The History of Fineshade Abbey
First a Norman castle, then an Augustinian priory, converted to a residence and finally replaced by an elegant country house, the building known as Fineshade Abbey was demolished in 1956. Now the site stands overlooking the valley about 1km southwest of Top Lodge alongside the converted stable block and beside the Jurassic Way long distance path. We are most grateful to Caroline Lloyd, one of the Friends of Fineshade, for researching and compiling the following history.
Entrance to the private house known as Fineshade Abbey. Photo taken from public footpath
Prehistoric and Roman times
Most of the parish lies on Jurassic limestone and marls; and there is evidence of a Ring Ditch in the north west of the parish and documentary and field evidence of iron-working sites in the parish. Whilst most of them were probably medieval or later, some areas of iron slag are said to be associated with Roman pottery and coins (BHO, 1975c).
12th century: Castle Hymel
The local topography and such earthworks as exist suggest that the Castle may have been of the motte and bailey, or ring and bailey, type, with the motte or ring on the rising ground south of the 18th-century house and southeast of the stables, and with the bailey on the lower, flatter ground to the west. The best-preserved part of the remains of the castle is that which was presumably a section of the bailey rampart. This is a long curving bank up to 2.5 m. high running along the edge of a steep natural river cliff. At its south end a gap which might be interpreted as an entrance is almost certainly a later cart-track [Fig. 2 & 3]. South east of the stables is another length of curved bank with an external ditch which may be the remains of the ring (BHO, 1975c).
The castle, built by the Engayne family sometime in the 12th Century, was demolished around 1200. These castles acted as garrisons, strongholds and aristocratic residences and they occupied strategic positions dominating the surrounding landscape. The dates suggest that it could well have been built to control territory during the years of the Anarchy (1135-1153), the name given to the Civil War between Stephen and Matilda (Ross, 1996). Many of these ‘adulterine’ castles were never completed and many were demolished once the strife had ended.
Figs 2 & 3. Remains of the Motte and Bailey Castle behind the stable block of Fineshade Abbey
13th century: Fineshade priory
Life in medieval England was tough and transient and belief in Heaven and Hell ruled the lives of everyone and, the state of Purgatory, the intermediate state after physical death, where those destined for heaven must first undergo purification, was a stumbling block for many. The medieval church had a variety of ingenious ways in which it could help the secular population achieve salvation and also ensure that God provided you with a better quality of service in the afterlife, depending of course, on how much you could afford to spend.
Ordinary people would work up to a couple of days a week on church lands for free, others would be encouraged to save to go on pilgrimage and, if they couldn’t make it, donate their savings to the church; and the nobility would endow land and funds for the founding of a monastery and later generations would increase endowments and bestow further land and riches. Over time this lead to medieval monasteries being the wealthiest land owners in England.
Take for example, Richard Engayne (d.1208), who had Castle Hymel demolished around 1200, he then founded the Augustinian Priory of St Mary a small distance to the north east of the castle site (BHO, 1906b). He endowed the priory with lands and massuages in Blatherwycke and Laxton and his elder son Richard, confirmed and increased the endowment; Richard was succeeded by his brother Vitalis, who in turn was succeeded by his son Henry. Henry died in 1261 but gave to the canons the churches of Blatherwycke and Laxton and the manor of Woodnewton, which donation was confirmed with additional lands by his nephew, John Engayne (BHO, 1906b).
A sheltered, fertile valley, above the flood plain and close to a source of fresh water (Fig. 4) would have been a prime location for any self-sufficient community; and the Augustinian canons, who took their name from Augustine of Hippo (354-430), lived and worked at Fineshade Priory for over three hundred years. The monks would have been considered very holy men as they served not only the spiritual needs of the community but also the secular; their monasteries became centres of learning and education, they provided hospitality for weary travellers and for the ill or wounded the monks provided the only source of medical treatment available. It would be a long-long time after the ‘Dissolution’ before ordinary people would again have access to centres of learning or medicine.
Figure 4. The "Monk's Bath House", Fineshade Abbey. Fed by a spring, this was probably a source of fresh water for the priory
1536: dissolution of the priory
When the Pope refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Henry set up the Church of England and began the process of Reformation. The Act of Supremacy in 1534 confirmed the break from Rome, declaring Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Not only were the monasteries a reminder of the power of the Catholic Church, they were the wealthiest institutions in the country and Henry's lifestyle, along with his wars, led to a lack of money. By destroying the monastic system Henry could acquire all its wealth and property whilst at the same time, remove its Papist influence.
