Bilsthorpe parish church c.1910.
Bilsthorpe parish church c.1910.

Ancient Origin and Checkered History of Bilsthorpe

THERE was originally a “d” in Bilsthorpe’s name, for it was the “thorpe” of a Scandinavian invader named Bildr who is believed to have founded the village before the Saxons and Danes had settled down together in peace. Domesday records it as “Bildesthorp,” and the “d” persisted until the 14th century, when the word had commonly begun to assume its present form. That it was “Bildesthorpe” and not "Bildesby” suggests that the early settlement was not an isolated homestead, but a small community that commenced to clear the forest waste and cultivate the soil; and if the supposition of the early coining of Bildr and his followers is correct, the clustered homesteads would be defended by a timber stockade not only against the beasts of the forest but also against human foes, for in those days this region was a constant battle-ground. No traces of any fortifications remain, but in the immediate vicinity, on the Rufford side, at Winkerfield, was a Toothill or Look-out hill, and the Watch Hill of old maps is a reminder of the perils of those times.

At the Conquest

As a Danish village it may have had a church, though none is mentioned in the Domesday record, for the base upon which the present font stands has been identified as pre-Norman. At the Conquest it formed part of the possession of Ulf which were bestowed by William upon his nephew, Gilbert de Gand, Earl of Lincoln, who founded Rufford Abbey some 80 years later.

Land sufficient to require six ploughs had been cleared and cultivated, there were but four acres of meadow, and a woodland waste three miles long by half-a-mile in width yielded pannage or pasturage for the swine of the nineteen heads of families who may have represented a population of front 80 to 100 souls.

Of Bilsthorpe’s Norman history little is recorded, but the tub-shaped font in the church is of that era, and the inhabitants would be perturbed, and perhaps pillaged or worse during the the anarchy under Stephen when its lord was taken captive at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 and the district was mercilessly ravaged. When the Pentecostal offerings to the mother church at Southwell were instituted in 1171 the local contribution was fixed at 1s. 4d. and this amount continued to be paid yearly until far into the reign of George III.

By 1242 the Gand interest here had ceased, for in that year it was found that Robert de Greule (or Gresley) held the whole vill of Bilsthorp in demesne of the soke of the royal manor of Mansfield, and had given it to Galifrid Tregoz, who married his daughter. Tregozes were landholders in Essex and Suffolk, and it may have been this Galfrid (or possibly a Gand predecessor) who granted property at Winkerfield to Rufford Abbey, confirmed by Henry III in 1233. In 1265 (when the then Gilbert de Gand temporarily lost his estates for siding with de Montfort against the king) Robt. Tregoz had grant of free warren, with licence to enclose nis demesne land within a ditch and hedge subject to the usual forest conditions that they should not be sufficient to impede the king’s larger game.

Confusing Evidence

It is somewhat confusing to find that despite the contemporary official record that in 1233 “Ralph Tregoz held the whole vill of Bilsthorpe" another contemporary document states that Gilbert de Gand, dead by 1304, retained here a quarter of a knight’s fee, worth yearly five marks, held from him by John de Loudham. In 1316 this John was found to have a messuage and two caracutes of land here, worth £10 yearly, which he held of Henry de Bello Monte (Beaumont), and at his death, within two years, he had in Bildisthorp, jointly with his wife, six messuages, twelve oxgangs of land, and four acres of wood. Each messuage was worth 12d. per annum, each oxgang, 18d. and each acre of wood 4d., all held from ‘‘Henry de Beumont,” and together reckoned as a quarter of a knight’s fee. Sir John de Loudham the younger, dying in 16 Richard II without issue, demised his manor of Billesthorpe and Lowdham” with property at Newton to his wife Margaret for life, and the widow subsequently married Sir John Zouch who a few years later was paying 20d, to the “aid’’ (tax) in respect of his "fourth part of a knight’s fee here, sometime held by John de Loudham.”

