salt production and carrying with a few proprietors around Northwich. Objections resulted in Bills laid before Parliament in 1711, 1715, 1718 and 1720 being defeated.
The Triassic rock salt, or halite, at Winsford is arranged in seams some 25m thick, sometimes mixed with bands of Keuper Marl. Water has penetrated the upper seams, giving rise to the brine springs, but what Charles Cholmondeley didn't know was that the deepest beds of dry salt lie beneath a layer of impervious marl. The two workable seams are 130-220m below the surface, with the purest salt in the deepest part of the seam. Formerly known as Meadow Bank Mine, Winsford Rock Salt Mine officially opened in 1844, when Shafts 1 and 2 were sunk. Each shaft was 1.2m square, and lined with timber and puddle clay. Both shafts were originally 64m deep but were later extended to 152m deep to reach better quality salt. Today this mine is Britain’s oldest working mine and the last salt mine on the mainland. As of 2020 the mine covers an underground area of 5km east to west and 3km north to south, with some 23 million cubic metres of void space connected by 222km of tunnels. It is estimated that 50 million tonnes of rock salt has been extracted in the past 50 years. For centuries the Cholmondeleys had lived on top of a massively valuable mineral resource without knowing it.
The Weaver Navigation's first locks were located at Vale Royal Lock built in 1791, and is today’s sluice gate. A second lock was added alongside in 1861 with the bullnose in between as part of a scheme to increase the depth, capacity and efficiency. A third big lock was added to the south of the small lock in 1889. The bullnose’s original foundations and canal bed were never designed to cope with what grew into such a substantial and busy lock system. On 28th August 2003. the bullnose partially collapsed into the water. Opening and closing the lock and sluice gate had, over time, scoured the canal bed either side of the bullnose eventually undermining the structure and causing it to collapse.
Salt became a vital ingredient for the chemicals industry. The so-called "Leblanc process" used salt, limestone, coal and sulphuric acid to make soda-ash and potash both being important to the glass, paper, soap and textile industries. The process was inefficient and polluting. In 1861, the Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay developed a more direct process for producing soda ash from salt and limestone through the use of ammonia. The only waste product of this Solvay process was calcium chloride, and so it was both more economical and less polluting than the Leblanc method. From the late 1870s, Solvay-based soda works on the European continent provided stiff competition in their home markets to the Leblanc-based British soda industry. Additionally the Brunner Mond Solvay plant which opened in 1874 at Winnington near Northwich provided fierce competition nationally. Leblanc producers were unable to compete with Solvay soda ash.
One result of the Industrial Revolution was a new breed of men who had earned huge amounts of money in their business but did not have the social standing of the original landed gentry, and Robert Dempster a gas industrialist, was no exception. In 1907 Robert leased the great house of Vale Royal from Lord Delamere who was by this time already living in Kenya. There were 18 gardeners and so many timepieces that it took a specialist four hours to wind them each week. The family travelled extensively and visited many "relics" while abroad. Dempster's second daughter, Edith, lived at Vale Royal with her father until his 1925 death in South Africa. He was buried at Whitegate Church, near the abbey. Edith inherited half of his fortune and all of his personal effects, including the lease on Vale Royal. In the spring of 1926, she married Frank Pretty at Whitegate Church. Edith gave up the lease on Vale Royal and purchased the relatively-modest Sutton Hoo estate later that year. Frank died at the end of 1934. Edith had become interested in spiritualism and had a general interest in matters relating to the past. Edith hired archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate some of the mounds on her Sutton Hoo estate in 1939, discovering northern Europe's richest Anglo-Saxon burial ground.
The Nun's Grave
A stone circular monument, known as the "Nun’s Grave", traditionally commemorates a fourteenth century Cheshire nun, Ida, who tended a sick Vale Royal abbot, and on her death was buried at the site of the high altar. Pevsner's "Buildings of England" has described the monument as looking "convincingly late 13th-century". In fact, the monument was most likely erected by the Cholmondeley family, possibly to lend credence to the legend of the nun, or possibly just as an ornament. The material in its construction comes from three sources: the head made from a medieval cross with four panels depicting the Crucifixion, the Virgin and Child, St. Catherine, and St. Nicholas; the shaft, made in the seventeenth century of sandstone; and a plinth made from reclaimed abbey masonry. The monument probably dates from after 1813 and has been relocated at least once. Pevsner failed to note that the disparate parts of the monument are in places held together by iron strips - not a medieval form of construction.