Henry sent out commissioners to all the monastic institutions in his realm to find out how much property was owned by the church. This led to the First Act of Suppression in 1536, whereby small monasteries with an income of less than £200 a year were closed and their buildings, land and money taken by the Crown. Once the properties were assessed by the Crown, they were then sold to families who sympathised with Henry’s break with Rome.
The English poet and antiquary John Leyland (1506? – 1552), provided a wonderful account of Fineshade in these times: “From Dene to Coliweston a 5. or 6 miles, partely by champain [fields], partely by wooded ground. Almost yn the middle way I cam by Finshed, lately a priory of blak canons, leving it hard by on the right hond; it is a 4. miles from Stanford. Here in the very place wher the priory stoode was yn tymes past a castel caullid Hely, it longgid to the Engaynes; and they dwelled yn it ….” (Leyland, 1907).
On the 26th August 1534, the prior Christopher Harringworth subscribed with six fellow canons to the acknowledgement of the king's supremacy. The house then came under the statute for the suppression of smaller monasteries and on Palm Sunday, 1536, Humphrey Stafford wrote to Cromwell from Blatherwycke to beg for the gift of the priory of Fynshed, a house of canons in the county of Northampton. In the same letter, he preferred a request for the house of canons of Worspring, Somerset, for his father! (BHO, 1906b)
The site and demesne of the priory were instead granted to John, Lord Russell, in exchange for lands in Devonshire. In 1546 they passed to Sir Robert Kirkham, who turned the conventual buildings into a residence (BHO, 1906b).
1545: a post-reformation residence
Sir Robert Kirkham, Knt., (b.c.1500-1588) purchased Fineshade Priory in 1546 and turned it into his family seat and residence (Law, 1922). Also, referred to as Sir Robert Kirkham of Cotterstock, as the Provost's manor at Cotterstock was granted to Sir Robert by Edward VI; and the Chantry House, near the east end of the church went on to become the home of the eldest son (BHO, 1984e).
It is not known how long the Kirkhams had lived in the area before the change of dynasty in 1485, but their fortunes seem to have risen with the Tudor Rose. Sir Robert Kirkham was the son of George Kirkham of Warmington (b. by 1479-1528). George comes to prominence in the latter years of the 15th Century when, in 1492, he acquired land in Polebrook, and later in 1504, when he purchased land in Warmington and settled there after his marriage to Anne Armston. (BHO, 1930g)
In his biography in the History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1509-1558, we find that George had been engaged in service to King Henry VII and to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the King’s mother. Margaret Beaufort was a major landholder in the area and from 1487, she often resided at her house at nearby Collyweston, which she made into a palace (Jones, 1985). George, described as a familiar figure at Court with a position, probably in the supernumerary office, served with David Cecil [Grandfather of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley] as MP for Stamford in 1515 (History of Parliament Online, 1982). From 1509 he was JP for Northants and we are told that George’s remaining years were probably spent in Northamptonshire, where in 1525 he entertained Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, [illegitimate son of Henry VIII] en route for Collyweston (History of Parliament Online, 1982).
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, former religious houses and their estates were secured by successful people at the Tudor Court, take Sir John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, who was first offered Fineshade; he was later granted the abbeys of Woburn and Tavistock. More significant than the abbey or priory building was the land that accompanied it, so being able to create a family seat in a refurbished monastic building gave a graphic indication of one’s wealth and status.
Fig. 5: Buckland Abbey, a fine example a refurbished former monastic
building and home of Elizabethan explorer and courtier, Sir Francis Drake
These monastic refurbishments retained many of the original features, and Bridges reported what he saw at Fineshade in 1719. The house “clearly incorporated part of the priory building, including an under croft. The location of graves to the north of the house and a ruined two story structure to the east, suggests that the house occupied the west cloistral range. A chapel was built in the early 17th century by Robert Kirkham …” (BHO, 1984f)
In 1573 there was a refurbishment of St Mary’s Church, Fotheringhay and Robert Kirkham “took stone from Fotheringhay to build his chapel at Fineshade” (BHO, 1984a). Interestingly, members of the family were buried at the church of the Holy Trinity, Blatherwycke (BHO, 1984d) and at the Parish Church, Oundle (Law, 1922). Sir Robert’s son and heir was William; then his son another William; then William’s son Walter (Metcalfe, 1887). It must have been this Walter who, in 1632, obtained a license to enclose a 400-acre (167 hectare) park (BHO, 1984f). Fineshade remained with the Kirkhams until 1748, when Charles Kirkham sold it to the trustees of William Payne King (NCC).