The ultimate heirs of Sir John de Loudham were his sisters Isabel, wife of Thomas Bekering, and Margaret, who married Thomas Foljambe, and in the division of their inheritance it was to the former that the property at Bilsthorpe fell, with a moiety of Lowdham manor. These passed to Isabel’s daughter, who married Sir Thomas de Rempstone. and by their daughter co-heiress, Elizabeth, were conveyed in marriage to Sir John Cheyne. To conclude these somewhat tedious descents (which occasionally depart from Dr. Thoroton’s account) it may be added that “Loudham’s manor” here descended to the Lords Vaux of Harrowden who, about the end of the reign, sold it to the Roos family of Laxton.

Meanwhile, events, of more general interest had been happening in the village. In 1414 its constable, William West by name, was pardoned, his outlawry for the death of Simon atte Maydenes “of Bildesthorpe.” There had been a fracas, and as it terminated fatally for Simon the constable had fled, been proscribed, and had surrendered at Nottingham gaol, from which he was liberated when he was able to show that he slew the man in self-defence. A sidelight on the village economy is thrown by a record that in 1436 Newark was receiving a “substantial sum" (the words are those of Cornelius Brown, the historian of that town) from the men of Bilsthorpe for the right to have a cart full of heather and fuel [for sale on the pavement] there every weekday except market day.

The Tudor age ushered in the era of lawsuits from which this lordship was not exempt, and some of these were of much interest. One was the action by Robert Sutton of Bilsthorpe against Thomas Gosse for payment of money due under the marriage settlement of the complainant’s daughter who had died within three years of the marriage; but of more consequence was a local marriage contract of 1511 of which ample particulars remain. The twelve-year-old son and heir of Sir Nicholas Vaus (Vaux) was then legally betrothed to the seven-year-old daughter-heiress of Sir Thomas Cheyne (Cheney), the marriage to take place within three months of the maiden’s twelfth birthday–that being the minimum age for the marriage of a girl. The parents agreed, in accordance with custom, that until the contract was fulfilled the children should exchange homes, the boy being placed in the custody of the Cheneys and the girl with the Vaus who were to pay £1,000 by instalments and give sureties for performance. Provision was made for the return of the money paid by Sir Nicholas in the event of an heir being born to the Cheneys or the birth of sisters to share Elizabeth's inheritance. The document states that the Cheney manor in Bilsthorpe (here called “Billisho”) was held from Rufford Abbey. Sir Thomas Cheney made his will in conformity with these arrangements and his death in 1513 left Elizabeth his sole heiress: the young couple duly married, and as a widow Elizabeth Vaus died in 1555.

There were disputes concerning the church advowson. In 1484 Henry Foljambe presented Thomas Brompton to the rectory and it was then agreed that he and Sir Thomas Rempstone should, present alternately, but next year it was found that the right belonged to Foljambe. In 1520 the patronage was exercised by Anne Cheyney, widow of Sir Thomas, whereupon she was sued by Sir Godfrey Foljambe, but the verdict went against him, and the patronage descended with Elizabeth Vaux’s other possessions to her son. Lord Vaux, who by 1599 sold them to Peter Roos whose possessions were squandered by his son Gilbert, who in extremity parted with his Lowdham and Bilsthorpe properties to his kinsman, Sir Brian Broughton, in the reign of James I,

Case of Demonology

The monks of Rufford had established a grange here which with the Abbey itself and other of its properties were in 1557 granted by Henry VIII to the Earl of Shrewsbury for the important part he had played in repressing the formidable Pilgrimage of Grace in this region in the previous year. With this grant went the "messuages in the vills and fields of Bildisthorpe” and other places, the monastic possessions here being described as a manor, and about the same time it was valued at ten marks yearly and the barn or grange at £1 16s. 8d.

A strange instance of alleged demonology excited the attention of the inhabitants of Elizabethan Bilsthorpe. About 1586 John Darrell, a young Puritan preacher of Mansfield, was attracting considerable notice as an exorcist and Thomas Beckingham, rector here having among his parishioners a girl said to be possessed of an evil spirit, took her to him to have it cast out. After three days of prayer and fasting the impostor claimed to have expelled the “legion of fiends, but a woman said to have bewitched her was arrested. Mr, Godfrey Foljambe, the magistrate before whom the woman was taken, detected the roguery, discharged the accused and threatened to send Darrell to gaol. Subsequently the “possessed” girl confessed herself an accomplice of Darrell’s, and he, after being appointed preacher at St. Mary's Church, Nottingham, where he performed more impostures, met the fate he had previously escaped at the hand of Justice Foljambe.

