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A brief history
Melchbourne (or Melceburne) is mentioned in the Domesday Book, when it was part of the estates of the Bishop of Coutance, but its history is obscure until the late 12th Century. Alice, Countess of Pembroke gave the manor to the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers which she founded at Melchbourne, sometime during the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189).

The first mention of Melchbourne Church is 1176, so it is probable the original structure was built by the Hospitallers when they took up residence at Melchbourne. The original Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem helped in the crusades, but when the crusading ceased, the order continued. In 1328 the Melchbourne community hosted a chapter, or general meeting of the order in England.

A licence was granted in 1264 for a market to be held on Fridays and an annual Fair which was held thereafter on the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (2nd Sunday in July) to whom the church was dedicated. The custom of Feast Sunday being celebrated is still observed, and the village Fete it is usually held that weekend in July.

Accounts for the year 1338 give the year's expenses in meat, fish, ale, etc., and they also refer to the garden, dovehouse, two mills and to the profits of the market then held at Melchbourne - the not inconsiderable sum of 20 shillings a year.

There is no trace of the buildings which belonged to the Preceptory remaining, but they probably stood near to the Dower House, and not where Melchbourne Park House now stands. The Preceptory was dissolved along with all other religious houses in the reign of King Henry VIII. His son, King Edward VI granted the manor to John 1st Earl of Bedford, and the Preceptory was refounded and the manor was returned to the Knights Hospitallers briefly during the revival of Papal Catholicism under the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. Her sister Queen Elizabeth succeeded to the throne and granted the manor to Francis, 2nd Earl of Bedford in 1558.

Edward Earl of Bedford realised some of his Bedfordshire property in 1608, and sold the manor of Melchbourne to Oliver, Lord St. John of Bletsoe, and it remained the property of the St John's until the 1930's. About 1620 the 4th Baron St. John (made Earl of Bullingbroke by King James I), built a mansion on the present site, and he moved his family there from Bletsoe Castle. Traces of this 11th Century Farm House survive in the cellars and elsewhere. The Earl and his eldest son were involved in the Civil War (for the Parliamentarians), and the son was killed in the battle of Evesham.

The Earldom died out in the 18th Century, and the Barony passed to a younger branch of the family established over the Northamptonshire border at Woodford. In the 1780's the 12th Lord St. John moved his family to Melchbourne.

The house had been remodelled, and the present Georgian front, facing the parks, was created in 1741, and after Lord St. John married Emma Whitbread of Southill, more changes took place in the last two decades of the 18th Century, when further modernisation and made a comfortable home, and the church was completely rebuilt.


Only the church tower and the basic foundations remain of the mediaeval building, and a clerestory and a South Aisle was added to create a Georgian style Church. The porch is Jacobean, and was probably moved from the St. John manor at Woodford, demolished about that time, and box pews were added. The church could seat a congregation of about 250, far more than the population of the village would have been. Louisa St. John presented the organ in the 1850's. A Vicarage from the early17th century, was replaced in Victorian times (now called Melchbourne House). Scattered farmhouses also appear to be Victorian. Melchbourne Church had its own vicar until the end of the second World War, when it was joined with Yelden. Shortly afterwards four Parishes were joined together, the other two being Dean and Shelton, and a new vicarage was built at Dean. Late in the 1970's six Parishes were combined together, Pertenhall, and Swineshead being added to complete the six Parishes of the Stodden churches.

Other Buildings

A Dower house was built about 1880 for the widow of the 14th-Baron, and an older building also stands on the site. The old schoolhouse, built in 1857, with residence for teacher closed around 1942. An earlier public house had been at Inn Farm, until the St. John Arms was built on the Yelden - Swineshead crossroads about 1900.

Park Cottages, Church Cottage and Hillands Cottage are probably survivors from the 18thC. Another row of cottages were unfortunately burnt down in the 1950's.

The Parks and Lakes in front of the mansion were probably created in the second part of the 18th century, at least part of the parks being enclosed as a deer park, which is mentioned when in 1766 the St. John's still at Woodford, were short of funds and in consequence, had to sell the deer. Melchboume Park remained the property of the St John family till just before the 2nd World War, and during that war the house was occupied for a time by the United States Air Corps. It was understood to house a photographic unit of considerable size, for at least 100 G.I's were sleeping in the long gallery on the second floor. It was also used as a place of entertainment within leisure hours for the American troops in the vicinity. Glenn Miller and his band performed there on a number of occasions before his untimely disappearance on a flight to France in 1944. At the top of the park and in the woods beyond, bombs were stored, which at the end of the war were destroyed on the spot and the sites surrounded by iron railings.

The Americans provided a village hall during their stay, but this was burnt down in the 1950s, the present building being built with the proceeds from the insurance claim.

The Parks were mostly ploughed up during the war, and they have remained arable. The various farms in the Parish of Melchbourne, which up to the 1930's formed part of the estates of the St. John family have all changed hands, and the farms are in prosperous production. The woodlands surrounding the parks have been replanted for the purposes of posterity, with the exception of the main Coppice Wood which is retained by the Ministry. The mansion at Melchbourne Park was refurbished by Mr Lawson Johnston after the war, and he and his family lived there until 1983 when he sold it to Mr Peter Hempson. It has now been divided into about a dozen luxury flats.

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