In my mind, the Palace of Collyweston has become nothing short of the stuff of legend; an extensive Tudor palace, much favoured by the invincible Margaret Beaufort; the place in which a sad farewell was made to the 14-year-old Margaret Tudor as she progressed north to take up her position as Queen of Scots, now completely lost. So much so that its exact position and extent is no longer known. To try to rectify this sad state of affairs, this summer (2019) the local Collyweston Historical & Preservation Society has begun an archaeological project to try and answer just these questions.
It is the subject of our lead interview with Chris Close, President of the Society, in this month’s Tudor Travel Show. This blog has been written to accompany that podcast. In this post, we will hear more about the history and appearance of the palace in another interview, this time with Sandra Johnson, a researcher for Collyweston Historical Society. Before that, let’s fill in some of the gaps with an introduction to the history of the Palace of Collyweston and a little bit more background information that I was able to unearth on this once great, Tudor power-house.
The Palace of Collyweston – a Brief History
Collyweston, in Northamptonshire, is a quintessential, rather sleepy English village, with an old fashioned village sign, medieval parish church and obligatory pub. It lies not far from the town of Stamford. In days gone by, Stamford straddled the old North Road, a major, medieval route between London and the North of England. This made it a key strategic settlement and stopping off point for travellers. This included kings and their retinues.
But once upon a time, the Palace of Collyweston was a centre of power; a royal manor house, aggrandised by its first Tudor owner, Margaret Beaufort. Under Lady Margaret’s ownership, Collyweston became the administrative centre for the Midlands, as we shall shortly hear. It was visited by Henry VII, Henry VIII, Catherine Howard and Elizabeth I. Yet, a little over 150 years after its heyday, the house was dismantled and irrevocably lost, with the exception of enduring earthworks in the ground.
Although there were earlier owners, the history of the manor at Collyweston really seems to get underway around 1415, when it was bought by Sir William Porter. He was a man of humble origin who, by loyal service to the Crown, a favourable marriage, and no doubt a good deal of schmoozing, became very wealthy indeed. It was Porter who may have carried out building work at the manor house. Its second owner was Ralph, Lord Cromwell (he was also responsible for building Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire), who bought the house after Porter’s death in 1436. He lived in the house and died there in 1455. By 1459, Collyweston had come into the hands of the Earl of Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’ and thence to his daughter, who married George, Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV. Clarence became the first royal owner of the manor and may have also added to the house. After he was executed on his brother’s orders in 1478, Collyweston became the property of the Crown.
However, it was after the Battle of Bosworth, when the Tudors ascended the throne, that the manor became most well known. In 1486, it was given to Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, the King’s mother, for life. She had spent much of her youth with her mother and step-siblings at Maxey Castle, in Cambridgeshire, some 10-11 miles away to the east. So, she may well have had fond memories, and deep emotional ties, to the region.
We know from John Leland’s Itinerary that Margaret extended the palace – ‘for the moste parte … a new building by Lady Margaret, mother to Henry the vijth.’ In the years around 1500 she altered and enlarged the house and also improved the park and gardens adjoining the manor. Then, in July 1503, Margaret hosted her son and court at Collyweston. The recently widowed king had travelled from Richmond Palace with his 14-year-old daughter, the new Queen of Scotland. She would leave her father behind at the Palace of Collyweston, and as a parting gift, he gave her a personally inscribed Book of Hours. The inscription reads: ‘Remember yr kynde and loving fader in yr prayers – Henry R‘ and ‘Pray for yr lowving fader that gave you this boke and I gyve you at alle tymes godd’s blessyng and myne. Henry R. Given the very recent death of Elizabeth of York, emotions must have been running high; to effectively lose both a mother and father, within a space of a few months, must have been particularly traumatic for the teenaged princess.
Some 20 or so years later, Henry VIII bestowed the manor on his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. There is an incredibly touching insight into one moment of time at Collyweston, when a certain 5-year-old boy, called William Cecil, was sent to join the household of Fitzroy, who was enroute to Sheriff Hutton in North Yorkshire. To think what life lay ahead of that small child!
As already mentioned, Henry VIII himself lodged at Collyweston 5 years after Fitzroy’s death, between 2-5 August 1541. Catherine Howard was alongside him on that fateful progress, which was, of course, to be her last. Finally, from a Tudor lover’s point of view, the last owner of interest was Elizabeth I, who was granted it in 1550 by her brother, Edward VI, when she was still a princess. Elizabeth would only visit once though, in 1566, during the course of a Midlands progress.