1749: a Georgian country mansion
The Georgian period covered possibly the greatest period of creativity in British history and Georgian architecture, a style of building linked to the classical period of Greece and Rome, is most identifiable in England around the years 1730-1800. The Georgian period was influenced by a generation of young men of means, who travelled throughout Europe, finishing their education on ‘The Grand Tour’. This introduced the most affluent classes to the classical traditions of style and architecture: grace, understated decorative elements and the use of ‘classical orders’. Georgian elegance extended through the whole spectrum and was reflected in a dramatic change of dress as ladies began to wear high-waisted, un-corsetted, white muslin dresses, based on the drapery of classical statues, and men began to wear dark, perfectly tailored clothes rather than colourful ostentatious ones.
Expansion of the colonies and the beginnings of the industrial revolution meant that new opportunities arose and those who were successful were putting their money into their homes. Wealthy land owners enclosed vast tracts of land to create huge landscaped parks which became the country house estates we know today, and the houses which dominated these parks were designed in the latest fashion, the classical style.
By 1749 dark and draughty refurbished monasteries were well and truly out of fashion and people began either to front their old properties with Georgian façades or as William Payne King did, demolish the old building entirely.
Stuckeley recorded in his diary of 1749, that “William Payne King demolished the house and surviving monastic remains (Surtees Soc. 80, (1887), 72).” (BHO, 1984f) And, “no trace remains on the ground of the Priory” as it “probably lay on the site of, and around, the 18th-century house” (BHO, 1975c). And in 1749, William Payne King set to work on building his new Georgian mansion.
In the pictures and plans of King’s mansion [Fig. 6 & Fig. 7] and [Fig. 8] the balance and symmetry of the classical style can clearly be seen, as amongst many features of the property, “there was a moulded plinth and a first-floor plat-band” and “the central door had a rusticated architrave and rusticated Ionic columns supporting a pediment.” (BHO, 1984f)
Figures 6 and 7. Fineshade Abbey in the early 20th century.
Pictures from Lost Heritage, a project which aims to create an authoritative and comprehensive list of the many significant English country houses which have been demolished or severely reduced.
Figure 8: Fineshade Abbey Reconstruction of plan (BHO, 1984f)
Grand houses from this period usually had a gate-house either side of the entrance to the main drive and at Fineshade there are two small lodges described as “a pair of semi-octagonal buildings of single storey with Welsh slated roofs, much altered in the 19th century” (BHO, 1984f). These buildings stood alongside the main highway, now the A43, where the original entrance to the drive would have been.
Figure 9: The gatehouses and entrance in the 1960s
Figure 10. View towards the gatehouses in the 1960s. The mature trees in the centre were probably Elms and would have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease around 1970
Georgian country estates had their own farms, with tenant farmers involved with animal husbandry and cultivating the land, producing commodities to sell as well as providing fresh victuals for the house and estate. At Fineshade, there were two groups of farm buildings called ‘lodges’. Bottom Lodge “consisted of a group of farm buildings round a square yard, and a cart lodge to the north-east. Only the north range and the cart lodge survive. To the south is a ruined dovecote of coursed rubble with brick nesting boxes. Early 19th-century” (BHO, 1984f). These farm buildings can be seen at the crossroads with the A43 and the Fineshade to Wakerley Road.
Figure 11: Plan of Top Lodge, Fineshade (BHO, 1984f)
Top Lodge [Fig. 11] is “of mid-18th century date and probably early 19th century refacing” and “the farmyard to the south includes cattle lodges and stalls, barn and granary, 19th-century.” The large farmhouse is now Forestry Commission Offices with the farmyard forming the rest of the Top Lodge Visitor Centre.
Figure 12 The converted stable block seen from the Jurassic Way - geograph.org.uk - 1724702" by Tim Heaton.
The stables to the south west of the house still stand [Fig. 12]. “They are of coursed rubble with ashlar dressings and occupy three sides of a yard. The main entrance is through a round arch in the north arm, and is surmounted by a cupola. Above the arch is the date 1848” (BHO, 1984f).
The home and gardens
Georgian elegance extended into the home as trade with the new colonies of the Caribbean and Americas, and Africa meant that new woods such as mahogany, satinwood and ebony were available for making fine furniture. The neoclassical style of interior design, such as the ‘Adam style’ could be found from the late 1760s in many upper and middle-class residences. Dining and entertaining, an important part of Georgian life, would also reflect elegance and feature prominently as wealthy families gave extravagant dinner parties. New foods would be available such as sugar, tea, rum and chocolate, as well as exotic fruit and fresh vegetables grown on the estate, served on porcelain made in the new factories like those of Messrs. Wedgewood and Spode and wine, served in elegant glassware now being made by Venetian craftsmen in England.
