26 December 2022
Was Galley Hill really
a gallows hill until
the 17th century?
During these Christmas days, Charlotte and I have been ‘house-sitting’ in Galley Hill, and have been at the Christmas services in both Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, and Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton.
The tree is lighting in the window in Bunsty Court throughout the day, a reminder of the light that comes into the world in the very depths of darkness – and, in a theological way, I suppose, a reminder that there is a link between Christmas and the tree of Calvary, and the hope of Easter.
Another tree has also caught my attention in recent days as I have been walking around Galley Hill. An old oak tree behind the houses in Lamva Court predated the building of Galley Hill 50 years ago, but it died and fell in recent years. Ian Freemantle, the sculptor and woodworker based in Stony Stratford, used the wood to carve an oak bench or seat in the playground. He also carved the Seed Pods in Great Linford as part of his ‘One Tree Project’ last year (2021)
On the bench in Galley Hill, he has inscribed the words:
Upon this hilltop gallows be
lay witness by this old oak tree
a land once worked by honest till
known to this day as Galley Hill
The southern fringe of the Galley Hill estate is said to stand on an old track that was known in the past as Gib Lane, that ran from Calverton to the site of a gibbet. According to a local legend, the ghost of Grace Bennett, who was murdered in Calverton Manor in 1683, haunts Gib Lane at Calverton, which takes its name from a gibbet that one stood there. She was the owner of the former manor house, now Manor Farm, at the north end of Calverton, next to All Saints’ Church.
Adam Barnes, a butcher from Stony Stratford, was later hanged and his body suspended in irons from a gibbet until it rotted and fell apart. But the site of that gibbet was in Calverton, and is said to be marked by carvings of two gibbets on a barn built into the high stone wall surrounding the former manor house and its orchard.
It is said that until the 17th century Galley Hill was the site of another gallows on which many local criminals were executed. Although the name Galley Hill appears on maps in the 1820s, and there is a Galley Hill House on London Road, could Galley Hill really be Gallows Hill?
The gibbet may have been associated with the Little Brickhill Assizes, although it is difficult to imagine why condemned convicts were not executed nearby rather than being taken 14 miles along Watling Street to be hanged on a hill above Stony Stratford.
Other accounts say the route ran from Passenham on the other side of the River Great Ouse, across the boggy fields, and skirting the southern fringes of Stony Stratford.
Ian Freemantle’s oak bench makes the playground in Galley Hill a much more pleasant place than the local legends, although some residents dismiss them as an urban myth.
The street names in Galley Hill have more pleasant derivations. Many of them recall the old ‘hundreds’ and ‘half-hundreds’ or early mediaeval divisions in the neighbouring counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.
Bunsty Court recalls the Bunsty or Bonestou hundred, covering the northern tip of Buckinghamshire, from Haversham to Olney and taking in part of the Linfords, Lathbury, Gayhurst and Tyringham, Hanslope, Weston Underwood and Lavendon.
Other local names that might otherwise have died out but that were given new life in Galley Hill include Barford, where there was once an ancient stone cross, Buckley, Clailey, Cottesloe, Creslow, Essenden, Flitton, Lamva, Manshead, Mursley, Redbourne, Roveley, Stanbridge, Stotfold and Willey Court.
Clailey Court, beside Bunsty Court recalls Clailey or Cleley, a Northamptonshire hundred, north-west of Milton Keynes. It included Cosgrove, Potterspury and Paulerspury, Yardley Gobion and Stoke Bruerne. And that reminds me of a Comberford family connection I need to explore:
John Comberford (1440-1508), of Comberford, a member of the Guild in Lichfield, inherited the Parles family estates in Stoke Bruerne when he married his father’s ward, Johanna Parles of Watford and of Shutlanger, near Stoke Bruerne, five miles south of Northampton. He later sold these estates in 1504, but when the New Year comes I have promised myself a visit to Stole Bruerne to explore the Comberford family links with Northamptonshire.
Meanwhile, during this Christmas week, I content myself with the thought that there is a link between the Christmas tree in the window and the promised hope of Easter.