History Guides

Historical summary

Ampthill is a small market town with a more interesting and significant history than many towns of much larger size. The town grew around a major cross-roads and its position on the greensand ridge gave it a prominent position overlooking the Vale of Bedford. This, together with its attractive buildings, creates a certain charm that rarely fails to cast its spell on residents and visitors alike.

The first residents were probably the Saxons, who named their settlement ‘Ammetelle’ (or ant-infested hill). The town slowly grew in importance and in the 13th century its market received royal charters (1219 & 1242). Since the second world war the importance of the market has continued to decline, but continues to this day on Thursdays. Until the 1980s the market was always held on the Market Square, an area recently tidied up.

An earlier attempt to reorganised the layout of the Market Square occurred in the 1780s, under the direction of Lord Upper Ossory of Ampthill Park. The most important change was the sinking of a well and the construction of a handsome stone obelisk to encase the town pump and the building of a new Market House, to accommodate the town’s butchers (now a jewellers). The previous Market House was much larger and had supported the town clock. Now it was placed on the old 15th century timber framed Moot Hall, together with a cupola & bells from Park House. This timber-framed building was where the manor court would have met, but was demolished in 1852. Its replacement, the Clock House was designed to support the clock tower and cupola. From the Market Square many of the towns Georgian fronted buildings can be seen.

Another contribution from Lord Ossory were these charming thatched Cottages built in the early 19th century for estate workers. Opposite is the Alameda, a lime walk planted by Lord & Lady Holland in the early 19th century. This leads to the cenotaph, the town’s war memorial, which was designed by Sir Albert Richardson of Avenue House. Beyond lies the Firs Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Until 1917 the Firs was a much loved pine plantation, however these were cut down by the 127th Canadian Forestry Corp for conversion into pit props.

Just beyond the Alameda and the Ossory Cottages is Ampthill Park. This was originally the Great Park where Lord Fanhope (uncle of Henry V) built his castle. He was a commander in the battle of Agincourt (1415) and made himself extremely rich as a result of his exploits in France.

A later owner was Henry VIII who became a regular visitor and enjoyed hunting in the extensive parkland. However, it was his first wife Queen Katherine of Aragon that Ampthill castle is best remembered for. For it was here that she was confined while her marriage to Henry VIII was annulled. Soon afterwards she was moved on to Kimbolton Castle where she died in 1536.

Today, nothing remains of the castle but the Katherine Cross commemorates Katherine’s residence. Lord Ossory erected this in 1773 with a verse from his friend Horrace Walpole. Nearby stands another cross which was erected in memory of those soldiers who died in World War I, who had been trained at the Duke of Bedford’s camp that occupied this site.

Following Henry VIII’s death the castle fell into decline and instead royalty stayed at the Great Lodge (originally the Steward’s house). In the 1620s the Nicolls family were stewards, and it was at the Great Lodge that Richard Nicolls was born in 1625. He was a close friend with Charles I’s children and went into exile with them during the Commonwealth. Following the Restoration he was sent out to North America to reclaim the British lands lost to the Dutch. In 1664 Nicolls received the surrender and re-named the settlement New York, after his friend and commander James, Duke of York. He served as the first governor of New York for several years before returning to build a home in Ampthill. However in 1672 he joined the Duke of York’s flagship in the Battle of Sole Bay, where he died. The cannon ball, that struck him was incorporated into his memorial tablet in St Andrew’s Church.

By the 1770s when Lord Ossory came here the Great Lodge had already undergone extensive alterations and enlargements. Lord Ossory undertook further extensions to create the impressive main front we can see today. In the 1960s the stucco was removed to reveal the red brickwork beneath. This has more recently undergone major restoration and conversion into private residences. The Park was enhanced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by selective tree planting and the creation of the Rezzy, a large body of open water. The Park has however since 1947 been owned by the town and provides a wonderful backdrop to such a historic town.

While Sir John Cornwall built the castle in the Park, he was also responsible for the present form of St Andrew’s, the parish Church. Although other generous townsfolk played a part, he was the major influence. A new style roof in the 1440s incorporated carved angels holding heraldic shields. Renewal of the roof in the 1960s included restoring the angels and the shields now carry the arms of benefactors to the church and town.

In front of St Andrew’s is Church Square. Nearest the church are the Feoffee Almshouses, a 15th century timber fronted building joined by a gothic arch to a 19th remodelling. Next door is Brandreth House, built between 1810 & 1815 for Thomas Gibbs, an accomplished nurseryman. On the left is Dynevor House, which was remodelled and re-fronted for Sir Simon Urlin in 1725 (note the initials ‘S V 1725’ on the rainwater heads). Its extensive ‘pleasure grounds’ which stretched down Church Street were later incorporated into the garden of Avenue House. Simon Urlin was attorney for the Earls of Ailesbury, residents of Houghton House.

Houghton Housewas built in 1615 for the Countess of Pembroke, it was later to become the home to the Bruce family (the Lords Elgin & Ailesbury), loyal supporters of the Stuart Kings. The house stood in a fine position overlooking the vale of Bedford to the north and the Chiltern hills to the south. In 1738 the Duke of Bedford purchased the house and estate and 56 years later he organised its dismantling. Various parts were recycled, including the great stair case to The Swan Hotel, Bedford.

The ruins were a popular attraction and one such visitor was Thomas Hutchinson (1711-80) last loyalist Governor of Massachusetts and a key figure in the American Revolution. In 1775 he visited the ruins which he thought to be “in good repair”, Ampthill he felt was “a neat small market town, pleasantly situated: several new well built brick houses: the streets well paved and airey.”

By the 1920s the building was in a dangerous state and totally covered with ivy. As a result local subscriptions were raised to save the building for the nation and today it is cared for by English Heritage.

Church Street contains a fine selection of historic buildings. Avenue House (no. 20) dominates the street scene, built as it is on two levels and only slightly set back from the pavement. It was built in two stages between 1780 and 1820 for the Morris family. They developed the town’s brewery from humble Quaker beginnings to the town’s major employer. The family sold their interest in the brewery in the 1880s and it finally closed in 1926. ten years later the buildings were demolished to allow the rebuilding of Bedford Street. In the 20th century Avenue House became the home of Sir Albert Richardson, an eminent architect, writer and past president of the Royal Academy. His most notable design in Ampthill is the council offices in Dunstable Street.

Other buildings of interest include the 18th

century Gates House (no.28) set back behind an impressive wrought-iron screen and gates. On the opposite side is the Old Parsonage (no. 31-35A). This Jacobean house with overhanging bays was once the home to Edmund Wingate, a renowned mathematician who taught English to Queen Henrietta Maria (wife of Charles I) and is credited with inventing the slide-rule.

Ampthill once boasted a fine selection of coaching inns. Today The White Hart is the best surviving example. Its Georgian façade hides a much, older building, which is evidenced by the presence of a 17th century wall painting depicting the Prince of Wales (Charles II) feathers over the fireplace. The gazebo on the west side of the street is all that remains of a 17th century walled garden created by John Findlay, gardener to Lord Ossory.

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