Biographies & Memoirs

Appendix III

The Manor of Great Dorsett


The manor of Great Dorsett was once just that - great. It was, at the time that Eleanor and her husband were granted title, one of the more important centres in the Midlands of England (see Figure 30). Today, it is a small Warwickshire1 backwater, passed in mere moments by those on the adjacent M40 motorway and given scant attention. We know that this downgrading happened as a function of the policies and actions of those who inherited the manor following the time of Eleanor and her husband. It is probable that there was no issue from Eleanor’s marriage to Sir Thomas,2 since it appears the manor reverted to her father-inlaw, Sir Ralph, after Eleanor’s death. Sir Ralph had been a Bodyguard and eventually Standard Bearer to Henry VI, and was at one time Lord Treasurer of England.3 His property was apparently divided between his two sisters.4 The manor passed to one sister, Joan, and, through her marriage to Sir Hamon Belknap, who had been treasurer of Normandy when Ralph himself was treasurer of England, it then passed through the Belknap family until it came into the possession of Sir Edward Belknap, whose actions so reduced its subsequent circumstances.5 The proposition is that Great Dorsett consisted of a number of settlements, including the modern-day, Avon Dassett, Little Dassett, Temple Herdewyke and Northend. Today, Northend is a small village in and of itself, as is Avon Dassett further south, down the escarpment. What was most probably the centre, Burton Dassett, is now just a small collection of farm buildings and All Saints’ church, set almost in splendid isolation.6

The present-day Burton Dassett Country Park shows almost exactly why Eleanor and her husband would have wanted to unify the manors of Great Dorsett and Fenny Compton. Burton Dassett is on the hills and provides excellent terrain for sheep farming and wool production, which was one of the major commercial propositions of that and earlier times. In contrast, Fenny Compton is in the vale below the hills. It provides excellent, sheltered land for arable farming. The combination of these two properties and their physical proximity would have made them very profitable propositions indeed. However, there were and are many other advantages of this site. One of the primary advantages was the presence of a regular market. At one time, because of this market facility, the area was known as Chipping Dassett, where the name Chipping refers directly to the market function (e.g. Chipping Campden, Chipping Norton, etc., a naming convention that persists in other countries, e.g. Linkoping in Sweden). This market would have brought in a good revenue and we can also see from the geographical location why this is so. The Burton Dassett hills stand in a most strategic position with respect to the lower West Midlands. From the top of the hill where the present tower stands (see Figure 31), one can get a wide, panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. In an era of far less sophisticated communications and one which emphasised more the value of location, this dominating hill would have had additional value. It is indeed a little strange that no Norman Castle ever appears to have been erected here, perhaps because of the local over-dominance of Warwick not many miles away.

The connection with Temple Herdewyke is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Eleanor Butler story. We can see on the following map (see Figure 30)that just above the location identified as ‘Home Farm’ is a site labeled ‘Chapel’. It is the contention of Graham Phillips that this is a Templar chapel of extraordinary importance. As is well known, the Order of the Knights Templar was suppressed by Phillip the Fair of France in 1308. Indeed, it may well have been from this action that we derive our folk superstition about Friday 13th (it being also coincidental that William, Lord Hastings also died on Friday 13th). Phillips’ suggestion is that an influential member of the Templar order secreted Templar treasure around this location. He also suggested that Sir Walter Ralegh purchased part of this property through his wife Elizabeth Throckmorton in order to look for the buried treasure. I leave it to others to further assess the veracity of this letter which I have been unable to substantiate.

The Link to Ashby St Ledgers

Much of the present text is about the relationship between Eleanor Butler and the Catesby family and the two respective locations (Great Dorsett and Ashby St Ledgers) that they occupied at this time. Therefore, any link that can be found between the two geographical locations might well help to bolster the present case. Given the era which we are considering, virtually the only buildings standing in each location around at the time are the respective churches of All Saints at Burton Dassett and the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Leodegarius at Ashby St Ledgers. And here we find most probably associated paintings in each location (see Figures 32 and 33 respectively). Subject to the on-going efforts at restoration, Ashby St Ledgers can claim to have possibly the best display of early church paintings in the whole of England. It is also a reasonable possibility that much of this work was conducted during the lordship of Sir William Catesby, since we know that he spent significant amounts of his resources on this church around this time.7

Some of the paintings in All Saints’ church in Burton Dassett are thought to be by the same hand. Thus, for example, Baker concludes that:

This series is unusual in that a Doom which symbolizes the gates of Heaven and that one must be judged before one can enter Heaven. However, there is a painting of similar subject and style in Ashby St Ledgers (near Daventry in Northants.) Ashby has three Passion series, all by different painters, the centrally placed painting is very similar in style to the painting here and could be the work of the same painter.

As always, painting style is a matter of personal perception, but if we take the linkage between the two to be a reasonable one, the respective pictures were painted at roughly the same time – which their form seems to support. Then what is the other common between the two locations? It will be no surprise if I suggest that this is Eleanor Butler. Whether it is possible that Eleanor encountered the painter on a visit to Ashby St Ledgers and subsequently sponsored some similar work at Burton Dassett, or whether the artist was at this latter location and Eleanor encouraged further work at Ashby we cannot say. However, given her age, I am inclined to suspect the former sequence (of course, we must always remember the most likely thing is that there was no such connection). However (see Figure 11), if the painter was commissioned by Eleanor to beautify All Saints’ church, it might not be too much of a stretch that part of the face of what has been identified as the Virgin Mary bears some resemblance to Eleanor? After all, artists have done this before, and indeed since. There is one final similarity between the two churches that is relatively uncommon in other places and that is the internal design of the roofing as illustrated in Figures 34 and 35.

Lady Eleanor’s Motivation

Why did Eleanor Butler not press her claim to the throne? Elizabeth Woodville certainly did, and the Talbots outranked the Woodvilles in terms of the nobility of England. Could it have been that Eleanor was ill; after all, she died not too long after this time on 30 June 1468? However, perhaps there was something more than illness behind her curious reticence. We have then to ask what could have been more valuable to Eleanor than a kingdom. The only feasible answer I can imagine is something to do with her religion. It was Eleanor that perhaps Edward was referring to when he commented on the holiest harlot in his kingdom. What could there have been at Great Dorsett or Dorsett Magna that she valued so much that she would be willing to give away a kingdom for it? If we needed further evidence of her religious devotion we can see this in her later life, when she retired to a house of religion rather than marry again. Could she have been the guardian of some form of religious treasure and did she sacrifice herself to Edward to retain that treasure?

The idea that there was a great Templar treasure at Temple Heredwyke, which was part of the Great Dorsett demesne, has been put forward by Phillips.8 Like other such speculations, Phillips’ text looks to link historical personages to legendary riches. In the present case, the argument revolves around the linkage between the Boeteler family and their early Templar connections.9 Phillips even suggests that Sir Walter Ralegh has his wife (Bess Throckmorton) purchase Temple Heredwyke in order to search for the purported treasure. We should remember that the Catesby family were directly associated with Eleanor and one of William Catesby’s very first royal appointments was to a commission to examine the disposal of the Boeteler lands after both Eleanor and her husband had died and the property had reverted to her father-in-law, who himself then subsequently died without issue. As with all such speculation, it is most tempting to hypothesise a relation between William and this fabled treasure, and perhaps the disfigurement of his brass might have something to do with such intrigues. Alas, there is no hard evidence to support such contentions, seductive though they may be. At present, we must await this evidence before travelling down such a tempting path.

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