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Taken from a Bedfordshire Tourism leaflet, 1986, by Trevor Stewart

Discovering...Yielden & Melchbourne

Trevor Stewart Finds Medieval Bedfordshire Embodied In Just Two Villages

For those who love the mystery, romance and intrigue of life in medieval England there are two adjacent villages in the north of Bedfordshire that encompass it all. Little effort is required for the mind's eye to conjure up pictures of life in the time of the Conquest and several hundred years thereafter. Yielden and Melchbourne are two rural villages just off the main A6, some 14 miles north of Bedford and six miles south east of Higham Ferrers.

Yielden has its traditional old cottages situated principally on the road to Newton Bromswold. These are mainly thatched but now stand side by side with modern developments. Fortunately the more modern buildings are on a small scale so that, unlike less fortunate communities, these have not been allowed to swallow up the traditional village.

History tells us that prior to the arrival of the Normans these settlements were both in the Saxon kingdom of Mercia and under the ownership of the Gifle tribe. That all changed around 1070 when, after the subjugation of the whole country had been achieved by Willam and his army, this part of Bedfordshire was gifted to the Warrior Bishop of Coutances who had lingered here with his household. Among his retainers was a Geoffrey de Trailly, a little known French knight from the village of Treilly a few miles south of Coutances. It was he who was given Yielden as his reward for service to the Bishop and he settled here, eventually marrying Albreda, the second sister of Walter Espec, the Baron of Warden (now Old Warden and Northill) and founder of the famous Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire.

In 1086 a Geoffrey de Trailly held other lands in Carlton, Chellington and Hinwick, as well as his Old Warden marriage settlements. So it must have been de Trailly who established the Motte and Bailey Castle at Yielden, the remains of which still set out clearly the shape and style of a traditional Norman construction. It is so easy to stand within these tranquil ruins, but to dream that you can hear the clink of armour, the sounds of marching soldiers and of the everyday housekeeping that would always have been going on in such a large busy building. There is little firm evidence to suggest that the castle had actually been constructed of masonry, although large stones have been found on the site and a curtain wall was uncovered during excavations in 1882. The great mound is 130 feet by 90 feet and 40 feet high surrounded by both an outer and an inner bailey, the moat is in places more man 100 feet wide. Sadly all that now remains are the earthworks, but spectacular they still are. This truly is one of Bedfordshire's finest yet most overlooked ancient monuments.

Why did the building fall into neglect? Well, it appears that the Traillys never achieved the same prominence or status of the other more well-known Bedfordshire Norman families, the de Beauchamps, Tallebose, de Aubigny and de Mowbray, or of his brother-in-law Espec, and they left Yielden for Northill in the middle of the thirteenth century. Certainly by 1361 Yielden Castle is recorded as having been in ruins and no further references to it exist.

On a ridge overlooking the village and the castle stands the Church of St Mary the Virgin, which dates from the early part of the thirteenth century, with the nave and south aisle having been added later. The south doorway is around 1200 and look out for the small sundial scratched onto the sill. See also the fine tomb recess - its back projecting beyond the outer face of the wall - it once contained the effigy of a man in civil dress on a raised tomb. The pulpit is dated 1500.

William Dell, the Rector of the Parish in 1649, was appointed Chaplain to the Parliamentary Army, but his unorthodox views made him most unpopular with his congregation. In 1659 they petitioned for his removal "because he had allowed a tinker from Bedford to preach in his church on Christmas Day". That tinker was actually John Bunyan, but Dell was ejected from the Parish of Yielden in 1662.

In March 1944 a B17 Bomber - that had taken off from the nearby USAF airbase at Chelveston -crashed into a barracks building and farmhouse at Yielden. 11 airmen, 8 men in the barracks and two children asleep in the farmhouse all perished but they have now been permanently commemorated by the unveiling of a stone plaque in the church.

For those who enjoy walking, the village is located on the long-distance Three Sriires Way that runs from Tathall End, near Hanslope in Buckinghamshire, through to Grafham Water. The six-and-three-quarter-mile section starting at The Chequers (a fine family pub) in Yielden takes in both villages, plus Podington and Knotting.

Melchbourne (a mile or so to the south of Yelden) was the traditional seat of the St John family, who built Melchbourne Park in 1616 to replace their former home at Bletsoe. The parks and lakes in front of the house were probably laid out in the second part of the 18th century and at least part was enclosed as a deer park. The estate remained the property of the St Johns until just before the Second World War, during which time the house was occupied by a special unit of the United States Air Force who were employed in analyising photographs and images taken by aircraft returning from missions over enemy territory. Glenn Miller and his band played to servicemen in front of the house on a number of occasions. The parklands were also ploughed to increase home food production and have remained arable ever since. The mansion was sold in 1983 and has now been divided into luxury flats.

There is a beautiful row of traditional thatched cottages in the main street, probably dating to the early eighteenth century, a second similar row was destroyed by fire in 1950. The old school and schoolhouse were built in 1857 and the St John's Arms Public House, at the Yielden/Swineshead crossroads, in 1900.

Melchbourne's Church of St Mary Magdalene is mainly Georgian with a medieval tower. The north porch is Jacobean with Roman Doric columns and there is a frieze and a round entry arch. See also the box pews providing accommodation for in excess of 250 (when the population of the whole village was probably only half that) and, in particular, those of the St John family which, interestingly, still have their own fireplace.

There is some mystery surrounding the ownership of the village after the Bishop of Coutances and Trailly, but during the reign of Henry II it is documented that the manor was given by Alice Countess of Pembroke to a Preceptory of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, which she had founded. Unlike the better known combative activities of their contemporaries - the Knights Templars - the Hospitallers were an important chivalric military order who were responsible for supplying care and hospitality to the poor or sick who were on the way to, or returning from, the Crusades. The Preceptory at Melchbourne was a fine stone building and the community must have been particularly important as the Great Council of the Order was held here in 1328.

This branch was a fairly wealthy one; the accounts for 1338 give the years' expenses for meat, fish and ale and they refer to income from the gardens, two mills, dovehouses, plus the weekly market held on a Friday and the Annual Fair on the Feast of St Mary Magdelene, traditionally on the second Sunday in July.

With the persecution and mysterious disappearance of the Knights Templars, and there being no further need for administrative, medical or financial support, the Knights Hospitallers of Melchboume also vanished. The buildings remained for several hundred years more but these, in common with so many other religious houses, were demolished under the instructions of Henry VIII and there is now no trace of them. The area of the Preceptory is thought to be a site approximately half a mile north of the church and close to the cottage and the Dower House.

After the dissolution the land was given to John, the first Earl of Bedford, who held it until 1608 when it was sold to Oliver St John of Bletsoe, thus beginning the long connection of this family with the village.

So there is plenty of mystery and intrigue to be had in this quiet comer of north Bedfordshire and maybe some time in the future a new version of the bestseller 'The De Vinci Code' will be written and this will feature life with the Hospitallers in medieval Melchbourne and Yielden.

For further information on the walk around the village see For other information contact Bedford Tourist Information Centre.

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