Spirits & Earls of Salisbury
Bisham village was early chosen as the site of a preceptory (like a monastery) for the Knights Templar who were given the manor in the 1140s. At the centre of the complex was what is currently called the ‘abbey’ – actually a fine example of a medieval manor house with later additions. The main feasting hall was built for these crusading knights-cum-monks in about 1260, along with a separate circular chapel, the remains of which are apparently now buried under the tennis courts. The order was suppressed in 1307, when the Crown took the place over and used it as a luxurious prison for King Robert the Bruce’s queen and daughter, captured during the Scottish Wars of Succession.
Eventually, in 1335, the manor came into the hands of William, 3rd Baron Montacute. He was a close friend of King Edward III and was sent to arrest the Earl of March who had had Edward’s father murdered. He extended the end of the Templar hall with living quarters and a small cloistral arcade that can still be seen today. In 1337, Montacute was rewarded with the Earldom of Salisbury and, in the same year, he founded a priory for Austin canons immediately adjacent to, and completely dominating, his manor house at Bisham. It was only briefly raised to the status of an abbey just before its dissolution, but this is the name that has survived, but transferred to the manor house. Bisham was an ideal location for a large-scale building project like this, as many villagers were then employed in quarrying and supplied much of the stone for Windsor Castle. The name of Quarry Woods still reminds us of the quarry’s location. The eerie wood was later the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wild Wood’ where Mr Badger lived in his novel, the ‘Wind in the Willows’. Grahame wrote his famous book at nearby Cookham Dean.
The foundation stone of Bisham Priory was laid by King Edward III himself and the brass plaque recording the event can now be seen reused in Denchworth Church, near Wantage. The Priory held minor relics of Saints Cosmas and Damian, but never became a major pilgrimage centre and, despite the resident patronage of the Salisburys, remained a relatively poor monastery. However, it was soon to become the family mausoleum and the medieval monuments there must have rivalled those at places like Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire:
In the early 15th century, the manor passed to the great northern family of Neville, whose central role in the Wars of the Roses cannot be overestimated, in particular the actions of King Edward IV’s cousin, the all-powerful Earl of Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’. Although they spent much time on their Yorkshire estates and in London, their Southern country residence was Bisham Manor. The Bull Inn at Bisham was named after their family symbol. Built for the village mason who put up the church, it is said to have been a pub for about six hundred and fifty years, with reputed visits from Templars, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Within, there is a superb stained-glass window showing the head of a large black bull surrounded by crests of the lords of the manor. After the Wars, Princess Margaret, Countess of Salisbury – the niece of Edward IV and Richard III – eventually managed to regain her house at Bisham and built the marvellous dovecote, still to be seen today, in order to provide sustenance for her household through the winter. Being a good Catholic, the Countess rebuked the commissioners who closed and then demolished the Priory in 1536. She is said to have tried to save the family monuments by gathering them together in the old feasting hall.
After the Countess’s execution, resulting from her claim to the Throne, Bisham came into the hands of Sir Philip Hoby and his brother, Sir Thomas. They were both English ambassadors in Europe and erected the rest of the house, including the tower. Sir Philip was amongst the many courtiers of King Henry VIII who were painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Through Sir Thomas’ wife, Lady Elizabeth, the brothers later had connections with some of the most influential people at the Elizabethan Court, including her brother-in-law, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s chief advisor. As Princess Elizabeth, the Queen had been kept in their care at Bisham for several years. She apparently used to drink from the holy well named after her and planted a mulberry tree still standing in the grounds. Elizabeth, Lady Hoby is said to have been a singularly stern individual. Being highly educated, she took to tutoring her own children. One son, however, was such a disappointment to her that she could not help but lose her temper with him. One day she is said to have beaten him to death with a ruler for having accidentally made ink blots all over his exercise book. Her repentant ghost is often seen around the Abbey, ceaselessly washing her blood-stained hands.
Lady Elizabeth’s monument, in the southern Hoby Chapel of Bisham Church, is one of the largest and most spectacular of any to be found outside a cathedral. It features the lady and all her children. Lady Hoby organised both this monument and her own funeral down to the last detail, even writing to the College of Arms to confirm her heraldic rights and privileges. Her husband and brother-in-law recline alongside her with hobby hawks at their feet. It is a very early monument of its type, probably made in France. However, it is the swan-covered obelisk to her daughter-in-law, Margaret Carey Hoby, which commands one’s attention. This lady was the daughter of Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, and she was visited at the ‘Abbey’ by her royal relative. The early 17th century heraldic windows trace the Hoby family history.
In 1780, a younger branch of the Vansittart family from Shottesbrooke Park purchased the Bisham estate. They later became the Vansittart-Neales. They are particularly remembered by a sad monument in the church to their heir, an Eton boy who died of appendicitis at the age of only fourteen in 1904. He is represented along with his spaniel, Norman, sculpted from life. He was one of several young Vansittarts and their heirs who died in tragic circumstances, giving rise to talk of a curse on the owners of the house. After the Second World War, Bisham Abbey house was lent, and later sold, to the Central Council for Physical Recreation as a sports training centre in memory of the two heirs killed in the War. The family then moved into the adjoining Bisham Grange. The Abbey house and its grounds are now one of the country’s National Sports Centres.
Read more history of
Bisham and other settlements in the parish in David Nash Ford's book, 'East Berkshire Town and Village
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