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Preface to Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough

Road signs at the borders of Northamptonshire tell the traveller that it is the Rose of the Shires, and although its scenery is not at all spectacular, parts of it, especially in the hilly region to the north-west, or in the Nene valley, have a bucolic charm that can be extremely appealing. Northamptonshire is in southern central England, in shape an oval with its long axis running from NE to SW. Northamptonshire measures some 60 miles along its long axis and 24 along the short axis. At the NE tip of the county is the Soke of Peterborough, an area including Peterbough itself and the country around it, bounded by the rivers Welland and Nene. Northamptonshire has no sea coast, and borders with Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire along its eastern side, and with Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Rutland along the south and west borders. The Soke of Peterborough has a N border with Lincolnshire. The population in 2001 (excluding the Soke) was slightly under 630,000, and the largest towns were Northampton (194,000), Kettering (82,000), Wellingborough (72,500), and Corby (53,000). At that time the Unitary Authority of Peterborough (an area similar to but not identical with the Soke) had a population of 156,000, mostly within the city itself. For the Romanesque sculpture enthusiast Northamptonshire, with its excellent limestones and skilled workshops, is one of the most exciting counties in England.

Administrative history

The Domesday county was rather larger than the traditional one, as it included the whole of Witchley hundred, which now belongs to Rutland, as well as a number of border vills and a few places that are much further away (e.g. the Staffordshire settlements of Lapley, Marston in Church Eaton and West Bromwich). Until the Local Government Act of 1888, the Soke, or liberty of Peterborough was considered to be part of Northamptonshire, but in that year it was declared to be a separate administrative county. In 1965 the Soke of Peterborough was attached to Huntingdonshire to form the county of Huntingdon and Peterborough. When Huntingdonshire was abolished as an administrative county in 1974, the Soke became part of the administrative county of Cambridgeshire along with the rest of Huntingdonshire. Since 1998 an area approximating to the Soke, now called the City of Peterborough, has been a Unitary Authority.

Landscape, geology and building materials

The entire western part of the county is occupied by a ridge of hills running NE from the southern highlands, and through Daventry to the northern border and beyond. These hills contain the county’s highest points; Arbury Hill, near Badby (224 m) and Honey Hill, near Cold Ashby (210 m), but neither forms a striking peak.

Near Arbury Hill is the source of the river Nene, which runs east at first, then turns north-east forming a valley running almost the length of the county through Northampton, Thrapston, Oundle and Peterborough. This broad valley forms the core of the county. The river is slow and prone to flooding, and the neighbouring farmland is generally pasture. The three main tributaries all flow from the north. The river Ise runs through Rothwell and Kettering, joining the Nene at Wellingborough; Harper’s Brook runs through Corby and Brigstock and joins the Nene near Thrapston; and the Willow Brook passes through Kings Cliffe and Apethorpe, joining the Nene near Fotheringhay, and was thus a useful artery for the transport of Kings Cliffe stone. The river Welland performed a similar function for the quarries of Ketton and Collyweston, and forms part of the county’s northern border.

Geologically the strata rise from the SE to the NW, so that the oldest rocks outcrop in the west of the county and the youngest in the east (except where older layers are exposed in the river valleys). The entire range of sedimentary rock is Jurassic, part of a system running from Dorset to the Cleveland Hills. It will be best to begin with the oldest rocks. First come the Lower Lias clays, to the west of the county, forming a deep blue stratum that supports a rich, though rather impermeable soil. Above this is the oolite, of which the lowest bed is the Northamptonshire Sand, including the distinctive ironstone much used in building. This outcrops significantly around Northampton. On top of this lies the oolitic Lincolnshire Limestone. This was quarried for building throughout the middle ages. It goes by a variety of names depending on where it is quarried; Barnack, Weldon, King’s Cliffe, Ketton, and is generally pale grey or buff and rather shelly. In places it can be cleaved like slate, and has been used for roofing around Collyweston, under the name of Collyweston Slate.

