Northamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough Preface

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Northamptonshire is in southern central England, in shape an oval with its long axis running from NE to SW. At the NE tip of the county is the Soke of Peterborough, an area including Peterbough itself and the country around it, bounded by the rivers Welland and Nene. Northamptonshire has no sea coast, and borders with Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire along its eastern side, and with Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Rutland along the south and west borders. The Soke of Peterborough has a N border with Lincolnshire. The population in 2001 (excluding the Soke) was slightly under 630,000, and the largest towns were Northampton (194,000), Kettering (82,000), Wellingborough (72,500), and Corby (53,000). At that time the Unitary Authority of Peterborough (an area similar to but not identical with the Soke) had a population of 156,000, mostly within the city itself.

Administrative history

The Domesday county was rather larger than the traditional one, as it included the whole of Witchley hundred, which now belongs to Rutland, as well as a number of border vills and a few places that are much further away (e.g. the Staffordshire settlements of Lapley, Marston in Church Eaton and West Bromwich). Until the Local Government Act of 1888, the Soke, or Liberty of Peterborough was considered to be part of Northamptonshire, but in that year it was declared to be a separate administrative county. In 1965 the Soke of Peterborough was attached to Huntingdonshire to form the county of Huntingdon and Peterborough. When Huntingdonshire was abolished as an administrative county in 1974, the Soke became part of the administrative county of Cambridgeshire along with the rest of Huntingdonshire. Since 1998 an area approximating to the Soke, now called the City of Peterborough, has been a Unitary Authority.

Landscape, Geology and Building Materials

Although its scenery is not at all spectacular, parts of Northamptonshire, especially in the hilly region to the north-west, and in the Nene valley, have a bucolic charm that can be extremely appealing. 

The village of Cottingham from the east 

The entire western part of the county is occupied by a ridge of hills running NE from the southern highlands, and through Daventry to the northern border and beyond. These hills contain the county's highest points: Arbury Hill, near Badby (224 m) and Honey Hill, near Cold Ashby (210 m), but neither forms a striking peak.

Honey Hill, at 210m the second highest point in the county

Near Arbury Hill is the source of the river Nene, which runs east at first, then turns north-east forming a broad valley running almost the length of the county through Northampton, Thrapston, Oundle and Peterborough.

Two views of the Nene, at Wadenhoe and at Water Newton on the Huntingdonshire border

Geologically the strata rise from the SE to the NW, so that the oldest rocks outcrop in the west of the county and the youngest in the east (except where older layers are exposed in the river valleys).

The Geology of Norhamptonshire from Stanford (1904)

The entire range of sedimentary rock is Jurassic, part of a system running from Dorset to the Cleveland Hills. It will be best to begin with the oldest rocks. First come the Lower Lias clays, to the west of the county, forming a deep blue stratum that supports a rich, though rather impermeable soil. Above this is the oolite, of which the lowest bed is the Northamptonshire Sand, including the distinctive ironstone much used in building. This outcrops significantly around Northampton. On top of this lies the oolitic Lincolnshire Limestone. This was quarried for building throughout the middle ages. It goes by a variety of names depending on where it is quarried; Barnack, Weldon, King's Cliffe, Ketton, and is generally pale grey or buff and rather shelly.

Barnack Hills and Holes - the remains of a medieval quarry

In places it can be cleaved like slate, and has been used for roofing around Collyweston, under the name of Collyweston Slate.

New and old roofs of Collyweston slate in Wansford

The youngest oolite beds include the Cornbrash limestone, a marine deposit rich in fossil shells. Above this, mostly to the east of the Nene valley but found elsewhere around the county, is the Oxford clay; grey or brown in colour and occasionally quarried for brickmaking, as at Greens Norton near Towcester and in Cleley Hundred in the SE, e.g. at Deanshanger and Paulerspury. From this it is clear that there is no shortage of building stone in the county, and the river Nene provided a channel for its export elsewhere. It is striking too that the appearance of the stone can vary, even locally, from a deep purplish red, through brownish orange to pale buff and grey. This provides the opportunity for the decorative use of stone as seen, for example, at Spratton, Little Houghton and St Peter's Northampton.

