17th and 18th centuries (Stuarts to Georgians)

The economic and social relationship between the manor of Woodnewton and the Earls of Westmorland lasted until the beginning of the 20th century; a period in which the village developed along Main Street and in which many of the individual buildings seen today were constructed. In the first two hundred years of this relationship the fortunes of Woodnewton rose as the influence of the Westmorland’s rose both locally and nationally.

The ennoblement of the Lord of the Manor in 1624 did not have an immediate impact on Woodnewton, nor indeed did the English Civil War of the 1640s. Francis Fane was succeeded  by his son Mildmay, who became the 2nd Earl of Westmorland in 1629. Mildmay was a supporter of King Charles I and the King was the godfather of his eldest son. At the start of the Civil War Mildmay was a Royalist but, after a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London by the Parliamentarians, he retired to Apethorpe and took no further part in hostilities. Like most families of that time some of his brothers fought for the Royalists while others were Parliamentarians. Fortunately, the Civil War did not impact directly on the Apethorpe Estate or on Woodnewton Manor.

Earlier in the century, in 1636, a tenant of a holding and land in the village called Christopher Desborough (Desbrow?) had claimed successfully that residents of Woodnewton had commoner rights in the Bailiwick of Clive in the Rockingham Forest. Woodnewton had been excluded from the Royal Forest at the time the manor was given to Fineshade Priory but was included within the vicinage of Kings Cliffe. When the Bailiwick of Clive was enclosed in 1805 landowners in Woodnewton were compensated for the loss of their commoner rights.

During the 17th century major changes were made to St Mary’s Church. A north aisle and north transept, originally built in the 14th century, were demolished and a new wall built to the north of the naive. The west tower was also rebuilt on the base of an earlier tower, probably dating from the 14th century, and eventually housed two bells installed in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. Elsewhere in the village, stone-built houses were being developed along Main Street and in the former Church Row, to the north of the Church. Notwithstanding this, returns from the Hearth Tax in 1673 show that 70 families were living in Woodnewton, but a high proportion are recorded as having only one hearth and few with three or more hearths. The hearth tax was a property tax introduced in 1662 to raise money for King Charles II following the Restoration of the Monarchy. It was supposed to be a progressive tax designed to raise money more fairly than in the past. It was assumed that wealthier people would have larger houses which would require more heating from a larger number of hearths to provide sufficient heat. A high number of dwellings in Woodnewton with only one hearth does not indicate poverty in the village, however. 

A significant change in the fortunes of the Westmorland family, and hence to the Manor of Woodnewton, took place at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries. A succession of Earls of Westmorland died without leaving heirs to succeed them and this resulted in a coming together of the various estates that had passed to younger brothers etc in the past. The sixth Earl (Thomas) had also married a Yorkshire heiress through which the Apethorpe estate acquired a large area of land in the developing coalfield of the north. Unfortunately, Thomas Fane died without heirs and was succeeded by his younger brother John who became the 7th Earl Westmorland in 1736. John was a military man and had fought for Marlborough against the French and Spanish. He had been given an Irish baronetcy in 1733 and subsequently inherited the Fane fortune from his older brother. In addition, he had inherited property on the death of his younger brother. Both Thomas, the 6th Earl, and John, the 7th Earl, used this increased wealth to start a development programme which included major building and rebuilding schemes throughout their estates including Woodnewton (in addition to Apethorpe the Fanes owned other estates and land, most noticeably Mereworth in Kent.)

