The Saints and Sinners of Old Buckingham Town

After a week of hard study, yesterday came as a welcome break with the chance to do an 11-mile walk in preparation for my Big Castle Wander this summer. We decided to stay local, wandering through the countryside and on to our town of Buckingham to explore its medieval past.

Setting off from Coombs woodland, we strolled for a few miles until we reached Thornborough Bridge, the only surviving medieval river crossing that took visitors  towards Buckingham. Nowadays it hides from view down a slip road off the A421, the far less inspiring modern route into town. After admiring this and the nearby Bronze Age burial mounds, we set off across the fields on a journey of discovery, our snaking walk taking us past deserted medieval villages, gushing weirs, a reservoir and a disused arm of the Grand Union canal, none of which we had ever realised were there. After this trek into the unknown, we emerged into the familiarity of our local town to explore the stories it has to tell. And we weren’t disappointed.

Thornborough bridge

Thornborough Bridge, dated to 1400, served the medieval folk as a crossing to the town. So much more stylish than the A421!

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The ancient and the medieval side by side. Close to Thornborough Bridge are these two substantial Bronze Age burial mounds.

Right in the centre of town stands the imposing Old Gaol Museum. Built in 1748, it replaced the previous prison in the nearby castle which, sadly, is no more. Now the town’s museum run by a small army of dedicated volunteers, it’s a charming mine of information on Buckingham’s rich and varied past, with regularly changing exhibitions in its covered courtyard. Inside are all kinds of treats for the history hunter, set out over two floors and making use of the original cells, from archaeological finds to stories of the inmates who were detained within the gaol’s walls. One such rogue was James Bliss, who at just 14 years old robbed a local firm of solicitors where he worked as a junior clerk in 1867. In an audaciously planned burglary, he returned to the office over four consecutive nights to make a hole in the wall to the firm’s strong room. But instead of being angry, his boss appears to have been more hurt, as he was quoted in the local newspaper as saying: “I would rather have lost all the money than he should have done it”.

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The Old Gaol Museum. It was a prison, but it looks like a castle – that’ll do for me!

Back in the early Middle Ages, Buckingham occupied an important strategic location for King Alfred the Great against Viking attacks, and apparently he made it the capital of his new county in 886. His son, Edward the Elder, upgraded the settlement to a ‘burh’, meaning we could mint money for the king. Among the museum’s exhibits are nine beautiful coins from the Lenborough hoard, the largest Saxon hoard ever discovered, unearthed from a local field in 2014. The coins were struck during the later reign of Cnut, and those on display here were struck by the town’s moneyer, a man called Leofric. Another impressive find is a well-preserved Viking spearhead found at the base of the old castle hill, reflecting the occupation by the Danes of their southernmost lands. Buckingham was as far as they got, and it seems that our town saw some major conflicts as Alfred, and then Edward, fought for control of the area. At the beginning of 10th Century the Danes were in control, but we bore the brunt of the Viking’s fury after Edward captured one of their important Bedfordshire strongholds. Thus began a reign of terror, when Buckingham and its villages were raided and plundered and the inhabitants slaughtered, the violence only ending when Edward launched a successful counter attack.

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A beautiful coin from the Lenborough Hoard on display with eight others at the Museum.

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The well-preserved Viking Spearhead found at the base of Castle Hill stands testament to the conflicts Buckingham endured in the early Middle Ages.

There aren’t many towns that can boast their own saint, but Buckingham can, and ours must be unique because he only lived for 3 days! According to a medieval document written around 1086, the infant in question, Rumbold, was born of royal parentage around 650 AD. His father was the King of Northumberland and his mother the daughter of King Penda of Mercia. The story goes that the royal couple were travelling to Mercia for the birth when they made camp in “a pleasant field with lilies and roses” near the village of King’s Sutton, around 12 miles west of Buckingham. It was in this meadow that Rumbold was born.

On the day he was born, Rumbold purportedly announced in a clear, loud voice three times: “I am a Christian”, then he said that he wished to be baptised. This declaration would have been a surprise to his parents, because aside from their newborn speaking, Christianity in England was rare at that time. Nevertheless, his wish was granted and he was baptised in a font, the supposed original of which still resides in King’s Sutton church. The next day Rumbold amazed everyone again by delivering a full sermon on Christian virtues before foretelling his own death and giving strict instructions as to his burial. He wanted his bones to spend eternity in the place that was to become Buckingham, so his tomb and shrine were housed in the local church – incidentally, this is the same church in which our three murderers claimed sanctuary in the story in my previous post on Outlaws.  The baby’s shrine became a popular place of pilgrimage where miracles could happen, but sadly the church collapsed in 1776 so nothing remains of the extraordinary legend today, save a plaque on the site and a well dedicated to his name that supplied approaching pilgrims with holy water. In the Middle Ages, having a saint’s relics meant big business for a town, so Buckingham did well from little Rumbold and his brief and bizarre life.

