In search of sym­me­try

Cobthorne, Oun­dle, Northamp­ton­shire Home of the Head of Oun­dle School A strik­ing town house is tes­ti­mony to the zeal­ous am­bi­tion and colour­ful ca­reer of its builder– an op­por­tunist sol­dier and Par­lia­men­tar­ian in Cromwellian times. Clive Aslet re­ports

Country Life Every Week - - My Favourite Painting - Photographs by Justin Paget

Peo­ple stop in ad­mi­ra­tion when they walk along West Street in the mar­ket town of oun­dle: they have seen Cobthorne. With its deep eaves, Col­ly­we­ston slate roof and buff-coloured lime­stone walls, this 17th-cen­tury house sur­passes the ar­chi­tec­ture of even this pretty town (Fig 2).

For much of oun­dle’s his­tory, West Street has marked the town’s south­ern bound­ary; one won­der of the house is to dis­cover, on step­ping into the en­trance hall, that, vis­ually, it still does. The view through the win­dows of the door im­me­di­ately fac­ing you, at the end of a panel-lined pas­sage­way, is of lawns, ter­races, top­i­aries and fields (Fig 7) (School Life, 2016).

When was Cobthorne built? Its list­ing de­scrip­tion says 1700 and may per­haps be for­given, as four-square houses of this kind, with no ex­pressed Clas­si­cal or­der, came into vogue with the Com­mon­wealth and re­mained pop­u­lar un­til the early Ge­or­gian pe­riod. A close look at the sash win­dows, how­ever, shows that they have been adapted from ear­lier case­ment win­dows (the ends of the re­moved tran­som are vis­i­ble in the ma­sonry) (Fig 1).

There are fur­ther clues sug­ges­tive of an ear­lier con­struc­tion date. The plan is awk­ward

These gaucheries sug­gest that Cobthorne’s mason had not per­fectly come to terms with an ar­chi­tec­tural nov­elty: the dou­blepile house

and in­cor­po­rates a lat­eral spine wall that is clearly ar­tic­u­lated in the side el­e­va­tion, with its two gable ends sep­a­rated—no doubt to the de­spair of main­te­nance men ever since —by an in­ter­nal gut­ter (Fig 4). The main stair cuts clum­sily across some of the win­dows of the front el­e­va­tion (Fig 6); this is so awk­ward as to sug­gest that it was a later in­ser­tion, al­though the balus­ters are un­likely to have won favour af­ter the mid 17th cen­tury.

These gaucheries sug­gest that Cobthorne’s mason had not per­fectly come to terms with an ar­chi­tec­tural nov­elty: the dou­ble-pile house. In­deed, it is ev­i­dent that the de­signer was in­flu­enced by an older tra­di­tion, as the long en­trance hall (Fig 5) acts as a screens pas­sage to what is now the din­ing room, serv­ing as a hall (Fig 3). This ar­range­ment is a late sur­vival of me­dieval plan­ning.

Such de­tails help re­late Cobthorne to a clutch of houses built in neigh­bour­ing Cambridgeshire dur­ing the 1650s, such as the now de­mol­ished house built in­side the moat of Wis­bech Cas­tle by Sec­re­tary Thur­loe and Oliver St John’s grander Thorpe Hall out­side Peter­bor­ough. Thur­loe and St John were both prom­i­nent in Oliver Cromwell’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, as was Cobthorne’s builder, Wil­liam Boteler (or But­ler). He was a lo­cal man, born at Barn­well in the 1620s and ed­u­cated at Oun­dle School.

Oun­dle is an an­cient place, oc­cu­pied dur­ing the Iron Age, de­vel­oped by the Ro­mans and planted with the monastery of St Wil­fred by the Sax­ons. The manor was lat­terly owned by Peter­bor­ough Abbey and, when John Le­land vis­ited in 1540, he found a ‘very fair’ par­ish church and ‘a pretty almshouse of squared stone’.

In the late 16th cen­tury, the town changed rapidly, the works in­clud­ing a mar­ket cross (now gone) that was dated 1591. When Boteler was a school­boy, he would have walked through newly built streets, past the re­cently re­con­structed Tal­bot Ho­tel and the gable end of a pri­vate house bear­ing the date 1626. Ev­ery­thing was con­structed of the lo­cal stone.

Al­though Anne Rus­sell, a grand­daugh­ter of the 2nd Earl of Bed­ford, had been granted the manor by Ed­ward VI, Oun­dle had come into the pos­ses­sion of her hus­band, the 4th Earl, later 1st Mar­quess of Worces­ter.

