Cobthorne: A home that stands out for its grace, even in the beautiful town of Oundle

This striking town house in Oundle serves as home to the head of the town's famous school – and is testimony to the zealous ambition and colourful career of its builder, an opportunist soldier and Parliamentarian in Cromwellian times.

People stop in admiration when they walk along West Street in the market town of Oundle: they have seen Cobthorne. With its deep eaves, Collyweston slate roof and buff-coloured lime-stone walls, this 17th-century house surpasses the architecture of even this pretty town.

For much of Oundle’s history, West Street has marked the town’s southern boundary; one wonder of the house is to discover, on stepping into the entrance hall, that, visually, it still does. The view through the windows of the door immediately facing you, at the end of a panel-lined passageway, is of lawns, terraces, topiaries and fields.

View through Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire towards the garden. Justin Paget © Country Life

When was Cobthorne built? Its listing description says 1700 and may perhaps be forgiven, as four-square houses of this kind, with no expressed Classical order, came into vogue with the Commonwealth and remained popular until the early Georgian period. A close look at the sash windows, however, shows that they have been adapted from earlier casement windows (the ends of the removed transom are visible in the masonry).

There are further clues suggestive of an earlier construction date. The plan is awkward and incorporates a lateral spine wall that is clearly articulated in the side elevation, with its two gable ends separated – no doubt to the despair of maintenance men ever since – by an internal gutter.

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The main stair cuts clumsily across some of the windows of the front elevation;  this is so awkward as to suggest that it was a later insertion, although the balusters are unlikely to have won favour after the mid 17th century.

View of the 17th-Century staircase at Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire. Justin Paget © Country Life

These gaucheries suggest that Cobthorne’s mason had not perfectly come to terms with an architectural novelty: the double-pile house. Indeed, it is evident that the designer was influenced by an older tradition, as the long entrance hall acts as a screens passage to what is now the dining room, serving as a hall. This arrangement is a late survival of medieval planning.

Such details help relate Cobthorne to a clutch of houses built in neighbouring Cambridgeshire during the 1650s, such as the now demolished house built inside the moat of Wisbech Castle by Secretary Thurloe and Oliver St John’s grander Thorpe Hall outside Peter-borough. Thurloe and St John were both prominent in Oliver Cromwell’s administration, as was Cobthorne’s builder, William Boteler (or Butler). He was a local man, born at Barnwell in the 1620s and educated at Oundle School.

Oundle is an ancient place, occupied during the Iron Age, developed by the Romans and planted with the monastery of St Wilfred by the Saxons. The manor was latterly owned by Peterborough Abbey and, when John Leland visited in 1540, he found a ‘very fair’ parish church and ‘a pretty almshouse of squared stone’.

View of the side of Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire with its double gable. Justin Paget © Country Life

In the late 16th century, the town changed rapidly, the works including a market cross (now gone) that was dated 1591. When Boteler was a schoolboy, he would have walked through newly built streets, past the recently reconstructed Talbot Hotel and the gable end of a private house bearing the date 1626. Everything was constructed of the local stone.

Although Anne Russell, a granddaughter of the 2nd Earl of Bedford, had been granted the manor by Edward VI, Oundle had come into the possession of her husband, the 4th Earl, later 1st Marquess of Worcester.

There was a Drumming Well, which was said to emit martial sounds before moment-ous events: no doubt it drummed before the Civil War, as it did at Charles I’s execution. The Civil War was a catastrophe for Lady Worcester, whose rich husband spent a fortune supporting the Royalist cause. In 1647, she petitioned Parliament to allow a fifth of the income from her late husband’s manor, now sequestered, only to be granted half that amount, and even that was not forthcoming as it had been sold. She complained that ‘she had nothing wherewith to buy bread’.

View of the dining room at Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire. The dining room opens immediately off the entrance passage, an arrangement reminiscent of a great hall and screens passage. Justin Paget © Country Life

For Boteler, the war was an opportunity. Two notable Puritans lived at Oundle at the end of the 16th century: Giles Wigginton, a theologian accused, by the Archbishop of York, Edwin Sandys, of labouring ‘by what means he can to overthrow the state ecclesi-astical’ and deprived of his living of Sedbergh, and William Hacket, who was executed in London.

Perhaps something of their vehemence survived into the 17th century at Oundle because Boteler, an Independent, was equally intemperate. (Did he join the Puritans who threw the brass eagle lectern from the church into the river, from which it was dredged in the 19th century minus talons and eyes?) During the Civil War, he rose to command a troop of horses, but it was his activities afterwards that brought him to prominence.

Not only was Boteler responsible for suppressing, in 1648, a Royalist rising in Northamptonshire, but he was instrumental the following year in the death of ‘Captain’ William Thompson at a Leveller camp near Wellingborough. Cornet Thompson (he was never commissioned) had helped whip 340 Parliamentarian soldiers into a frenzy of discontent with a pamphlet against the new regime, England’s Standard Advanced.

