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Apethorpe

Dedication : St Leonard      Simon Jenkins: Excluded                                      Principal Features : Mildmay Monument; rare Stained Glass

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Apethorpe is one of those churches that are pleasant but unexceptional architecturally but which have furnishings and sculptures that make your visit very rewarding.

The present church was built as late (for a mediaeval English parish church) as 1485: the year that Henry VII overthrew Richard III at Bosworth Field. There is a twelfth century voussoir on display that is the single indicator of a Norman church that preceded the present one.

The floor plan is exactly what one would expect of a church of this period: clerestoried nave, chancel, west tower and two aisles. There are dozens of such churches in Northamptonshire and literally thousands in England. The difference at Apethorpe, however, is that the church was built that way from the start whereas most developed that way piecemeal.

Apethorpe also, however, has a south chapel adjacent to the chancel. It was built in 1621 to house the monument to Sir Anthony (d.1617) and Lady Grace Mildmay (d.1620). Really, they should have built a bigger chapel because the monument is absurdly large for a local parish church. I guarantee you that when you arrive it will be the first thing you notice. It is held to be possibly the finest of its period and possibly made by Maximilien Colt. More about it anon.Sir Anthony’s father had a very interesting history - see the footnote below. 

There was also a crypt underneath the Mildmay tomb that housed the tombs of Fane family, the Earls of Westmorland. A bizarre thing for a fifteenth century parish church to have, you might think. It was sealed in 1900.

I am neither expert nor aficionado of stained glass – most of which is dreadful mass-produced stuff of Victorian vintage. Apethorpe, however, has exceptional examples of this art form. The south chapel has an exceptionally rare example of glass from 1621. It is instructive to compare it with the majority of stained glass in churches on this website. The east window is almost exactly a hundred year more recent, signed and dated by John Rowell of High Wycombe in 1732. The glass is a painted scene of the Last Supper. As the Church Guide explains, the stained glass industry was at a low ebb at the time. The artists of the time had not mastered the art of fixing the colours – those of you who are familiar with traditional film photography will understand this well – and so the colours faded badly. Many panes here were removed altogether while others had to be restored in 1994 “at huge expense”.

When we visited we met the octogenarian villager Mike Lee who was at work regulating the church clock. He told us that Apethorpe’s is the oldest working church clock in England.

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Left: The view to the east. There are aisles to norht and south. The chancel arch fills the whole width of the nave and gives an unobstructed view to the east end. Right: The chancel. The window is of 1732, a very rare vintage indeed. To the right you can see the lofty three arch arcade that leads to the Mildmay tomb in the south chapel.

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Left: The Mildmay tomb. It has been described thus: the Mildmay monument is one of the largest and most theatrical of its type in the country”. The Mildmays were occupants of Apethorpe Hall which was at one time owned by Elizabeth I and which is almost next to the church. To modern eyes - including my own - it seems very odd that a man and his wife could dominate a church in this way for perpetuity. Sir Anthony (unlike his father) had no great claim to fame. He was England’s ambassador to Paris during the later period of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and was MP for a number of English constituencies. His contemporary portrait (below) shows him to be something of a gay blade. Right: The detail on the top of the monument (there must be an “official” term for that, surely?) shows extraordinary richness of the edifice. The four cardinal virtues are represented by female figures at each corner. The monument also adds the words “Chaste” (seen here) and “Valiant” which are not cardinal virtues. I’m glad to see chastity is not so highly rated!

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Left: Sir Anthony and the missus - Lady Grace -  lie in state. He is wearing “Greenwich Armour”. Right: The highly unusual stone facade within the south chapel leave you in no doubt that it was built entirely to house the tomb.

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Left: the west side of the monument. Centre: This “virtue” is Prudence traditionally represented by book, scroll and (in this case) mirror. The serpent in her left hand represents an attack on this virtue. Right: Sir Anthony as painted by the court painter Nicholas Hilliard. It’s an odd representation. He is either putting on or removing his armour. I think he just wanted Hilliard to show his nice long legs. You would have thought that his sword would have been last on or first off but doubtless he also wanted to show his martial instincts in his portrait. My goodness, what a young coxcomb!

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On the same theme of Sir Anthony’s apparent vanity, we are also treated to these two very interesting helms mounted near the ceiling. Whether our Tony ever chanced his arm in any kind of battle I haven’t been able to ascertain. I have my suspicions!

