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History of Willington Dovecote and Stables

Exterior of Willington Dovecote and Stables, Bedfordshire
Exterior of Willington Dovecote and Stables | © National Trust Images/Richard Scott

The Tudor buildings still standing today at Willington show how John Gostwick was able to profit from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Learn how the original medieval manor-house was transformed into a splendid 16th century manorial complex, and discover more about its rich history.

Lord of the Manor John Gostwick

From relatively humble beginnings, John Gostwick appointed himself Lord of the Manor at Willington, received a knighthood and became a Member of Parliament.

Early career

Gostwick started his career in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s powerful advisor. He is likely to have accompanied them both in June 1520 to a summit with the French King Francis I at the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ in France. Records show Gostwick expanded his business interests and gained influence in the early years of 16th century, demonstrated by his promotion to Comptroller of Wolsey’s household.

By 1529 Wolsey’s support enabled him to buy the parish of Willington and become Lord of the Manor, an impressive development for a family with a long history as tenant farmers on its land.

Rising in favour with King Henry VIII

Gostwick’s fortune continued to improve, despite the accusations of treason against Wolsey and the execution of his colleague Thomas Cromwell. Having declared himself head of the Church of England, King Henry VIII promoted Gostwick in 1535, making him responsible for collecting the revenues from religious houses in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire.

Soon after, Gostwick was made responsible for collecting and accounting for all the money owed to the king as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries.

Royal duties

Gostwick’s other duties for the king were varied. He formed part of the welcoming party for Anne of Cleves when she arrived in England to marry King Henry. He escorted the chief mourner at Catherine of Aragon’s funeral in Peterborough and in 1536, he was paymaster for the King’s forces as they put down a rebellion north of the Trent.

Royal visit to Willington

Following Gostwick’s knighthood in 1540, it’s believed the King held a meeting of his Council at Willington in 1541. This was a great honour for the new Lord of the Manor and an opportunity to show off his new manorial complex.

When the King returned to London, he was met with the news of his wife Katherine Howard’s infidelity, which led to her subsequent execution.

Later life

Sir John Gostwick became Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire in 1541 and Member of Parliament for Bedfordshire in 1544. He died on 15 April 1545, leaving his son William a large estate in and around Willington. Sadly, William died only eight months later, and the manor then passed to John Gostwick’s brother, who was also called William.

Interior of the 16th century stables at Willington Dovecote and Stables, Bedfordshire
Interior of the 16th century stables at Willington Dovecote and Stables | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Tudor stables

At approaching 500 years old, the Stables building is one of four remaining Tudor buildings commissioned by John Gostwick at Willington.

Former living quarters

Gostwick demolished the medieval moated Manor House and commissioned a new set of buildings in their place. With its large interior and striking gables, the stables building creates an impression of how extravagant this may have once been. It’s likely this wasn’t originally intended as stables, but rather a hunting lodge or accommodation for important guests.

There is evidence of the different ways this building may have been used in the past. The top storey is complete with a fireplace and windows offering a view over the surrounding countryside and evidence of plastered walls and ceilings, and traces of glass in the windows can still be seen. This would have provided living quarters but over time, the status of the residents varied greatly.

16th century Dovecote

Willington Dovecote is one of the largest and best preserved examples of a 16th century dovecote in England, and a symbol of John Gostwick’s, wealth and success.

A symbol of wealth

During the Tudor period, pigeon was considered a luxury delicacy. Only the very wealthy could afford to rear pigeons in dovecotes which they then served at banquets or offered as gifts.

Wanting to boast his hard-won status, John Gostwick commissioned the building of the dovecote in the 1540s, following a visit from King Henry VIII. It was a bold addition and a clear statement of his importance — and the power he held over his tenants, who were powerless to prevent the pigeons damaging their crops.

Interior view of the Willington Dovecote, Bedfordshire
Interior view of the Willington Dovecote, Bedfordshire | © National Trust Images/Richard Scott

Saving the Dovecote

The campaign to save the dovecote began in the early 20th century. In spring 1912, Caroline Orlebar enlisted the help of Lyndon Bolton, then president of Bedford Arts Club, who contacted the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings.

With the assistance of a local bank, Caroline set up a public subscription to buy the impressive Tudor dovecote and a small piece of land in mid-June. Sufficient funds had been received by mid-August, with more than 80 people contributing between 2s 6d and £25 each.

Sadly, she didn’t live to see the building passed into the care of the National Trust, but she lived long enough to see her campaign generate much interest, with letters and articles in the national press.

The Willington buildings today

The church is the largest of Gostwick’s remaining buildings at Willington and is considered historically important because of its links to Sir John and the use of recycled materials.

Relics of the past

The church features wooden Tudor ceilings with carvings of stylized roses, faces, religious figures and other symbols. Amongst the impressive memorials to John Gostwick is a copy of the jousting helmet he is said to have worn when accompanying Henry VIII on a visit to the French king, Francis I.

The church is still an active part of the community holding regular services, social and cultural events. The Stables and Dovecote are now in the National Trust's care. The manor house, described as ‘sumptuous’ when newly built, is now privately owned.

View across the fields to Willington Dovecote and Stables, Bedfordshire

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