Men in pants – the wrestlers of mediaeval Thurgarton

This account was written by Dr. Jenny Alexander after a visit to St Peters church in Thurgarton by the Friends of Nottinghamshire Historic Churches Trust. I’m grateful to Jenny for giving permission for her article to appear on this website. (Click on images for larger image).

“What attracted our attention inside the church was the unexpected sight of a pair of nearly naked wrestlers, the men in pants, carved on the underside of a medieval seat (Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Wrestling is one of the most ancient sports, making an early appearance in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia about 4,000 years ago, in which the king subdues a wild man by wrestling him to the ground, after which they became friends. There are plenty of ancient carvings that show the match, although the protagonists are usually shown in the nude. Clothed figures of Jacob wrestling the  angel take us into the middle ages as an illustration of the story from the book of Genesis, of Jacob wrestling all night with a figure representing God, and getting his hip dislocated as a result.There’s no angel in the scene at Thurgarton, and this is a sporting bout, with two male figures grappling each other in a fierce embrace. They are nearly naked, dressed only in close fitting shorts but also wearing belts. Looking at medieval images of other wrestlers it’s clear that being naked apart from shorts was the preferred garb, although baggy ones were more common. The 14th-century Luttrell Psalter pair have long and more baggy shorts, as do many others (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 Wrestlers in baggy shorts, from The Luttrell Psalter, c.1325-50. British Library Add. Ms 42130, f.54v. © The British Library Board

Wrestling moved into the upper echelons of society in the Renaissance, and there was even a manual written in the 16th century in Germany that showed young men the finer points of unarmed combat, but of course the illustrations showed them fully dressed in fashionable clothes. Wrestlers today tend to wear lycra outfits like other athletes, except in the case of Cumberland wrestlers who dress like 19th-century strongmen in combinations with decorated pants over the top. What the Thurgarton wrestlers have, apart from their shorts, is very prominent belts, the figure on the left has a belt made of twisted or plaited material and this is what his opponent is using to tackle him with (Fig. 1). A second, very similar pair of wrestlers, are on a seat in Nantwich church, dressed in the same way in little shorts with separate belts (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nantwich parish church, misericord, the belted wrestlers. Photo Elizabeth Oliver

This was clearly an important part of the sport and even on the rare occasions when the men were fully dressed, as in the early 13th-century manuscript from Oxford, it’s the belts that are providing the grip (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Clothed wrestlers from an early 13th-century manuscript from Oxford. British Library Ms Arundel 157, f.95v. © The British Library Board

This is a version of the sport that still exists today. Belt wrestling claims to date back into the mists of time and has its own rules, for bouts indoors, outdoors and even in snow, and has been formalised as a sport, but this is a more recent development, dating from 2005.  The intention is to get your opponent to fall over by grappling with his belt. The evidence of these images is that it was certainly around in the middle ages.

So why are these wrestlers in a church, especially on furniture used by medieval clergy? The answer is that these are a sort of medieval secret. The carvings are under the seats called ‘misericords’, from the Latin word for ‘pity’, since they allowed the clergy to remain standing during long services but to have something to lean against. The carvings have a unique feature, which is that they are invisible for most of the time. A priest leaning on the seat would block the view of it, and when the seats weren’t used they were folded down and the carvings are out of sight. This gave the medieval carvers the chance to carve all manner of images and there’s a lot of mischief to be found, foxes dressed as clergy preaching to geese, angry wives beating miscreant husbands, and wrestlers”.

Jenny Alexander

Thurgarton Folklore – Brown Monks, Boggarts and Bellarmines

Have you seen the Brown Monk? He is said to haunt the lanes of Thurgarton and locals will tell you that someone’s aunt or their grandfather saw something.

Direct first hand reports are rare, however here is one such from the Reverend William Goverton ‘The following incident happened on Christmas Day, 1971. I had been to Thurgarton church to assist at the Midnight Mass, and on my way home at 12.45 am, as I came down the drive, I saw in the headlights of my car what appeared to be a figure standing by the side of a large tree stump. The figure was of a bright golden colour. I thought at the time that it must have been a tree trunk about 6ft tall. Two days later I went back but found nothing there, no tree trunk. I mentioned the incident to someone who lived in Thurgarton who said that I had seen the Brown Monk and that several people had seen him.’ The reverend gentleman was unsure of what he had seen and pointed out that the Augustinian canons at Thurgarton wore black clothes not brown or golden.

Mr Frank Smith a local collector of folklore tales collected several reports of apparitions in Thurgarton: –

‘a friend of mine was sitting in the church when he saw a priest in full vestment by the altar who turned and walked through the wall’

‘ the ghost of Lady Wells who is said to walk whenever the Priory changes hands, Some years ago two sisters saw the lady- I heard the story from their brother. The lady in mediaeval dress emerged from the shadow of the Priory with two greyhounds on leash and disappeared across the Park in the direction of Epperstone’.

‘ a friendly spirit which appears to people who are dangerously ill and comforts them – I have no description of this visitation beyond the fact that the last person who saw it said she felt quite comforted by its appearance’.

‘ when the sexton was digging the grave of one of the last squires a pretty flaxen-haired child came and sat on the grave side. The sexton afraid that she might fall in, told her to go away and it walked up the church tower and disappeared’.