The youngest oolite beds include the Cornbrash limestone, a marine deposit rich in fossil shells. Above this, mostly to the east of the Nene valley but found elsewhere around the county, is the Oxford Clay; grey or brown in colour and occasionally quarried for brickmaking, as at Greens Norton near Towcester and in Cleley Hundred in the SE, e.g. at Deanshanger and Paulerspury.

From this it is clear that there is no shortage of building stone in the county, and the river network provided a channel for its export elsewhere. It is striking too that the appearance of the stone can vary, even locally, from a deep purplish red, through brownish orange to pale buff and grey. This provides the opportunity for the decorative use of stone as seen, for example, at Spratton, Little Houghton and St Peter’s Northampton.

Decorative stonework at St Mary's Little Houghton

Agriculture and Industries

Northamptonshire is a farming county of ancient market towns and small villages. Much of the forest had been cleared by the time of the Domesday Survey, and most of the present villages already existed then. Manors were large before the Black Death in 1348-9 reduced the work force and smaller farms became more commonplace. Sheep farming grew at this time, since it is less labour-dependent than arable. Cattle rearing grew in importance from the 16th century, and from the 17th century the production of boots and shoes from their hides became the county’s chief non-agricultural industry. The most important of the boot and shoe towns were Northampton itself (home of Church’s, Crockett & Jones and Tricker’s), Rushden (Grenson’s, Alfred Sargent’s), Kettering (Loake’s), Desborough (Joseph Cheaney) and Wellingborough (J. G. Cox), but practically every town in the centre of the county was involved in the industry. The streetscapes that developed from c.1850 are highly distinctive with straight streets of red brick terraced houses interspersed with the factories and with corner shops, schools, churches and chapels and working-men’s clubs to supply the needs of the workforce. The houses themselves often included outhouses used as workshops. Iron was smelted from local ores in the Roman period, and the Domesday Survey recorded ironworks in the royal manor of Corby during the reign of Edward the Confessor. The industry depended on charcoal as there was no local coalfield, and it remained a small-scale enterprise until the railways allowed easy import of coking coal to smelt the rich ores from the mid-1800s. Major centres for the industry were at Corby and Wellingborough.

By 1800 only one third of the population was employed on the land, and by 1901 the proportion had fallen to 18%, while 40% worked in the boot and shoe industry and 16% in the iron industry. The 20th century saw a massive increase in land use for residential, commercial and industrial areas linked to an ever-expanding population, but half of the county’s land is still farmed, the main activities being cereal production and cattle farming.


There were major Roman settlements at Irchester, near Wellingborough, Towcester (Lactodorum) and Norton, near Daventry (Bannaventa). Watling Street ran from north to south across the SW of the county, through Lactodorum and Bannaventa (now the A5), and the road from Leicester (Ratae) to Huntingdon ran through the north of the county, crossing the Nene at Thrapston. To the north of the county, Ermine Street passed through the Soke of Peterborough, running from London to Huntingdon and Peterborough to Lincoln and York. Northamptonshire remains vital to the British communication system, with the M1, A1, A5, A6 and A14 all passing through. The main railway lines from London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Carlisle and Glasgow, and from London to Nottingham, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh both pass through the county.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period, Northamptonshire belonged to the Kingdom of Mercia and it was overrun by the Danes in the 9thc. Brixworth is one of the foremost Anglo-Saxon buildings surviving in this country and the tower at Earl’s Barton is justly famous, but there are also important remains at Brigstock, Geddington Green’s Norton and Wittering. Anglo-Saxon crosses, or bits of them, survive at Brixworth, Desborough, Lutton, Mears Ashby, Moreton Pinkney, Moulton, Nassington, Northampton (St Peter’s) and Stowe-Nine-Churches.