Decorative use of coloured ashlars at Little Houghton 

Agriculture and Industries

Northamptonshire is a farming county of ancient market towns and small villages. Much of the forest had been cleared by the time of the Domesday Survey, and most of the present villages already existed then. Manors were large before the Black Death in 1348-9 reduced the work force and smaller farms became more commonplace. Sheep farming grew at this time, since it is less labour-dependent than arable. Cattle rearing grew in importance from the 16thc., and from the 17thc. the production of boots and shoes from their hides became the county's chief non-agricultural industry. The most important of the boot and shoe towns were Northampton itself (home of Church's, Crockett & Jones and Tricker's), Rushden (Grenson's, Alfred Sargent's), Kettering (Loake's), Desborough (Joseph Cheaney) and Wellingborough (J. G. Cox), but practically every town in the centre of the county was involved in the industry. The streetscapes that developed from c.1850 are highly distinctive with straight streets of red brick terraced houses interspersed with the factories and with corner shops, schools, churches and chapels and working-men's clubs to supply the needs of the workforce. The houses themselves often included outhouses used as workshops. Iron was smelted from local ores in the Roman period, and the Domesday Survey recorded ironworks in the royal manor of Corby during the reign of Edward the Confessor. The industry depended on charcoal as there was no local coalfield, and it remained a small-scale enterprise until the railways allowed easy import of coking coal to smelt the rich ores from the mid-1800s. Major centres for the industry were at Corby and Wellingborough. By 1800 only one third of the population was employed on the land, and by 1901 the proportion had fallen to 18%, while 40% worked in the boot and shoe industry and 16% in the iron industry. The 20thc. saw a massive increase in land use for residential, commercial and industrial areas linked to an ever-expanding population, but half of the county's land is still farmed, the main activities being cereal production and cattle farming.


There were major Roman settlements at Irchester, near Wellingborough, Towcester (Lactodorum) and Norton, near Daventry (Bannaventa). Watling Street ran from north to south across the SW of the county, through Lactodorum and Bannaventa (now the A5), and the road from Leicester (Ratae) to Huntingdon ran through the north of the county, crossing the Nene at Thrapston. Just to the north of the county, Ermine Street passed through the Soke of Peterborough, running from London to Huntingdon and Peterborough to Lincoln and York. Northamptonshire remains vital to the British communication system, with the M1, A5, A6 and A14 all passing through, and the A1 missing it by a whisker on the east. The main railway lines from London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Carlisle and Glasgow, and from London to Nottingham, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh both pass through the county. In the early Anglo-Saxon period, Northamptonshire belonged to the Kingdom of Mercia and was overrun by the Danes in the 9thc.

The nave of All Saints’ church, Brixworth

Brixworth is one of the foremost Anglo-Saxon buildings surviving in this country and the tower at Earl's Barton is justly famous, but there are also important remains at Brigstock, Geddington and Green's Norton. Anglo-Saxon crosses, or fragments of them, survive at Brixworth, Desborough, Lutton, Mears Ashby, Moreton Pinkney, Moulton, Nassington, Northampton (St Peter's) and Stowe-Nine-Churches.

The tower of Earl's Barton church from the south

According to Darby & Terrett there were 326 places in the area of the traditional county that were mentioned in Domesday, and the distribution of Domesday village names is generally very similar to today’s distribution, with the exception of about 40 later villages, mostly in the extreme north and first noted in the 12thc – 14thc. Settlement distribution was fairly even across the county, except for the fenland areas of the Soke of Peterborough and parts of the forests of Rockingham (immediately S of the Soke) and Whittlewood (on the SE border). It is worth noting that neither forest is mentioned by name in the Domesday Survey, but both areas were heavily wooded in 1086, and reference is made to the king’s hunting or forests in the entries for Fotheringhay and Brixworth, later in Rockingham forest. In all, Darby & Terrett estimated a rural population of 6,882 heads of households (which would need to be multiplied by 4 or 5 to arrive at a figure for the actual population). The estimated density of population (based on the 6,882 figure) varied between 5 and 11 per square mile, with the lightly settled areas noted above at the bottom of this range. Farming was generally arable; the only concentrated areas of meadow being in the Nene and Ise valleys. Mills were noted in connection with almost half of the Domesday settlements (155 out of 326), and were sited, as one would expect, along the rivers. There are only three records of churches (at Guilsborough, Brackley (possibly) and Pattishall), which suggests that they were not systematically recorded at all, but 61 priests were recorded.