The story was popularised by the historical novel of John Henry Cooke from 1912 entitled "Ida" : or, The mystery of the nun's grave at Vale Royal Abbey, Cheshire. This gives a "pictorial" account of the life of the monks and nuns in the dissolved monastic institutions of Vale Royal Abbey, Norton Priory, Runcorn, and St. Mary's Nunnery, Chester, in the times of Edward I., Edward II., and Edward III. (A.D. 1277 to 1336). This may have been written to arouse local interest, to coincide with the excavations of 1911-12 of Vale Royal by Basil Pendleton, a Manchester architect. Cooke was a local solicitor and the first clerk in 1875 of the newly formed Winsford Local Board, clerk to Over School Board and the solicitor who did most of the work for the salt union. He formed the Liberal Unionists Association and he was the first local historian ever to emerge from the then new town of Winsford. Admittedly, John Henry's somewhat fanciful and unlikely tale of love may have been distorted from fact as, supposedly, a book was found along with the Vale Royal manuscripts, entitled "Sweet Rememberances of Ida Marion Godman, Ye nun of St Mary's Convent, Chester". Cooke is the only source for the existence of this book and finding a lost book is a common plot device in "gothic novels". Others believe that Cooke made the whole story of the nun up. Certainly this may have been acceptable to newly-rich gas engineer Dempster who had recently leased an aristocratic home and possibly sought to associate himself with a romantic vision of the past.
Also in the grounds is a monument to Lady Delamere at Monk's Well Cottage. The monument is dated 1852, of red sandstone ashlar with an octagonal canopy sheltering the octagonal monument. The canopy has diagonal buttresses to the angles with offsets. Arched doorway with monogram and date to sprandrels. To the other sides are arched cusped openings above low walls. String course above and parapet above that inscribed "HER CHILDREN/ARISE UP AND CALL/HER BLESSED: HER/HUSBAND ALSO. AND/HE PRAISETH HER/PROV: XXXI. VER. XXXVIII". Stepped roof above of ashlar with cross at apex. Monument within has octagonal lower body with linked coat of arms in quatrefoil opposite doorway. String course dividing this from the upper body which has 4 diagonal buttresses framing panel opposite doorway and to rear of th "is. Panel opposite doorway has a copper plaque inscribed in Gothic lettering: "In grateful acknowledgement/of a debt of love which can/never be fully repaid/This memorial was raised/to Henrietta Elizabeth Lady/Delamere, the most excellent of/Wives and the best and kindest/of Mothers by her Husband/and her children/MDCCCLII".
Henrietta Elizabeth Williams Wynn was the younger daughter of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 4th Baronet, and his second wife, Charlotte, daughter of George Grenville, and sister of the Marquess of Buckingham. She married, 17 December 1810, Thomas Cholmondeley, of Vale Royal in Cheshire. He was created Baron Delamere of Vale Royal 17 July 1821. Cholmondeley has been descibed as:
- ".. an idiot who decided it would be impressive to have a peerage. He thought he had a bargain when he paid 5,000 for it. The only problem was that the going rate was 1,200."
Cholmondeley, a substantial Cheshire landowner by inheritance and purchase, was second cousin to Pitt. He stood for the county, which his grandfather and father had represented for 51 years between 1710 and 1768, at the general election of 1796, when the ministerialist sitting Member unexpectedly retired. It was said that Earl Grosvenor encouraged him to do so, "for fear he should be troublesome to him" at Chester. It is probable that Cholmondeley applied for a peerage because he was such a useless MP, having rarely turned up and unlikely to be re-elected, A peerage would bring a seat in the House of Lords without the need for an election.
