One fisherman, two saints, and three politicians…

This post was first written for The History Girls blog.

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Taken from a map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1645, showing the cluster of villages in the upper reaches of the River Meon

I have really been enjoying finding out about the villages of Hampshire’s Meon Valley, in order to share something of their history, introduce a few of the people associated with them, and reveal some of the treasures held within their buildings. Even though I know the area very well, it has nonetheless been both an eye-opener and a delight to discover all the things I didn’t know.

If you haven’t already done so, and would like to read some of my earlier posts about the Meon Valley, please scroll to the end of this post for a list of them.

But, today, I’m going to look at Droxford.

The name Droxford is probably derived from ford and an old word ‘drocen’ meaning dry place. The settlement of Drokeneford was first mentioned in writing in the 9th century, when it was granted by Ecgberht (Egbert), King of Wessex, to Herefrith, the bishop of Winchester, “for the sustenance of  the monks of Winchester”.

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St Swithun of Winchester from the 10th century Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, illuminated manuscript in the British Library.

More than a hundred years later, St Swithun was adopted as patron of Winchester’s restored cathedral church. Swithun had been Bishop of Winchester from October 853 until he died sometime between 862 and 865. In 971, Swithun’s body was transferred from its original burial place to Bishop Æthelwold’s new church building and, according to contemporary writers, numerous miracles surrounded the move. We’ve seen images of these miracles before, in the church at Corhampton, where the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from his life. One of them is the miracle of the eggs, where Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But the miracle-working Swithun simply puts the broken eggs back together.

In 939, the then king, Æthelstan, granted 17 hides of Droxford land to his half-sister Eadburh. (A hide, traditionally taken to be 120 acres or 49 hectares, was intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household.) Eadburh may well have benefitted financially from her brother’s generosity but of course she might not have spent much, if any, time in Droxford. Nonetheless, her story is interesting.

It was said that Eadburh’s father, King Edward, the elder son of King Alfred, set his three-year-old daughter a test, to discover if she was destined to live in the world or in a house of religion. He asked his little girl to choose between a display of rings and bracelets, and another of a chalice and gospel book. Apparently, the toddler chose the religious items and, as a consequence, was given, at that tender age of three, to the Benedictine nunnery at St Mary’s Abbey, Winchester (called Nunnaminster), which had been founded by her grandmother, Ealhswith, Alfred’s wife. There Eadburh remained as a nun, dying probably before the age of forty. Quite why she became a saint I am not at all clear…

In the Domesday Book, Drocheneford was said to be “always in (the demesnes of) the Church”, and was still held by the bishop for the support of the Winchester monks. In 1284 the manor passed wholly to the bishop, the monks renouncing “all right and claim which they have or shall have in the said manor, for ever”.

Not an owner of Droxford, but one of its more famous (or, middle infamous) sons, was John de Drokensford (1260s?-1329), said to have been the son of the local squire, and an effigy of a lady in the south side of Droxford church has been supposed to be that of his mother. John was the Keeper of the Wardrobe to King Edward I, and accompanied the king on some of his Scottish campaigns.

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Effigy of John Droxford in Wells Cathedral

John’s services to the king were rewarded with very many ecclesiastical preferments, including rector of Droxford. He appears to have had five residences in Surrey and Kent, as well as Hampshire. In 1309 John became bishop of Bath and Wells, at the instigation of King Edward II. And, as bishop, he made neither Bath nor Wells his headquarters, but moved about constantly, attended apparently by a large retinue, living at one or other of the sixteen or more episcopal manor houses. He was, like many of his fellow bishops, a worldly man, and not always as scrupulous as he might have been in his own dealings.

Droxford continued to be held by the bishop of Winchester until 1551, when the new bishop, John Poynet, surrendered the whole hundred of Waltham, including Droxford manor, to the crown, as part of an agreement to reduce the income of the Winchester see, to the benefit of the government. The demesne of Droxford passed to William Paulet, the 1st Marquess of Winchester (c. 1483/1485 – 1572). William started out as a Catholic, but was quickly “persuaded” to see things the way the king, Henry VIII, saw them. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, William found himself rewarded with former Church properties, such as those owned by the bishop of Winchester. 

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William Paulet, 1st Marquess of Winchester, holding the white staff as a symbol of the office of Lord High Treasurer. 1560s? National Portrait Gallery.

Paulet was a political manipulator who had a long and successful career, serving Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He was involved in the audience with the Pope to discuss Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and he became a close associate of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and a friend of Thomas Cromwell.

In 1535/36, he served as one of the judges at the trials of John Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and the alleged accomplices of Anne Boleyn. In 1547, he was an executor of the will of King Henry VIII. He was a political schemer and, in 1549, he supported the Earl of Warwick against the Duke of Somerset in their struggle for power in England during the minority of the child king, Edward VI. When Warwick succeeded, and became the new Lord President of the Council, he appointed William Paulet as Lord Treasurer. And when Warwick was created Duke of Northumberland in 1551, Paulet became the Marquess of Winchester and received Droxford, presumably as part of his reward!