‘A party of visitors from Gedling was shown around the church and one lady asked if the guide knew of the Cooper family vault by the pulpit. It was said that when the vault was opened for a new burial some of the old coffins were found to be standing on end’

The Thurgarton Boggart

The Lincolnshire Imp or Boggart looks down on visitors at Lincoln Cathedral

There is also the story of the Boggart who inhabited the Priory in the time of the Cooper family. This mischievous imp would on occasion chop wood, wash the dishes but also would let loose the domestic animals. Local tradition says that when the old house was demolished, the boggart’s hiding place – a hole in the base of a chimney – was discovered and it fled the house and now lives along the Dumble where at times it could be heard screaming. The boggart became melancholic and on dark nights the most grievous moaning could be heard by Thurgarton Dumble. The villagers were terrified and were reluctant to attend church on dark evenings – the vicar tried to reassure his flock by claiming that the noise was merely the booming call of a bittern. In the 1860s Squire Milward’s gamekeeper, Keeper Dick, took a potshot into the Dumble towards the sound of the boggart – its not known if the keeper found his target but the dreadful sounds were never heard again.

Secret Passages

At the last count five underground passages have been described linking the mediaeval Priory with:– Priory Farm, the Red Lion, a Leper Hospital at Spital Farm, Southwell Minster and finally to Halloughton. That connected with Halloughton has the most gruesome history for it was said that the monks dug the passage to gain entrance to a nunnery and that the skeletons of newborn infants were found in the walls and chimneys of the ancient convent.

Throsby relates that when the kitchen of the Prebendary House in Halloughton was taken up a large key was found and that further investigation revealed a walled tunnel which could not be followed because it had flooded. At Thurgarton Priory entrances to underground passages have apparently been found and explored but led nowhere.

Bellarmine bottle

The neck of a mediaeval bottle was found near the Sheepwash Bridge in Thurgarton and is now stored in Mansfield Museum.

Bellarmine bottle

On the fragment of the neck of the bottle  from Thurgarton  one could make out the face of a bearded man which is typical of these 16-17th German salt glaze vessels, also called Greybeards or Bartmans (bearded man in German) -seen in photo above. Most were used as beer jugs but smaller ones were used as witch bottles. These bottles were filled with a mixture of nails, thorns, blood, urine, hair, and bone and were hidden in houses or outside in streams and fields where they were believed to protect against the spells of witches.

We’ll never know to which purpose  the Thurgarton Bellarmine bottle was employed – beer or magic – you choose.

I’m grateful to Mr Bob Smith of Sherwood Archaeology and to the staff at Mansfield Museum.

Miss Mabel Motts’s memories of Thurgarton

Edwin Mott, farm worker, and his wife Margaret moved to Thurgarton sometime in the 1890s; they lived in Sunnycroft Cottage on Bleasby Road with three children – Mabel, Fred and Herbert.

Mabel, the oldest child, trained as a teacher and was the organist at St Peter’s church. Her memoirs of Thurgarton recall village life in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras; she was born in 1890 so much of her earlier account is derived from neighbours and village elders. Her memoirs were amongst documents left at The Priory after its sale by  Boot’s  in the 1990s. 

Part of her memoirs  appear in the article on Christmas in Thurgarton a Hundred Years Ago  What follows is an edited version of  the remainder of Miss Mabel Mott’s memoirs.

Miss Mabel Mott

A decisive factor in village life has always been The Priory.

Richard Milward, who lived at The Priory up to the 1870s, was a keen huntsman and also farmed what is now known as Priory Farm. He enlarged the stables there and kept a good many horses, most of which he bought in poor condition at a low figure but after treatment and training resold at high prices, some even becoming winners in classic races while others just sank back to their former state.

Richard Milward

During this time however the villagers were little more than serfs, for his behaviour towards them was that of a martinet. He had the habit of giving any lad whom he thought was not working hard enough a touch of the whip – once he thrashed an idle youth and then set him immediately to work in the stables. On another occasion when visiting a tenant’s house  he found a new hearth rug in front of the kitchen fire and promptly upped the rent. At this period the landlord had rights to everything, even the manure heap.

After Milward’s death the Barrows of Norwood Hall occupied the Priory for a time but they exercised no lordship rights over the people. Sir John Robinson then bought the estate for his son who was ill, but the son never took possession for he died in the meantime.

Eventually Dr Riddings took up residence at the Priory (1894) when he became the first Bishop of Southwell. His time at Thurgarton was one of the village’s most prosperous times.

Bishop Ridding and wife Laura

Although the Bishop had little to do with everyday life in Thurgarton he acted as a great benefactor, finding work for people and generously supporting every good cause. As head of the diocese he entertained many clergy, conferences and garden parties which were held on the Priory lawn. At times the villagers were also invited to lavish suppers in the Crypt while the children were entertained by conjurors in the coach house. On festive occasions such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 1902 Coronation the bishop had a large marquee erected and paid for luncheon, tea and sports  which always ended with a tug of war.  After the death of Dr. Ridding (1904) the Priory became empty again. This was a sad period in the village which suffered in numerous ways including the burden of taxation.

The next tenant at the Priory was Mrs Upton with her daughter, son-in-law and their family (the Usbornes).

Mrs Upton

They took an active part in village life and church activities to the great benefit of the people. Mrs Usborne was head of the District Nursing Association and instituted a weekly Mother’s Union meeting at the Priory. Her husband helped with the musical life of Thurgarton and Hoveringham. Travel between the two villages was very awkward especially at night so he built a ‘caravan’ and jog-trot, jog-trot, to and fro along the bumpy roads went the members of the choral society to the rhythm of  carriage and horses’ hooves.  As they had in the Boer War the young men of Thurgarton enlisted in the 1914-18 war to fight for King and Country but many never returned. The Cross, generously erected by Mrs Upton, on the site of the dis-used pinfold bears witness and commemorates their sacrifice.

