12 February 2023

Looking for the ruins of
Northampton Castle beside
a modern railway station

A rebuilt postern gate near the railway station is all that survives of Northampton Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Northampton Castle was once one of the most famous Norman castles in England. During my recent visit to Northampton, I went in search of the site of the castle, which once stood outside the west gate of the town. It was defended on three sides by deep trenches, while a branch of the River Nene provided a natural barrier on the western side.

The castle was probably built on top of an original Saxon defences, first of wood and then from the distinctive sandstone that can be seen to this day in various buildings about the town.

Soon after the Romans left Britain in 410, Northampton became a local seat of power with Saxon defences near the site of the castle and Saint Peter’s Church. There were Saxon buildings in the area around Sol Central and Saint Peter’s Church, and by the early 11th century Northampton had connections to powerful people of the time.

The castle was built in the 11th century and rapidly became an important royal establishment, with parliaments, trials, tournaments and feasts being held at the site, with the castle also forming a key part of the town’s defences.

The castle was built bt Simon de Senlis, the first Earl of Northampton, in 1084. It took several years to complete, and the castle had extensive grounds and a large keep. The gates were surrounded by bulwarks made of earth, used to mount artillery.

During the reign of Henry II, the castle was in the hands of the Crown. Thomas Becket was tried at the castle before a great council in 1164, but he escaped dressed as a monk, and fled to France.

The castle was a day’s ride from London, and was so important that parliament sometimes met there in the mediaeval period. The castle became a favourite of King John, who visited 30 times. In the civil wars between the king and the barons, King John used it as a stronghold. When the king prevailed, the castle was entrusted to Falkes de Breauté. King John moved his royal treasury to the castle in 1205, and the castle was associated with a mint for coins of the realm.

Northampton Castle is the location of the death of Prince Arthur, the young nephew to King John and claimant to the throne, in Shakespeare’s King John (Act IV Scene III), in which he leaps to his death from the castle walls in an attempt to escape.

The fate of the real-life Prince Arthur remains mysterious. He was last recorded as a 16-year-old captive in Rouen Castle in April 1203. He was rumoured to have been killed on King John’s orders, and it is more likely that he died in France rather than England.

During the wars between King Henry III and his nobles, the castle was owned by the confederate barons and governed by Simon de Montfort in 1264. When the King defeated the garrison, the castle reverted to the Crown. It remained so until three years into the reign of King Edward III, when Thomas Wake, who was then sheriff of Blisworth, claimed it belonged to the county under his jurisdiction.

Northampton and the castle were greatly affected by the Black Death in 1349-1350. A steady period of decline followed due to enormous loss of population. Although the castle was a day’s ride north of London, its strategic importance became less obvious. The last parliament held in the castle was in 1380.

The castle continued to be used as a County Gaol for some time after. The castle was rented to Robert Caldecote in 1452 for 20 years, at the annual rate of £5. The rent included the castle, the castle grounds, walls and trenches, a meadow, and fishing rights in the river.

By the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), the site of the castle was described as ‘ruinous’ in 1593.

Charles II ordered the destruction of the town walls and the partial demolition of the castle in 1662 as retribution for the town’s support of the Parliamentarian Roundheads during the English Civil War.

The great fire of 1675 destroyed a great part of the town, wiping out most of the historic buildings in the centre of Northampton. The castle site was sold to Robert Haselrig (later Hazelrigg), and castle stone were reused in other buildings in the town, and little remains of the Castle today. Hazelrigg House was originally an Elizabethan house that escaped the fire of 1675 and still stands on Marefair.

The Hazelrigg family held the castle site until 1861, when it was sold to Samuel Walker who dug it for treasure.

The coat-of-arms of Northampton with a castle, on the corner of Saint Andrew’s Road and Marefair, close to the castle site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The site was finally bought by the London and North Western Railway. The railways in England initially by-passed Northampton. The main line from Euston London Euston, now known as the West Coast Main Line, passed about five miles south of the town. However, a loop line through Northampton was built in 1879. What remained of the castle and its foundations were demolished for the construction of Northampton Castle railway station. All that survived were some earth banks beside Saint Andrew’s Road and the re-positioned postern gate, described as ‘a minor archway.’

