Higham Ferrers became a Borough on March 12, 1251. Its survival as a borough, “an historical oasis in an area of encroaching industry” as Dr E F Jacob has put it, is a paradox that makes its 700th anniversary all the more an occasion for congratulation. Its population to-day is still only 3,600.
William of Normandy gave Higham to one of his favourite commanders some say his bastard son William Peverel. About a hundred years later Peverel’s grandson forfeited his lands, and Higham returned to the King. John gave it to an old friend of his, William de Ferrers, fifth Earl of Derby, who claimed to be Peverel’s rightful heir, in exchange for 2,000 marks.
The fifth Earl of Derby died in 1247, and it was his son who, taking the lead from his great uncle the Earl of Chester, decided that there were now sufficient serfs at Higham Ferrers capable of running their own affairs. He selected 77 men and 14 women of the town and formally gave them their freedom and the right to govern themselves as burgesses of a new ‘borough.’
This first charter dated March 12, 1251, is lost, but we have the wording of the document which accompanied it giving the burgesses their freedom. From this we learn that the 91 elect of Higham Ferrers included Miles the Butcher, Margaret in Lane, Roger the son of Andrew, Thomas the Cook, Ralph the Cobbler, Ralph the son of Hugh, Hugh at the Gate of the Church, Halnot the Clerk, Richard the Fisherman, Ingrid the Widow, Walter the Skinner and Walter Kiggel, whose name appears twice.
William Ferrers declared these people of 1251 “free as regards ourselves and our heirs for ever, so that we and our heirs henceforth shall not be able to have or exact any servitude from them or from any of their issue. And that their lands and chattels and tenements within the town of Higham, and without, which they formerly held at our will, they shall have and hold of us and our heirs for free burgesses henceforth, as is contained in our charter which we caused to be made to them concerning their having a free borough in Higham.”
Thus “in the 35th year of the reign of King Henry, son of King John,” which was 1251, Higham Ferrers became a borough.
Later that year, on December 12, a group of leading men of Higham went to the King when he was holding his court at Nottingham, and asked him to confirm their charter and have it enrolled on the Royal Charter Rolls.
About 30 families in Higham were not given their freedom, and so remained serfs, owing services to William Ferrers as lord of the manor. The town however was not to remain in Ferrers’ hands very long. The sixth Earl of Derby was a life-long sufferer from gout and had to be driven about in a kind of horse-drawn invalid chair or chariot. One day in April only three years after he had given Higham its charter, his driver took a bridge at St Neots in Huntingdonshire too fast, and they were all pitched into the river. William died from his injuries.
He was succeeded by his 15 year-old son Robert, who, like his Peverel ancestor, forfeited his lands to the King after a series of notorious raids during the Barons’ War in which he played a leading part as a singularly treacherous and persistent free-lance marauder. Of his lands he was allowed to keep the manor of Chartley in Staffordshire, which was the seat of the later Barony of Ferrers.
This apparent check to the fortunes of Higham Ferrers the removal from the scene of the family that gave it birth as a borough in fact proved a principal reason for its survival, for the lordship of the property passed into the hands of the Duchy of Lancaster, where it still remains.
Two other events however must be considered emphatic reverses without which Higham could well have relied on very much more fame than she enjoys to-day.
In its heyday Higham Ferrers’ Castle had been John of Gaunt’s favourite hunting lodge, but in 1523 Henry VIII ‘for certayn considerations’ gave Sir Robert Wingfield, one-time Ambassador in France, a warrant entitling him to rebuild nearby Kimbolton Castle, the last prison of Catherine of Aragon; and ‘as stone was very hard to bee goten in thoes parties,’ to take as much stone as he liked from Higham Ferrers Castle ‘beyng all Rased and in grete Ruyne and decay.’ To-day only mounds of earth, an overgrown moat and a garden wall containing half a dovecote, are all that remain of the once expansive and magnificent Higham Ferrers Castle.