The Anglo-Saxon interior of All Saints' Brixworth

According to Darby and Terrett there were 326 places in the area of the traditional county that were mentioned in Domesday, and the distribution of Domesday village names is generally very similar to today’s distribution, with the exception of about 40 later villages, mostly in the extreme north and first noted in the 12thc – 14thc. Settlement distribution was fairly even across the county, except for the fenland areas of the Soke of Peterborough and parts of the forests of Rockingham (immediately S of the Soke) and Whittlewood (on the SE border). It is worth noting that neither forest is mentioned by name in the Domesday Survey, but both areas were heavily wooded in 1086, and reference is made to the king’s hunting or forests in the entries for Fotheringhay and Brixworth, later in Rockingham forest. In all, Darby & Terrett estimated a rural population of 6,882 heads of households (which would need to be multiplied by 4 or 5 to arrive at a figure for the actual population). The estimated density of population (based on the 6,882 figure) varied between 5 and 11 per square mile, with the lightly settled areas noted above at the bottom of this range. Farming was generally arable; the only concentrated areas of meadow being in the Nene and Ise valleys. Mills were noted in connection with almost half of the Domesday settlements (155 out of 326), and were sited, as one would expect, along the rivers. There are only three records of churches (at Guilsborough, Brackley (possibly) and Pattishall), which suggests that they were not systematically recorded at all, but 61 priests were recorded.


Northampton was the only place in the Domesday record of the county where burgesses were recorded. The Domesday Survey recorded approximately 300 houses and 1500 inhabitants in the borough of Northampton in 1086. Simon de Senlis became Earl of Northampton shortly afterwards, founding the church of the Holy Sepulchre c.1100 and possibly the castle, of which practically nothing remains. Other early foundations included a Cluniac Priory founded from La-Charité-sur-Loire at the end of the 11c, and the Augustinian abbey of St James (c.1105). The most spectacular medieval building in the town, St Peter’s, probably dates from the 1140s, but there was probably a church on the site, associated with an excavated palace complex, as early as the 8thc, and before the establishment of a recognisable town. The town gained a charter from Richard I in 1189, and its market in 1235. The centre of Northampton is today rather small for a town of this size; the inner ring road having been built very close in, and it still has a flourishing market. Outside the centre, especially to the north, it is dominated by the 19-20c streetscape of the boot and shoe industry.

Other major towns

Wellingborough was held by Crowland abbey in 1086. It received a charter for a market in 1201 and for a fair in 1447. Like Northampton it was a boot and shoe town and some manufacture still goes on. Iron was smelted there from the late 19c until the industry collapsed in the mid-20c. More recently Wellingborough’s excellent communications with the rest of the country have encouraged such national and multi-national organisations as Kwik Save and Texas Homecare. Over 30% of the workforce is now involved in distribution or transport. All Hallows church stands on a hill in the centre, surrounded by a large churchyard that separates it from the market to the south. There are 17c buildings including the old Grammar School to the NW of the church and other 17c and 18c houses in the streets around the market, and to the south of this is the modern Swansgate Shopping Centre (formerly the Arndale Centre). Much of outer Wellingborough exhibits the typical 19c boot and shoe townscape described above.

All Hallows Wellingborough, a town centre church

Roman material has been found around Kettering, and the abbot and monks of Peterborough held the town in the Middle Ages. Henry III granted a market in 1227 that has continued to this day. Woollen cloth, silk and velvet plush were made here in the early modern period, and the Co-operative movement here was involved in the important corset industry, but by the middle of the 19c boot and shoe manufacture was the chief industry, and to the north and east of the centre the streets are typical of this. The Perpendicular church of SS Peter and Paul, with its magnificent tower and spire, dominates the centre. The church is isolated from the surrounding streets by a park-like churchyard.

Corby was a village of 785 inhabitants in 1881, but with the building of blast furnaces by Lloyd’s Ironstone Co. between 1907 and 1917 things began to change. In 1920 Stewarts and Lloyds took over the local ironstone works, and in 1933 work began on a large integrated steelworks, depending on ores mined under the surrounding countryside. Labour was attracted from all over the country, and particularly from Scotland. The population grew to 4,000 by 1939 and 18,000 by 1950, when it was designated a New Town, and the proportion of people of Scots descent rose as high as 70%. The closure of the steelworks in 1980 left a quarter of the workforce jobless, some 5,500 people, but the tube mills remained and other industries were attracted including Avon Cosmetics, RS Components and Oxford University Press. Visiting the town can be an unsettling experience. The original village centre is represented by St John’s church, still in its churchyard but now squeezed between a major road intersection and a housing estate. The centre, such as it is, has moved further west, but it has no railway station and no major department store. The Corby accent is still a Scottish one and the Rangers Supporters Club is the largest outside Glasgow with 2,000 members.

