The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 23

What Happened at Hedingham and Earls Colne?
Part 2: The Late Priory Of Colne
Copyright 1971 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1971.

But two months dead, nay not so much, not two …
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month …
A little month or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe all tears, why she, even she …
Hamlet, I.2.138.

WHEN Colne Priory was suppressed in 1536, Henry VIII granted it, with exceptional tact, to the direct descendant of the founder: John de Vere, 15th Earl of Oxford, whose ancestors had been buried in the chancel of the Priory Church for over four hundred years. At the same time the Earl bought the entire contents of the buildings (excluding the plate, which was sold separately), as well as the corn, and the cattle in the fields. (1) Indeed, apart from the religious rites (admittedly a large exception), he seems to have taken over the Priory as a going concern; and he may even have taken over the monks too, for though they could hardly continue to live at the Priory, there is a persistent legend that, after the dissolution, they lived in an ancient manor house of the de Veres close by, known as Hall Place. This house was in a dilapidated condition and had been abandoned by the family, who had built a new Tudor mansion within the precincts of the Priory. When the 15th Earl died, “at Colne”, in 1539, it was probably in this mansion, but sooner or later, either he or his son, who succeeded him, must have converted the old Priory into a new dwelling-house, no doubt incorporating their mansion. Apart from the Church, the buildings cannot have been very large, since they accommodated only twelve monks; but both earls were Protestants and presumably would have had no qualms about converting the nave and aisles of the Church into a Great Hall. The Chancel, however, was another matter. It could still serve as a family chapel, but neither of them is likely to have desecrated the tombs of his own ancestors: that was to come later.

On 3rd August, 1562, John the 16th Earl died, leaving as his heir a boy of twelve, who became a Royal Ward. The significance of this fact has not always been fully appreciated, but to quote Professor Joel Hurstfield:

“If a tenant of the crown died, while holding land by so-called knight-service, then his heir, if under age, became a ward of the crown. He rarely stayed a royal ward except in name. Soon his guardianship would be sold, sometimes to his mother, more often to a complete stranger. With his guardianship would go his ‘marriage’—the right to offer him a bride whom he could rarely afford to refuse, for his refusal meant that he must pay a crushing fine to his guardian. Meanwhile his land would also have passed into wardship, either to his guardian or to someone else, for them to snatch a quick profit until the ward was old enough to reclaim his own. (Italics mine)”. (2)

It was a relic of feudalism which, having lost its original purpose, had almost died a natural death, but was revived by Henry VII as a convenient source of revenue. Bad enough at its best in its effect on the personal lives of these unfortunate children, the system was obviously wide open to abuse, and it was (3) This in addition to the fact that, on coming of age, the heir had to go through the costly process of suing for “livery”—that is, for the re-grant of his own lands.

To safeguard his estate against the crippling effect of wardship, the 16th Earl of Oxford had executed a use, as it was called. By a Deed of Covenant, (4) he conveyed some of his lands (there was a statutory limit of two-thirds) in trust, to various members of his family, but temporarily away from his principal heir. The trustees were the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Robert Dudley—later Earl of Leicester. It was, of course, a legal device for the evasion, or partial evasion of wardship, but how far he got away with it is another matter. At the same time he took the precaution of betrothing his son himself to one or other, alternatively, of two sisters of the Earl of Huntingdon, who were joint heiresses, but it is certain that he did not get away with that.

On 3rd September, 1562, three days after his father’s funeral, young Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford, was packed off to London, or rather, Westminster, where he became a member of the household of Sir William Cecil, Knight, Secretary of State and Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries—the future Lord Burghley. He, was not sold, but as one of a select few, remained the Queen’s ward, under the personal supervision of Cecil, whose daughter in due course he married. This is well known, but no one has really looked into the question of what became of his lands at this time. It is generally taken for granted, that they were simply administered for him (honestly or not) by Cecil, but this, emphatically, was not the case. Let us take Colne Priory as an example.