In 1820 the sitting Members for the county were the resolutely independent Davies Davenport of Capesthorne, first returned in May 1806, and his colleague since 1812 Wilbraham Egerton of Tatton Park, a wealthy Tory whose support for Lord Liverpool’s administration was tempered by his readiness to represent local interests. There was no shortage of alternative candidates among the county families. Hitherto, the richest of them, the Whig Grosvenors of Eaton Hall, Chester, had confined their attentions to the troublesome City constituency, but in 1830 the 2nd earl’s heir Lord Belgrave exchanged his city for a county seat. His success, which proved costly and short-lived, owed much to Grosvenor’s ability to provide seats elsewhere for his allies and potential rivals among the Cheshire Whigs. The towns marked the death of George III in 1820 with the customary proclamations and addresses and the ensuing general election took place in the uneasy atmosphere generated by divisions between the Tories and Grosvenor over the deployment of the Militia at Peterloo and its subsequent enlargement by subscription. The county met at Northwich to adopt the customary addresses of condolence and congratulation, 3 March. The former Tory Member Thomas Cholmondeley proposed and Mainwaring seconded the address. Grosvenor’s attempt to introduce as an amendment an address criticizing ministers similar to that adopted at Chester, 9 Jan., was shouted down (apparently in response to a prearranged signal from Cholmondeley).
Mogg's Handbook for Railway Travellers (1840) describes the house at this time:
- "The present mansion consists of a centre with two projecting wings of red stone the right one being continued behind the centre. The stone basement appears by the doors and windows to be a fragment of the old abbey but every other semblance of the monastic edifice has been destroyed by alterations notwithstanding which and the lowness of the elevation the building being approached by well wooded grounds bursts at once upon the eye in a very striking manner and its extensive front assumes considerable dignity. A large porch in the centre of the front is the present entrance from whence a long corridor leads to a flight of stairs that conducts the visitor to an anteroom hung round with the antlers of various animals and a number of ancient weapons the windows of this apartment and the corridor below are decorated with a profusion of stained glass in the ancient style. A door opens hence to the eating room and a corresponding one leads over the old wing through a long gallery to the different bed chambers. The drawing rooms and library are situated beyond the great hall which is on the other side and is a magnificent apartment now used as the principal sitting-room it is of very spacious dimensions and has a coved roof richly carved in the style of the seventeenth century; it is altogether far superior to most college halls and is also decorated with a large and valuable collection of family portraits and other paintings."
The stained-glass is that referred to above. His son, Hugh Cholmondeley, was elected to Parliament for Denbighshire as a Tory in 1840, a seat he held until 1841, and then represented Montgomery from 1841 to 1847. There was almost certainly a degree of political arrangement with the family of his close relative Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. In 1855, Hugh Cholmondeley was called to the House of Lords when he succeeded his father as second Baron Delamere. The second Baron Delamere developed the village of Whitegate, including work by John Douglas. The church of St Mary’s contains eight octagonal oak columns, which it is believed, go back to a very early period. In 1728 the church was redesigned into a Georgian style with a tower. In 1874 it was virtually rebuilt by the 2nd Baron Delamere to the design of Douglas.
The "rinderpest" cattle plague of 1865-66 left the county of Cheshire in debt for thirty years, and the strains arising from both the epidemic itself and the need to repay the debts incurred sharpened feelings between farmers and other sections of the community. The outbreak stemmed from a group of infected cattle imported into Hull from the Baltic in May 1865. The disease was almost uniformly fatal and affected 68% of cattle in Cheshire, which had largely dairy based agriculture. Because Cheshire was affected far more than any other county, feelings ran strongly, and in particular there were the questions of who was to blame for the disaster and who was to bear the cost. Total loss of stock amounted to more than 66,000 head, and it was necessary to obtain from the Treasury a loan of £270,000 on the security of the county rate, for purposes of relief and compensation. The 1865 outbreak of cattle plague was claimed by Cheshire churchmen to be divine retribution for sin of making cheese on a Sunday, leading to Cheshire cheeses being marketed as "made without Sunday labour" or described as "Monday Cheese".
In 1874, Cheshire landowners with more than 10,000 acres were John Tollemache (25,380), the Duke of Westminster (15,001) the Marquess of Cholmondeley (16,842), Sir H. D. Broughton (13,832), and Lord Crewe (10,148). The Delamere holdings were 5,611 acres with a £15,046 rental value: in the top ten for value. The next Lord Delamere would grow-up in this environment and it is an open question as to what extent the cattle plague would be a factor in his eventual departure for Africa. By the time of the 1883 Reform Act Chester and Cheshire politics had changed to sweep away almost all of the structure of the feudal past.
One of the first British settlers in East Africa, Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere (1870–1931), K.C.M.G., is credited with helping form the Happy Valley set. A group of hedonistic, largely British and Anglo-Irish aristocrats and adventurers who settled in the "Happy Valley" region of the Wanjohi Valley, near the Aberdare mountain range, in colonial Kenya and Uganda between the 1920s and the 1940s. In the 1930s, the group became infamous for its decadent lifestyles and exploits amid reports of drug use and sexual promiscuity.