There was a Drum­ming Well, which was said to emit mar­tial sounds be­fore mo­men­tous events: no doubt it drummed be­fore the Civil War, as it did at Charles I’s ex­e­cu­tion. The Civil War was a catas­tro­phe for Lady Worces­ter, whose rich hus­band spent a for­tune sup­port­ing the Roy­al­ist cause. In 1647, she pe­ti­tioned Par­lia­ment to al­low a fifth of the in­come from her late hus­band’s manor, now se­questered, only to be granted half that amount, and even that was not forth­com­ing as it had been sold. She com­plained that ‘she had noth­ing where­with to buy bread’.

For Boteler, the war was an op­por­tu­nity. Two notable Pu­ri­tans lived at Oun­dle at the end of the 16th cen­tury: Giles Wig­gin­ton, a the­olo­gian ac­cused, by the Arch­bishop of York, Ed­win Sandys, of labour­ing ‘by what means he can to over­throw the state ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal’ and de­prived of his liv­ing of Sed­bergh, and Wil­liam Hacket, who was ex­e­cuted in Lon­don. Per­haps some­thing of their ve­he­mence sur­vived into the 17th cen­tury at Oun­dle be­cause Boteler, an In­de­pen­dent, was equally in­tem­per­ate. (Did he join the Pu­ri­tans who threw the brass ea­gle lectern from the church into the river, from which it was dredged in the 19th cen­tury mi­nus talons and eyes?) Dur­ing the Civil War, he rose to com­mand a troop of horses, but it was his ac­tiv­i­ties af­ter­wards that brought him to promi­nence.

Not only was Boteler re­spon­si­ble for sup­press­ing, in 1648, a Roy­al­ist ris­ing in

Northamp­ton­shire, but he was in­stru­men­tal the fol­low­ing year in the death of ‘Cap­tain’ Wil­liam Thomp­son at a Lev­eller camp near Welling­bor­ough. Cor­net Thomp­son (he was never com­mis­sioned) had helped whip 340 Par­lia­men­tar­ian sol­diers into a frenzy of dis­con­tent with a pam­phlet against the new regime, Eng­land’s Stan­dard Ad­vanced.

It ends with the stir­ring per­ora­tion: ‘And we do im­plore and in­vite all such as have any sense of the Bonds and Mis­eries upon the peo­ple; any Bow­els of Com­pas­sion in them, any Pi­ety, Jus­tice, Hon­our, or Courage in their Brests, any Af­fec­tions to the Free­doms of Eng­land, any love to his Neigh­bor or Na­tive Coun­try, to rise up, and come in to help a Dis­tressed Mis­er­able Na­tion, To break the Bands of Cru­elty, Tyran­nie, and Op­pres­sion, and set the Peo­ple Free.’ Sur­prised at Ban­bury, the band was im­pris­oned in the church for sev­eral days un­til four of the lead­ers were shot against the church wall.

By now, Boteler had been mar­ried to a Northamp­ton­shire girl, El­iz­abeth Brooke of Great Oak­ley, for a few years. It was not, how­ever, do­mes­tic cir­cum­stances that prompted the build­ing of Cobthorne, but his ap­point­ment as one of the Ma­jor-gen­er­als who ruled Eng­land un­der the pe­riod of di­rect mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment that lasted from 1655 to 1657. Boteler’s re­spon­si­bil­ity was the East Mid­land District, giv­ing him dic­ta­to­rial power over Northamp­ton­shire, Bed­ford­shire, Rut­land and Hunt­ing­don­shire.

Al­though he had pre­vi­ously spo­ken in favour of re­li­gious free­dom, Boteler was now zeal­ous in crush­ing Quak­ers, Catholics and the pi­ous com­mu­nity at Lit­tle Gid­ding. He was equally se­vere on va­grants, the dis­or­derly and Roy­al­ists. In 1656, he man­aged an elec­tion by herd­ing free­hold­ers onto Ket­ter­ing Heath. Af­ter rid­ing around with a band of sup­port­ers shout­ing the names of the ap­proved can­di­dates, in­clud­ing him­self, he in­structed the Sher­iff to record them as duly elected.

Boteler’s star waned al­most as soon as Cobthorne had been com­pleted: dur­ing Richard Cromwell’s par­lia­ment, he was as­sailed for his abuses as Ma­jor-gen­eral. At the Restora­tion, he sur­vived pun­ish­ment—al­though it may be sig­nif­i­cant that

The façades are a con­fi­dent ex­am­ple of what Mowl and Earn­shaw call Pu­ri­tan Min­i­mal­ism

he left Northamp­ton­shire, with­draw­ing to the re­mote­ness of Oat­lands Park in Sur­rey.