The Anglo-Saxon chancel arch of Wittering


The Domesday Survey recorded approximately 300 houses and 1500 inhabitants in the borough of Northampton in 1086. Simon de Senlis became Earl shortly afterwards, founding the church of the Holy Sepulchre c.1100 and possibly the castle, of which practically nothing remains. Other early foundations included a Cluniac Priory founded from La Charité sur Loire at the end of the 11thc., and the Augustinian abbey of St James (c.1105).

The nave of St Peter’s Northampton

The most spectacular medieval building in the town, St Peter's, probably dates from the 1140s. The town gained a charter from Richard I in 1189, and its market in 1235. The centre of Northampton is today rather small for a town of this size; the inner ring road having been built very close in. It is still dominated by a flourishing market. Outside the centre, especially to the north, it is dominated by the 19-20thc. streetscape of the boot and shoe industry.

Northampton market


Other Major Towns

The parish church of All Hallows in Wellingborough town centre

Wellingborough was held by Crowland abbey in 1086. It received a charter for a market in 1201 and for a fair in 1447. Like Northampton it was a boot and shoe town and some manufacture still goes on. Iron was smelted there from the late 19thc. until the industry collapsed in the mid-20thc. More recently Wellingborough's excellent communications with the rest of the country have encouraged such national and multi-national organisations as Homebase and Budgens. Over 30% of the workforce is now involved in distribution or transport. All Hallows church stands on a hill in the centre, surrounded by a large churchyard that separates it from the market to the south. There are 17thc. buildings including the old Grammar School to the NW of the church and other 17thc. and 18thc. houses in the streets around the market, and to the south of this is the modern Swansgate Shopping Centre (formerly the Arndale Centre). Much of outer Wellingborough exhibits the typical 19thc. boot and shoe townscape described above.

Roman material has been found around Kettering, and the town was held by the abbot and monks of Peterborough in the middle ages. Henry III granted a market in 1227 that has continued to this day. Woollen cloth, silk and velvet plush were made here in the early modern period, and the Co-operative movement here was involved in the important corset industry, but by the middle of the 19thc. boot and shoe manufacture was the chief industry, and to the north and east of the centre the streets are typical of this. The centre is dominated by the Perpendicular church of SS Peter and Paul, with its magnificent tower and spire. The church is isolated from the surrounding streets by a park-like churchyard.


Corby, St John’s from the east

Corby was a village of 785 inhabitants in 1881, but with the building of blast furnaces by Lloyd's Ironstone Co. between 1907 and 1917 things began to change. In 1920 Stewarts and Lloyds took over the local ironstone works, and in 1933 work began on a large integrated steelworks, depending on ores mined under the surrounding countryside. Labour was attracted from all over the country, and particularly from Scotland. The population grew to 4,000 by 1939 and 18,000 by 1950, when it was designated a New Town, and the proportion of people of Scots descent rose as high as 70%. The closure of the steelworks in 1980 left a quarter of the workforce jobless, some 5,500 people, but the tube mills remained and other industries were attracted including Avon Cosmetics, RS Components and Oxford University Press. Visiting the town can be an unsettling experience. The original village centre is represented by St John's church, still in its churchyard but now squeezed between a major road intersection and a housing estate. The centre, such as it is, has moved further west, but it has no railway station and no major department store. The Corby accent is still a Scottish one and the Rangers Supporters Club is the largest outside Glasgow with 2,000 members.

Peterborough and the Soke

The Soke of Peterborough: landscape near Barnack

The Soke or Liberty of Peterborough is an area extending for some 8 miles from N to S and 14 from E to W, with Peterborough on its southern border. To the east are the fens, and the land in the Soke was flatter, ill-drained and less densely populated than the rest of Northamptonshire (27434). Some villages were quite large, like Werrington which had 57 recorded inhabitants in 1086, and most had mills, meadow and woodland. Its status as a liberty was ancient at the time of Domesday, and may date from the refoundation of Peterborough abbey by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester in 971-72, after it had lain waste for a century following a Danish raid. The abbey did not hold all the land in the soke, but exercised judicial powers over it. The monastery had been called Medeshamstede before the Danish attack, but it was refounded as Burgh, which later became Peterburgh. This implies town status, although it was described as a vill in the Domesday Survey, albeit a large one with 52 recorded inhabitants. There is no doubt that its commercial activities, controlling trade and markets along the river Nene, would qualify it as a town for the historian, but since these duties were performed by monks rather than lay burgesses there was no question of burgh status at the time. The abbey itself held lands in Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire as well as Northamptonshire.