Shortly after the funeral of Edward’s father, certain “reparations” were taken in hand at “Colne House in Essex”, which turns out to have been the old Priory under a new name. The account, which is preserved at the Public Record Office, covers a period of just over a year and consists of three pages, the third being a kind of post-script under a new heading: “Reparations done more at Colne House by my La baylye accounted for from March aforesaid unto Michaelmas following (29th September 1563) as appeareth by sundry bills entered into a book of charges”. At the foot of this third and last page is the signature of John Glascock Feodary of Essex (the local official of the Court of Wards), and beneath his signature a note in Cecil’s hand, dated 23 March 1564 anno 6 Eliza: “let this be allowed to the accountant upon the rent which shall grow due to the Queen’s Majesty from Michaelmas last past. W. Cecil”.

The printed Calendar of State Papers, Domestic provides a summary, but, quite naturally, dispenses with the abbreviation in “my La baylye”, and tells us unequivocally that some of the repairs were done by Lady Baylie—whoever she may have been. But this involves a certain inattention to the text, where the very first item under this heading reads: “First to a Thatcher for his work & for nails for him as appeareth by Christmas book for the discharging of the bayley“. The mysterious Lady Baylie, then, did not even exist, but my Lady’s bailee did, and my Lady, herself, is referred to in an entry of October, 1562, when a tiler and his man were paid “for 4 days’ work in tiling at Colne before my Lady’s coming thither”. In the circumstances, who should my Lady be but Margery Countess of Oxford, whose husband was buried only a month or two before? (5) But let us return to the last page, where, among other items in the account of reparations done by my Lady’s bailee, one is of special interest to us: “More to a glazier . . . whereof part bestowed about the Chancel and part about the house … and more to dawbers for claying and splinting that and other houses”. The chancel, then, stood in need of repair, but it was evidently still worth repairing and—what is more—it was repaired; so we know that it was in good condition at Michaelmas, 1563. There is no mention of tombs or monuments, but then, why should there be, unless they were restored? This is an account, not an inventory; and so long as the effigies of the de Veres had a roof over their heads there was probably no need to restore them.

On this page of the account, and on this page only, Christmas’s book is constantly referred to, and it is presumably the same as the “book of charges” mentioned in the heading. We learn more of Mr. Christmas from a pathetic letter addressed to Cecil by the Countess of Oxford, from “my poor house at Colne”; a letter which seems to have escaped the notice of Oxford’s biographer, B. M. Ward, and which so far as I am aware has never been printed before:

“After my right hearty commendations, gentle master Secretary, with like thanks always for your gentleness and fatherly friendship towards my son; and therefore altogether unable anyways to recompense you and my Lady your bedfellow, only remaineth my good will to pleasure you or any of yours if ability served—and now less able than ever I was without your present friendship. And only herein may your friendship stand me in stead, and the rather by your means, to enjoy certain rent Corn for the provision of my poor house, whereof I had promise of divers of my late Lord’s farmers, and thereupon hoped. And of late, since my coming to house at this Michaelmas, there hath been commandment given to all these farmers that pay corn that they should not pay me any corn. And having but one farmer that payeth me any corn, there hath been commandment given there to pay me no more; which was very much, to bar me of my corn rent corn—and not much neither, in the whole but 10 semes (horse-loads). But how this terror cometh to the farmers of late I cannot tell, but the bruit goeth of Mr. Robert Christmas’ man, and certain I am he was with my farmer and gave him commandment to pay no more (and, as the farmer saith, in my Lord Robert’s name) but, Sir, if it may be your pleasure that I may have but part of such corn as was commanded to be delivered to my late Lord and husband (whose soul God pardon) at his house at Hedingham, or at Colne, where I now lie, it might do me such pleasure, as without that help, I stand at this time cleanly destitute of any provision of corn. And for that I could not conveniently tarry any longer where I sojourned, for the great years both in the gentleman and his wife, and perceiving some infection to draw near those parts, I practised with the farmers beforehand and sent to them. They promised to serve me of such corn as would very near suffice me. And now since my coming to house hath bred such misliking and stowndness (6) among them that now stand I clean barren of any provision of any sort of corn, and likely now without your present help to be no way saved; whereof I most heartily pray you. And for that you do right well understand (we hear) that to travel any way almost is not very pleasant and altogether without surety—else would Mr. Tyrrell have travelled and have waited upon you himself, who cannot well travel any way from this place towards the Court without some great misliking of his access into her Grace’s presence, whereof we should both be very loth; and lothest of all to adventure anything whereof there might well arise just cause hereafter to repent us both. These things weighed, most gentle master Secretary, I most humbly pray you so to consider of them as my necessity requireth to be holpen of you, and pray you herewith of some comfortable answer to be returned from you, and to that end I have sent one to be attendant of purpose. And loth to be more tedious I most heartily pray you impart my most hearty commendations to my good La your bedfellow and to my son, with God’s blessing and mine, well to do to his life’s end.