The third Lord Delamere succeeded to the title in 1887 at the age of 17 and first travelled to East Africa in 1891 for lion hunting and returned yearly to resume the hunt. In 1894, he was badly mauled by a lion. As a result, he limped for the rest of his life. He is also credited for coining the term "white hunter". Two years at Vale Royal was all that Delamere could stand, and he and Florence left for Africa again on 1902, leaving their baby son behind. The Governor of East Africa, Sir Charles Eliot, was keen to encourage white settlers, to help make the excessively expensive railway pay. A riding accident on the Athi plains laid Delamere on his back, encased in plaster of paris, for a year in Nairobi. Dr Atkinson was his doctor and, fired by Eliot’s zeal, was keen on farming in the area. Delamere arranged a present for him of a prize Shorthorn bull from the Vale Royal estate, and this animal fathered eighty calves in Kenya, the nucleus of the country’s grade herds. Delamere decided to invest in East Africa, but his income had dwindled to almost zero. In 1906, he acquired a large farm, the Soysambu Ranch, which would eventually rise to 200,000 acres (810 km2). He arrived still in plaster. His purebred merino sheep and cattle from New Zealand and Britain were already on site.
A move to Africa would not evade cattle plague. By the end of the year, most of the imported breeds would die, stricken by foot and mouth disease. His imported herds of cattle were unlucky too. They were annihilated by lack of iron in the soil, Red Water disease and East Coast Fever. Delamere desperately tried to crossbreed the remaining flock and herds with local breeds. This failed too. He turned to wheat, which became infected by fungal rust. At the same time, he tried to make profit by ostrich farming. The ostrich project was a failure too because of the advent of the motor vehicle, which had pushed ostrich feathers on hats out of fashion. The land in Soysambu has only an inch of soil covering the rock beneath, a fact well-known to the locals who avoided the area.
He raised mortgages on Vale Royal until it passed into the hands of the receiver and he lost his English estate. This was not a popular move, and it was said that he also placed numerous and quite valuable works of art belonging to the family estate, all of these items to be sold at public auction as listed in the “private catalogue” of Sotheby’s. It was during the period 1911-1930 that he broke up, disposed of and sold off … a very valuable library that had been built up over many years at Vale Royal Abbey, Cheshire, by his father, grandfather, plus previous ancestors of the Cholmondeley family. Lord Delamere is also considered to have contributed significantly to the development of Kenyan agriculture. He quickly became the unofficial leader of the white community in Kenya. He died heavily in debt, owing the equivalent of £20 million today to the National Bank of India. His undying spirit bankrupted his family, leaving his successor with colossal debts and no un-mortgaged Cheshire Estate with which to leverage for more loans. One of Lord Delamere’s friends was the notorious officer and sometime ornithologist Lt. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, who as a captain in the KAR singlehandedly crushed the eleven year Nandi uprising by calling its leader, Chief Koitalel Arap Samoei to a truce and then shooting him dead while in the act of shaking his hand. He then ordered the chief’s companions machine-gunned to death. Meinertzhagen may well have murdered his own wife and much of his ornithologist fame has been discredited as it appears he stole most of his specimens.
A Scottish peer and notorious philanderer, Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll (1901–1941) abandoned his diplomatic career in Great Britain and scandalised society when he eloped with a married woman, Lady Idina Sackville. The couple were married in 1923 and moved to Kenya in 1924. They became the unofficial 'king and queen' of 'Happy Valley' and their home, Slains (named after the former Hay family seat of Slains Castle), became a centre of social life, notorious for its orgies. Idina, Countess of Erroll, divorced him in 1929, because he was cheating her financially. Lord Erroll was already having an affair with married woman Molly Ramsay-Hill. The couple eloped. When Ramsay-Hill's husband found out, he hunted them down and famously horsewhipped Lord Erroll in public at Nairobi Railway Station. Erroll married Molly in 1930. In 1934, Lord Erroll joined Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.) and, on his return to Kenya a year later, became president of the Convention of Associations. In 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, Lord Erroll became a captain in the Kenya Regiment and accepted the post of military secretary for East Africa in 1940. It has been said that wife of Hugh Cholmondeley, Gwladys, Lady Delamere was the only female member of the "Happy Valley Set" who had not slept with Errol.