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The graveyard is all that remains of the 13th century building that housed Rumbold’s relics

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The plaque in the churchyard tells visitors that Rumbold’s bones once rested here.

The site of St Rumbold’s well is a short stroll from the town centre. Little remains of this memorial, but at least it’s possible to locate it, and there is a small plaque of the baby saint on the surrounding railings.

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The remains of St Rumbold’s Well. 

We then made a stop at Buckingham Chantry Chapel, the oldest building in town which was originally founded as a hospital for the poor in 12th Century. From 1423 it housed the new Royal Latin School and although this later relocated within the town, the Chapel is still known locally as the Old Latin. Nowadays, under the protection of the National Trust, it serves as a delightful second hand bookshop and coffee shop, reached through the striking original Norman doorway with its characteristic zigzag moulding. So for a good cuppa, some great conversation with the volunteer staff and a good read, this is the place to go.

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The striking original Norman doorway into Buckingham Chantry Chapel.

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The Chantry Chapel is a great place to stop off for a bit of history, a chat and a good coffee.

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…and we never forget a wine stop!

After a further wander round the town and the obligatory wine stop at a local hostelry, we wended our way across the fields back to Tingewick.  As we reached home, we couldn’t help but reflect on how much history is there for the taking in our own back yards. Our curiosity is quashed by familiarity and the madness of our frantic modern lives. But the past lingers in the very fabric of our local landscape, and the ancient voices still call to us. So every now and then, we’ll think of the people who went before us, and travelled our land on foot. And in some small way we’ll do the same, leaving our own footprints on the paths of history.

65 thoughts on “The Saints and Sinners of Old Buckingham Town

  1. I love the bridge… it always feels wrong to drive the main road instead of following the old one. I have never cared for the atmosphere in the Gaol, though, but we used it to good effect in one of our books.
    I’m really glad to see a decent picture of the well.. I really must get out there and see it. We have a saint out this way too, one of the beheaded ones, and although her shrine too is gone,her well remains.

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    • I am back!
      and that was a miracle to have the baby not only speak – but make such a declaration – ha
      the closing sentences in this post were so well worded with this call to embrace the past for humanity and health.
      “every now and then, we’ll think of the people who went before us, and travelled our land on foot. And in some small way we’ll do the same, leaving our own footprints on the paths of history.”

      love the feet- wine glasses and map too

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Yvette, that’s very kind. Glad you enjoyed the medieval stories of our little town. It’s amazing what’s hiding there, just beyond our doorsteps. The wine stop is always obligatory on a long walk – it gives us a sudden welcome burst of energy! And I get to put my feet up for a while! Thanks again for reading. 🙂

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  2. It’s always interesting to read about somewhere I’m not very familiar with and I think it’s always a good idea to explore your own neck of the woods more closely. It’s surprising what you learn about your own backyard isn’t it? Thanks for sharing it with us. Strangely enough, I’m in the process of writing my next blog about a place that produced its own Anglo-Saxon coinage. It must have been telepathy. Once again a smashing insight into our wonderful British history and some super photos too

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  3. With reminders of your travels on foot running through, that was a brilliant way to end! ‘Leaving our own footprints on the paths of history’ – so lovely! And keeping it alive with each step! 🙂 Before you mentioned it at the end, I was thinking how incredible it is to have all of this history around you. And how incredible to make a huge find like the Saxon one in 2014! (I’ve often thought that dying in a Medieval battle would be the worst, and that spearhead cements that idea.) (Also cool to find some new things of your own!) It makes me wonder what else is waiting to be uncovered. I can’t imagine ever taking modern roads when you have access to a bridge like that! I think I’d probably never make it anywhere on time. And I can tell you have a passion for school, because I’m not sure how you tear yourself away long enough for class!! Excuse my incorrect lingo, but I love the recessed crosses and so forth on the Old Gaol and I love how those two small towers on the front are angled with the jutting corner supported by those cornices. I find that ingenious. Your stories are always great. Poor Bliss and poor boss! And that is one impressive baby! lol. I taught art history for a while and always loved the saint stories. But this is wildest yet. Not to be irreverent, but it seems ironic for the church to have fallen. The pilgrimage church reminds me of The Way and how some of those great trails are still traveled by foot today. The Chapel seems a wonderful place to sit and read. Again a place I would have a hard time pulling away from. All in all a winning post, Alli! I always enjoy touring history with you – and you write in such a way that truly makes it feel like we are exploring together. And that’s very cool! Thank you for sharing your world!