At my poor house at Colne this 11th October 1563 …
M. Oxinford”. (7)

There can be little doubt that the “Mr. Tyrrell” of the letter was Lady Oxford’s second husband, Charles Tyrrell, whom she married according to B. M. Ward, “shortly after the death of her first husband”. The precise date of the marriage is still unknown, but from the tenor of the Countess’s allusions to Tyrrell here, one would not be surprised to learn that they were already married and that Cecil was in the secret, if there was one.

“Lord Robert” is certainly Lord Robert Dudley, who as we have seen, was one of the trustees of the late Earl’s Deed of Covenant. On 30th April 1563, Lady Oxford had written to Cecil:

“I gathered generally that complaints had been brought to my Lord of Norfolk’s grace and to my Lord Robert Dudley by sundry, That the only let why my Lord’s late will hath not been proved or exhibited hath been only in me and through my delays . . . I confess that a great trust hath been committed to me of those things which, in my Lord’s lifetime, were kept most secret from me. And since that time the doubtful declaration of my Lord’s debts hath so uncertainly fallen out that . . . I had rather leave up the whole doings thereof to my son (if by your good advice I may so deal honorably) than to venture further, and uncertainly altogether, with the will … And what my further determination is touching the will, yet loth to determine without your good advice, for that I mean the honour or gain (if any be) might come wholly to my son, who is under your charge”. (8)

It would be interesting to know what advice, if any, Cecil gave her and what her proposed abdication in favour of her thirteen-year-old son would have meant in practice, but it is idle to speculate and we must stick to the facts. Her son was indeed named as an executor, but there were others besides herself, including her brother, Henry Golding, as well as Mr. Robert Christmas; with the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Robert Dudley as Supervisors. Anyway, shortly after this, the will was proved, and the signatures of the executors included that of the Countess as well as her son. (9) After the usual preliminaries, the real business began:

“I commit my body to the earth from whence it came. And I will that my sepulchre be made in the body of the church at Earls Colne after such manner and in such place as by direction of mine executors shall seem convenient, and therein my body to be laid in convenient time after my decease out of this world”.

By the church at Earls Colne he presumably meant, and would be understood to mean, not the dissolved priory where his ancestor’s were buried, but the 14th century Parish Church close by, which his father had restored; but here, at least, we have a clear statement, indeed a direction to his executors, that he was to be buried at Earls Colne—not Castle Hedingham. This falls short of proof that he actually was buried there, but it is a point to be borne in mind when assessing the conflicting claims of Earls Colne and Castle Hedingham, referred to in Part I of the present article (Review No. 23). After a bequest to charity, he goes on to say:

“I will that my house wherein I shall have and keep my household at the time of my death by the clemency and permission of my most gracious sovereign Lady the Queen’s Majesty shall be maintained and kept by mine executors after my death with and of my stocks of oxen, bullocks, sheep, fowls, fish, malt, wheat and other like provision of victual, grain and spice until the end of one month next after my decease in as ample and large manner as I myself kept and maintained the same during the month next before my death without dimunition of any my household servants or any other which shall fortune to dwell and remain in my said house at my death save such as voluntarily depart out of the same. And I give and bequeath unto every of my servants being in my wage the time of my decease his quarter’s wage in which I fortune to depart out of this transitory life”.