More notable episodes in the history of Bilsthorpe

THE latest recorded incident in the annals of 16th century Bilsthorpe was the prosecution of a widow for witchcraft. Under examination she informed the ecclesiastical court that during the last two years she had been “called in to help cattle that were forespoken (bewitched).” Her treatment consisted simply and solely of the use of 15 paternosters, the same number of Aves, and three recitals of the Creed in honour of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, and, she said, "the cattle thereupon amended.” For her services she accepted nothing from poor folks, from others one penny. Faced with this able defence the Court was in a delicate position, for it could not deny the efficacy of fervent prayer, and with some hesitation it discharged the offender upon her giving an undertaking forthwith to desist from her dangerous practice.

Against the law

The terrible plague of 1605 appears to have done little harm here, but the villagers had to contribute, under an Act of 1603, to the levy spread over the north of the county for the relief of the inhabitants of Worksop, where the visitation had been very severe; the Bilsthorpe assessment was 3s. 4d. Five years later Richard Walker had to prosecute a Peter Rod for paying unwelcome attentions to his (Walker’s) wife. Peter had disturbed the peace of the village by his outrageous conduct, threatening the husband, challenging him to fight for her, and alternately offering him £50 to sue for a divorce and offering to share the expenses of such legal action. He was bound over, but subsequently sent for her to meet him in the village alehouse whereupon he was made to find sureties for his good behaviour or in default to be sent to gaol, and Bilsthorpe appears thus to have been quit of him.

A woman of the village had recently bought the clapper of the church bell for 16d. and was ordered to restore it, and according to local tradition, one of the church bells was at a later period surreptitiously removed to find a home and use elsewhere. Another light on social history is afforded by a record of 1609, when a Bilsthorpe farmer was sued for refusing to make the accustomed payment to the parish clerk of Rolleston in respect of “the land which he occupieth,” in accordance with “the custom of Rolleston.” The claim was proved and the farmer was commanded to pay a strike of barley yearly to that functionary. In 1623 Samuel Stamford was charged with refusing to pay “an accustomed dutie” to the (perambulation) procession round the parish. He denied that any such compulsory contribution to the junketing called beating the bounds was enforceable by law and the case was dropped.

Picturesque history and traditions relate to Bilsthorpe in the reign of Charles I when within the space of a dozen years three distinguished fugitives—a king, a duke, and a bishop— are said to have taken refuge here. The monarch was Charles who in 1646, when his cause was lost, fled from Oxford and by devious ways reached Southwell. and at Kelham surrendered himself to the Scots, hoping to benefit by their jealousy of the Parliamentary leaders. It is said that when nearing the end of his perilous journey under various disguises he found himself so hard pressed that he entered the house of a known royalist here and concealed himself in a cupboard until the. danger had passed. The house still stands and is known as the manor farmhouse and the identical cupboard is (or was until recently) shown to the curious. The king’s itinerary is known only in parts, and although Bilsthorpe appears to be a little apart from the probable route it is but five miles from Southwell; Charles’s steps were uncertain and the story may be true.

The duke was he of Buckingham, owner of Nottingham Castle, who is reputed to have fled hither after the crushing royalist defeat at Worcester in 1651, disguised as a labourer, and found a hiding-place here in the home of a friend, but the evidence is slight and no building is adduced as proof. All that can be said is that he did escape from Worcester and made his way to Holland and he may have spent a night here on his way. His estates (including Nottingham Castle) were forfeited, but recovered after the Restoration. As his mother was a daughter of an Earl of Ruslana, he may have found temporary shelter at Belvoir Castle and come hence from! there, and he is said to have masqueraded as a mountebank. He was grand-uncle to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and after ruining himself by profligacy he sold the dismantled ruins of Nottingham Castle to the Duke of Newcastle, who in 1674 commenced to raise the present structure on the rock.