Rev Atwell Baylay

The Rev Atwell Baylay had arrived as vicar in the 1870s. He lived in the vicarage on Beck St. and it was here that he brought his young bride and here his seven children, three boys followed by four girls, were born and spent their childhood days. The house was large with many spacious rooms while outside was a stable and other buildings besides a high kitchen garden and lawns stretching out to a paddock known as the ‘Vicarage Lawn’. Round the garden alongside the road was a high wall over which nothing could be seen – it was a place of mystery to the village children for they knew that fig trees flourished on the other side of the wall and what other rarities might be found? Had they been able to peek they would probably have seen the vicar and his gardener, who also was his handyman and church sexton, busy digging, planting and hoeing or even on his knees weeding. The vicar was a great scholar. All the church services were well thought out and his carefully prepared sermons were delivered without any dramatic display. He was very musical and took all the choir practices either in his study or in the church.

Village Life

Occasional Whist Drives were held in the schoolroom. Everybody was packed in tightly but that didn’t matter so long as no one cheated. After Whist people danced, or tried to dance, on a floor far from smooth to the sound of the concertina, fiddle and piano until at last at cock-crow they had to go home.

Concerts by the school children were a regular event and received a great ovation for their shows were of a high standard. Plough-Boy Night was an exciting time for youngsters who stayed up late to see the drama enacted – the star performers being Beelzebub and the Doctor.

At Whitsuntide the village held its annual feast with family gatherings, a stall in the blacksmith’s shop for children and a cricket match in which married men played singles.

Thurgarton men had little interest in football but in cricket they excelled boasting many fine players and never short of a booking. When a home match was played tea was always served from the Priory.

Cricket tea at The Priory

In July the Sunday School children had their summer treat. They processed from the church with banners waving and singing hymns and ended at the Vicarage where they had tea and games on the vicarage lawn. The choir also had an annual trip usually to Cleethorpes.

At harvest time teams of Irishmen came to the village to hand reap the crops on the hill lands. Once the harvest was safely gathered the villagers flocked to the specially decorated church for thanksgiving.

There were two inns in the village namely The Coach and Horses and The Red Lion both of which brewed their own beer and provided a good fire and games, chiefly darts and dominoes, for the benefit of customers who met there for a drink, good company, to hear the news, spin the biggest yarns and possibly join in a sing-song.

In the course of time the small schoolroom was turned into a Reading Room for the benefit of the male population. Books and games were collected and judging by the density of the smoke from pipes, rendering visibility practically nil, the place was well patronised.

Thurgarton in those days was fortunate in having a railway station. Sheep, cattle, corn and other goods were sent by rail and on market days many villagers went to Nottingham (return fare one shilling) with large baskets to sell  butter, eggs, flowers, fruit and cheeses. When getting in and out of the railway carriages, however, a great struggle often took place, especially when bustles were in fashion. On one occasion a certain dame when endeavouring to get out backward was pushed back in and the door closed – she went on to Bleasby.

For many years the village boasted of a tailor, dressmaker, cobbler, butcher, joiner and blacksmith and what busy people they were for their services were in great demand.

As for the children they received a sound elementary education in the small C of E school paying 3d per week until the time came when all fees were abolished. Outside school hours they helped their parents or roamed the district gaining first hand knowledge of plant, animal and bird life. They had little money to spend but occasionally they would knock at the door of the little sweet shop on Beck St. where they looked long and hard before parting with their few coppers.

Wise Weather Sayings

The weather was important in agricultural villages such as Thurgarton and popular sayings were handed down from one generation to the next:-

-Rain from the east, wet two days at least

-Mackerel sky, twelve hours dry

-Wind in east, neither good for man nor beast

-Rain before seven, fine before eleven

-If enough ice in November to bear a duck, rest of winter, sludge and muck

-If sun shines through apple trees Christmas Day, good fruit is on the way.

These days have gone, never to return.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world      

  (Tennyson’s Morte D’Arthur)

The Mediaeval Library of Thurgarton Priory

Until recently little was known of the library of Thurgarton Priory which shared the fate of most monastic libraries which were either dispersed or destroyed at the Reformation.

Only two books were known to have survived from Thurgarton Priory – one was the Cartulary of the Priory which listed over 1000 charters and can be seen at the Nottinghamshire County Archives and the other is a 15th century volume of astronomy held at the Royal College of Physicians in London (MS 358)

A third book however has recently emerged as another survivor from Thurgarton Priory. Within the depths of the British Library is a rather unimpressive leather bound volume, reference MS Sloane 3548. It contains over 160 pages dating from the 15th century most of which are medical texts in Latin. The origin of the book was unknown until recent inspection under UV light revealed a previously unseen note at the bottom of  page 26 which read ‘Liber Roberto – canonici de Thurgarton’ (the book of Robert – canon of Thurgarton).

The book held one further secret  – on page 158 was the catalogue of a mediaeval library with a list of over 150 works on religion, history and natural science. This is a book list from the 15th century library of Thurgarton Priory.

Book list of Thurgarton Priory, page 158 – over 150 titles

The majority of books were works on religion and theology from early commentaries by church fathers to later mediaeval works such as those by the English mystics, Rolle and Hilton. Hilton was a canon at Thurgarton Priory in the late 14th century and the library includes his books and some of his letters. The books on religion however did not survive the Reformation and only those on medicine, astronomy and the cartulary were preserved – a pattern of selective destruction common to many other monastic libraries.  Indeed Henry VIII commissioned antiquary John Leland to tour the major monastic houses of the realm and identify books of particular value or interest (especially natural science); Leland visited Thurgarton Priory just after its surrender in 1538 but left no detailed comment on the house or its library.

The surviving books from Thurgarton Priory

The Cartulary – see

2 On Astronomy and Astrology (MS 358 Royal College of Physicians, London)

Within the 120 pages of this book are notes on stars, planets, the sun, the zodiac, the construction of an astrolabe together with lists of astronomical measurements.

