O.K. So I have my victim: the Reverend Allaston Burr, found dead inside his church, his battered face an unrecognizable, bloody mess. I’m beginning to envisage a cast of characters, his parishioners, all of whom hated him and wanted him gone. And the reason they failed to achieve their end? He was appointed for his lifetime by a third party holding the advowson for the parish in question (if that made no sense to you—and there’s no reason it should—you may wish to consult my article about Advowsons). I have my detectives, Gooseberry and George, just champing at the bit for another decent case to sink their teeth into. What else do I need? Why, a promising location, of course!
The actual Reverend Allatson Burgh (note the real spelling) - who was hated by his parishioners - resided way out in leafy Hampstead (where much of Big Bona Ogles, Boy! was set), and was the vicar at the Christopher Wren-designed church St Lawrence Jewry (so named for its proximity to the medieval Jewish Quarter), next door to the Guildhall in the City of London. As promising as this may sound, I wanted my victim living tooth-by-jowl with his disgruntled flock, so I began to look elsewhere. I started with a tentative peek at both Highbury (in the modern-day borough of Islington, and best known as being home to the Arsenal Football Club) and Highgate (quite a posh area about three miles to the north). But as soon as I read the words on Wikipedia, “The area now known as Islington was part of the larger manor of Tolentone, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Tolentone was owned by Ranulf, brother of Ilger,” I knew that Highbury had won out.
Ranulf, brother of Ilger! It really doesn’t get much better than that, or so I imagined. How wrong I was!
By the thirteenth century, the manor of Tolentone (or “Tollington” in modern parlance, as attested to by some of the street names that still remain in the area) belonged to one Alice de Barowe, daughter of Thomas de Barowe and granddaughter of Bertram de Barowe. In 1271 she made the manor over to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem, the British headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, on the condition that they pay the good nuns of St Mary Clerkenwell an annual sum of seven marks so that she and her heirs might be remembered by them in their masses. No particular reason is given for this generous gift to the priory, but I suspect the wooden manor house may have fallen irreparably into disrepair. The priory leased the land to the Bishop of Lincoln for several decades, and when it reverted to them in 1348 (by which point the Hospitallers had subsumed any remaining property and personnel of the disbanded Templar empire), the prior built a new moated manor house a mile to the south of the old one, christening it “Highbury”, nestling as it did on the gentle slopes of a hill. This was a countryside retreat, with a grange (a working farm) and a barn attached.
In that early medieval period, the advowson—like the manor—generally passed down through the family, so the right to appoint the priest remained within the immediate community. By the 1500s, however, much of the land (and the advowsons it entailed) had been transferred to the monasteries. Quite why this happened eludes me. The case of Alice de Barowe is just an early example. By this point the right to appoint the priest had gone to strangers, even though the various monasteries in question were generally local ones.
Although built of stone in order to weather the elements, the prior's new manor house was fated not to last even forty years. At the start of June 1381, during the reign of the young Richard II, the peasants revolted, protesting against what they saw as unfair taxation and restrictive working conditions. They vented their anger and frustration on the Hospitallers in particular. They burned the Priory of St John to the ground, and then went on to do the same to the Temple Inns of Court (which, since the Templars’ demise, were now held by the Hospitallers). They ran Sir Robert Hales, the order’s Grand Prior (who also happened to be the Lord High Treasurer to the king), to ground in the chapel of the Tower of London’s White Tower, and beheaded him with an axe in the street outside. An estimated (though probably overestimated) 20,000 protesters converged on Highbury Manor (which, according to some commentators, had become Prior Hales’s private residence), broke in, ate and drank their fill, and then destroyed the manor house utterly.
I can just see Gooseberry in thrall to all of this. Without giving too much away, the plot for the next book has a strong whiff of buried treasure wafting through its pages. How fortuitous, then, that Highbury has such impeccable connections with the Knights Hospitaller!
When the revolt was eventually quelled, the priory and the Inns of Court were rebuilt, but not so Highbury Manor. The ruins, the land, the grange and the barn remained in Hospitaller hands until the 1530s when Henry VIII began dissolving the monasteries and transferring the lands they held to the Crown. He and successive sovereigns leased out Highbury Manor to various individuals, but it always reverted to the Crown, until it was given away outright (with the exception of the two woods on the estate) to one Sir Allen Apsley by Charles I in 1629, as payment for debts Apsley had incurred as “victualler” to the Tower of London.
Apsley sold it within three years to a Mr Thomas Austen, a London cheesemonger, who, like Apsley before him, became Lord of the Manor—though there was no manor house as such, and few buildings except for what had come to be known as Highbury Barn (probably the grange’s three-storey farmhouse). The manor remained in his family for almost a hundred years, and was then sold to a Mr James Colebrooke, who left it to his youngest son George. On becoming bankrupt in 1773, George sold the site (including Highbury Barn) to a property developer named John Dawes. The manorial rights (i.e., little more than the title of Lord of the Manor and any advowson that might pertain to the estate) were sold off some eighteen years later in 1791, though it is unclear by whom, whether by Colebrooke or by Dawes.
Mr Dawes immediately set about creating his vision for the place: an agreeable, refined community in an idyllic country setting within commuting distance from the city. First came Highbury Place, a single row of terraced buildings overlooking the fields to the west, its southern entrance gated off to imply an exclusivity from the rest of the parish. It was built over a five-year period from 1774-79.
In 1781 Highbury House followed, its local significance reinforced by its being sited of the ruins of old manor house. Nine years later it was joined by Highbury Hill House, whilst the construction of Highbury Terrace got underway, culminating in 1794. Dawes gave the new community some land for a church (not built for another 54 years) and leased the two woods back from the Crown with the intention of creating a 250 acre park that would stretch north-west to the edge of the original Tolentone manor (it never came to pass).
Mr Dawes appears to bow out of the picture at this point, after selling off parcels of land for others to develop. By the 1820s houses had begun to appear along Highbury Grove to the north and south of Highbury Barn, while others stretched eastwards into the fields. In the 1840s Highbury Crescent was laid out in a semi-circle adjoining the original Highbury Place, and by 1853, when my novel will be set, the land to the east of Highbury Grove is being carved up as Highbury New Park.
Highbury Barn, from which a cakes and ale establishment had been operating since 1740, continued to prosper and grow throughout this time under a succession of managers and owners. It became a highly successful tavern and outdoor tea-gardens, which were gas-lit for evening entertainments. It specialized in catering to large corporate parties—sometimes day-long affairs—for up to 2,000 people (or so it is claimed; I myself have only seen evidence of a maximum of 500). Food would be served from the afternoon onwards in a number of staggered sittings, culminating in a ball in the evening starting at nine.
So far, so perfect a location for a spot of murder! A model community of upwardly-mobile, aspiring rich folk who have a rector forced upon them by some outsider holding the advowson.