Historic County Town
Words by Emma De Vito
Northampton was once described in 1675 by Country Minister, Roger L’estrange, as a “beautiful town” with “good ancient Buildings…cleanly streets, a spacious Market-Hill, [and] fine and profitable Gardens and Orchards” – indeed, the prospect of the town from the Queen Eleanor Cross was “very delightful”. Today, Northampton still holds access to a vast and rich historical culture: one which is just waiting to be discovered.
My husband recently spent time researching the history of Northampton and through this research, we have both established a stronger connection to the town. One of the most prominent events of its past is the Great Fire of Northampton, which swept through the town in 1675, causing mass devastation in a short amount of time due to “Wings of a strong and violent Wind” fuelling the flames. Despite the town supporting Cromwell’s army in the Civil War, the restored King – Charles II – donated 1,000 tonnes of wood from his own forests to help the town to rebuild itself.
Consequently, on 29th May, the town commemorates Oak Apple Day – celebrating the restoration of the monarchy and marking the fact that following the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the future king hid from his enemies in an oak tree. Tradition dictates that on the stroke of noon, the statue of Charles II – which stands high on the portico of All Saints’ Church – is wreathed with a crown of oak leaves to remember this historical public holiday.
Interestingly, Northampton was originally the third ‘university’ town, after Oxford and Cambridge. Scholars such as astronomer Daniel of Morley and grammarian Geoffrey of Vinsauf (who chose Northampton as their base over Oxford) made the town a strong centre of scholarly activity ; Northampton gained a university charter in 1261. However, only four years later it was stripped of its privilege after being seen as a threat by King Henry III who banned Northampton from having a university – a decree which was only repealed in 2005! The ban was made after Northampton was perceived to support the losing side in the Second Barons’ War. The town would repeat this behaviour during the English Civil War, resulting in the sleighting of the town and partial demolition of the prominent castle in 1662 as retribution for supporting the Roundheads.
With Northampton being famous for its shoe and leather industry (Daniel Defoe once wrote an Englishman’s shoes were “from Northampton for all; the poorest countryman and the master.”) , it is no wonder the town thrived into a bustling place to live. Some of Northamptonshire’s historical heritage can be explored in the Northampton National Leather Collection – a hidden gem on the second floor of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre. With free admission, you can take a tour of the storage rooms and see Samuel Pepys’ wallet and King George V’s commode as well as interact with items on display. In June 2019, a selection of objects inspired by the words of Shakespeare – whose father was a glover and whose grand-daughter (Elizabeth Hall) lived at Abington Park Manor – will bring to life the Bard’s plays and explain the meaning behind his use of leathery terms in his writing.
Today, Northampton is home to over 200,000 people and its fascinating heritage is everywhere to appreciate: from Hazelrigg House on Marefair, and the Welsh House in the Market Square, to the neo-Gothic architecture of the Guildhall. Celebrate one of these many places to explore on the Heritage Open Days – an event which happens every September across the country and which will offer you a different perspective of this “very delightful” town of ours.