Close up view of the street frontage of Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire. Justin Paget © Country Life

It ends with the stirring peroration: ‘And we do implore and invite all such as have any sense of the Bonds and Miseries upon the people; any Bowels of Compassion in them, any Piety, Justice, Honour, or Courage in their Brests, any Affections to the Freedoms of England, any love to his Neighbor or Native Country, to rise up, and come in to help a Distressed Miserable Nation, To break the Bands of Cruelty, Tyrannie, and Oppression, and set the People Free.’ Surprised at Ban-bury, the band was imprisoned in the church for several days until four of the leaders were shot against the church wall.

By now, Boteler had been married to a Northamptonshire girl, Elizabeth Brooke of Great Oakley, for a few years. It was not, however, domestic circumstances that prompted the building of Cobthorne, but his appointment as one of the Major-Generals who ruled England under the period of direct military government that lasted from 1655 to 1657. Boteler’s responsibility was the East Midland District, giving him dictatorial power over Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Rutland and Huntingdonshire.

Interior view of Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire. Justin Paget © Country Life

Although he had previously spoken in favour of religious freedom, Boteler was now zealous in crushing Quakers, Catholics and the pious community at Little Gidding. He was equally severe on vagrants, the disorderly and Royalists. In 1656, he managed an election by herding freeholders onto Kettering Heath. After riding around with a band of supporters shouting the names of the approved candidates, including himself, he instructed the Sheriff to record them as duly elected.

Boteler’s star waned almost as soon as Cobthorne had been completed: during Richard Cromwell’s parliament, he was assailed for his abuses as Major-General. At the Restoration, he survived punishment – although it may be significant that he left Northamptonshire, withdrawing to the remoteness of Oatlands Park in Surrey.

He was still regarded by the authorities as dangerous and was imprisoned in the Tower; after 10 months there, he petitioned for his release on the grounds that his family had no means to support itself. He was arrested again in 1670, but thereafter fades from view and the date of his death is unknown.

View of the street frontage of Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire. Justin Paget © Country Life

It is easy to imagine that, as Major-General, Boteler would have found ways of amassing the money to build Cobthorne. The antiquary John Bridges, who compiled the manuscripts for his History of Northampton-shire in the early 1720s, records that he plundered Lyveden New Bield for timber that he had ‘sawed out of the walls’. This statement must be treated with caution, as Lyveden New Bield was never finished. However, it provides the only written reference to Boteler’s ownership of Cobthorne, although some further support is given by records of land purchases and sales in manorial-court rolls in Northamptonshire Record Office, found by Mowl and Earnshaw.

Cobthorne’s designer has not been identified. This is a pity, as, although the plan may be gawky, the façades are a confident example of what Mowl and Earnshaw call Puritan Minimalism. This type of unadorned house with a hipped roof was explored by Inigo Jones in some of his late drawings and realised in the first phase of Coleshill (1649–50). Cobthorne is a considerably more disciplined example than Thurloe’s more flamboyant Wisbech Castle. Originally, Cobthorne may have looked plainer still – the irregular courses of the stone suggest that the façade could have been plastered.

By 1665, another local man came to Cobthorne: Pepys’s rival, John Creed, with whom the diarist was happy to eat lobsters and visit ale houses despite calling him ‘a cunning knave in his heart’. Creed shared Pepys’s interest in women and science, being elected a member of the Royal Society, but Pepys could hardly avoid jealousy of a man who, like him, jockeyed for the favour of his grand cousin, the Earl of Sandwich.

View of Cobthorne in Oundle, Northamptonshire seen from the garden. Justin Paget © Country Life

Although Creed had been a Puritan during the Commonwealth, this chocolate-loving trimmer of prodigious appetite and none-too-particular morals adapted easily to the boisterousness of the Restoration, although he could perhaps still put on a grave face when visiting Sir Gilbert Pickering (Oundle’s lord of the manor, who was from an important Puritan family and served as Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain – he voted to ban Christmas).

Pepys was shocked when, in 1668, Creed married Betty, Pickering’s ‘comely… but very fat’ daughter – as she was Sandwich’s niece, Pepys was now compelled to call Creed cousin. No doubt it was Creed, Deputy Treasurer to the Fleet and Secretary to the Tangier expedition, who installed the painting of an English man-o’-war above the fireplace in a bedroom.

Creed’s son, John, altered the stables, to judge from the inscription ‘I.C. et Mary, 1728’ on a gatepost, a reference to his wife, Mary Beckwith. The stables have been altered again to become offices for Oundle School. Since the 1940s, Cobthorne has housed Oundle’s Head, a civilising influence on the pupils who attend the many garden parties that are today held on its lawns in summer.

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