There is a list of household servants and it is interesting to note among them the name of Robert Christmas. But here, we must leave the will, except to say that to his “loving and well-beloved wife” the Earl left, besides plate and other I household goods, a life-interest in several manors, but not Colne Priory, which was obviously destined to go into wardship till the heir came of age. The lease was, in fact, granted by the Queen in October 1563, if not before, to her favourite, Lord Robert Dudley! My first source for this piece of information was a letter, of 6th February 1566, from the Court of Wards to Robert Christmas Gent, servant of the Earl of Leicester. It was a polite reminder that the rent had not been paid:

“Whereas there is a yearly rent of £66 by the year due to the Queen’s Majesty out of the late priory of Colne within the County of Essex parcel of the possessions of Edward now Earl of Oxon the Queen’s Majesty’s ward: which priory amongst other of the possessions aforesaid (Italics mine) is contained within a lease thereof granted unto our very good Lord your master under the seal of the Queen’s Majesty’s Court of Wards and Liveries. And forasmuch as the said rent reserved is not comprised in the lease for lack of instructions given upon the making thereof the same hath remained unpaid ever since the death of the late Earl father of the said now Earl which is by the space of three years ended at Michaelmas last past and amounting to the sum of £198″. (10)

This throws much-needed light upon Lady Oxford’s letter of 11th October and explains, if it does not excuse, Lord Robert’s peremptory action in stopping her corn rent. It also provides a clue to the terror and “stowndness” of the farmers and, in the process, throws a fresh light on Lord Robert himself. Robert Christmas evidently went with the house, but he, or perhaps his son, turns up later as a servant of the 17th Earl of Oxford. But what of those other possessions of the said now Earl which were also contained in the lease? At this stage of my investigations I was badly in need of expert guidance and my thanks are due to Professor Hurstfield for telling me where to begin my search for the lease, but he could not give me a complete reference number as he had not come across it himself. Very few of the actual indentures had survived, he told me, but these were indexed and I might be lucky. Otherwise it would mean a page by page hunt for a copy through the original accounts of the Court of Wards over the period in question. I was not lucky and the alternative was a long and laborious task, but at last I found what I was looking for. Briefly: Lord Robert Dudley was granted “all … the lands … and all and singular there appertaining in the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, late the inheritance of the Right Hon. John de Vere Earl of Oxford”, (11) and since nearly all the lands of the Earl of Oxford were in these three counties, we should not be far wrong in saying that Dudley got the lot!

So it was not Cecil; not Charles Tyrrell; but Robert Dudley who succeeded Edward’s father (for the time being) as Lord of the Manors of Castle Hedingham, Earls Colne etc. The spoils were divided: Tyrrell married the late Earl’s widow; Cecil obtained the custody of his son; but Dudley got the lands. Details of the various manors follow and there is an interesting account of Colne Priory:

“The late priory of Colney (an alternative form) . . . the rent and the farm of the mansion there called Colney Priory or Colney House; all the orchards, gardens, fishings, barns, stables, and all the meadows and pastures appertaining to the priory, late belonging (to) late in the occupation of the said Earl and now in the occupation of the Lady Margery late wife of the said Earl”.

This confirms one’s impression that the Priory was, in fact, the home of the 16th Earl at the time of his death and of his widow for some time afterwards. The words late wife, however, instead of widow, are significant and we may take it that the Lady Margery was by now the wife of Charles Tyrrell Esquire, who is referred to in the lease as Bailiff of Castle Hedingham. This copy of the lease is dated 22nd October 1563, but we cannot be sure if that was the date of the original, and in any case, we still do not know precisely when, or even where, the marriage took place. It would be interesting to find out. We do not know whether Lady Oxford stayed on at Colne House as Dudley’s tenant, and neither do we know whether Tyrrell retained his post as bailiff of Castle Hedingham under Dudley; but they were both buried at Earls Colne, the Countess in 1568, and Tyrrell in 1570.