The station was rebuilt in 1963-1964, when the suffix castle was dropped from its name as it was then the only remaining station in the town. Excavations in 1961 before rebuilding revealed 12th century defences, including a ditch 90 ft wide and 30 ft deep and a bank 80 ft wide and 20 ft high.

The expansion of the town and the launch of a Northampton Waterside Enterprise Zone in 2011 created the need to expand, redevelop and double the size of the railway station.

The opportunity was taken to carry out further, more extensive, excavations in 2012-2013, which uncovered various items of Anglo-Saxon origin. Among the finds was a brooch, pottery fragments and an ironstone wall. Some foundations remain below the surface, but all that remains of the castle today are a few stones, part of the earthworks associated with the North Gate and a rebuilt postern gate near the railway station.

Hazelrigg House on Marefair … the Hazelrigg family owned the castle site until 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 12 February 2023

‘Earth may not pass till heaven shall pass away’ (Christina Rossetti) … sunset on the River Shannon in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today [12 February 2023] is the Second Sunday before Lent. In the past, this Sunday was known as Sexagesima, one of those odd-sounding Latin names once used in the Book of Common Prayer for the Sundays in Ordinary Time between Candlemas and Lent: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima.

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

Later this morning, I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton. But, before today becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

For my reflection this morning, I am reading Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Sexagesima,’ which takes its title from the name once used for the Second Sunday before Lent.

We are more likely to associate Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) with Christmas rather than Ordinary Time or Lent because two of her poems, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Love came down at Christmas,’ are among the best-loved and most popular Christmas carols.

She was born in London, the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, an exiled Italian poet, and she was a sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet. Their brother William Michael Rossetti and sister Maria Rossetti were writers too.

When she was 14, Christina Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother and her sister became absorbed in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England, and religious devotion came to play a major role in Christian Rossetti’s life.

Her time spent alone, in prayer, in a single life, devoted to Christ and to working with the marginalised, might be compared with Mary in this evening’s Gospel reading, who devotes her wealth to Christ but is criticised by Judas.

She is honoured in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England and other Anglican churches on 27 April. Her writings have strongly influenced writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin.

Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Sexagesima, by Christina Georgina Rossetti:

Yet earth was very good in days of old,
And earth is lovely still:
Still for the sacred flock she spreads the fold,
For Sion rears the hill.

Mother she is, and cradle of our race,
A depth where treasures lie,
The broad foundation of a holy place,
Man’s step to scale the sky.

She spreads the harvest-field which Angels reap,
And lo! the crop is white;
She spreads God’s Acre where the happy sleep
All night that is not night.

Earth may not pass till heaven shall pass away,
Nor heaven may be renewed
Except with earth: and once more in that day
Earth shall be very good.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes in a fresco in Analipsi Church in Georgioupoli, Crete … there are only two fish, but the loaves of bread have already been multiplied (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 6: 25-34 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

A variety of bread gathered in a basket in a restaurant in Panormos, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Bray Day.’ This theme is introduced this morning by Jo Sadgrove, USPG’s Research and Learning Advisor, who shares the challenges of uncovering USPG’s archives:

‘We are living in a time in which questions about history have never been more heightened or charged. What do we know of the past? How do we uncover and educate ourselves about histories that have been lost? How do we respond as people of faith to historical injustices? How we approach the figure of Thomas Bray, USPG’s founder, is now a much more complicated prospect than it was ten years ago.

‘Over the past two years, at USPG we have been working on our archives to better understand the complex and challenging history of this former slave owning organisation. The USPG correspondence archive is vast, and we have only managed to analyse a tiny proportion of letters, records and accounts. We are now very pleased to have recruited a full time PhD candidate, the Revd Garfield Campbell from Jamaica, who will be developing this work in dialogue with USPG and with the Church of the Province of the West Indies, whose own stories and experiences of this shared history are profoundly different from our own. It is only by doing this work in dialogue with those most brutally impacted by the legacies of slavery that we have any hope of approaching an understanding of what true reparation might mean.’

The USPG Prayer Diary today invites us to pray in these words:

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truths,
from the laziness that is content with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
O God of truth, deliver us.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The miracle of the five loaves and two fish … a modern Ethiopian painting in Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org