Tables of  star positions including Rigil at the foot of Orion

Its attribution to Thurgarton Priory derives from entries of astronomical measurements for ‘Thurgarton’- one example on p 25 is a list of latitude and longitude for  Babylon, Oxford, London, Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Thurgarton and York ( see figure below)

Page 25 ‘Thurgarton’  lies seventh in list

Several pages are devoted to the design of  astrolabes with illustrations. The library also possessed a copy of Chaucer’s treatise on astrolabes written for his son.

Illustration of astrolabe design

3 Medical texts (MS Sloane 3548 British Library)

Amongst 150 pages of densely written medical notes is an illustration of the apparatus needed to distil the healing essences of various herbs including Rosemary, Sage, Fennel, Oregano and Roses.

Distillation apparatus

At the foot of the page is a method for removing fleas from a house which involved pouring goat’s blood into a newly dug hole in the house floor – ‘the fleas will feed on the blood and immediately die’.

Uroscopy  – twenty colours of urine

Another page depicts 20 flasks of urine of differing colour which reflected the patient’s condition and ailments (examination of the patient’s urine is still part of modern medical examination).

Surgical procedures are also described with notes from John of Arderne’s ‘Practice of Surgery’. Arderne was from Nottinghamshire and after considerable experience as an army surgeon established a successful practice in London becoming the leading surgeon of the 14th century. His success was partly due to his operation for anal fistula which appears to have afflicted several wealthy paying clients – mostly knights who developed the problem after long hours in the saddle.

The final part of the book contains on page 158 the list of about 150 titles; the list however is incomplete and so the total number of books at Thurgarton Priory may have been much greater. The mixture of theology, philosophy, history, mathematics, medicine and astronomy is fairly typical of monastic libraries. Monasteries were not only houses of prayer but also the main centres of education in mediaeval England. Books would be borrowed by brothers and scholars and were loaned to other houses for study or copying. Some of the volumes at Thurgarton were on loan from the Augustinian house of St James at Northampton and a section on the lives of five female saints appears to mirror works from Beauvale Priory which lay only 10 miles from Thurgarton

Within such books lay the accumulated knowledge of centuries many of which were to disappear from the zeal of the reformers of 16th century England – the loss was not only of knowledge but also of great works of decorative art. A few survived.

Decorative script in MS 358 on the Zodiac


MS Sloane 3548 – British Library

MS 358 Royal College of Physicians, London.

R. Bressie, ‘MS Sloane 3548, Folio 158’, Modern Language Notes, Vol 54 (1939), pp. 246-256.

P. M. Jones Mediaeval Medical Miniatures,  British Library, Welcome (1984)

N.R.Kerr, Mediaeval Libraries of Great Britain, Royal Historical Society (1964)

T. Webber, A.G.Watson (eds.) The libraries of the Augustinian canons. Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, Vol. 6 (London 1998)

Lancaster Bomber L7578

This article is an edited version of a school history project researched and written by Tom Wilson whose grandmother, Mrs Margaret Whiteside, lived in Thurgarton. 

On the evening of the 28th May 1944, Cyril Sneath, a local builder, left his home at Thurgarton just before 9pm for duty as ARP warden at the Air Raid Precautions unit based at The White House in Goverton. They had been alerted that evening to night time training flights from Syerston airfield which lay a mere 2 miles south just beyond the Trent. Shortly after coming on duty the four man unit heard a plane ‘dying’ over towards Thurgarton.

In Thurgarton men in the local pubs also heard a plane in distress and rushed out just in time to hear a huge explosion followed by a column of black smoke. A mile to the west people in the hamlet of Gonalston raced to the crash site a few fields  above Glebe Farm. The scene was one of devastation with a huge blaze, black smoke and the wreckage of the airplane scattered over the field. First on the scene were two local lads on bicycles (their sister Mrs Alan Yates still lives at Glebe Farm) and what they saw and heard that night gave them nightmares for many weeks afterwards. A few moments later the ARP unit  arrived but nothing could be done for the seven man aircrew – all had perished on impact.

The Aircrew

The plane was a Lancaster bomber manned by seven young airmen from Britain and Canada:-

Pilot Officer George Benjamin Sanderson. Royal Canadian Air Force

Sergeant James Graham Middlemas of Galashiels, age 19.  Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Pilot Officer Archibald Thomas Noble (Air Bomber) of High River, Alberta, age 28.  Royal Canadian Air Force.

Sergeant Bernard Broe (Air Gunner and Wireless Operator) of New Mills, Derbys, age 22. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Sergeant Dereck Nicholls (Air Gunner) of Sonning Common, Oxfordshire, age 19. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Sergeant Albert Dennis Clark (Navigator) of Sheffield, age 28. Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Flight Sergeant Dennis Wright (Air Gunner) of Toronto, age 20. Royal Canadian Air Force.

The plane, Lancaster bomber number L7578

The plane, Lancaster bomber number L7578

Lancaster L7578 was originally built in 1940 as a Manchester bomber by A. V. Roe of Newton Heath and later modified to a Lancaster type. It had been part of 5 Group serving in Squadrons 97, 207, 83, and later in Conversion Units 1654 and 1668 until finally being employed in the No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School based in 1944 at Syerston Airfield.

The Lancaster bomber was the main workhorse of  Bomber Command in World War 2 and suffered a high attrition rate. In 1944 most new aircrews at Syerston trained on Stirlings or Halifaxes before gaining a few weeks experience flying Lancasters at the Finishing School.

The Crash

We do not know the cause of L7578’s crash. It was an old aircraft flown by a relatively inexperienced crew but one report raises the possibility that a parachute harness became entangled in the plane’s controls on climbing from Syerston.