In 1563, Lord Robert Dudley was only at the beginning of his amazing career, but he had long been the Queen’s favourite, was believed by many to be her lover, and for the past three years almost universally believed to have murdered his wife, Amy Robsart, in the hope of achieving his ambition to marry the Queen and become King of England. “The law was satisfied”, writes Milton Waldman, “of the cause of Amy’s death, and the only more knowledge of any interest to him (Leicester) or anyone else was its consequences. Few doubted what they would be or that they would follow swiftly”. It was—”a situation to be twice repeated in her (Elizabeth’s) Reign, once in real life and laid in Scotland, and once in a play, the most famous of all plays, laid in Denmark. There was on the face of it no good reason why the tangle of the ambitious lover, the superfluous spouse and the opportune death should, in the present instance as in the later ones, lead to any other denouement than the re-marriage in haste and the bloody retribution”. (12) In this instance, however, the situation was to be prolonged indefinitely. There was no denouement, only suspicion, fear, hatred, gossip and an unreliable book, first published abroad, in English, in 1584, and now known as Leicester’s Commonwealth, a number of copies of which reached England before it was suppressed, by authority of the Queen. No-one knows to this day how much of it was true, or how many of his alleged murders, if any, Leicester really committed; but we are not here concerned with historical truth, only with Leicester’s reputation among his contemporaries. Of that, there can be no doubt, and it is enough for a play. What others believed, “Shakespeare” may also have believed.

Oxfordians have always maintained that Hamlet is very largely autobiographical—with Oxford in the title-role; Cecil as Polonius; Cecil’s daughter, Anne, as Ophelia; and Cecil’s two sons, Thomas and Robert, sharing the role of Laertes. The “o’er hasty marriage” of Oxford’s mother—a point which greatly impressed Freud—has never been given due weight, but Lady Oxford never quite filled up the role of Gertrude, and Tyrrell did not loom large enough for Claudius. The transition from Lady Oxford to Queen Elizabeth as the prototype of Gertrude was logical, since Oxford became her ward, and Cecil (Polonius) was her chief minister. To that extent anyway, the Danish Court reflected the English Court, but Claudius remained an enigma. The idea that apart from the printed sources, the character was based on Leicester is not entirely new and has been maintained, among Oxfordians, by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn. (13) Vis-a-vis the Queen, Leicester (or his contemporary image) fits admirably, but for most Oxfordians, if they thought of it at all, the difficulty was to fit him into the family group. No-one by the wildest flight of fancy, supposed that he had “usurped” the lands of the Earl of Oxford. That is one more coincidence to be added to the rest. Usurped would, of course, be too strong a word if Oxford had been granted possession of all his father’s lands on attaining his majority, or soon afterwards, but he was always complaining that his lands were withheld from him by the Queen. Historians are well aware of this, but finding his complaints wearisome, seem to conclude that they were, therefore unfounded, or anyway reprehensible.

Earls Colne Priory seems to be a case in point, for according to a note of Cecil’s, it was granted to him in May, 1588; (14) by which time he had attained the mature age of thirty-eight! Had Leicester been in possession of it all those years—almost, that is, to the day of his death—and was it in his time that it became a ruin? At all events, in 1592, only four years after it was granted to him, Oxford sold the estate to Richard Harlakenden, son of his steward Roger Harlakenden, and by the time of Richard’s death, ten years later, the old Priory Church had been completely pulled down, except for the bell-tower and the ruined quire.