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Left: An altogether more modest tomb slab of Sir Richard Dalton 1363-1442. It is half life-size. Behind his head is a scene of the Annunciation. Centre: The stained glass of 1621. It looks surprisingly modern. Look, for example, at the vibrant orange circle in the rightmost panel which, as a whole, represents Christ surrounded by his patriarchs and angels. It is a work of art rather than an example of the soulless stilted representations of most Victorian glass. Right: More seventeenth century glass showing the arms of various great families. These were to portray the lineage of Sir Francis Fane 1580-1629 who became the first Earl of Westmorland. Sir Francis, the son-in-law of Sir Anthony, actually commissioned the Mildmay monument according to his will. In this glass you see in various configurations the arms of Mildmay, Fane, Sherington and Despenser. Despenser is an ancient family and Hugh Despenser was the favourite of Edward II. His unpopularity was such that the baronial rebellion against Edward was known as the “Despenser War”. Hugh’s death in Hereford at the hands of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer was particularly gruesome.  Apart from the normal horrors of hanging, drawing and quartering began Despenser had biblical tracts carvedinto his skin and he was given a crown of nettles. After his half-hanged body had been lowered from its fifty foot scaffold his penis and testicles were cut off. That was before the usual rituals of having being disembowelled and having his beating heart removed. Sorry to spoil your lunch!

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I can hardly remember showing so many photographs of church glass, but Apethorpe’s is a striking collection.

Above: John Rowell’s 1732 depiction of the Last Supper in the east window. This is painted glass rather than stained glass that we are all so familiar with.

Left: This is early twentieth century glass commemorating the death of Lt Colonel Harold Brassey, killed in action in 1916. They were then owners of Apethorpe Hall.  Note how stilted and formal the composition is. The heads of the three figures are like sepia photographs. Compare this window with the seventeenth and eighteenth century examples on this page

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Left: The view to the west end. Centre: Another rarity: Apethorpe’s eighteenth century font. The bowl is marble and the stem alabaster. I’m assuming the pretty floral arrangement is inside a removable pot! It’s interesting to reflect on the way this font has evolved from the hefty tubs of the Romanesque period and the decorative but still large octagonal fonts of the pre-Reformation period. Art and fashion seem to have overtaken functionality - a very eighteenth century thing. Right: The south porch.

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These cheerful-looking grotesques adorn the roof corbels in the nave

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Left: The south aisle with the Mildmay Chapel beyond it. Right: The tabard of Sir Anthony Mildmay hangs in the south aisle near the chapel.

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Left: Another hanging display. This one is labelled as material from the “bishop’s chair”. I can’t find out which bishop. It is late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. Right: A wonderful wooden cope chest in the north aisle. Again, I can find nothing written about its provenance.

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Left: The church from the north west. The tower is seventeenth century. Other Pictures: Across the road from the church is this superbly preserved set of village punishment instruments. The stocks are seen in a number of villages, but the whipping post is a somewhat gruesome rarity. The bench is also original. The information board also retails the story that the last person to be sentenced to the stocks was instead bought a pint at the Westmorland Arms. I’d like to believe that is a true story!

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Footnote 1 - Sir Walter Mildmay

Sir Walter’s story is altogether more interesting than that of his poseur son. He was the son of Thomas Mildmay who served Henry VIII as Auditor of the Court of Augmentations. The function of this court was to administer the landsand property seized from the Roman Catholic Church at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. As auditor Thomas would have been responsible for valuing this land so it could be sold. The scope for corruption must have been vast and it is no surprise to know that Thomas amassed a great fortune. 

Walter found favour under Edward VI with the court being reconstituted as Edward moved on from his father’s  policy of separation from Rome to out-and-out Protestantism. He acquired various other financial posts under Edward and was returned to Parliament for a variety of constituencies, including nearby Peterborough.  He was granted Apethorpe Hall in 1552. Despite being a Calvinist - a hard-line Protestant - he still prospered during Mary I’s reign and was still involved in Government business.

All of this paled against the success he enjoyed under Elizabeth I. He was treasurer of her household until in 1566 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer upon the death of Sir Richard Sackville. He had married to Mary Walsingham, sister of Elizabeth’s “spymaster” Sir Francis Walsingham and was a friend of her chief minister and confidant, Lord Burghley. A Privy Counsellor and member of the Star Chamber Court, Sir Walter was part of Elizabeth’s inner circle. For many years this group, especially Walsingham, was preoccupied with the threat of a Roman Catholic rebellion to enthrone the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. Walter played a full part in their efforts and was involved in the proceedings for her trial and execution in 1587. Doubtless he was also the recipient of some of Elizabeth’s self-righteous fury when she discovered that her inner circle had secretly executed Mary’s death warrant that Elizabeth had signed. Walsingham and Burghley had been convinced that Elizabeth would procrastinate to her own and the country’s peril.

In his book about Walsingham -  “Elizabeth’s Spymaster” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) - Robert Hutchison says “Walsingham pressed grimly on with the arrangements for Mary’s judicial murder. One of his servants, Anthony Hall, interviewed the notorious Bull, the public executioner, employed at the Tower of London...He agreed a price of £10 (£1560 in today’s prices) for beheading Mary. The Secretary then sought to lodge Bull with his brother-in-law Sir Walter Mildmay at his home in Apethorpe just three miles nortjh-west of Fotheringay and therefore convenient for the execution. But Sir Walter ‘misliked’ the idea of putting up such a socially unacceptable guest and and the headsman and his assistant were eventually accommodated ‘in an inn in Fotheringay’...”