In 1934 Thomas Cholmondeley (the new Lord Delamere) moved his family into Vale Royal Abbey, only to be forced out in 1939 when the Government converted Vale Royal to serve as a sanatorium for soldiers of World War II. The Cholmondeleys were restored to possession of the abbey after the war, but by 1947 the house and grounds had been sold to Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), with features such as stained glass being sold off. The company initially used the abbey as staff accommodation and, from 1954 to 1961, as the headquarters of its salt and alkali division. ICI moved out in 1961. There were abortive schemes to use the abbey as a health centre, a country club, a school and a prison. In 1977, the abbey became a residential care home for people with learning disabilities. In 1998, Vale Royal became a private golf club.
In 1939, Erroll's wife Molly, Countess of Erroll, died from the effects of consuming a concoction of alcohol, morphine and heroin. In late 1940, Lord Erroll met Diana, Lady Delves Broughton, the new, glamorous and much younger wife of Sir Jock Delves Broughton, 11th Baronet. Lord Erroll and Lady Delves Broughton soon became lovers. Their romance was a very public one and they intended to elope. Delves Broughton reportedly gave his blessings. However, Erroll was murdered in January 1941. Broughton was considered a major suspect. There were no eyewitnesses to the killing; the evidence against him proffered in court was weak; and his barber was also foreman of the jury. Sir Jock was acquitted on 1 July. The bullet that killed Erroll was fired by a pistol with 5 grooves and clockwise rifling; Colts such as a pistol owned by Delves Broughton use anti-clockwise rifling. Delves Broughton claimed that two of his pistols, a silver cigarette case and 10 or 20 shillings were stolen days before Erroll's death.
Superintendent Arthur Poppy claimed that Delves Broughton had stolen the guns from himself to give the impression that he had no .32 pistol at the time. Juanita Carberry, daughter of John Carberry (10th Baron Carbery), maintained that Broughton confessed the murder to her. Diana quickly divorced Broughton. He returned to England, where he committed suicide in the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, by a drugs overdose in 1942. Following her divorce from Broughton, Diana married Gilbert Colvile in 1943, one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in Kenya and inherited much of his fortune. Years later, Diana married Thomas Cholmondeley, 4th Baron Delamere, and increased her land fortune. For many years in the 1960s and 1970s and until the death of her lesbian lover, Diana lived in a three-way relationship with her husband and Lady Patricia Fairweather (daughter of the 2nd Earl of Inchcape). By the time of Delamere's death, she was possibly the most powerful white woman in Africa, dubbed the "White Queen of Africa."
George Orwell's theory of "class war" being a conflict between the "middle" and the "high" can be seen as a parody of Marxism, but is to some extent mirrored in the history of Vale Royal, where the groups vying for power often relied on "divine rights" and associated myths to garner support, be they Royalist or Parliamentary, Tory or Whig.
Sources and Links
- A history of the abbey;
- Historic England;
- British History Online: much historic detail;
- Cooke's 1907 article;
- Wikipedia: very detailed;
- List of Abbots;
- Place Names: from the EPNS;
- Sir Thomas Holcroft;
- Pershall bankruptcy;
- Vale Royal: on Thornber.net;
- Old Africa Magazine;
- Lord Delamere: traditional folk song;
- Cholmondeley: at Northwich Heritage;
- The Nun's Grave: newspaper report;
- Ida: the mystery of the nun's grave (free e-book);
- Cheshire History: has article on Mary Cholmondeley;
- "Prophecies of Robert Nixon, Mother Shipton, and Martha, the Gypsy";
- The Jacobites and the Supernatural;
- Nixon's Cheshire Prophecy at large;
- Nixon's Cheshire Prophencies; a New and Complete Edition;
- Prophecy, Politics and the People in Early Modern England;
- THE VALE ROYAL COMPANY AND ITS RIVALS;
- The industrial archaeology of Cheshire;
- Edith May Dempster: Winsford Historic Society;
- Happy Valley Set;
- More on them...;
- "'White Mischief' murder finally solved after 66 years";
- 'SUCH A TWIN LIKENESS THERE WAS IN THE PAIR':AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE PAINTING OF THE CHOLMONDELEY SISTERS - one of the artworks sold off;