28 January 2023

The real Milton Keynes,
the economist, the poet and
the mediaeval village at
the heart of Milton Keynes

The Swan Inn in Milton Keynes Village … almost as old as the village that gives its name to Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Until I moved to this area almost last year, I accepted the popular assumption that Milton Keynes was given its name to honour the poet John Milton and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

I was soon dissuaded of this popular belief, and quickly learned that the name of the new city comes from one of the historic villages that already existed in this part of north Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes Village.

Charlotte and I celebrated my birthday earlier this week in Milton Keynes Village, where we had lunch at the Swan Inn, a thatched country pub and restaurant that claims to date back to the 13th century.

This could be chocolate-box-cover England or picture-postcard England. The village has many pretty houses and cottages that are half-timbered with thatched roofs. Certainly, the Swan Inn was known in the village of Milton Keynes since 1550, and the present building dates largely from the 16th and 17th centuries. The dates point to the antiquity of Milton Keynes, and provide clues to its centuries-long history.

Milton Keynes Village is at the heart of Middleton, a district of Milton Keynes, and part of the historic civil parish of Milton Keynes, which predates the foundation of the new city in 1967. The village was originally known as Middeltone in the 11th century, and was later known as Middelton Kaynes or Caynes in the 13th century, Milton Keynes in the 15th century, and Milton alias Middelton Gaynes in the 17th century.

Many of the houses and cottages in Milton Keynes Village are half-timbered with thatched roofs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Before the Conquest, Queen Edith held this manor, which in 1086 was held of the king by Godric Cratel. The de Cahaines family held the manor from 1166 to the late 13th century, as well as other manors that they gave their name to, including Ashton Keynes, Wiltshire, Somerford Keynes, Gloucestershire, and Horsted Keynes, West Sussex.

The Keynes suffix was added in the 12th century when members of the de Cahaignes or Keynes family were the lords of the manor. The village became known as Middleton Keynes, eventually shortening to Milton Keynes, although ‘Mydilton Keynes’ and ‘Milton Keynes’ appear on the same record in 1452.

This name Middleton means the middle of three settlements or farmsteads; the two other settlements were Bro(c)tone (Broughton) and Waltone (Walton).

The Middleton part of the name was gradually shortened to Milton, although some documents used the form Middleton until the 19th century.

There is no record of Milton for almost a century after Domesday, but it appears to have been held by the Bereville family, whose line ended in a daughter and heir Mabel, who married Hugh de Kaynes (Chahaines, Caaignes, Kahaignes) ca 1166. He owned land in other parts of Buckinghamshire and in neighbouring Bedfordshire and Berkshire.

Hugh de Kaynes died at the beginning of the 13th century, and Mabel de Bereville died ca 1221. Their son Luke de Kaynes was the lord of Milton in 1234. When he died ca 1259, he was succeeded by his son John de Kaynes, who died ca 1283.

Abbot’s Cottage … the Abbey of St Albans acquired land in Milton in the early 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Abbey of St Albans acquired land in Milton in the early 14th century, and the abbey continued to acquire property in the area until the Reformation.

Milton Manor passed to Philip Aylesbury who married Margaret de Kaynes, and who was holding the manor in 1302 and 1316. The Staffords obtained the whole of Milton and Broughton in the early 15th century when Humphrey Stafford married Eleanor Aylesbury. He was slain in Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450, and was succeeded by his son Humphrey. A later Humphrey Stafford was executed as a traitor 1486. Milton Keynes was then granted to Sir Edward Poyning, who gave his name to ‘Poyning’s Law’ in Ireland.

When Poyning died in 1521, Milton Keynes was restored to Humphrey Stafford, and Milton Keynes remained in the hands of the Stafford family for almost a century.

William Stafford inherited the estate in 1643, but by then the estate had been mortgaged by his father to Sir Lewis Watson, afterwards Lord Rockingham of Rockingham, and Henry Stafford sold the manor in 1677 to Daniel Finch, who later succeeded as 2nd Earl of Nottingham, and then as 7th Earl of Winchilsea.

When George Finch, 9th Earl of Winchilsea, died unmarried in 1826, the manor passed to his illegitimate son George Finch of Burley-on-the-Hill, near Oakham in Rutland. The Finches lived in a Palladian house in Rutland and never lived permanently in the village of Milton Keynes, although they held on to the estate until just before World War II. Their control of the village made it a ‘closed’ community that changed little for many centuries. The only other land holder in the village was the church, and the rectors were appointed by the lords of the manor.

When Wilfred Finch died, the estate was sold in 1939. It was bought by William Mitchell, who sold it to the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol at the end of World War II. The society held several estate villages in the area, and for a time its estate office was at Sunnyside, a house on Willen Road.

The Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol sold Milton Keynes village and estate when the new city was being planned in the 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

When the new city of Milton Keynes was planned in the 1960s,the society was sold the estate to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Those searching for a name lighted on the ancient village of Milton Keynes, which was within the designated area and appeared to have attractive associations with the poet John Milton and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

John ‘Jock’ Middleton Campbell, Lord Campbell of Eskan, was the first chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. He would recall the decision on a name for the town had been given to Dick Crossman, a minister in Harold Wilson’s cabinet.

Crossman’s wife Ann had worked at Bletchley Park during World War II. He was looking at a map of the area where the town was going to be built and spotted the village’s name, before remarking: ‘Milton the poet, Keynes the economic one. “Planning with economic sense and idealism, a very good name for it”.’

The Milton Keynes Development Corporation re-used the name Middleton for the ‘grid square’ in which the village sits. The original core village of the district, along Walton Road and Broughton Road, has retained its Milton Keynes road signs and has several rural village houses and the thatched Swan Inn. It is now known as Milton Keynes Village.

After lunch, we strolled around the village, visiting All Saints’ Church, the old rectory built at the turn of the 17th and 18th century, and the village school, built in 1859.

As dusk enfolded Milton Keynes, we returned to the Swan Inn. The inn lost its thatch in a fire in 1970, but was fully restored. Sadly, fire visited the Swan again on the afternoon of 7 December 2011, but not all the building was affected, and the Swan reopened partly on 23 December and reopened fully on 23 November 2012. The staff called us a taxi, and we were back in Stony Stratford late in the evening.

The story of All Saints’ Church is for telling another day.

Dick Crossman, a minister in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, is said to have elected the name of Milton Keynes Village for the new city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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