In 1583 Mildmay had founded Emanuel College, Cambridge, In 1588 the college opened and in 1589 Sir Walter died. He was buried in St Batholomew’s Church, London.

The inn where Bull, the executioner was accommodated, is the “The Falcon”. You can still eat and drink there. The Talbot Inn in Oundle claims to have the original staircase that Mary Queen of Scots used to descend to the Great Hall at (the long demolished) Fotheringay castle where she was executed but there is some doubt about this provenance as it is rather small.

Footnote 2 - Apethorpe Hall

The fifteenth century hall was willed to Elizabeth I from her father, Henry VIII. Edward VI, however, was Henry’s successor and he granted it to Sir Walter Mildmay in exchange for property elsewhere. Elizabeth is known to have dined there in 1562 and 1566. Sir Anthony inherited it from Walter who in turn left it to his daughter who had married Sir Francis Fane, later Earl of Westmorland. The Fanes held it for three hundred years. Both James I and Charles I were enamoured of it. English Heritage say:

“James I so loved Apethorpe that he personally contributed to its  extension to make it more suitable for his 'princely recreation' and  'commodious entertainment', particularly for hunting in the nearby royal forest of Rockingham. The resulting series of state rooms, including  the King's Bedchamber and the impressive Long Gallery, is one of the  most complete to survive from the Jacobean period”

In 1622 King James I gave Fane 100 oak trees and permission to buy 100  more 'at reasonable rates' to enlarge Apethorpe 'for the more commodious entertainment of his majesty.' Thus, Apethorpe Hall reached its zenith. Charles I also stayed there regularly.

The Hall was acquired by the Brassey family (still resident in the area) in 1904 when the Westmorlands fell on hard times. After World War II, the hall and grounds were the site of an “approved school” (non UK readers or UK readers of a more recent vintage should be aware this was a school for young criminals and delinquents) run by the Roman Catholic Church. The hall eventually became the property of Wanis Mohammed Burweila, but he left the country after the Libyan Embassy siege in 1984. Sensible chap. Libyans weren’t too popular in the UK at that time. I continue the story from 2004 when the Government acquired it, having allegedly ridden roughshod over one Simon Karimzadeh, a Libyan businessman who fondly imagined he had already bought it!  I quote from the Daily Telegraph of 24 September 2004:

“The saga of Apethorpe Hall, a Grade I-listed country house in Northamptonshire, and how it was snatched from under Mr Karimzadeh's nose by a compulsory purchase order, is convoluted by any standards. Dickens would have made a novel out of it. Trollope would have made three novels out of it. The cast list includes mystery Libyans, the president of Queens Park Rangers football club and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary - and that is before m'learned friends are taken into account.

In brief, the house fell into disrepair, like many a great English country house before it. Serious disrepair. Walking around it today is enough to make a lover of architecture weep. The grand designs of previous generations - the 15th-century hall, the handsome, 17th-century façades, the 18th-century library wing - have fallen victim to Old Father Time. The exterior of the house is still terrific but, inside, it looks like a war zone. Dust, rubble, peeling wallpaper, exposed wires, great gaping holes in the floors and ceilings. On top of that, the house has been visited by the floods that have layed waste the rest of Britain this summer. The ground floor is awash with mud. Flies buzz around the water pipes. There is a stench of damp and decay”

Having acquired it for £3.5 million, English Heritage proceeded to spend £8 million restoring it and then in 2008 put it on the market at a price of   £4.5 million. Fabulous economics, eh? After all it had only “a 51,000 sq ft hall, complete with stable block, gardener's cottage and 45 acres of land” so really it was a c**p property, wasn’t it?. It remained on the market until  it was bought for £2.5m by French professor, diplomat and academic, Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten. You might be interested to read about the real Jean Claude on Wikipaedia here. What a great piece of business for the country, though. Why, you could acquire a three-bedroomed penthouse apartment in London for that price. There was a sting in the tail though. Oh, yes. You see, the Baron has to open it to the public for - wait for it - .fifty days a year. Phew. What a sacrifice for the poor old Baron.  Really, he wuz robbed, wasn’t he?! I long for an announcement that a French chateau on the Loire has been sold for a couple of million Euros to a British “professor, diplomat and academic”.

In the interests of fairness, even after the English Heritage intervention the Hall still lacked some basic facilities and is alleged to still require millions more “investment” before it can become “a family home”. Sorry, but I have to giggle at that last bit!

It is now “rebranded” as Apethorpe Palace due to its status as a former B&B that got great Royal Trip Advisor reviews. That’s nice for Jean Christophe, I’m sure. Just don’t call it “Palace” when you are in Apethorpe (or, as Diana and I found out, in nearby King’s Cliffe), though. The locals who at the time of writing have just seen their local pub close might put you in the old stocks. They seem to have this strange idea that their heritage has been sold for the proverbial mess of potage.

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£2.5m doesn’t get you a lot in England these days does it?

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