Map with Syerston airport, crash site (red arrow), ARP unit and probable route of flight (blue line)

Witnesses to the plane’s final moments described it veering away from the villages of Bleasby and Thurgarton shortly after take off ; they believed the pilot knew that a crash landing was unavoidable and headed for open fields.  Just before impact the plane took off the top of an oak tree in the field hedge.

Oak tree today


The seven airmen were buried in adjacent plots at Newark Cemetery and their graves are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

James Graham Middlemas (by kind permission of David Willey)

A few years after WW2 the parents of James Middlemas erected a memorial stone to their son and his fellow crewmen. It stands on the edge of the field just 30 yards from the crash site.

Walter Hilton

Few people in Thurgarton will know the name of Walter Hilton. He was a canon of Thurgarton Priory in the late 14th century but more importantly he was one of the greatest religious teachers and writers of late mediaeval England.

Image of Walter Hilton in Thurgarton church by local artist Tom Errington

His life

Walter Hilton was born sometime about 1340 probably in the East Midlands and would have been a youngster when the Black Death ravaged England in 1348/9. There is good evidence that he studied law at Cambridge University. In 1371 he was a clerk to the Diocese of Lincoln and was granted the canonry and prebend of Abergwili in Carmarthenshire; in 1375 he is recorded as attending the Consistory Court at Ely. At some stage in the 1370s he appears to have lived as a hermit but abandoned the solitary life and in the following decade he entered the Augustinian order and spent the remaining years of his life as a canon in Thurgarton Priory where he died on 24th March, 1396. So much for the known facts of his life, albeit rather sketchy, but what of his writing and teaching?

He wrote in English and addressed laymen and women 

The  most important of Hilton’s works were  The Ladder of Perfection and The Mixed Life  both written in the English  of the East Midlands. Hilton was well versed in Latin, the usual language for religious treatise at the time, but he was evidently concerned that his writing should be widely accessible. The clergy however were more accustomed to reading learned works in Latin ( and  may have struggled with the Midlands vernacular ) and  shortly after Hilton’s death the Ladder of Perfection was translated into Latin by Thomas Fishlake, a Carmelite priest.

Hilton’s decision to write in English and to address his books to women and laymen gave him a wide audience. It was not only this accessibility of his work which made him popular but also the manner of his teaching for he emerges as a wise encouraging guide, someone we might nowadays label a ‘guru’. This strong pastoral concern may explain his choice of entering the Augustinians, who  left the closed world of their cloisters to serve as parish priests

Copy of page from manuscript of The Ladder of Perfection

His books became mediaeval bestsellers.

Hilton’s books became mediaeval best sellers with numerous manuscript copies being produced. It is difficult for modern readers to grasp the significance and widespread influence that Hilton’s work had on the religious life of the ensuing centuries. In royal circles Cicely of York , mother to Edward IV and Richard III, was a devoted reader of Hilton’s work as was Lady Margaret Beaufort , mother of Henry VII. He was widely read by the clergy and numerous monastic libraries contained copies of his books. However his influence spread well outside royal and clerical circles and into the laity.  One modern expert has claimed that The Ladder of Perfection  ‘ should probably be judged as the most important and influential work of Catholic theology to be written in English in any century prior to 1500’

He taught a life of prayer and contemplation

Hilton encouraged his readers to adopt a routine of  prayer and contemplation in their lives and by so doing attain a greater knowledge of self and of God.. This may not seem  a novel  approach  but  amongst orthodox Catholics of the time, especially the laity, there was a growing desire for a  more personal religious experience  – a desire which Hilton addresses directly in the ‘Mixed Life’.  This was written to a  layman  who was considering  abandoning his secular  life for a  religious one, but  Hilton encourages him to  pursue both and advises him on how to live the  mixed life both ‘active’ and ‘spiritual’.

The Ladder of Perfection was written in two parts; the earlier chapters were addressed to an anchoress (a female hermit) and the second part, written much later, to a wider audience. The book is a step by step guide from the first stages of  faith towards the more perfect Christian life. He  writes with  an obvious deep knowledge of Scripture and Theology but  illustrates his ideas with examples from ordinary life. Hilton, along with Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, belongs to a tradition of late mediaeval religious writers labelled the  English Mystics by modern scholars. However  Hilton avoids the  more  mysterious visionary language of  these other writers; his is a common sense, plain English approach to the spiritual life. He specifically warns against the deliberate seeking after ecstatic visions whether by excesses of emotion or by ascetic rituals of physical deprivation.

A 1979 edition of the Scale or Stairway or Ladder of Perfection

Calm authority in tumultuous times.

The 14th century was a period of great suffering and upheaval. The arrival of the Black Death in 1348 wiped out over a third of England’s population and more were to fall victim to further outbreaks of the disease in the following decades. At a time when the populace might look for aid from its rulers the Crown was dissipating the country’s resources on waging war with the French (the Hundred Years War) and the Church was preoccupied with the papal split between Rome and Avignon. The old feudal structures of society were challenged as labourers realised that their services could command higher rewards and such raised expectations led to periods of unrest culminating in the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

In Oxford a group of scholars produced an English version of the Bible; one of their leaders was John Wycliffe who became increasingly vocal in teaching against many of the traditional practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. He and his many followers (Lollards) were eventually labelled as heretics by the church establishment. In 1388 Walter Hilton’s superior, William of Sapperton, Prior of Thurgarton was appointed by Thomas Arundel (then Archbishop of York) to seek out and suppress Lollard teaching and literature in Nottinghamshire.

