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Author Joan Curran


Soon after he came to the throne in 1100 Henry I built himself a palace in Dunstable on, or near, the site where the Old Palace Lodge now stands, in Church Street.  Though it is referred to as a palace it was probably not very palatial by our standards and may already have been complete, or at least habitable, when Henry came here in about 1107.  The main house may possibly have been of stone from the nearby Totternhoe quarries, with the less important buildings - workshops, stables and barns, etc.- of wood and wattle and daub.  Some years later, in 1130, the Pipe Rolls included authorisation for the payment of one penny a day for a steward to look after the house when the King was not in residence.

Henry came to stay for Christmas in 1122 and again in 1131 and Stephen was here for Christmas in1137, but the house seems to have been very little used and in 1204 King John gave the buildings and the gardens round them to the Priory to dispose of as they wished.    After this royal visitors stayed at the Priory.

The only time Kingsbury is mentioned in the Priory records is in the early 1200s, when the canons rented out a house on the site formerly belonging to the King to Walter, son of Aldevi, at a rent of 40 pence for life, with reversion to them on his death.   The Hundred Rolls of 1275/6  list the Priory as owning a plot of land called Kingesbyr ‘from a gift of the King’, but by the time of the Dissolution it was no longer owned by the canons.  In the 18th century the farmhouse belonging to Kingsbury Farm stood on the site and was owned by the Marshe family.    Blandina Marshe, who died in 1741, left instructions in her will that her executors were to build six almshouses on part of the land, as near to the Church as possible.   The almshouses, now known as Ladies Lodge, can still be seen opposite to the Church.  

The 18th century house still survives, adjoining the Old Palace Lodge Hotel, and is still called Kingsbury House.   For some 20 years or so in the last century there was another connection with medieval times: a residential road nearby was named The Pleasance, a reminder of the medieval garden of which the land would once have been part.  The houses were demolished in the 1950s when the road was bought by the Vauxhall company as part of the site for their Boscombe Road factory.

The PALACE at Kingsbury                                                   Author Vivienne Evans

When, in 1087, the Clerk (A.S.Ch.) was writing his very critical obituary of King William I, he included as praise the fact that he wore his royal crown three times a year - Easter at Winchester, Whitsuntide at Westminster and Christmas at Gloucester.

On these occasions all the great men of England were assembled about him: archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, thanes and knights.’

This shows how important the clerk considered these visits to be, the three places mentioned were ‘registered’ for coronations and formal royal visits.  A serious fire in 1101, at Gloucester, prevented visits there in the immediate future.  The unsettled reigns of Kings William I and II, and the time that they and King Henry spent in Normandy, meant that these visits were sometimes irregular.

The ‘Domesday’ year (1085-6) is a good example of an event in a peaceful year. In 1085 ‘the King spent Christmas with his councillors at Gloucester and held his court there for five days, which was followed by a three day synod held by the archbishop ……’  ‘After this the King had deliberations and exhaustive discussions with his council about this land and how it was peopled.’  [This is followed by a long list of the questions which would be asked to make up the Domesday Book.]

He was at Winchester for his Easter Court of 1086 and back at Westminster for Whitsun.  Before leaving for Normandy in the autumn he held an extra court at Salisbury where he was met by ‘his council and all the landholders who were of any account ….. throughout England…..   [They] swore oaths of allegiance to him against all other men.’ [William I died in Normandy 19th September 1087 but these entries give a good description of the courts, their purpose and how they worked.]

King William II was often in Normandy but from time to time held courts in all three towns.  He died in the New Forest on Thursday 2 August 1100 and his brother Henry dashed into Winchester and was proclaimed king.  He then rode, non-stop [frequent change of horses] to London.  He was crowned king on Sunday 5th August at Westminster Abbey.  He was anxious to stress that he was born in England and was an ‘English’ king.  As part of the ceremony he made a sacred oath, later published throughout the Kingdom, of fourteen ‘promises’.  These were mainly to do with his support for the church (and religious houses), protection of their property and choice of leaders – and also ‘taxes’ in the widest sense of the word.  A key phrase was ‘to restore the law of King Edward.’

