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THE BRANCEPETH STORY

by

Graham Foley - Rector 1960 - 1971

Every village with an ancient church has a history, but the history of this village is not confined to the local scene. Three Rectors were Chaplains to the King of England, one a cabinet minister, and several were involved in national intrigues. The then Lord of the Manor, the last Earl of Westmorland led the Rising of the North; another was one of the Barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Charta; at one time Elizabeth the first owned the Castle and sent deer from the park to the King of Scotland; the first Baron Brancepeth, Robert Carr, was a suspected murderer; King Charles when short of money sold the castle to London business men. And so the romantic story goes on, but first it had to have a beginning.

 The name "Brancepeth” is a corruption of' "Brandon's Path", the path to St. Brandon's shrine which is this parish church. Brandon was an Irish saint whom legend says discovered America years before Columbus – the only other, Brancepeths we know, are in Canada and New Zealand!

 In Saxon days there was a great house and a church -the first Rector was the monk Haeming in 1085. The Bulmer family owned the village until the sole heir, Emma, after marrying the nephew of William the Conqueror  then married Geoffrey Neville Lord of Raby in 1174. The Nevilles became the Earls of Westmorland in 1397 and Brancepeth owned their sway until the last Earl escaped abroad in 1569 after leading the Rising of the North and the Castle was taken over by the Crown. It was Emma's son who was concerned in the Magna Charta episode. Most of the present castle was built by the first Earl who fought at Agincourt and was grandfather of "Warwick the king maker". Unlike the church, the castle has much that is new but there is still some of this original castle remaining. The church is full of crests and memorials of the Westmorlands and the Bulmors too. These mighty men (and women) are all buried here beneath this church.  

 Queen Elizabeth, taking the castle to pay for the cost of suppressing the Rising, also rid herself of the Rector who was much involved, also his successor who hid the last Earl's brother in the Rectory, and she appointed the next Rector herself. The castle was administered by Constables who by the time of King James had allowed the castle to deteriorate. The church too fell into some disrepair until John Cosin (later Bishop of Durham) became Rector in 1625. James gave the castle to Robert Carr,his favourite, whom he had made  Barron Brancepeth. In love with the Countess of Essex, Carr was suspected of poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury who opposed the lady's divorce. Soon he fell from favour, the castle reverted to the Crown again, and the title died with him to be recreated at a later date. King Charles sold the estate and 1400 trees were cut down and sent to Woolwich to build the "Sovereign”, the first 3-decker in the British Navy.

 In 1636 Ralph Cole, mayor of Newcastle, bought the castle. Grandson of a blacksmith, he was a local boy made good. His son became a baronet. But the second Sir Ralph Cole was a man of the arts, a pupil of Van Dyck. He filled the castle with Italian painters and so impoverished himself that in 1701 he was forced to sell the castle to Sir Henry Bellasyse for 16800. The last of the Bellasyse family was Bridget who died in 1774 - she was the love sick girl who sang the famous verse to Bobby Shafto of nearby Whitworth.

 In 1796 William Russell, a Sunderland broker, bought the castle for 75000. His son Matthew, who re-built the castle, was alleged to be the richest commoner in England - all from coal. He spent 12000 on the rebuilding. In 1828 Emma Russell married the son and heir of Lord Boyne ( as a previous Emma had married a forerunner of the Earls of Westmorland in 1174 ), and the Boyne family lived here until the first World War when the castle became a military hospital. The Boynes restored the chapel in the castle, and also the parish church though mercifully this restoration was slight. A great visitor to Brancepeth in the old days was the poet 'Tennyson, a relative of the family, who wrote "Come into the garden, Maude" in the gardens here.

 After the 1914-18 war the church continued its uninterrupted round of prayer and worship as it had done down the ages, but for the first time the castle stood empty and its contents were sold - the Great Hall had a suit of armour inlaid with gold, taken from King David of Scotland at the Battle of Neville's Cross:- also a picture by Hogarth. But when there are wars it seems that Brancepeth just must be in the thick of it and during the Second World War the castle came to life again as the home of the Durham Light Infantry whose Regimental Headquarters it was until 1960.

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