If you live in Northampton, have lived in Northampton, had ancestors from Northampton or worked in Northampton, then you are probably suffering from some confusion and stubbornness in your life. This is not your fault. Confusion and stubbornness is in the air, here, it seeps into your DNA and never leaves. Wherever you are in the world you are hosting the remnants of a little part of Northampton’s confusion and stubbornness. They go together like the River Nene and Southbridge, the Wellingborough Road and vomit, bus stations and urine or the Racecourse and muggings. We few are a confused and stubborn happy band and it’s all in the history.
We’ve had our interlopers from the past. Bronze aged settlements still sit neatly behind the well manicured lawns, double glazing and gravel drives atop Hunsbury Hill and Danes Camp, giving us a clue as to who later inhabited the site. They all left. We stayed. Roman pottery has been found in Duston, but then so have a lot of burnt-out cars and they weren’t necessarily from NN5. The Romans left. We stayed.
We had a castle, Northampton Castle, unimaginatively named but fairly impressive for the Middle Ages. We often held the English Parliament here, we tried Thomas Beckett at the castle before he fled to France. The castle was involved in a tug of love over the centuries between Crown and town, a pattern that is familiar to Northamptonians, leading to the destruction of the castle. It went and we stayed.
We had a big battle here during the War of the Roses. Henry VI v Earl of Warwick, kick off 10th July 1460. Attendance approximately 15,000. To cut a short battle even shorter the Earl of Warwick had a bye as treachery ensured he walked through the Kings lines and captured Henry. This didn’t make Northampton look good in the eyes of the Crown. Rest assured, Henry’s descendants had long memories. It wasn’t really our fault. Being in the middle of England our geographical position meant we were often the scene of battles that were not our doing, we only hosted the match. “Leave it out, he’s not worth it!!”, so passionately heard across town on a Saturday night, had yet to enter the lexicon.
Delapre Abbey, the site of the battle, was one of only two Clunaic monasteries in England. That is, a monastery exclusively comprised of nuns, think Benedictines with braids. More confusion. Our monks had lumps.
Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and Delapre Abbey lost its female inhabitants, though the Abbey remains gloriously defiant to this day, the Friends of Delapre Abbey ensuring that their stubborn opposition to the development of this historic site leaves it for the whole of the town, and country, to enjoy.
King Charles II ordered our castles destruction and the razing of the town in 1662 as Northampton had stubbornly supported the Roundhead Parliamentarians during the Civil War. Most of the castle went, Northampton remained, until 1675 when a Great Fire finished Charlie’s job for him. The King donated 1,000 tons of timber from Salcey Forest for the rebuilding of the town, this passive-aggressive nature left the people of Northampton rather confused. Did the King hate or love them? We erected a statue of him on our main church in town as a thank you but we’ve never really trusted the Crown here, much, since.
If we jump to the nineteenth century you’ll find a perfect example of the stubbornness of Northamptonians in the election of Charles Bradlaugh, MP, a stubborn fellow himself. An atheist free-thinker who refused to swear an Oath of Allegiance to a God he did not believe in. Contentious for the Victorian British in 1880 it led to his de-selection and a re-election. The people of Northampton, however, wanted Bradlaugh. Three times in succession he was elected, de-selected and re-elected by the town until a fourth election saw the law itself change and the town finally secure the man they wanted. This greatly upset those who vigorously opposed the amendment. This included the Conservative Party, the Church of England and the Catholic Church. More reason for this maverick town to love Bradlaugh. George Bernard Shaw was a keen supporter of Bradlaugh and a young Indian barrister was one of 3,000 who attended his funeral. Gandhi’s participation a true testament from a stubborn hero to a stubborn hero for a stubborn town.
I mentioned our geographical position, earlier. We are neither London nor Birmingham, instead stuck midway between the two. We have a railway, of course, but off the main line. The reasons are varied but again down to stubbornness. You either believe the gradients too steep for Victorians to tackle (hmm) or the sadly more obvious one of Northamptonians refusing the construction of a direct link to London on their land.
We are a large town, very large. One of the largest towns in England, yet we have been denied or turned down city status more times than I can remember. It leaves us all a bit confused. We still blame our historical stubbornness to the Crown for this anomaly, who have yet to approve and sign off our city status. I doubt this’ll change any time soon. .This may have saved the town during World War 2 as we were rarely bombed. I believe the Zeppelin raids of World War One killed people in St James but we suffered no deaths from enemy bombing some 25 years later. The only aircraft to crash in town was an allied bomber, crippled from a raid, falling into the heart of Northampton, ironically just missing the statue of Charles II on top of the church I spoke of earlier. Bullet holes from exploding ammunition cases can still be seen high on the sides of All Saints.
Northampton has grown rapidly in the last 68 years since the war has ended. We were the fastest growing town in Europe in the 1970’s. We are no longer. We were the centre of the boot and shoe trade in this country a few decades before and after the war. We are no longer, though Crockett & Jones and Church’s shoes are still some of the most highly prized footwear in the world.
I haven’t even touched on the only assassinated British Prime Minister being another Northampton MP, a Kings love for his dead Queen and the 720 year old statue that has stood as a mark of his sorrow ever since, the tunnels that criss-cross the subterranean town centre and the guy who co-discovered DNA being a Northamptonian. We also lay claim to the last Doctor Who, Matt Smith, a local lad. His Tardis is bigger on the inside than the out. Now that’s confusing.
Stephen Kerr – August 2013