The Palace of Buckden, fortified manor house and jail of a queen

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015

The gatehouse of Buckden Palace, ©, 2015

Along the Great North Road, traveling from London through Cambridgeshire is the small, peaceful village of Buckden. Old coaching inns now have been turned into gastro-pubs, while the picturesque houses are smartly refurbished and often owned by those who make the long commute into London by train – the lost time more than worth living in the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. In the center of Buckden, however, an ancient fortified manor house built in the 15th Century rises over the thatched and tiled roofs of the village, the bricks and stone having replaced the wooden 12th Century Bishop’s Palace which has long since disappeared. It was here that Katharine of Aragon was imprisioned and the Bishops of Lincoln lived, surrounded by crenulated walls, moat, and outer bailey. It speaks of an age when a bishop was a wealthy feudal lord, who led the diocese but also maintained an army.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added n 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The bricked towers of the fortified manor, added in 1475 by the Bishop of Lincoln, ©, 2015.

The brick towers of the fortified manor house were added in 1475, during the War of the Roses by the Bishops of Lincoln. It is during that period of conflict that the Bishop’s Palace appeared to reach the height of its defensive works – fortified manor with towers, crenulated interior wall, moat, and outer bailey. Sadly much of the defensive works were demolished during the Commonwealth in the 17th Century and in the 19th Century, but that cleared the way for some impressive later Victorian era buildings. The Bishops of Lincoln left the property in 1837. The moat was filled in 1871 as the Victorian buildings were finished and the Palace serves as a religious retreat to this day. The Claretian Missionaries now reside here, but the grounds are open for one to wander around and appreciate this ancient fortified manor house.

Many monarchs were entertained in the Bishop of Lincoln’s Palace at Buckden: Henry III stayed here in 1248, Edward I called the Longshanks and Malleus Scotorum was here for a time in 1291. Richard III visited the Palace in 1483, the first year of his short reign that would end two years later at Bosworth Field.

The Palace of Buckden is probably best known for holding Henry VIII’s first Queen, Katherine of Aragon during the King’s Great Matter, from July 1533 until May 1534 until she was transferred a few miles away to Kimbolton Castle, where she died in 1536. She would eventually be buried just north of both Buckden and Kimbolton at Peterborough Cathedral.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger.  This image is in the public domain.

Miniature of Catherine Howard as Queen of England by Hans Holbein the Younger. This image is in the public domain.

Ironically, a few years after her death, an aging Henry VIII would stay at Buckden Palace with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard (she was 17 at their marriage; Henry was a gouty and obese 50). They stayed at the Palace in 1541, during a summer tour that the King and Queen took of England before her coronation. It was during this tour that Catherine would be accused of committing adultery with Thomas Culpeper which led to her beheading for treason in 1542. It is unknown what occurred between Henry and his penultimate wife while at Buckden Palace, but the fortified manor certainly served as a major setting for the drama of Henry’s love affairs – which ended so tragically for the two women who stayed at Buckden.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. © Brandon Wilgus, 2015.

The interior of the fortified gatehouse which was once the access point to the inner courtyard of Buckden Palace. ©, 2015.

Buckden has a helpful website with a well-written and informative section on the history of the village where the palace plays a central role:

Oxburgh Hall: the Wars of Religion in the East of England

Ancient seat of the Bedingfeld family, whose history stretches to the War of the Roses, Oxburgh Hall rises from the fens of southwest Norfolk.  An ancient fortified manor, which has been reworked and crafted for centuries, it was first conceived of and built in 1482 at the height of the Wars of the Roses.  However, at least back to 1086 Domesday Book records a settlement here named Oxenburch and a description: “a fortified place where oxen are kept”. Through the Wars of Religion, the catholic Bedingfeld family threaded a dangerous line at the Tudor Court and found themselves increasingly persecuted for their faith.  Staunchly royalist, Charles II rewarded the Bedingfelds with a baronetcy in 1661 though failed to repay the sizable loans made to the crown by the family.  As the 17th Century flowed into the 18th, the Bedingfelds found more acceptance of their Catholicism on the continent, and spent much time away from England and persecution.  Amazingly, almost 600 years after construction began, Oxburgh Hall retains its ability to awe and overwhelm, just as Sir Edmund Bedingfeld intended in 1482, and the family still resides in the eastern front of this ancient manor.