He was still re­garded by the au­thor­i­ties as dan­ger­ous and was im­pris­oned in the Tower; af­ter 10 months there, he pe­ti­tioned for his re­lease on the grounds that his fam­ily had no means to sup­port it­self. He was ar­rested again in 1670, but there­after fades from view and the date of his death is un­known.

It is easy to imag­ine that, as Ma­jor­gen­eral, Boteler would have found ways of amass­ing the money to build Cobthorne. The an­ti­quary John Bridges, who com­piled the manuscripts for his His­tory of Northamp­ton

shire in the early 1720s, records that he plun­dered Lyve­den New Bield for tim­ber that he had ‘sawed out of the walls’. This state­ment must be treated with cau­tion, as Lyve­den New Bield was never fin­ished. How­ever, it pro­vides the only writ­ten ref­er­ence to Boteler’s own­er­ship of Cobthorne, al­though some fur­ther sup­port is given by records of land pur­chases and sales in mano­rial-court rolls in Northamp­ton­shire Record Of­fice, found by Mowl and Earn­shaw.

Cobthorne’s de­signer has not been iden­ti­fied. This is a pity, as, al­though the plan may be gawky, the façades are a con­fi­dent ex­am­ple of what Mowl and Earn­shaw call Pu­ri­tan Min­i­mal­ism. This type of un­adorned house with a hipped roof was ex­plored by Inigo Jones in some of his late draw­ings and re­alised in the first phase of Coleshill (1649–50). Cobthorne is a con­sid­er­ably more dis­ci­plined ex­am­ple than Thur­loe’s more flam­boy­ant Wis­bech Cas­tle. Orig­i­nally, Cobthorne may have looked plainer still— the ir­reg­u­lar cour­ses of the stone sug­gest that the façade could have been plas­tered.

By 1665, an­other lo­cal man came to Cobthorne: Pepys’s ri­val, John Creed, with whom the di­arist was happy to eat lob­sters and visit ale houses de­spite call­ing him ‘a cun­ning knave in his heart’. Creed shared Pepys’s in­ter­est in women and science, be­ing elected a mem­ber of the Royal So­ci­ety, but Pepys could hardly avoid jeal­ousy of a man who, like him, jock­eyed for the favour of his grand cousin, the Earl of Sand­wich.

Al­though Creed had been a Pu­ri­tan dur­ing the Com­mon­wealth, this choco­late-lov­ing trim­mer of prodi­gious ap­petite and none­too-par­tic­u­lar morals adapted eas­ily to the bois­ter­ous­ness of the Restora­tion, al­though he could per­haps still put on a grave face when vis­it­ing Sir Gil­bert Pick­er­ing (Oun­dle’s lord of the manor, who was from an im­por­tant Pu­ri­tan fam­ily and served as Cromwell’s Lord Cham­ber­lain—he voted to ban Christ­mas).

Pepys was shocked when, in 1668, Creed mar­ried Betty, Pick­er­ing’s ‘comely… but very fat’ daugh­ter—as she was Sand­wich’s niece, Pepys was now com­pelled to call Creed cousin. No doubt it was Creed, Deputy Trea­surer to the Fleet and Sec­re­tary to the Tang­ier ex­pe­di­tion, who in­stalled the paint­ing of an English man-o’-war above the fire­place in a bed­room.

Creed’s son, John, al­tered the sta­bles, to judge from the in­scrip­tion ‘I.C. et Mary, 1728’ on a gatepost, a ref­er­ence to his wife, Mary Beck­with. The sta­bles have been al­tered again to be­come of­fices for Oun­dle School. Since the 1940s, Cobthorne has housed Oun­dle’s Head, a civil­is­ing in­flu­ence on the pupils who at­tend the many gar­den par­ties that are to­day held on its lawns in summer.

Fig 1: The house from the gar­den. Front and back the de­sign is sym­met­ri­cal, with five bays, a cen­tral door and flank­ing chim­neys

Fig 2: The street frontage of the house. The win­dows orig­i­nally had stone mul­lions and tran­soms rather than sashes

Fig 3: The din­ing room opens im­me­di­ately off the en­trance pas­sage, an ar­range­ment rem­i­nis­cent of a great hall and screens pas­sage

Fig 5 top: The en­trance hall look­ing to­ward the front door. Fig 6 above: The 17th-cen­tury stair­case cuts across some of the front win­dows. Fig 7 fac­ing page: The ax­ial view through the house to­wards the gar­den

Fig 4: From the sides, the 17th-cen­tury char­ac­ter of the house with its dou­ble gable is un­mis­tak­able. The chim­ney flues al­low space only for small win­dows

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