Of Bishop Chappell’s retreat to Bilsthorpe there is no question. He was born at Laxton, educated at Mansfield, became a tutor at Cambridge University, where he was a hard taskmaster to John Milton, and subsequently Bishop of Cork and Ross. As a protege of Laud and Strafford he was involved in their fall, and after suffering imprisonment he found a haven of rest in the home of his friend, Gilbert Benet, rector of this parish. So vast was his learning that in 1615 he was chosen to argue before James I against a future Bishop of Bangor in a theological disputation, and the story goes that he pressed his opponent so hard that he swooned. King James took his place, but fared little better and retired from his chair exclaiming that it was a fortunate circumstance that Chappell was one of his subjects for otherwise his throne as well as his seat would be imperilled. The account is not correct throughout for it was Cecil, Lord Burghley, acting as moderator, when in ill-health, who fainted, though Chappell’s erudition and skill as a disputant are undoubted facts. He died at Derby in 1649, and was buried in Bilsthorpe church where his quondam schoolfellow at Mansfield, Archbishop Sterne, erected a monument to his memory.

At this period many parish churches were in a deplorable state inside and out, and that of Bilsthorpe was apparently one of them, for in 1663 its tower had to be rebuilt. In the previous year “the guardians of the church” had granted a lease for 99 years of its church lands at Eakring for £9 down and a peppercorn rent, probably to obtain some money towards the building costs, and in 1828 it was found that this land, an acre-and-a-half in extent, was producing a rental of 21s. a year, having recently been advanced from 14s. The Charity Commissioners then deemed this payment inadequate, and a fair rental was promised. The income, it may be noticed, was being paid to the parish clerk for teaching in the Sunday school. Bishop Chappell had left £5 for village poor, and in 1732 Jas. Lynam bequeathed a similar amount, the interest to be spent on bread to be given yearly on New Year’s Day.

In 1676 Wm. Mompesson, the rector, reported that there were 91 adult inhabitants in the parish, including three Papists. A similar return in 1743 revealed “about 20 families and no Dissenters.” Services were “read” twice on Sundays and once on feasts and fasts “if a fitting number of People attended,” and the rector ingenuously informed his archbishop that he resided here “near Southwell, where he had thought many years of being a prebend,” but the hint was not taken—the name of Richard Berks does not appear in the list of Southwell prebendaries. The church occupies the highest ground in the village, within the extensive remains of the moat which once encircled both it and the manor-house. In 1869 it was reported that “nothing can exceed the squalor and wretchedness of the interior,” and four years later it was “thoroughly restored” in a manner deserving the stricture that it “owes more to the natural beauty of its situation than to the treatment it has received at the hand of man.” In 1901-2 the structure underwent further repairs. Both chancel and nave have the square-headed windows so characteristic of late 14th century church building in Notts., and there is a blocked-up priest’s doorway, but the most interesting features of the interior are the Norman tub-font, two square-headed doorways of the rood-loft stairs, a grave-slab on the floor of the nave, incised with a Calvary Cross, dating from about 1400, and a glass-covered fragment of stone, showing a cross, on the tower wall, which may possibly be a relic of the Saxon church. Near it are some crude bench-seats of pre-Reformation date.

Fire of 1727

Church Street, New Bilsthorpe, c.1930.Church Street, New Bilsthorpe, c.1930.

Most of the village was destroyed by fire in 1727, but, largely by the benevolence of Mrs. Broughton (whose family had held the manor for two centuries) it was promptly rebuilt, and under George III the parish underwent a great change through enclosures. Between 1776-98 its new owner, Sir George Savile, privately enclosed 100 acres of clay fields, and 280 acres of common were similarly transformed into fields by Mr. R. Lumley Savile, who turned 50 acres of rabbit warren into oak plantations for the production of hop-poles. Large farms soon followed and almost worthless marsh and sand yielded to superior cultivation. Bilsthorpe commenced the 19th century with a population of 201, a number which 100 years later had fallen to 120, but now its normal total is about 2,000. The cause of this expansion is the colliery established about 1921 by the Stanton Coal and Ironworks Co., who purchased the mining rights from Lord Savile, owner of all the land except such portion of the glebe as was not sold off in 1882. The Savile Estate, sold in 1938, included the surface ownership of New Bilsthorpe, so called to distinguish it from Bilsthorpe—Old Village—together with the advowson of the rectory with the right of alternate presentation to the living.