A similar, though more deliberate, fate befell Higham Ferrers College. Founded in 1422 by Henry Chichele, a native of Higham Ferrers and Henry V’s Archbishop of Canterbury, 20 years before he founded All Souls’, Oxford, it should have brought Higham Ferrers lasting distinction. With its Warden, Master and Grammar Master it had all the makings of a Winchester or an Eton, though its purpose was not primarily scholastic. But it never survived the Pilgrimage of Grace. In the 35th year of Henry’s reign (1543), just a hundred years after the death of its founder, Higham Ferrers College was ‘surrendered to the Crown.’ Subsequently it became an inn and its chapel was desecrated as a kitchen. To-day its walls are still standing, with its fine doorway beneath niches doubtless intended for statues of Our Lady, St Thomas of Canterbury and Edward the Confessor, to whom the College was dedicated. But when I visited it last the courtyard behind the doorway was a farmyard inches deep in straw and dung. The Ministry of Works has now taken it over from the farmer.
In 1551 the survival of Higham Ferrers as a town of any importance, let alone a borough, seemed fairly remote. Its Castle and its College no more, nothing would appear to commend it to posterity but its patronage by the Duchy of Lancaster. Yet in five years its life as a borough had been confirmed and renewed by nothing less than a royal charter, with the added privilege and right of sending a Member to Parliament.
What the people of Higham Ferrers did to warrant this favour of Philip and Mary is not altogether clear.
In the preamble to the Royal Charter of Higham Ferrers of 1556 the sovereigns declare that the original letters patent ‘partly for want of safe-keeping, partly through some evil accident; have perished,’ and they are therefore renewing it.
Their main reason for doing so is stated as being that they are ‘certified of the fidelity and the service of the said subjects not only by report, but of their own certain knowledge, especially in the rebellion of John, Duke of Northumberland.'’
What did the people of Higham Ferrers do to help Queen Mary and her cause during the Duke of Northumberland’s rebellion at the time of the Lady Jane Grey affair?
The day the young Edward VI died at Greenwich (July 6, 1553) the Lady Mary was at Hoddesdon on her way south to London in answer to a summons. That same night someone rode out of London and told her the news.
There is no direct evidence to show who was responsible for thwarting Northumberland’s plan to keep the news of her brother’s death from Mary until he had proclaimed his son’s wife the Lady Jane Grey. But the man who himself claims to have been responsible had special attachments to Higham Ferrers, and only a few days before (June 26) had obtained from Edward VI a prospective grant of the titular constableship of Higham Ferrers Castle after the present holder, one Sir Robert Tirwhit, had died. This was Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, who without actually becoming Constable of Higham Ferrers Castle Tirwhit was the last to hold the title certainly leased the Higham Park dovecote during 1553.
He makes his claim in his famous rhyming autobiography thus:
As an old friend of the Lady Elizabeth, as a Protestant, as a signatory of Edward VI’s will by-passing her for the succession, his alleged detestation of the idea of displacing rightful heirs must have been pretty strong to have spurred him to take all this trouble of Mary’s behalf. But loyalties changed very quickly in those days, and even Northumberland at one time considered himself a suitor of the Lady Mary. If Sir Nicholas had been responsible for bringing the news of Edward’s death to Mary, and prevented her continuing to London and falling into Dudley’s hands, and giving her time to place herself in a position of escape to the continent if necessary, it is likely Mary would never have forgotten his act and would have been anxious to reward him.
David Jardine in his Memoir on Throgmorton which precedes the report of his trial (Criminal Trials, Vol. I, 1832) says “this important service, rendered by Sir Nicholas to Mary at this critical juncture, did not overcome the Queen’s jealousy of him, and never appears to have met with any acknowledgement; and indeed within a few months afterwards he was arrested and sent to the Tower on a charge of being accessory to Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Rebellion.”
Perhaps the Queen’s acknowledgement was a renewed charter for the borough of Higham Ferrers?