The Georgian mansion would be surrounded by landscaped gardens and around the house itself would be terraces and seating areas and formal planting divided by topiary and hedging. Gardeners would be employed not only to look after the formal gardens but to cultivate the ‘kitchen garden’ where fresh fruit and vegetables were grown. The kitchen garden would be surrounded by high walls to offer protection, not only from wind and cold, but to create micro-climates for tender and/or semi-exotics, such as peaches, grapes and citrus fruit. In some cases, these walled gardens had glass hot-houses for growing real exotics such as banana and pineapple. At Fineshade the walled garden was on the north-side of the main lake; the high brick-built enclosing wall can still be seen from the Jurassic Way footpath, and beyond the garden is the old orchard. Today, the large house beside the lake, St Mary’s House, built in 1999, lies on the site of the kitchen garden.
The Ice House
With an abundance of fresh food, ways had to be found to preserve it and although once the preserve of royalty, by the Georgian era, the ice-house had become accessible to the gentry and well to do. At Fineshade, the remains of the ice-house can be seen dug into the hillside, near the lake, in the grounds of the late mansion [Fig. 13 and Fig. 14].
Figure 13 & 14: The dome-shaped remains of the ‘Ice House’ and its entrance
set into the hillside, above the lake at Fineshade.
The ice-house would be a subterranean cylindrical structure with thick walls and a dome roof, dug into a hillside to help maintain coldness and located close to a water source, like at Fineshade, where the ice would be collected when it formed in winter. The ice would be insulated by straw and packed together, the straw provided air pockets essential to maintain coldness. The entrance tunnel would have two doors to provide an airlock preventing warm air entering when loading and unloading. The ice house would have a drain hole in the base for melt water to drain - good drainage was necessary to maintain air circulation and, if maintained properly, a full ice house could take up to 18 months to thaw (Leslie, 2010).
William Payne King of Fineshade was High Sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1759, the year he died. He left the estate to his widow who remarried the Hon. Edwin Sandys. In 1769 Sandys sold it to the Hon. John Monckton (d.1830).
The Hon. John Monckton was the son of John Monckton, 1st Viscount Galway and the grandson of Robert, who had been a strong opponent of the policies of James II, and had gone into exile in the Netherlands and returned with the invading army of William III in the Glorious Revolution of 1688— and, he was the brother of the notable General Robert Monckton (Wikipedia, 2016b).
1879 saw the opening of the London and North-Western Railway line (LNWR), which cuts through the surrounding countryside. From 1923 it was amalgamated with London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) and in 1948 it became the London Midland Region of British Railways. The line closed to passengers in June 1966 (Wikipedia, 2015c).
20th century: the end of the house
Fineshade Abbey remained with the Moncktons until 1928, when it was sold to Charles R. d’Anyers Willis (NCC). From 1928 to 1955 the history of the house is uncertain —the Georgian mansion was demolished in 1956 following a demolition sale in 1955.
Could the house have been one of many requisitioned during World War II? Whilst the government handed requisitioned, war-torn and often dilapidated mansions back to their demoralised and impoverished owners, at a time of increasing taxation many felt their only option was to abandon their ancestral homes and, by 1955, one grand house was demolished every five days – including William Payne King’s grand old Georgian mansion.
Bibliography - works cited
Can you help us complete the story of Fineshade Abbey?
We know little of the details of the house up to the time of its demolition in 1956, but perhaps you can help us fill in the gaps?
Please contact Caroline Lloyd via the Friends of Fineshade if you can provide any further details or pictures of the old house in the twentieth century.
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BHO. (1930g). 'Parishes: Warmington', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 3 pp.113-122. (W. P. 1930), Editor) Retrieved November 2016, from British History Online:
BHO. (1975c, November 18). '20 Fineshade'. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Vol 1, p38. Retrieved November 2016, from British History Online:
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Leyland, J. (1907). The Itenerary of John Leyland in or about the years 1535-1543; Parts I to III. In J. Leyland, & L. Toulmin (Ed.), The Itenerary of John Leyland in or about the years 1535-1543; Parts I to III (Vol. 1, pp. 22-23). London: George Bell and Sons. Retrieved December 2016, from
Metcalfe, W. C. (Ed.). (1887). The Visitations of Northamptonshire made in 1564 and 1618-19, with Northamptonshire Pedigrees. London: Mitchel & Hughes. Retrieved November 2016, from
NCC. (n.d.). A guide to family and estate archives held at the Northamptonshire Record Office. Northampton: Northamptonshire County Council. Retrieved November 2016, from
Ross, D. (1996). Adulterine Castles. Retrieved November 2016, from Britain Express:
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