This meant that, unlike his father and brother, he would produce and keep a peaceful society.  Included in this was the promise to keep up the regular courts.  Apart from tradition (and Gloucester was soon out of use), the King could choose the location.  Once his problems with his elder brother, Robert Duke of Normandy, who was claiming the throne of England, were over Henry would combine tradition with his own convenience and in particular to encourage loyalty by ‘seeing and being seen’.

Meanwhile, having held a Christmas court at Windsor in 1104 he left for Normandy in the spring of 1105.  He was home for a Christmas court at Westminster but returned to Normandy in 1106.  He spent Christmas in Normandy but was back for Easter at Windsor and Whitsun at Winchester.  By this time he had captured Robert who was now under house arrest in England.  [He would still have to make a number of visits to Normandy to quell various riots.]  Remembering his vow to keep a peaceful England he now set out to build up a loyal following – more and more places were included in his itinerary.  During the years 1114 – 1115 he formally visited his manors of Kingsthorpe (now Northampton), St Albans and Peterborough, but then returned to Normandy.

His great court at Whitsun in 1121 was held at Westminster, Christmas was at Norwich, Easter 1122 was at Northampton and Christmas 1122 was at Dunstable. There, we are told, he was visited by messengers from the Court of Anjou.  We do not know the main business to be discussed at this meeting.  The news of the death of his son had reached him just before Christmas 1120.  He spent a very quiet Christmas at Brampton (a favourite hunting lodge) and on January 6th 1121 he held a full council in London to discuss the loss of his only son.  His wife had died and so he remarried at Windsor on Friday 29th January. [There were no children from this marriage.]  Later that year he founded a Cluniac monastery at Reading – possibly as a mausoleum for himself.

[It is of interest that, included in the Foundation Charter, was a special responsibility ‘to feed and shelter visitors, pilgrims and the poor’.]

By the time Henry arrived in Dunstable for Christmas 1122 a number of problems were waiting to be solved.  The Archbishop of Canterbury had died in October and the choice of his replacement was still in dispute.  However Henry’s main concern was his own successor – could his new wife solve the problem by producing a male heir?  Then, as reported in A.S.Ch, messengers from the Count of Anjou arrived expecting to collect the dowry paid by the Count when his daughter (now a widow) had married Henry’s late son.

When they left Dunstable to spend a few days at Henry’s hunting lodge at Woodstock they were accompanied by ‘his bishops, and all his court.’

While they were hunting the Bishop of Lincoln died and ‘immediately afterwards the king sent his writs over all England summoning all his bishops, his abbots and his thanes to come to an emergency meeting of his council at Gloucester.  This was to elect a new Archbishop of Canterbury -  a job in which the Bishop of Lincoln would have played a big part.

The above illustrates how these councils were summoned.  Normally they would have had three months’ notice but this election was too urgent to leave until Easter so they were summoned for Candlemass (February 2nd), which only gave them a few weeks to make their arrangements.

Neither of Henry’s courts in Dunstable in 1122 or 1131 [or Stephen’s] were major diplomatic occasions but Christmas was always a very special meeting.  It involved families as well as representatives and most days [often 10 days] were spent in worship, conducting business and in revelry.

Henry’s town planners, preparing for the arrival of business representatives from the traditional big towns and cities would have seen church building as a priority and the high ground opposite the royal palace would have been an ideal site.  This church would not have been finished in 1122 but it is probable that a large structure was already in use.  Henry or his officials ‘chose’ to spend Christmas 1122 in Dunstable and at that time the Saxon churches in both London and Houghton were in a very bad state of repair, Henry’s (illegitimate) son Robert Earl of Gloucester would rebuild them in the mid to late 1120s.