The Appearance of the Palace
Sadly, there are no extant images or plans of the palace. Accounts describe an ‘outward’ court, in which a ‘great walnut tree’ was noted to grow during the Tudor era; by deduction, this suggests that there was also an ‘inward court’. Thus, we have at least a two courtyard house.
From the account of The Clerk of the Works for the Lady Margaret, we are gifted with an insight into an inventory of rooms at Collyweston. They were: the chapel, the library [a very high-status feature, and extremely rare at the time], the scalding house, the new chamber over the gate, the spicery, the vestry, the brewery, the bakehouse, the chamber over my Lady Bray’s chamber, the pastry, the counting-house, the clock house in the great tower, the kitchen, the wet larder, the queen’s chamber, the wardrobe of the beds, the clerk of the kitchen’s chamber, Henry Clegge and Whytyngton’s chamber, the great parlour and the well beside the bakehouse.’
As one might expect of a high-status house of the period, there was clearly a gatehouse, a great hall and a chapel. However, later Elizabethan accounts also speak of a ‘gallery going out of the hall’, while buttresses are mentioned, suggesting a stone building. Then in preparation for the 1566 visit by Elizabeth I, we hear of a timber banqueting house that was constructed, ‘having windows with casements and ‘lettys’; this structure was approached via a stone staircase.’ In all, William Camden noted in 1607 that the Palace of Collyweston was ‘handsome and elegant’.
The Ruin of the Palace of Collyweston
In September 1737, William Stukeley, an antiquarian on his travels through England, rode through Collyweston and saw ‘My Tyron’s house, the royal palace of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret, Countess of Richmond’. In the notes, he adds that the royal palace once existed where ‘Mr Tyron’s stackyard is’, and that within living memory there was ‘a great hall, a tower, a dungeon [can mean ‘keep’ or ‘donjon’ where the principal apartments were sited], and a kitchen with four chimneys.’ However, by 1780-82, all the ‘materials’ from the old manor were finally removed, leaving only earthworks, garden terraces, two fishponds and park boundary banks as clues that a majestic property ever existed in this pretty corner of the Northamptonshire countryside.
As a supplement to the interview recorded for The Tudor History & Travel Show, I also spoke with Sandra Johnson from Collyweston Historical & Preservation Society. Sandra has researched the palace, and so I was keen to hear more…
Interview: Collyweston in the Records
Sarah: So Sandra, we have heard from Chris that the actual location of the palace isn’t known, but what do we know about the palace itself, particularly its appearance?
Sandra: It was quite significant. In fact, it was a huge building. We know it definitely had two courtyards, and potentially three, because Margaret Beaufort added to it, notably for the arrival of the wedding procession of Margaret Tudor in 1503. We know that she had Jewel Tower. She also had a Counting House. So apart from her jewels, she clearly had lots of money! You see, Margaret Beaufort administered the Midlands from Collyweston, this meant that there was also a council chamber, where she could conduct business – quite unusual for a woman!
Sarah: So, Margaret actually administered the whole of the area in the Midlands on behalf of her son Henry VII?
Sandra: She did, yes. She was one of the very few women who were ladies that could conduct business in her own right – [known as a ‘femme sole‘]. She, therefore, administered her estate independently. Very few women in the Middle Ages were allowed to do that. I think Alice Chaucer was another one. So she had power, and on behalf of her son, she was able to intervene where there were disputes. People would probably come over from Coventry, or somewhere similar, to Collyweston for her to adjudicate on whatever was under question – and she would decide guilt or innocence – and the sentence.
Sarah: It’s fascinating that Collyweston had its own council chamber just as other great palaces!
Sandra: Of course, there was also business to be done locally, in the village and the surrounding areas; she would have collected the rents because the villagers would have paid money for rent of lands or other taxes. So, yes, Lady Margaret was very influential in the whole area – and Collyweston was one of her favourite places.
Sarah: Do we know how long she spent here in the palace?
Sandra: Like all royals, she, no doubt, tended live in a palace until it was a bit smelly and horrible, and then they moved on somewhere else. So Margaret progressed around the country to other areas as well. She frequently followed the king’s progress quite closely because she was very keen on court etiquette – and on telling people what to do and how to behave – particularly her daughter-in-law! But it is true that she did spend a good deal of time at Collyweston. During Margaret Tudor’s progress towards Scotland to become the Scottish Queen, the royal family stayed here for quite some time. After Margaret had waved goodbye to her family, the king stayed on for another two or three weeks.
