04 September 2022
Visiting the highlights
a town that is often
out of the limelight
Buckingham Palace is not in Buckingham, there is no castle on Castle Street in Buckingham, and, despite its name, the Bishop of Buckingham lives in Great Missenden, and Buckingham is not the county town of Buckinghamshire.
Although Saint Rumbold has given his name to wells, shrines and streets, the parish church is named after Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The parish church in Buckingham is only 250 years old – the oldest churches in the town are mediaeval chantry chapels that were later converted into schools or almshouses.
Buckingham is not on a mainline train route, and it often loses out to the attention given to its larger neighbours, Oxford and Milton Keynes. Despite its antiquity, few buildings in Buckingham date to before the 18th century because a large fire destroyed much of the town in 1725.
The parish church
on Castle Hill
The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, known commonly as Buckingham Parish Church, is prominently located on Castle Hill in the centre of the old town of Buckingham. This was the site of Edward the Elder’s stronghold against the Danes in the 10th century, and later a Norman castle was built on the site.
There has been a church in Buckingham since Saxon Times, and the old church stood further down the hill, at the bottom of what is now called Church Street, in Prebend End.
The earlier church dated from before 1445, but there are no records before this date, apart from a reference to it in the Domesday Book of 1086.
The old church had a history of the tower and spire collapsing several times and they collapsed for the final time in 1776. Browne Willis (1682-1760), the MP for Buckingham and a noted antiquarian, wanted to restore the church to its former glory, but a new tower and spire were too ambitious.
A new site became available on Castle Hill and the decision was made to move the church. It is said that much of the fabric of the earlier church was reused in building the new church. Indeed, the story goes, Church Street was given its name because the ruins of the old church were carried up the street to be rebuilt on Castle Hill.
Richard Grenville-Temple (1711-1779), 2nd Earl Temple and William Pitt’s brother-in-law, undertook to build a new church and the site was donated Ralph Verney (1714-1791), 2nd Earl Verney, an Irish peer who had previously been known as Lord Fermanagh.
The foundation stone for the new church was laid in 1777, the church was completed by Lord Temple’s nephew, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville (1753-1813), 3rd Earl Temple and 1st Marquis of Buckingham, later Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1787-1789), and the new church was consecrated in 1780.
However, the foundations of the church were insufficient and several cracks began appearing. The present Victorian Gothic Revival church is the result of many 19th-century alterations by the local-born architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. He added buttresses to prop up the building and redesigned the church in the 1860s in a late 13th century geometrical style.
A Chantry Chapel
hospital and school
Because most of Buckingham’s town centre was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1725, the Chantry Chapel of Saint John the Baptist is the oldest surviving building in the town. The chantry chapel survived the fire, and is tucked away on Market Hill in a cosy corner off the Market Square.
The Chantry Chapel was built in the late 12th century as part of Saint John’s Hospital, and it became a chantry chapel in 1268, founded by Matthew de Stratton, Archdeacon of Buckingham.
The Royal Latin School was founded in the chapel in 1423, with the chantry priests probably serving as the first schoolmasters. A schoolmaster’s house was added to the north. The school was originally established to teach boys the Trivium: Latin grammar, logic and rhetoric.
The present building dates from the 15th century, when John Ruding, Archdeacon of Lincoln, undertook rebuilding work in 1471 and 1481, incorporating the Norman doorway. Ruding also gave the school its motto, ‘Alle May God Amende,’ in 1471.
The chantry chapel was dissolved, as were other chantries, at the Tudor Reformation, and it was known as the Royal Latin School from 1540. In 1548, King Edward VI granted a charter for the school, providing an endowment and trustees.
At several times in its history, the chapel has been near to decay. A major fire in 1696 destroyed the Master’s House which was rebuilt by Alexander Denton. The building was restored at the expense of Earl Temple of Stowe in 1776, and was twice restored in the 19th century under the direction of Sir George Gilbert Scott.
But by the 1890s, the old buildings were inadequate and unsuitable for modern educational needs, and the Royal Latin School moved from the Chantry Chapel to a new site on Chandos Road in 1907.
The Chantry Chapel retains the original Norman Romanesque doorway. It was bought by public subscription In 1912 and given to the National Trust. Since then, it has been both a café and second-hand bookshop, and a sign outside indicates the National Trust has plans to reopen it soon.
Two other former chantries or hospitals dating from the 13th to 15th centuries survived the Reformation and are now Barton’s Chantry and Hospital on Church Street and Christ’s Hospital on Market Hill.
The myths and mysteries
of Saint Rumbold
One of the Tudor-era houses to survive in Buckingham is the Manor House on Church Street, beside the old churchyard. The Manor House was built in the early 16th century and is now divided into two houses, the Manor House and Twisted Chimney House.
The building was the manor house of the Prebendal Manor of Sutton-cum-Buckingham, one of the best-endowed prebends in Lincoln Cathedral and in pre-Reformation in England, with properties across Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.
On the façade of the Manor House, a plaque showing a cherubic-like infant recalls the extraordinary tale that has survived as local lore of Saint Rumbold.
There is also a Saint Rumbold’s Well in Buckingham, and Saint Rumbold’s Lane leads from Nelson Street to the junction of Church Street and Well Street.
According to local lore, Saint Rumbold was an Anglo-Saxon infant saint, who lived for only three days, and was born and died around the year 650. His mother was Cyneburga, a daughter of King Penda of Mercia; his father was Alchfrith, a son of the King of Northumbria. Rumbold’s parents were travelling north to meet King Penda, when the party stopped and camped in a field near King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, 12 miles west of Buckingham. There Cyneburga gave birth to Rumbold.
From birth, Rumbold was a prodigy. On his first day, he cried out three times in a loud voice ‘I am a Christian,’ Christianus sum, Christianus sum, Christianus sum, and asked to be baptised.
On the following day, Rumbold further astounded everyone by professing faith in the Holy Trinity and the Athanasian Creed and, citing the Scriptures, he preached a sermon on the need for virtuous living. On the third day he said that he was going to die, seeking to be buried where he was born for one year, then at Brackley for two years, and finally, for all time, at the place that later became Buckingham.
Accounts of his miraculous life were popular in the Middle Ages and his tomb and shrine became a focus for pilgrimages. Several mediaeval Bishops of Lincoln attempted to suppress what were described as superstitious pilgrimages.
The pilgrimages to Buckingham were suppressed at the Reformation, Saint Rumbold’s shrine and tomb were demolished after the old parish church in Buckingham fell down in 1776, and nothing was transferred to the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul when it was built on Castle Hill.
An old goal that
looks like a castle
The castle has long disappeared from Castle Hill, and the building that looks like a castle on Market Hill is sometimes known as Lord Cobham’s Castle. But this is Buckingham Old Gaol, the former town prison, now the town museum and one of the most recognisable buildings in Buckingham.
The prison was built in 1748, looking like a Gothic-style castle. One of the prisoners jailed here was the Irish bare-knuckle prize fighter Simon Byrne (1806-1833), known as the ‘Emerald Gem.’ He was tried at the Buckingham Assizes in 1830 for the manslaughter of the Scottish prize fighter, Alexander McKay.
The rounded front of the building, added in 1839, was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott to provide accommodation for the gaoler and became known as the Keeper’s Lodge.
The Old Gaol has been a police station, a fire station and in the 1950s an antiques shop and café. It opened as a museum in 1993, together with a tourist information centre. The museum includes mementoes of Florence Nightingale and the collected works of Flora Thompson, author of Lark Rise to Candleford.
This two-page feature was originally written for the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)