Gainsborough Old Hall. Photo thanks to Graham Oxford Photography Street.
Sir Thomas Burgh was the builder of Gainsborough Hall, as seen today, after inheriting the original building in 1455 on the death of his mother Elizabeth Percy, when he was 24 years old. The building and enhancement, which took place over the course of 20 years, was enabled by Thomas becoming a very wealthy man ‘through the force of his personality, sage advice (he was counsellor to three monarchs), administrative and business acumen and skill in serving four kings in turn – Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor to become the leading magnet in the country (1) Thomas clearly was one of those adept and charming characters who can both run with the hounds and play with the foxes being awarded lands by Henry VI but later to become and remain one of Edward IV’s favourites. He was appointed Constable of Lincoln and Bolingbroke castles in 1461 – both traditionally Lancastrian prizes – made an esquire of the king’s body on 2 April 1461 four days after the battle of Towton, which meant of course he would wait personally on the king in his private chambers, knighted by February 1463, and was Master of the Kings Horse by February 1464. He consolidated the authority of the new dynasty in and around Lincolnshire as Hastings and Herbert where doing in the Midlands and Wales and was similarly rewarded as they were with lands and offices (2). But in those turbulent times trouble was never far away, and Thomas’ rise and rise had caused resentment, jealousy and anger – then as now one man’s gain could well be another man’s loss. In late 1469 trouble was brewing in Lincolnshire and this instability was exploited by members of the Welles family led by Richard, Lord Welles, his son Robert and his brothers-in-law, Sir Thomas de la Launde and Sir Thomas Dymmock, who to settle a private feud went full tonto when they attacked and sacked the Hall. The Warkworth Chronicle reported ‘the Lorde Willowby, the Lorde Welles his son, Thomas Delalond knyght, and Sere Thomas Dymmoke knyght, the Kynges Champyon, droff oute of Lyncolneschyre Sere Thomas à Burghe, a knyght of the Kynges howse and pullede downe his place and toke all his goodes and cataylle that thei myght find’ (3). Warkworth may have over egged the pudding slightly with the remark ‘pullede downe his place’ -as pointed out by Nicholas Bennett – as much of the surviving structure of the Hall predates 1469. However Emery points out that while it’s possible parts of the Hall were unaffected by the attack the west range was indeed so damaged that it had to be rebuilt in 1479 (4). Certainly the attack and sacking must have been extremely violent and a horrendous experience for the inhabitants resulting in Thomas and his family fleeing to Yorkshire. This volatile situation escalated eventually culminating in an enraged and galvanised Edward IV marching on Lincolnshire to quell what had now become a full blown rebellion at the Battle of Empingham – also known as Losecoat Field – near Stamford on the 12th March 1470. I have only touched lightly here upon the rather confusing toing and froing that took place in the weeks which led to Empingham but for those who would like to delve deeper I can recommend reading The Road to Losecoat Field: The Story of the First Lincolnshire Rebellion by Nicolas Bennett. After the rebellion – which later became known as the First Lincolnshire Rising – had been crushed and Lord Welles executed, Thomas’ wealth was enhanced by the reversion of the lands forfeited by the executed lord. Thomas’ powers would be eclipsed for a while with the readeption of Henry VI until Edward’s triumphant return to the throne in 1471. When Edward died rather suddenly in 1483 and Richard III became king Thomas was able to seamlessly and successfully transfer himself to the new king’s household retaining all his old offices. On October 10th 1483 Richard III would spend the night at the Hall on his way to London from York. That night Richard dictated a letter to a John Crackenthorppe, Receyvor, instructing him to pay Humphrey Metcalfe, a servant, ‘for thexpenses of oure housholde at oure Castelle of Carlile the somme of fyve hundreth markes’ signing off with Yevene etc at Gaynesburghe the xth day of Octobre the furst yere of oure Reigne (5). Richard would go on to create Thomas a Knight of the Garter. However following the death of Richard at Bosworth in 1485 – a battle at which there is no indication Thomas was present – the accession of Henry Tudor brought about the loss of his gains from Richard as well as several of his Lincolnshire offices. Nevertheless he did manage to maintain his position of royal councillor – no doubt Henry recognised his skills and wisdom – and in 1487 he received a personal summons to parliament. Rosemary Horrox wrote there is no evidence he took his seat in the Lords and in his will he described himself simply as ‘Thomas Burgh knight‘ (6).
Thomas died on the 18th March 1496, a goodly life span for those times and still an extremely wealthy man. He requested in his will that his body was to be buried next to his wife Margaret – daughter of Thomas, Lord Ros/Roos who had died on 10th December 1488 – in the chapel he had built in the nearby All Saints Parish Church in Gainsborough – ‘wheresoever it happen to decease in my newe chapel’ Besides requesting that a perpetual chantry was to be founded for himself, Margaret, his parents, his ancestors and all Christian souls he also left instructions on the design of the tomb he wanted built for himself and his wife at the north end of the altar in his chapel. Today only the tower of the medieval church remains today having been drastically rebuilt in the 18th century. I have been unable to discover what became of the tomb of Thomas and his wife. Perhaps they still lie there in a vault but sadly I fear the worst.
All Hallows Church Gainsborough where Sir Thomas Burgh asked to be buried next to his wife. Only the tower of the medieval church remains the rest is Georgian. Thomas would have known this church very well and passed regularly through the old doorway shown here.