It is a neat enough theory, if it wasn’t for Sir Robert Tirwhit, the actual constable of Higham Ferrers Castle at this time. His antagonism to Mary during the Duke of Northumberland’s rebellion must surely have cancelled out any help given by Sir Nicholas.
When the Duke of Northumberland left London on July 14 with a small volunteer force ‘to fetch in Lady Mary,’ he did not expect it would take him long. But when by the 19th he had still failed to capture his prize, the Council in London got cold feet, decided to bring the pathetic reign of Lady Jane Grey to an ignominious close and proclaim Queen Mary.
“Greate stire was in Northamptonshire about proclayminge of hir” states a contemporary Newsletter.2 “Yesterday at Northampton Sir Thomas Treshame proclaimed hir with the ayd and helpe of the towne, beinge borne amongeste them whether he would or not; ser Nicholas Throgmorton beinge presente withstandinge him to his powere, was drivene for safetye of his lyfe to take a howse, and so beinge borne amongeste divers gentlemen escaped with much adoe; the inhabitants would have killed him verifayne. Sir Robart Tirwhite mustered yesterdaye in Northamptonshire to goe to my lord of Northumberland as many men as he could gette. Sir Thomas Treshame . . . would not goe.”
Throgmorton’s enthusiasm for Mary’s cause soon passed, and Tirwhit had always been in the same camp.
But it was not the divers gentlemen from whom Mary received support, but the inhabitants who would have killed him verifayne, the citizens, the subjects, who are remembered in Mary’s Higham Ferrers’ charter. Tirwhit was not resident at Higham the castle was ‘ruynate’ and non-existent and was only titular Constable on the strength of being Steward and Receiver of the Duchy of Lancaster for Northamptonshire. He was known moreover to be on bad terms with the burgesses of Higham and in 1557 brought an action in the Court of the Duchy Chamber at Westminster against the Mayor of Higham for refusing to provide the accustomed dinner for the king’s steward on leet days.
It looks as if the people of Higham joined the ranks of Sir Thomas Tresham.
“And out of Northamptonshire came Sir Thomas Tresham and a great number of Gentlemen out of divers parts, whose names were too long to reherse. . . .These capitaines with their companies being thus assembled in warlike manner, marched forward towards Norfolk to the aid of ye Lady Mary and the further they went ye more their power encreased. ” 3
Mary was at Framlingham, and Tresham and his supporters, whether they came from his home at Rothwell or from Northampton, would almost certainly have passed through Higham Ferrers on their way. I like to think that Tresham made a mental note of the large numbers of stalwarts who followed in his train as his cavalcade trundled through Higham’s High Street, and of the extent to which his ‘power encreased.’ I like to think he remembered to mention it to Mary when he had the opportunity, hinting maybe that it might be a gracious gesture to renew their charter and grant them the right also of sending a Member of Parliament, and adding casually that he had a nephew who would suit the position admirably.
Be all that as it may, Philip and Mary’s Royal Charter of 1556, a magnificently adorned, heavy parchment bearing a fading engraving of the two sovereigns side by side, to-day resides in Higham’s little Town Hall for all to see. And Higham’s first M.P. was Ralph Lane, the son of Tresham’s wife’s sister, Lady Lane of Horton, Northamptonshire a relation maybe of that Margaret Lane who was numbered among the first burgesses?
Philip and Mary had set a fashion. James I issued a charter to Higham Ferrers in 1605; Charles II issued one in 1664 (with a fine drawing of himself in black armour) and another in 1683. Higham continued to send one M.P. to Parliament until, as a Pocket Borough, it was dis-enfranchised by the Reform Bill of 1832. It remained a borough however, and its last charter was granted by Queen Victoria in 1887. And it’s pleasing to think that the four aldermen and 12 councillors who form the Higham Ferrers Corporation of 1951 are the direct heirs, and probably descendants, of Miles the Butcher, Thomas the Cook and Hugh at the Gate of the Church that William de Ferrers first ‘freed’ in 1251.