Hilton is almost silent about these momentous events; in his letters he warns against heresy and defends the use of images in churches, but otherwise his writing  focuses completely on matters spiritual and how to achieve a more perfect life.  At first sight his approach may seem blinkered but amidst all the turbulence and troubles of his times he comes across as a voice of calm authority with a clear message  – concentrate of the important matters of life, on your soul and its journey.

Favoured by the Carthusians

At about the same time as Hilton entered the Augustinian house his friend Adam Horsley had become a Carthusian monk at Beauvale Priory which lay just 10 miles from Thurgarton. Ten years previously Horsely, Controller of the Rolls, was considering abandoning his life as a high flying civil servant for the monastic life; he sought advice from Hilton who encouraged his friend to enter the Carthusian order – the most disciplined and eremitical (hermit like) of all the religious orders.

The Carthusians were avid collectors and copiers of religious works and the library at Thurgarton Priory included a number of books which appear to have been produced at Beauvale. Hilton’s teachings were especially favoured by the Carthusians  and many of the earlier manuscript versions of his books would have emanated from houses such as Beauvale.

His books flourished until the Reformation

The popularity of Hilton’s books continued up to the 16th century and the Reformation. In 1494, almost a hundred years after his death, the Ladder of Perfection and The Mixed Life were printed in London by Wykyn de Worde – some of the earliest books in English to be published. Five reprints appeared over the following decades up to the 1530s.

In 1535 Sir Thomas More was a prisoner in the Tower for resisting Henry VIII’s claim to supremacy of the church and  recommended Hilton’s work to his gaoler. On May 4th 1535 he witnessed the departure of five priests from the Tower to their execution at Tyburn; among them were the Carthusian monks Robert Lawrence and John Houghton, Prior and ex Prior of Beauvale Priory. Their offence, as with Thomas More, was a refusal to acknowledge the king as head of the church; two months later Sir Thomas made the same journey to the executioner’s block at Tyburn.

Memorial to Beauvale Martyrs

The religious libraries of England were a target of the 16th century reformers and included in the many bonfires of suspect volumes were Hilton’s books. His work remained part of the Roman Catholic tradition with a continuing devotion amongst the Carthusians.  In the  Church of England, Hilton’s  teaching was initially suppressed and then forgotten until  renewed interest in the 19th century.

Thurgarton – then and now

The Augustinian Priory at Thurgarton was on a national scale a modest house but it had a significant influence within the surrounding region of the East Midlands. At the start of the 14th century the Priory had suffered from financial mismanagement and lax discipline but by Hilton’s time probity had been restored. Why Hilton chose Thurgarton is not known – maybe it was the calm and peaceful atmosphere noted by modern visitors to St Peter’s church, the remnant of the old Priory church. We know a little of the library at Thurgarton Priory some of which has survived and suggests a place of learning and study.

St. Peter’s church, Thurgarton  today

In 1996 the 600th anniversary of Walter Hilton’s death was marked by a weekend of lectures, services and a concert of mediaeval music at St Peter’s church.

Walter Hilton – 600th anniversary 1396 to 1996

In 2011 Angela Ashwin led a day of prayer and contemplation based on Hilton’s teachings entitled ‘Walter Hilton – the Gentle Encourager’.

This prophet is still remembered in his own land


Over seventy early versions of the Scale of Perfection and The Mixed Life survive whole or in parts and a few combined into one volume. There have been numerous translations some of which are listed below and most of which contain useful introductions.

T. H. Bestul, The Scale of Perfection  (Middle English Text Series, 2000)

J. P.H. Clark, R. Dorward, The Scale of Perfection. (Classics of Western Spirituality Series 1995)

R. Dorward , The Mixed Life (2001)

D.L.Jeffrey, Toward a Perfect Love (Oregon 1985)

M.L.DelMastro, The Stairway of Perfection (1979)

L Sherley-Price,  The Ladder of Perfection ( Penguin classics 1988)

Other sources

E  Colledge, The Mediaeval Mystics of England (1961)

H. Gardner, Walter Hilton and the Mystical Tradition in England.

D. Knowles, The English Mystical Tradition (London 1961)

E. Underhill, Mystics of the Church  (London 1925)

J.  Walsh,  Pre-Reformation English Spirituality ( Fordham 1966)

S. Hastings, ‘ The Scale of Perfection and 14th century Mysticism’. Lecture delivered on 29th June 1996 at Thurgarton church.

Thurgarton village maps from 1990s to 1730

This article starts with the latest OS map of Thurgarton village from the 1990s and works backwards through old maps  to show how the village has changed since the earliest recorded village plan of  1730.  The earlier maps have  been altered to fit as closely as possible with the grid of the OS series and some guesswork has been employed for the best fit. North is in the top left corner for each map as in the first map.

The buildings are shown in red, roads in grey, stream and ponds in blue and pathways in green.

Thurgarton 1990s
Thurgarton 1970
Thurgarton 1920
Thurgarton 1985
Thurgarton 1882 – barns in brown
Thurgarton 1799
Thurgarton 1730 – exact plan of church and mansion uncertain

In 1730  there were about 50 households and a total population of over 300 ie an average of 6 plus per house. whereas today over 400 villagers live in approximately 140 houses – under three per household. The contrast in available living space is even greater when one considers the size of today’s houses; the  trend for larger  houses with more rooms continues unabated. The most dramatic increase in the number of houses took place in the latter half of the 20th century.

The village envelope has changed very little in 300 years.  Priory Park is the only new green field development and the majority of new houses have been built as infill on old crofts and orchards or barn conversions. Gardens are much smaller and only a  few old orchards survive but the ancient pattern of elongated croft strips is still evident on modern maps.