St John's, Corby

Peterborough and the Soke

The Soke or Liberty of Peterborough is an area extending for some 8 miles from N to S and 14 from E to W, with Peterborough on its southern border. To the east are the fens, and the land in the Soke was flatter, ill-drained and less densely populated than the rest of Northamptonshire. Some villages were quite large, like Werrington which had 57 recorded inhabitants in 1086, and most had mills, meadow and woodland. Its status as a liberty was ancient at the time of Domesday, and may date from the refoundation of Peterborough abbey by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester in 971-72, after it had lain waste for a century following a Danish raid. The abbey did not hold all the land in the soke, but exercised judicial powers over it. The monastery had been called Medeshamstede before the Danish attack, but it was refounded as Burgh, which later became Peterburgh. This implies town status, although it was described as a vill in the Domesday Survey, albeit a large one with 52 recorded inhabitants. There is no doubt that its commercial activities, controlling trade and markets along the river Nene, would qualify it as a town for the historian, but since these duties were performed by monks rather than lay burgesses there was no question of burgh status at the time. The abbey itself held lands in Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire as well as Northamptonshire.

Ecclesiastical history

Northamptonshire lay within the Mercian diocese, centred first at Dorchester-on-Thames and after 1075 at Lincoln. There was therefore no cathedral within the county until after the Dissolution, when Peterborough abbey became one. Peterborough was the greatest of the Benedictine houses in the county, founded by the monk Saxulf, later bishop of Mercia, on land given by King Penda of Mercia at a date given by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as 655-56. At that time it was called Medeshamstede. Saxulf’s foundation was burned down and all its monks save one were killed by the rampaging Danes in 870, and Medshamstede lay waste for 100 years until it was refounded by Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester and handed over to Adulf, first abbot of the refoundation, by King Edgar in 972. The present building was begun after a disastrous fire in 1116 destroyed the monastery and most of the town.

The interior of Peterborough Cathedral

Peterborough had a small cell at Oxney, and there was another Benedictine priory at Luffield, founded by Robert Bossu in the reign of Henry I. There were also small alien priories at Everdon, Weedon Pinkney (Weedon Lois) and Weedon Beck.

There were houses of Benedictine nuns at St Michael’s, Stamford (founded 1155) and Wothorpe (perhaps dating from Henry I’s reign), and Cluniac houses of monks at St Andrew’s Northampton (founded by 1100) and St Augustine’s, Daventry (originally founded in 1090 at Preston Capes. There was also a house of Cluniac nuns at Delapre near Northampton, founded in the reign of Stephen. The Cistercians had a house of monks at Pipewell, founded from Newminster in Northumberland in 1143, and two houses of nuns, at Catesby (1175) and Sewardsley (regn. Henry II). The Austin canons had houses at St James, Northampton (before 1105), Chalcombe (regn. Henry II), Fineshade (c.1201) and Grafton Regis (late-12thc), and the Austin nuns had a house at Rothwell, founded in the 13thc. There was a Premonstratensian house at Sulby (founded c.1155). In Northampton there were houses of Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite and Austin friars, all founded in the 13thc, and the Knights Hospitaller had a preceptory at Dingley, founded in the reign of Henry II.

Romanesque buildings

The greatest and most spectacular building is, of course, Peterborough cathedral; Romanesque throughout but with later additions. Elsewhere in the Soke of Peterborough are the churches of Barnack, with a pre-Conquest W tower and evidence of a major sculptural campaign in the 1170s and Castor, a major cruciform church begun in the early 12thc.

The churches of Barnack (left) and Castor

Maxey, Sutton and Peakirk all have work by the sculptors of Castor.