GAINSBOROUGH OLD HALL
A benign carved lion peers down from over an old doorway. Photo Lee Beel@Alamy
There is no sweeping grand entrance to Gainsborough Old Hall, no avenue of ancient oaks or sheep safely grazing that you find with many other similar ancient and impressive manor houses. Gainsborough Old Hall has been aptly described by Anthony Emery as a ‘major country house in an urban setting‘. When it was first built in the early 15th century it stood on the edge of a small inland port but, with the passage of time, it now stands slap bang in the middle of a ‘depressing 19th century agricultural town’. Having never been to Gainsborough I cannot really say, but to be honest, on the whole time and progress does not deal kindly with architecture especially that which is centuries old and indeed in the 1960s some bright spark suggested the Hall be demolished to make way for a car park. The Hall had managed to retain much of its original surroundings with its grounds extending to the parish church, the River Trent to the west and open land to the north until the arrival of the late 19th century when warehouses rose between the Hall and the river and, rather shockingly, housing estates swallowed up the Hall’s grounds. Nevertheless the Hall, now standing on ‘a lawn in a back street’, has miraculously survived and make no mistake about it – it is undeniably a truly wonderful survivor and has been described, justifiably experts say, as ‘one of the country’s best preserved medieval manors’.
Leyland tell us that the Hall was originally surrounded by a moat. This may be why two 19th century houses to the immediate north of the hall suffered from subsidence probably as a result of poor infilling of the moat when it was emptied. As was the usual plan for later medieval manor houses of that period the private apartments would have been in the east range facing the quieter inner court and furthest away from the main entrance. For the greater part English oak was used for the close studded timber framing that is in abundance and which was almost certainly sourced locally from the great swathe of forest that once formed a part of the surrounding estate although towards the end of the period of building more brick was used (6).
The Great Hall.
The Great Hall Looking towards the High Table. Photo Craig Thornber @thornber.net
In the time of Thomas the floor of the Great Hall was not tiled as it is today but would have been of compressed earth which sometimes would have been ‘consolidated by the addition of a layer of fresh ox blood’ . It would then have been strewn with rushes known as thresh which soaked up spillages and was easily scooped up and replaced with fresh when required. Of note is the beautiful dressed stone bay window with Perpendicular traceried openings.
The bay window with its perpendicular tracery in the Great Hall. Photo Ben Abel@Flickr
The medieval bay window from the exterior. Photo Glass Angel@Flickr.
As usual with great halls from the period at one end was the dais on which the lord’s table stood and at the other end were doors leading, conveniently, to the kitchen, buttery and pantry. There may also have been a minstrels gallery above these doors. Heating was via an open fire in the the middle of the hall supplement by open braziers dotted around. The smoke would have escaped through an open louvre in the the roof, the original of which has now been moved to a bedroom in the tower.
The kitchen is amongst the best preserved medieval kitchens in England with two massive fireplaces. There is also a twin oven built into one of the walls possibly for pastries etc., Looking up the chimney by the built in ovens there can be seen the bricks jutting out that aided the young boys sent up to ‘sweep them’. A louvre similar to that in the Great Hall as well as helping to get rid of the excess steam, smoke and fumes would also give some extra light. This medieval louvre has not survived and the one seen today is 19th century. Ladders would have led to the servants quarters.
The Medieval Kitchen. Photo Flickr.com
The Tower and East Range
It is believed that the Tower was added to the East range in the mid 1480s. Consisting of three floors connected by a spiral stone staircase with a room and garderobe on each one it’s believed the Tower may have been used for Thomas’ family. Mention is made of a tower in Thomas’ will ‘And also I will if my son Thomas life at the day of my buriell that he have the bedde of the lowe tower and hanging and counterpoint of the said towere’
CORRIDORS AND GHOSTS
Unlike other buildings from the period where the rooms were generally ‘linked’ the Hall has a number of interesting and atmospheric corridors. The one on the East wing is reputed to be haunted by a female ghost, dressed in grey, obvs, who after reaching the leaded lights changes direction and heads through a doorway leading towards the Tower. It has been suggested this may be the ghost of Queen Catherine Howard, who stayed at the Hall with her spouse, the fragrant Henry VIII. The guide book suggests if you should happen upon her do ask her who she and solve the mystery. Yikes and Not A Chance!
One of the intriguing passage ways at the Hall, one of which is said to be haunted by a lady in a grey dress. Perhaps not somewhere you would like to linger when night falls and the shadows lengthen…
I have only touched briefly here upon Gainsborough Old Hall – home to Sir Thomas Burgh and his family during the period covering his life there. There is much more should you wish to delve including the three day visit by Henry VIII and his ill fated wife, Catherine Howard in August 1541. If ever you should chance up that way a visit surely a visit to check out Gainsborough Old Hall should be high on the list of Interesting Places To Visit!
- Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales Volume II. p.p.243-250. Anthony Emery.
- A Chronicle of the First Thirteen Years of the Reign of King Edward the Fourth by John Warkworth.
- The Road to Losecoat Field: The story of the first Lincolnshire Rising. Nicholas Bennett. Article in The Ricardian Vol XXX 2020.
- Harleian Manuscript 433 Vol II p.28. Ed Rosemary Horrox and P W Hammond.
- Burgh, Thomas, Baron Burgh (c.1430-1496). Rosemary Horrox.
- Gainsborough Old Hall Guide Book. p.3.Sue Allen
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