World War 1 – postcards from the front

At the height of World War 1 over a million letters and postcards were delivered each day to and from the front. Postcards were especially popular as they were quick and easy to write and easy to scrutinise by junior officers who acted as censors. Images varied from the sentimental to the worthy and patriotic but as the war stretched on humour became increasingly popular and cartoonists such as Fred Springer, Bruce Bairnsfather and Donald McGill became household names.

Bruce Bairnsfather’s ‘Old Bill’ series

Copies of three postcards delivered to Thurgarton Priory in World War 1 have survived

Postcard 1

Postcard dated 26th December 1915 addressed to Mr(s) R H Barker at Thurgarton Priory with an image of the church at Bethune. The town was a major army and hospital headquarters during the war but in 1918 during the German offensive it suffered severe shelling and the church was left in ruins until it was rebuilt in the 1920s.

The message reads ‘ I have not had time to write the last two days but will write today. No mail yesterday at all as I expect there were no boats’.

Postcard 2

The second postcard, written in the same hand as the first card is signed by ‘ Dick’ and  dated 28th December 1915 ( two days later) and again addressed to Mr(s) R H Barker at the Priory. We have no other record of the Barkers at Thurgarton – any further information would be welcome.  The message reads ‘ The last letter I had from you is dated Dec 19! you must be very busy. This p.c. designed by our own tommies and specially made for our Brigade! Will you send me an Old Moore’s Almanack out.   Yours    Dick’

The image, drawn by A F U Green, shows a powerful Tommy about to engulf a pig-headed Kaiser snowman with ‘One More Push’ of a giant snowball which represents 4 million allied troops. The card wishes ‘ Best wishes for the New Year from the 11th Corps’.

The British army had just suffered over 60,000 casualties in the autumn of 1915 at the Battle of Loos known as ‘The Big Push’. The use of the phrase ‘ One more push’ in this postcard of Christmas 1915 was an obvious attempt at boosting morale amongst the troops and the home front – such cards, supposedly designed by ‘our Tommies’, were part of an increasingly sophisticated propaganda campaign.

Postcard 3

The third postcard was sent from Malta on December 9th 1916 by ‘Thomas’ to Mrs Upton at Thurgarton Priory. The image is a view of Fort St. Angelo and the Dockyard Creek at the Grand Harbour at Valetta.  The message reads ‘ Arrived safely so far . Love.   Thomas.   Happy Xmas’

 ‘Thomas’  is Captain Thomas Upton of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry; in late 1916 he was 21 yrs old and was en route to join the 1st Battalion then part of the Allied forces serving in Salonika. His parents, Archer and Charlotte Upton. were living at Thurgarton Priory  with his paternal grandmother, Mrs James Upton and his aunt and uncle  – Edward and Edith Usborne ( nee Upton).

Thomas Upton’s regiment was transferred to France in 1918 and on 8th November 1918, a mere three days before the Armistice, he was killed in fierce fighting near Douriers. His grave is one of three war graves in the small churchyard at Semiouses.

His cousin, Lt. Guy Usborne RN, was killed in 1919 when the British fleet attacked the Bolshevik forces at Kronsdadt. The war memorial in Thurgarton was erected by Mrs James Upton and includes the names of both her grandsons amongst the village men remembered there.

Mrs J Upton


Documents and photographs left at Thurgarton Priory by Boots.

Thurgarton Village Hall and The Hut

The Hut

Before Thurgarton had a village hall it had  ‘The Hut’. The Hut was known officially as The Thurgarton Mens Institute and was established in 1921 as a recreation room for the village. It was an old World War1 army hut, which was sited on the same plot as the present village hall.

Fred Farrands and friend are working on the roof of the Hut

This was a period of post-war depression and the stated purpose of the room was for the recreation and instruction of the young men of the village – the unstated purpose was to provide an alternative to the two village pubs. Membership was confined to village men over 15yrs and cost 1 shilling per month. It was open from 6 – 9.30 pm.on Monday to Friday and one of its main attractions was a billiards table available at 1 penny for 30 minutes play. Gambling and alcohol were strictly forbidden.

A Mr F. Warrener was appointed caretaker and was responsible for cleaning and lighting a fire as well as collecting the fees for the billiards table. All seemed well for the first 18 months but some disquiet was voiced in the committee regarding Mr Warrener’s apparent lack of attention to his duties and the small return from the billiards table despite its popularity. Things came to a head at a special committee meeting in February 1923 when Mr Warrener was summoned to the Hut to account for himself. His mates gathered outside.

The minutes simply state that “ owing to the behaviour of some members of the institute, the interview with Mr Warrener was abandoned” and that the committee members “ expressed the opinion that they were not there to be insulted by those they were trying to help”.

Despite such problems The Hut became the village centre  for an increasing number of community events and celebrations until it was replaced in 1957 by the present village hall.

The Village Hall

In  1954  the Masters, Fellows and Scholars of the College of the Holy and Undivided  Trinity at  Cambridge agreed to lease the plot of land off Bleasby Rd to the Trustees of the new Thurgarton Village Hall for a term of  99 years at the nominal sum of one shilling per year.

The lease was signed by Frank North and Rev. F. Jessup on behalf of the village community and organisations.

The new wooden village hall was completed a few years later replacing the old Thurgarton Village Institute (The Hut). The hall has undergone one major extension and  several refurbishments and redecorations over the decades – the latest major one in 2005.

Village hall 2005

The hall has been the central focus for most of the village events  – some, sadly now defunct, are remembered below.

The Village Show

Who can forget the annual village show which provided hours of innocent entertainment – a platform for would be stars of the stage and exhibitionists – an occasion when children began to wonder about their fathers.

Here is a taste.