Sarah: Do we know anything of those celebrations in the records? Are there details of what happened during those weeks at Collyweston?
Sandra: We know they were trumpeters, and there are details of the Lords that actually escorted Margaret Tudor on her journey. We know that she rode on a white palfrey and that they took the whole household with them. So, there were an awful lot of people here, and it was a grand procession. At each entry into the next town, the trumpeters would go-ahead to announce that the royal party was on its way. And it was the same with Henry VIII when he came here on progress with his then-wife, Catherine Howard.
Sarah: This was part of the 1541 progress following the uprising in the north? ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’ as it came to be known.
Sandra: Yes. He had an army with him. So, we might deduce that they must have camped round about the palace. But the description of what they brought is astonishing: furniture, furnishings, jewellery and crockery. It was like having a portable house! You know, there could have been some 200 or 300 people, just in the king’s retinue, plus, the ‘also-rans’ that were camped around – in case they’re needed to fight off the locals! And certainly, when it was the royal wedding, they had to put people up in other villages. So, some of the courtiers would have been lodged in nearby Stamford. At any one time, Margaret herself had between 200 to 400 people living in the palace, as part of her household.
Sarah: So, this gives us an idea of the scale of the place in comparison with Henry VIII’s great houses, which were, by definition, houses that could hold the whole court of usually around 1000 people. So we’re talking a little under half the size, but still, that’s still a big household.
Sandra: Yes it’s still a big house. I think a normal household, apart from when she had visitors was about 200. She also had quite a substantial choir; there are records of around 24 surplisses for men and 19 for boys.
Sarah: Can you explain what they are? ‘Surplisses’?
Sandra: It’s basically the loose, white linen vestment worn over a cassock. Margaret had a choir come over from Fotheringhay to sing here. We know she had a little glade and her choir would sing in the glade, which was adjacent to the fish ponds.
Sarah: When did the history of the house really start? What do we know of its early owners?
Sandra: William Porter was the first noble to actually live in Collyweston. Prior to that, it was owned by various other people, but none of them actually lived here. Porter lived here and built a manor house. Ralph, Lord Cromwell then acquired that house after Porter’s death and either knocked it down or possibly adapted what was here to build something a little bit grander. However, he did take off a doorway and had it installed as the main doorway into the parish church. You can still see that today.
There is also the chapel adjoining the parish church that was built by Margaret Beaufort. There is a squint in the chapel, which is angled so that she can see the priest, but the people of the village can’t see her. Sadly though there’s nothing in there that actually relates to Margaret Beaufort. When you look at the church on the outside, it’s actually quite ‘rubbley’. It was obviously put together quite quickly and it’s not made of fine stone. So we presume that her chapel, and the palace here at Collyweston, was so grand that she didn’t need to make her mark in the rest of the village.
Sarah: Speaking of chapels; she had a chapel on-site in the palace, didn’t she? We know that Lady Margaret was famously a deeply religious woman, and you’ve already indicated that the chapel must have been quite a size by the number of surplisses. Do we know anything about how her private apartments adjoined with the chapel?
Sandra: I think one end of the private apartments joined onto the chapel, and the other end would have joined onto the great hall. She had four great bay windows that looked out across the Welland Valley; so they looked out in a westerly direction. Whether they were actually all in her private apartments, or whether they were separate lodgings, reserved for when the king came, we are not sure. But at Christ College in Cambridge, the master’s rooms were built at the same time, or just after, Margaret Beaufort died. So, John Fisher who was her confidante, was very instrumental in what she had here – and also what she had there. So, it’s quite likely that Christ’s College Chapel, and the room attached to the chapel, were very similar to what was at Collyweston. We also know that she didn’t have a squint at Christ’s College, she had a bay window, so she could look down into the body of the church to observe the service. We believe that she would’ve probably had one here too, at Collyweston.
Sarah: I wouldn’t have expected any less of Lady Margaret! Well, thank you very much for giving us an insight into what we do know about the fascinating Palace of Collyweston!
If you want to learn even more about Margaret Beaufort’s Collyweston, catch up with my interview with Dr Rachel Delman, lecturer at the University of York. Rachel’s area of expertise is grand aristocratic women of the medieval age and how they expressed power through the properties they owned.
Click the hyperlink to find out more about the Collyweston Historical and Preservation Society,