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    • You’re so welcome, Lindsay, and I really enjoy you coming along for the ride! Yes, our little backwater town doesn’t seem so much like a backwater now I’ve explored it in greater detail. I’m quite proud of our little saint and his bizarre story – I guess it adds to the uniqueness of where I live. I feel I know my area better now than ever before, but for better reasons than running the day-to-day business of life. I do love the way they built the gaol to look like a castle – however, it does have more of a prison feeling inside, with little cells and barred windows in the heavy doors! If you ever find yourself over here, I’ll give you a tour and buy you a coffee and cake in the Chapel! Thanks for reading, and as always for your lovely comments. 🙂

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      • It’s so unfortunate that the church was destroyed, but I guess it does add to the charm of his story in a weird way. And the roundel is a cool commemorative for those who make the effort to explore. I guess some find the prison effect a bit morose, but I think it sounds pretty cool – and to use it and highlight it the way they do seems neat. And aah!! That sounds wonderful! Add in a tour of your remodel one day and you’ve definitely got a deal! Thanks again, Alli! BTW, I was reading a post by priorhouse.blog on blog tips. Down in the comments section, she makes a lovely mention of running across the Templetons’ blogs… in case you haven’t seen it. Quite nice!!

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      • That’s a definite then! Let me know as and when you’re over here and we’ll hook up. That’d be lovely! I think the prison is pretty cool too, after all it does look like a castle from the outside. And it is weird having a churchyard without a church, but as you say, it does add to the story in a way. That’s really sweet that we’re mentioned on Priorhouse, and Yvette did mention she was going to put in a link to me. Maybe my reader isn’t keeping me properly up to date so I’ll check it out. Thanks again for reading, Lindsay, and your comments are always really welcome and great to read. 🙂

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  4. An area I only know from driving through, it was on the route of my journey from Devon to university in Norwich, and I often used to stop in Buckingham. Looks fascinating,

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  5. Wow little Rumbold certainly had a lot to say in his 3 days of life. His parents must have had quite a shock, do we know who they were? Thanks again for such an interesting and entertaining post.

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    • Thanks, Carol – it is a sweet little town and worth a visit. Believe it or not, we lost our county town status in 16th century because we got into trouble with Henry VIII (that was never difficult!) and the accolade passed to our rival town of Aylesbury! Mind you, it’s not far from here at all, so if you do your fascinating quest – it sounds a great idea – let me know when you’re in our neck of the woods and we can meet up. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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      • Buckingham’s much nicer. Aylesbury has been very modernised and it’s much bigger. It does have some historical bits left in corners here and there including a pub called the King’s Head which is in the care of the National Trust. They may be the county town now, but we got there first! It’s only because we loved Catherine of Aragon who visited quite a bit, so we didn’t like the Reformation that Henry imposed on everyone because he wanted to get rid of Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. So blame him!

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      • You’re absolutely right – he was a monster. Don’t get me started on the Tudors… load of usurpers and interlopers… 🙂

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  6. Hi Alli .. A wonderful article as always and very interesting to hear about the rogue named James Bliss. We have several rogues in our family history but I’ve not heard of this one before. I’ll send a link to the Bliss Family History Society to see if we have any info on him. Love the purple boots :0)

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    • Glad you liked it! Let me know if this particular rogue was a relative. I did wonder! And purple boots are an absolute must – I’ve got two pairs for Wales now. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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  7. Lovely! I confess to driving through Buckingham a couple of times and thinking, “I really should stop here..” One day… I also confess, with less shame, to never having heard of Rumbold, and to having some sympathy for the young lad who robbed the solicitor – the boot’s usually on the other foot in my experience.

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    • Next time you’ll have to stop off and say hello. I agree about the young thief! Thanks for reading Mike, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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    • Thanks again for reading, and for your kind comments, Albert. You’re fast becoming one of my favourite followers! My overall degree is History, and my last two modules will feature Medieval Scotland, and my dissertation will be centred on Edward 1st in Wales and his castles – hat’s what I’m doing my castle walk adventure around this summer. Then the plan is to do an MA at the Centre for Medieval Studies at York University. My current module is Latin, as I thought it’d be useful for reading all those medieval manuscripts. It’s hellishly frustrating and hard, but I love it. The Welsh walk will be a bit of light relief when it’s all over! Fingers crossed. 🙂

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