1977 The Motley Crew
Belly dancers (not to be viewed by those of a nervous disposition)

A prize for anyone (except Mr A. Blyth ) who can identify the man in the blue wig below.

Thurgarton mens harvest queen contest, won by Mr J Parrish

 Let us, dear reader, avert our eyes from this scene and seek more uplifting matters.

The harvest queen

Kathleen Bowley 1956
Jane Kirkham 1971
Sarah Parrish 1990
Sarah Mills late 1990s

Each October a harvest tea (two sittings) was held in the village hall and the new queen paraded through the hall with attendants for the crowning ceremony.

Harvest queen Lynn Jowett and entourage parade through the hall
Tom Scott places the crown on Sarah Mills

The village flower and produce show

The village produce and flower show was held every September. Categories included flowers, vegetables, jams and cakes as well as children’s competitions. Oh the endless search for four matching flawless potatoes.

Competition was keen and nervous hours were spent waiting for the judge’s verdict followed by the rush to find the winning red rosettes. Some villagers attempted an air of sang froid and ambled in a few minutes later but could not hide their exulatation at winning  a 1st for a plate of damsons or disappointment at finding their runner beans unplaced.  Especially galling were comments from the judges such as “ always leave the calyx on the tomato”, or “ bread too fresh for showing – use day old bread” and the downright insulting  “ always clean the jar thoroughly before filling with jam” or “ pastry too hard”.  Nowadays counselling and debriefing sessions would be mandatory.

The overall points winner received a fine cup  – for decades this went to Albert Holmes of Beck St who produced unrivalled vegetables and jams.

Albert wins again

Parties, dances and games

Fancy dress party – winner the tomato ketchup
Dances – where are the men?

and tea and games for the Silver Jubilee in 1977

Silver Jubilee in 1977

The village hall has served the community well – our thanks to the many who have worked so hard over the years.

Three more photographs of Thurgarton Harvest Queens have just been sent from David Bellamy who writes ‘My name is David John Bellamy and I was born in Thurgaton on the 27th July 1946. My father was Percy Bellamy and we lived in a cottage at the top of the hill. The cottage belonged to Mr Wigley and my father was his Gardener. Mr Wigley lived in the big house opposite the school. I believe my father was friendly with the Bentley Brothers. I attended the school from 1951 until we moved to Oxton in 1952 and I have 3 pictures of what I believe to be a Harvest Festival involving school pupils from that time. I am the boy carrying the cushion/crown? There are very few pictures on the Thurgaton Web Site from around this era. Please feel free to use them on the Web Site if you wish. We may get some feedback!

Can anyone identify any of the children?

Thurgarton Church in the first issue of The Illustrated London News

The Illustrated  London News came out in May 1842 and was the first illustrated weekly newspaper in the world.

Front page of the first issue  Illustrated London News May 1842

In this first issue was a short column titled  ‘ Nooks and Corners of Old England’ which featured Thurgarton church. The article, written in rather flowery language typical of the time  by one G G P,  is reproduced below together with the accompanying illustration of Thurgarton church by H. Dixon.

This picturesque rural temple is used as the parish church of Thurgarton, although belonging to a private individual. It has its simple and pleasant locality about two miles from the banks of the Trent, in a beautiful district of Nottinghamshire, and upon the borders of the ancient Forest of Sherwood – dear, merrie, memory haunted Sherwood- the fairy region of the ballad-singer and one of the evergreen homes of old English romance. The character of the scenery which once surrounded this old ruin is, however, of altered aspect now – its forest features are worn away- it is subdued into the mild stillness of pastoral vegetation, and wears the sweet, untroubled calm of holy natural repose.

Thurgarton church by H Dixon 1842

The Priory of Thurgarton was founded by Ralph de Ayncourt in the time of Henry 1, for the good of the souls of all branches of his family, and committed, with holy charge, to the care of St. Peter, to whom it was religiously dedicated. The principal records concerning the once famous priory was held by the Chapter of Southwell, and are contained in one volume, the others having been burnt by Cromwell in his crusade against the Catholic Church.

Of its exterior, the most attractive remaining portions of this once glorious edifice- amongst which should be first named one of the two former western towers- are the western entrance, now used as a window; the north porch which has been badly rebuilt; two early decorated windows of good character; and a very rich niche which is in the pier that in the interior divides these two windows. A description of it might be too architectural, but we must say that it is a gem indeed. The narrowest arch of the western entrance measures about eight feet, and the widest about eighteen feet, having in its mouldings six rows of dog’s tooth ornament. We find this church nearly perfect up to the time of the civil wars; but Cromwell having passed through the village quietly, was afterwards attacked from the church towers, in return for which he reduced it to its present state*; in which we leave it; with only an intimation to the curious that it is near Nottingham, Newark, Southwell and Newstead and 140 miles from the metropolis.  G G P

*As often happens, the wrong Cromwell is blamed in this article for the reduction of the church; it was Thomas Cromwell not Oliver who was responsible for the surrender of the priory in 1538 and its subsequent reduction to a parish church.

Dixon’s  illustration of 1842 shows the west front of the church before its restoration in 1854 by local architect, T C Hine, and lacks the three lancet windows above the west doorway shown in a recent photograph.

West front Thurgarton church today

Why Thurgarton church was chosen for this first issue of The  Illustrated London News is not known but the newspaper’s founder, Herbert Ingram, had been a printer and newsagent in Nottingham in the 1830s and may have visited Thurgarton during this period.

‘G G P’,  the author of the article, was George Gordon Place a Nottingham based architect.

Any further information on the  illustrator,  H Dixon, would be most welcome. 


London Illustrated News May 1842

I’m grateful to Mr John Matthews for the illustration of Thurgarton church by H Dixon