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Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, seat of the Bedingfeld Family, the West Front. ©, 2014

The violence of the War of the Roses, which demanded a strong defense along with the need to build an impressive manor for a rising family of influence in turbulent times, led to the interesting layout of Oxburgh Hall.  A large gatehouse covers the entrance to the manor, which is surrounded by a moat, and outer walls.  Arrow slits, moderate fields of fire over the approaches, and fortified gates enhance the security of the manor; however, Oxburgh would not have been able to withstand an assault or a siege – it was not a fortress.  Later, during the repression of Catholics during the English Reformation, a Priest Hole was added off the grand bedrooms located high in the gatehouse, to secretly hide a priest from the King or Queen’s soldiers.

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The gatehouse and moat of Oxburgh Hall. The curious blend of late-medieval defensive works are blended with windows and decorative brickwork to add comfort to this fortified manor. ©, 2014

Oxburgh Hall is maintained by the National Trust and you can tour the inside of the manor, the gardens and the 1836 Catholic Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and St. Margaret on the grounds.  Directions to Oxburgh Hall, just north of Cambridgeshire, signposted 3 miles from the A134, near the village of Swaffham, SATNAV  postcode: PE33 9PS. The National Trust has a website on Oxburgh Hall:

Pax Brittania: The Earl de Grey as First Lord of the Admiralty

Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, designed by the Earl de Grey, viewed from the formal gardens, looking at the Boudoir of the Countess de Grey ©, 2014


Photo by Brandon Wilgus, August 2014

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, home of Thomas Philip de Grey, called The Lord Grantham from 1786-1833, 1st Lord of the Admiralty from 1834-1835, the Earl de Grey © cambridgemilitaryhistory, 2014

Traveling west across the shire’s border are the rolling hills and farmlands of Bedfordshire, where Thomas Philip de Grey (1781-1859) designed and built his beautiful french-inspired rococo country home at Wrest Park.  The interiors spill onto sunny terraces which open to the formal gardens and riding lanes that fan away from the stately home.  As a Tory politician and peer, Thomas de Grey was involved in the post-Napoleonic era of British naval mastery, and the ordering of Great Power politics in the wake of the Concert of Europe.  Called The Lord Grantham in his youth (one of his many courtesy titles), he studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and at the death of his father, became the Second Earl de Grey in 1833.  King William IV made him first Lord of the Admiralty in 1834 and a Privy Counsellor.  In an age dominated by the reformer Lord Melbourne, he served in the Tory Caretaker government of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and hero of Waterloo, and then in the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel before the return of Lord Melbourne in 1835. He was made a Knight of the Garter a decade later, and would remain an influential Tory politician and country gentleman until his death well into Queen Victoria’s reign.  De Grey was man of numerous talents and accomplishments. While running the Admiralty, he remained busy as an amateur architect, drawing the plans for Wrest Park and directly supervising its construction.  He served as the first President of the institute of British Architects in London from 1834 until his death.

Royal Navy in the First Opium War

A Royal Navy paddle-wheel steamer in the First Opium War. Thanks to Alina Parazyan, who does not endorse my work, and for the use of the image.

During his time as First Lord of the Admiralty, de Grey presided over the most powerful navy in the world, at a time of uncontested British hegemony on the high seas.  Although there were no major naval engagements from the War of Greek Independence from the Ottomans in 1827 until the first engagements of the Great War in 1914, the Royal Navy formed a vital part of the British power structure in the 19th Century. The Royal Navy was actively engaged bolstering trade, defending the growing empire, clearing the seas of pirates, hunting down slave ships and slave forts, and serving as a vital part of Britain’s strength – the diplomatic power of a mighty Navy ready to respond across the globe.  It was a time of transition, as square-rigged sailing ships were being replaced by iron and steel, and steam propulsion was replacing the reliance on wind. The Opium Wars, demonstrating the global reach and determination of Britain to expand the Empire in the name of trade, however cynically, resulted in the securing of Hong Kong in 1839.  De Grey presided over a fascinating time in the history of the Royal Navy, and one can easily imagine him entertaining over a shooting weekend at Wrest Park, or at his townhouse in London (which is now the Naval and Military Club on St. James’s Square), discussing the move from sail to steam and hammering home the need to innovate and expand the Royal Navy during a time of peace.  His innovations and shepherding the Royal Navy through a time of dramatic change would ensure the Royal Navy’s uncontested supremacy for a Century, only threatened later by the naval race with the German Empire, leading to the Great War.

Wrest Park is managed for the Nation by English Heritage.  The website for Wrest Park is: Directions to Wrest Park, which is in the village of Silsoe, Bedfordshire: take the A6 towards Luton, signposted from Silsoe, or SATNAV postcode: MK45 4HR.