Capitals at Castor and Maxey

Outside the Soke the most important Romanesque churches are St Peter’s and the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton. St Peter’s, indeed, rates high among the nation’s treasure-houses of 12thc sculpture for its capital sculpture, corbels and grave slab, the work of the Northamptonshire School of sculptors also active in the county on fonts at Harpole, Greens Norton, Paulerspury, Dodford, Tiffield and Weedon Lois. This work probably dates from the 1140s and ’50s.

A nave arcade capital at St Peter's Northampton

The font at Harpole

The Holy Sepulchre is a rare example of a 12c round church; unusual in that there is no connection with the Knights Templar or Hospitaller. It was founded c.1100-10 by Earl Simon I de Senlis.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton showing the round nave

Elsewhere in the county, perhaps Twywell and Barton Seagrave are the closest things to complete 12c churches, although both have later additions.

St Botolph's, Barton Seagrave

Important figural tympana may be seen at Barton Seagrave and Pitsford, and fine displays of beakhead ornament at Earl’s Barton and Roade.

A scene of combat at Pitsford and beakhead at Roade

Spratton and St Peter’s Northampton both have towers decorated with arcading and corbel tables, and other interesting corbels appear at Holy Sepulchre, Northampton and Twywell. The best of the county’s Romanesque sculpture is found in fonts. The Northamptonshire School examples have already been noted, but that at Mears Ashby is by another Northampton workshop, also active on the west doorway of St Peter’s. Little Billing has the earliest font, probably pre-Conquest and bearing an inscription identifying the artist. West Haddon font is carved with scenes of Christ’s life and passion. The fonts at Braybrooke and Aston-le-Walls are related, both attractively carved with both figural and foliage motifs, while Crick has a font supported on atlas figures in the Italian manner.

Fonts at Mears Ashby, Braybrooke and Crick

Recording and acknowledgements

Recording and photography were carried out by Kathryn A. Morrison and Ron Baxter, between April 1995 and June 2005, and these fieldworkers also wrote the site reports. Before May 2004 photography was carried out using a Nikon FM2 35mm camera and Ilford T-max black and white film. After that date, a Nikon Coolpix 5700 or 8700 digital camera was generally used. The images were edited and prepared for web delivery by Anna Bentkowska-Kafel and the web pages were produced by Sophie Church and Anna Bentkowska-Kafel. The authors would like to thank the clergy and churchwardens of Northamptonshire for their help in arranging access to the churches in their care, and English Heritage for their generosity in allowing us to use their excellent church plans on the website.

Short bibliography
  1. G. Baker, The History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton. 2 vols, London, 1822-41.
  2. R. Baxter, J. Hall and C. Marx (ed.), Peterborough and the Soke: Art, Architecture and Archaeology , British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XLI, Abingdon and New York 2019.
  3. J. Bridges, The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire. (Compiled from the manuscript collections of the late learned antiquary J.Bridges, Esq., by the Rev. Peter Whalley). Oxford 1791.
  4. H. C. Darby and I. B. Terrett, The Domesday Geography of Midland England. Cambridge 1954, 2nd ed. 1971, 384-420.
  5. K. A. Morrison and A. Bond, Built to Last: The Buildings of the Northamptonshire Boot and Shoe Industry. London (English Heritage Publications) 2004.
  6. H. P. Maguire, “A Twelfth-Century workshop in Northampton,” Gesta, 9, 1970, 11-25.
  7. J. H. Parker, Architectural Notices of the Churches of the Archdeaconry of Northampton. London & Oxford 1849.
  8. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire. Harmondsworth 1961, rev. B. Cherry 1973.
  9. RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northampton, V. Archaeological sites and churches in Northampton, London 1985.
  10. RCHME, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northampton, VI. Architectural monuments in North Northamptonshire, London 1986.
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  2. J. Steane, The Northamptonshire Landscape: Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough, London 1974.
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  5. J. Williams, “Northampton’s Medieval Parishes”, Northamptonshire Archaeology 17 1982.
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