It was said that Paulet and Northumberland “ruled the court” of the young king, as the two most prominent members of the Regency Council. William was still Lord Treasurer even after the death of Mary I in 1558, and continued in the service of Elizabeth I, although he must have been over seventy years of age. He retained his high positions, and was Speaker of the House of Lords in 1559 and 1566. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth once joked, “for, by my troth, if my lord treasurer were but a young man, I could find it in my heart to have him for a husband before any man in England.”

As already mentioned, William found himself able to shift his religious affiliation in order to win the favour of his monarch. Under Henry, he had already renounced his Catholicism and embraced Protestantism and, under Edward VI, he went so far as to persecute Roman Catholics. But, on the accession of the Catholic Mary, he “reconverted” and proceeded to persecute his former Protestant allies, while, on Elizabeth’s succession, he changed tack once again. All in all, he changed religious tack five times. Once, when asked how he managed to survive so many storms, not only unhurt, but rising all the while, Paulet answered: “By being a willow, not an oak.”

As for Droxford, William lost it again in 1558, when Queen Mary restored it to the bishopric, and the bishops then retained it until the Civil War. Then, the Long Parliament found a purchaser for Droxford in a Mr. Francis Allen, who gave £7,675 13s. 7d. for it. But, at the Restoration in 1660, the bishops recovered their possessions, and Droxford remained attached to the lands of the Winchester see for the next two hundred years.

But what of other famous associations with Droxford? I will mention two.

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Izaak Walton portrait by Jacob Huysmans, c. 1672, National Portrait Gallery (London)

In the 17th century, the well-known fisherman and writer of The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, came to Droxford to fish in the River Meon, declaring it the best river in England for trout. His daughter Anne married William Hawkins, prebendary of Winchester Cathedral, who was instituted rector of Droxford in 1664, and held the office till his death in 1691.

Walton passed the last years of his life with his daughter and her husband, and a passage in his will says: “I also give unto my daughter all my books at Winchester and Droxford, and whatever in these two places are, or I can call mine.”

 

And, the other famous man who spent a little time in Droxford was Sir Winston Churchill

In 1903, a railway came to serve Droxford with the building of the Meon Valley Railway. In fact, although the station was called Droxford, it was actually sited almost in Soberton, at a little settlement called Brockbridge.

On the morning of 2nd June 1944, orders were telephoned along the length of the Meon Valley Railway that it was to be kept free of trains so that a special train could use the route without interruption. Troops surrounded Droxford railway station and its sidings, and the local post office was ordered to let no mail other than official business leave the village.

The special train stopped and parked up at Droxford station. In it were the prime minister of Britain, Sir Winston Churchill, and the South African prime minister, General Jan Smuts. The next day Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, arrived by car. On 4th June, Dwight Eisenhower, the president of the United States, arrived from his nearby base at Southwick House, and they were joined by the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia. They were there to discuss the D-Day invasion of France.

But, when the invasion was only days away, Charles de Gaulle, the Free French leader, had not yet been told of the Allies’ plans. The British cabinet was wary of communicating with the French government while they were in exile in Algeria, but also of a diplomatic incident if the invasion went ahead without French knowledge, so they decided to invite de Gaulle to come to England, to disclose the plans to him in person. When de Gaulle landed at RAF Northolt, he received a telegram from Churchill:

My dear General de Gaulle,

Welcome to these shores! Very great military events are about to take place. I should be glad if you could come to see me down here in my train, which is close to General Eisenhower’s Headquarters, bringing with you one or two of your party. General Eisenhower is looking forward to seeing you again and will explain to you the military position which is momentous and imminent. If you could be here by 1.30 p.m., I should be glad to give you déjeuner and we will then repair to General Eisenhower’s Headquarters. Let me have a telephone message early to know whether this is agreeable to you or not.

Although officially kept secret from local Droxford residents, it seems that Churchill had chosen the station as a secure base, because it was near the coast and to the Allied command centre at Southwick House. But there was some speculation that the site was also thought safe because it was overshadowed by beech trees, which obscured the view of the train, and because there was a deep cutting into which the train could be shunted if it came under attack.

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Mackenzie King (PM Canada), Winston Churchill, Peter Fraser (PM New Zealand), Dwight Eisenhower, Godfrey Huggins (PM Rhodesia) and Jan Smuts, mid-1944. Although this well-known photograph is generally credited as having been taken at Droxford, in fact it seems unlikely.

Anyway, at 6.58 pm on 5th June, Churchill’s train pulled out of Droxford station and returned to London. At 16 minutes past midnight the following morning, Allied troops attacked Pegasus Bridge and shortly thereafter the American airborne landings in Normandy began.

Earlier posts about the Meon Valley are as follows (click for links):

Meonstoke, Titchfield, Wickham, Corhampton, East Meon, Soberton (1) and Soberton (2). I have also written more generalised posts about the Meon Valley’s past: about the “industry” of the river, railway and forest; about the treasures of some of the Valley’s churches; some thoughts about villages’ local economy; and a look at the Valley’s perhaps surprising industrial past, in iron, and brick making.

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