As for the effigies of the de Veres, from a letter in the Cotton MSS. at the British Museum we learn that the famous antiquary and collector, Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) was interested in acquiring “those monuments at Hemingham”—but from the context it is clear that the monuments at Earls Colne were intended. The letter is addressed to Cotton by his friend and fellow antiquary, John Barkham, who writes:

“It was not any forgetfulness of my promise, which was the cause of my not sending unto you since my return into Essex, but only want of opportunity, which now I gladly embrace by occasion of this bearer’s journey to London, whom I have desired to see you, and to acquaint you with the full state of those monuments at Hemingham whereof you desired me to inform you. I requested this bearer (being my minister, and one acquainted with Mr. Harlakenden) to go to view the statues and to know his mind for parting with them … He desires only to have some liking and leave from the Earl of Oxford, which I think you can easily procure (for the Earl, I know, will not meddle with them, his land there being made from him). But if yourself have not so much interest in the Earl, as I think you have or easily may, I suppose I know how to work it, by a friend of mine; for I would do any service which might be any way acceptable to you; and when the statues are to be conveyed, I will see it done myself, for the more safe conveyance by water . . .” (15)

Unfortunately, for lack of a date on the letter, we cannot tell which Mr. Harlakenden or, and more important, which Earl of Oxford was referred to; but Cotton was doomed to disappointment for, whatever the state of the monuments at the time, most of them remained where they were till long after his death.

By the time of Richard Harlakenden’s grandson and namesake, a Colonel in Cromwell’s army, what remained of the Chancel was divided in two. One half was full of “old monuments and other lumber” and was known as the “monument room”, while the other served as a dormitory for Colonel Harlakenden’s stable-boys. Legend has it that the boys complained of sleepless nights, because if they did drop off for a while, they were awakened regularly—at midnight according to one version and two in the morning according to another—by the sound of a great bell, which apparently struck one! The bell-tower was still there, but we are not told whether the bells—there were five of them—still existed; by this time they had probably been melted down. Anyway, the boys were terrified, and Colonel Harlakenden, just to show what nonsense it was, spent a night in the dormitory himself. Secure in his scepticism, he slept soundly at first; but, of course—otherwise there would be no, story—at the appointed time, he woke to the sound of the bell, sprang out of bed and rushed madly from the building. One hopes the boys got a good laugh out of it, but on that my sources are silent. (16)


1. Victoria County History: Essex, Vol. 2, p. 104.

2. The Queen’s Wards (1958), p. 18. Cited by Joel Hurstfield, The Queen’s Wards, p. 121, from Lansdowne MSS.

3. (British Museum), 121, f.30.

4. Public Record Office, C.54/626, No. 45.

5. There are in fact two copies of the account, both at P.R.O. (S.P. 15/12 and S.P. 12/31). They are almost identical, but the latter gives the name of my lady’s bailee: “petche”. It is endorsed: “A Double of a bill of Reparations which was signed with Mr. Glascock’s hand & delivered to the Earl of Oxinford for Mr. Secretary to consider of and now lost”. Also endorsed is the regrettably vague date, October 1563. The young Earl had evidently been on a visit to his mother and returned to Cecil House without the precious document, which, however, turned up again later.

6. I have found no other example of stowndness, but stownd (a variation of stound) is defined in O.E.D. as a state of stupefaction or amazement and an example is given from Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1567. The word may not have been uncommon then, but it is worth noting that Golding was Lady Oxford’s half-brother.

7. Lansdowne, 6, 34.

8. Cited by B. M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 21, from Lansdowne 6, 20.

9. The Will, formerly at Somerset House, is now at the Public Record Office, Probate 11, 46 (1563). The date of writing was 28th July 1562—only six days before the Earl’s death.

10. P.R.O., S.P. 15/13.

11. P.R.O., Wards 8, 13, f. 521.

12. Elizabeth and Leicester (3rd Edition, 1945), p. 91.

13. This Star of England, 1952.

14. Murdin’s Burghley State Papers, 788, from Lansdowne, Notes of Queen Elizabeth’s Reign by the Lord Treasurer Burleigh, No. 747.

15. Cotton MSS., Julius Caesar, 3, 15.

16. The Essex Countryside, Vol. 12, No. 93, October 1964. Also an anonymous brochure entitled Earls Colne.

Spelling and punctuation have been modernized and abbreviated words written in full.

The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 24