Ecclesiastical history

Northamptonshire lay within the Mercian diocese, centred first at Dorchester-on-Thames and after 1075 at Lincoln. There was therefore no cathedral within the county until after the Dissolution, when Peterborough abbey became one.

Peterborough was the greatest of the Benedictine houses in the county, founded by the monk Saxulf, later bishop of Mercia, on land given by King Penda of Mercia at a date given by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as 655-56. At that time it was called Medeshamstede. Saxulf’s foundation was burned down and all its monks save one were killed by the rampaging Danes in 870, and Medshamstede lay waste for 100 years until it was refounded by Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester and handed over to Adulf, first abbot of the refoundation, by King Edgar in 972. The present building was begun after a disastrous fire in 1116 destroyed the monastery and most of the town. Peterborough had a small cell at Oxney, and there was another Benedictine priory at Luffield, founded by Robert Bossu in the reign of Henry I. There were also small alien priories at Everdon, Weedon Pinkney (Weedon Lois) and Weedon Beck. There were houses of Benedictine nuns at St Michael’s, Stamford (founded 1155) and Wothorpe (perhaps dating from Henry I’s reign), and Cluniac houses of monks at St Andrew’s Northampton (founded by 1100) and St Augustine’s, Daventry (originally founded in 1090 at Preston Capes. There was also a house of Cluniac nuns at Delapre near Northampton, founded in the reign of Stephen. The Cistercians had a house of monks at Pipewell, founded from Newminster in Northumberland in 1143, and two houses of nuns, at Catesby (1175) and Sewardsley (regn. Henry II). The Austin canons had houses at St James, Northampton (before 1105), Chalcombe (regn. Henry II), Fineshade (c.1201) and Grafton Regis (late-12thc), and the Austin nuns had a house at Rothwell, founded in the 13thc. There was a Premonstratensian house at Sulby (founded c.1155). In Northampton there were houses of Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite and Austin friars, all founded in the 13thc, and the Knights Hospitaller had a preceptory at Dingley, founded in the reign of Henry II.

Romanesque Buildings

The greatest and most spectacular building is, of course, Peterborough cathedral; Romanesque throughout but with later additions. Elsewhere in the Soke of Peterborough are the churches of Barnack, with a pre-Conquest W tower and evidence of a major sculptural campaign in the 1170s;Castor, a major cruciform church begun in the early 12thc ; and Maxey , Sutton and Peakirk all with work by the sculptors of Castor.

St Kyneburgha, Castor from the NW, and a detail of its tower arch capitals

Sculpture in the Soke at Maxey and Sutton

Outside the Soke the most important Romanesque churches are St Peter’s and the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton. St Peter’s, indeed, rates high among the nation’s treasure-houses of 12c sculpture for its capital sculpture, corbels and grave slab, the work of the Northamptonshire School of sculptors also active in the county on fonts at Harpole, Greens Norton, Paulerspury, Dodford, Tiffield and Weedon Lois. This work probably dates from the 1140s and ’50s.

Work by Northamptonshire School sculptors at St Peter's (left) and Harpole








The Holy Sepulchre is a rare example of a 12c round church, unusual in that there is no connection with the Knights Templar or Hospitaller. It was founded c.1100-10 by Earl Simon I de Senlis.

The interior of the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton

Elsewhere in the county, perhaps Twywell and Barton Seagrave are the closest things to complete 12c churches, although both have later additions. Important figural tympana may be seen at Barton Seagrave and Pitsford, and fine displays of beakhead ornament at Earl’s Barton and Roade. Spratton and St Peter’s Northampton both have towers decorated with arcading and corbel tables, and other interesting corbels appear at Holy Sepulchre, Northampton and Twywell.

The fonts at West Haddon and Braybrooke

The best of the county’s Romanesque sculpture is found in fonts. The Northamptonshire School examples have already been noted, but that at Mears Ashby is by another Northampton workshop, also active on the west doorway of St Peter’s. Little Billing has the earliest font, probably pre-Conquest and bearing an inscription identifying the artist. West Haddon font is carved with scenes of Christ’s life and passion. The fonts at Braybrooke and Aston-le-Walls are related, both attractively carved with both figural and foliage motifs, while Crick has a font supported on atlas figures in the Italian manner.

Crick font - E Atlas figure

Ron Baxter, 2007.

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