The two most important buildings from this period of expansion of Woodnewton are the Manor House on Main Street and the Water Mill at Conegar. As has been recorded in an earlier section of this history, there was a building to the west of the Church belonging to the Priory of Fineshade which was known as the Manor House, but this no longer existed by 1640. Similarly, there was a mill recorded in the Domesday Book at Walk Mill Close and one recorded by the Oundle Road which too was demolished by the turn of the 18th Century.
The Manor House in Main Street was built around 1740 (by John the 7th Earl) at the same time that he was re-modelling Apethorpe Hall and Mereworth Castle in the then fashionable Palladian style. The Manor House, which is now Listed for its special architectural or historic interest, is built of local limestone and has a Collyweston slate roof. The original purpose for the Manor House is unclear but it has been used to hold manor courts for the conduct of manorial business. Others have suggested that it was built originally as a Dower House because it only has one main bedroom. History records however that there were no Dowager Countesses of Westmorland at the time. Subsequently the building has been used by the Bailiff of the manorial lands in the parish, as a lodging house and as a private residence.

The power exercised by the Lord of the Manor at this time was considerable, and residents of Apethorpe and possibly Woodnewton, were no doubt thankful that these villages did not spoil the view from the re-styled Apethorpe Hall. At Mereworth the existing village was relocated by the 7th Earl because it could be seen from the Castle!

The records show that in 1574 and 1706 there were two mills in Woodnewton; possibly the two mills shown on the c1640 map of the Bailiwick of Cliffe. It is known also that the mill by the Oundle Road had gone by the early 18th Century. That mill could have gone quite soon after 1706 because the archives of the Apethorpe Estate reveals that in 1708 builders were paid for “building ye mill house at Newton”. Later, in the 1730s the Earl build two new mills, one of which was Woodnewton Mill – there are door jambs inscribed with the dates 1732,1733 and 1737 within the mill. It can be speculated with some certainty therefore that the mill complex seen today at Conegar originally comprised a separate mill house built in 1708 and a mill re-built in the 1730s. These individual buildings were combined in 1936 according to records held by the Brassey family.

Other builders were active in the village during this period and many of the houses seen today can be traced back to the late 17th and 18th Centuries. Obviously, some if not all have been restored and modified to suit modern-day living but still show traces of their early origins. A house in Main Street for example has a panel inscribed with “John Franey 1745” and other such inscriptions and date stones from this period exist throughout the village. A bridge over the Willow Brook on the Oundle Road was built in 1735 (a little further downstream from its 1886 replacement) presumably replacing a ford that had existed here since the village of Woodnewton was established. 

John Fane, the 7th Earl of Westmorland, died without any heirs in 1762 and without fully completing his building plans for Apethorpe Hall. The Estate had to be split-up and passed to distant relatives, with Apethorpe and the Westmorland title passing to Thomas Fane who was a Bristol merchant whose wife had family connections with the slave trade, and the Mereworth lands passing to Francis Dashwood (of “Hellfire Club” fame).

Notwithstanding this change in fortune the Apethorpe Estate would appear to have continued to prosper during the rest of the 18th Century although there were no more large-scale building projects undertaken. The most significant change affecting Woodnewton, and the estate as a whole, was the enclosure of the open field system. By Act of Parliament dated 1778 the open fields of Woodnewton, along with those of Apethorpe, Nassington and Yarwell, were enclosed, thereby
changing a system of collective agricultural organisation that had been established since AngloSaxon times. In Woodnewton Parish some 1066 acres were enclosed and substantial fencing was required to separate this land from Rockingham Forest. 

Before ending this history of Woodnewton in the 17th and 18th Centuries it is interesting to look at the names and occupations of those “called up” to the Northamptonshire Militia in 1777. The Militia List identifies all those males aged between 18 and 45 years who would be required to do military service if necessary. In the Willybrook Hundred 467 men are listed, 44 of whom lived in Woodnewton. Among the many surnames listed are Hardy, Desbrow, Smith, Moulds, Dolby, Fitzjohn, Franey, Goodyer, Bullimore, Sanders, Hale, Strickson and Rippon. Occupations included farmers, labourers and gardeners, a tailor and a mason, carpenters, blacksmiths, collar maker and bakers.   These 44 men, and all the other listed men from the Willybrook Hundred, had to present themselves at The Talbot Hotel in Oundle on the 15th December 1777  for military training or to appeal against their call-up. According to some reports, this mustering of the troops was just an excuse to have a few pints of local ale!