The Name and Family of Barham

by Sydney Pay Barham

Chapter Ten


John Berham was succeeded by his son, or grandson, Henry, to whom Phillipot gives the imposing title of Lord of Barham, Teston and Sissinghurst. He married, probably about 1476, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Col­pepper of Oxenhoath in West Peckham, and had by her two sons, Thomas and John. The Colpeppers, or Culpeppers, were a widespread Kentish family, mem­bers of which held Bedgebury and Goudhurst, and are commemorated by tombs in Goudhurst church.

Richard, his only son died before him, left three daughters, Elizabeth, Margaret and Joyce. The Oxenhoath estate however did not fall to the lot of Elizabeth, wife of Henry Berham, but to Margaret, married to a William Cotton. The third sister, or half sister - Joyce, married Edmund Howard, a younger and impecunious son of Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk, She must have been very much younger than her sisters, for although Elizabeth appears to have been born about 1450, Joyce had the melancholy honour of being the mother of Catherine Howard, the young lady who became the fifth wife of Henry VIII, and she was beheaded for infidelity to her Royal Husband in 1542. Thus Henry Berham, had he lived long enough might have boasted the dangerous distinction of being the King's uncle by marriage.

He did not live so long, but references in official records show that he was still alive in 1492, his wife being then aged 42. Henry Berham and John Berham were named in 'The Gentles of Kent', a list of the county gen­try compiled at some period during the reign of Henry VII which lasted from 1485-1509; but towards the end of that reign Henry Berham, or it may have been his son Thomas, had begun to divest himself of his lands in Cranbrook.

At the beginning of the Tudor age the old order of English society was changing, and the change was making itself felt in Cranbrook, as else­where. During the Wars of the Roses many great names of feudal nobility were extinguished on the battlefield or the scaffold, and a new nobility of the Court had filled the gaps. Wealth and influence had come to the merchants and manufacturing classes, such as the clothiers of Cranbrook, who had amassed money, acquired estates, and aspired to enter the ranks of the gentry. It was the money of the rich clothiers which made possible the further enlargement and beautifying of the parish church, which continued up to the Reformation.

Besides the owners of the Cloth Halls there were two families that were rising into prominence in Cranbrook, and overshadowing such older families as the Barhams and the Bettenhams. There was the family of Roberts, originally Rookhurst of Scottish descent, the members of which had been long resident in the neighbouring parishes, but who finally settled at Glassenbury, which they inherited by marriage, and where their descendants in an indirect line still dwell. Walter Roberts incurred the displeasure of Richard III for having given shelter to his enemy John Guildford of Hampstead. His lands were forfeited, but he regained them after Richard was slain at Bosworth Field in 1485. Enjoying the favour of the Tudors, he and his successors took the lead in the life of the parish, and kept it for many generations. The Roberts family however does not concern us here.

The other leading family at Cranbrook was that of the Bakers. To judge by their name the Bakers were of plebeian origin. They had been settled in the parish as early as the reign of Edward III, for in the 44th year of that monarch 1370-1371, Thomas Baker had been sued for trespass by the Prior of Christ Church Canterbury for having felled timber in a drough, den, or swine pasture, on the Prior's land at Cranbrook. It was to another Thomas Baker - presumably a descendant of this man, that Henry Berham, or his son, sold a portion of the manor of Sissinghurst, with the two smaller dependant manors of Copton and stone. The sale must have taken place before 1498, as Thomas Baker was dead, and his will had been proved by that year.

Although the Barhams - I use henceforth the modern form of the name ­retained for some time the remainder of the Sissinghurst estate, including the manor house, they appear to have retired to the old home at Barham Court Teston. They were somewhat obscure persons, living quietly, and out of the public eye, so that there is a scarcity of facts and dates concerning them.

Thomas Barham, who succeeded his father Henry (probably about the end of the fifteenth century) resided at Teston. He married Elizabeth, the daughter of John Orchar of Otterden, an obscure village on the North Downs above Charing. The Orchars were an ancient family, formerly residing at the manor, of Lossenden in Ewenden. Thomas and Elizabeth had two sons, James and John, and a daughter Catherine. It was probably during the lifetime of Thomas Barham that the rest of the Sissinghurst estate, including the manor House was sold to Sir John Baker, grandson of the first purchaser. Mr. Pyle in his notes 'The Chapel of the Holy Trinity, Milkhouse', says that the final sale to Sir John Baker took place in 1533.

This Sir John Baker had a distinguished career in the legal profession and in the service of the crown. He had been recorder of the City of London, a member of Parliament, Speaker of the House of Commons, Attorney General, and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary, but his fame had been blighted by the part he took in the persecution of the Protestants under Queen Mary, which earned for him the nickname, Bloody Baker. There is little doubt that his cruelty has been greatly exaggerated, as for instance by the tale that he caused heretics to be imprisoned, and starved to death in the room above the south porch of Cranbrook Church, which still goes by the name of Baker's Gaol. Probably he did no more than what he considered his duty as a legal officer of the Crown, in carrying out the repressive policy of the Queen, who shares with him the sanguinary adjective. His zeal for the Cath­olic religion had not prevented him from profiting by the spoliation of the church lands under Henry VIII and Edward VI. For instance he had pur­chased the building and endowments of the Chapel of Holy Trinity in Milk­house Street, a chapel of ease that had been erected for the benefit of the inhabitants of the hamlet at about the time of the first rebuilding of the parish church, probably in great part from the resources of the Berhams and Bettenhams. It with other similar chapels and chancerys had been suppressed under Edward, and the material sold for the benefit of the Crown. It is not recorded that Sir John had made any restitution when the Catholic religion was re-established by Queen Mary.

Sir John Baker had acquired many other manors, including that of Teston, and had thus become the feudal overlord of the Barhams of Barham Court. I would not however suggest that he used any undue pressure to secure possession of Sissinghurst.

It was well for Sir John, but not for his reputation, that he died about the same time as Queen Mary (1558). Tradition tells that he was on his way to arrest a fresh batch of heretics at Cranbrook, when at the spot still called Baker's Cross, he heard the church bells ringing for the accession of Elizabeth, and knew that his reign of terror was over.

The wildest legends have been gathered about the memory of Sir John Baker, who has in fact been given the character of a Bluebeard. Foolish tales of this sort have been repeated by modern writers who should have known better. Sir John was honourably interred in the family vaults of St.Dunstan's He was succeeded at Sissinghurst by his son Richard, who entertained Elizabeth during her progress through the Weald in 1573, and was knighted by her.

Before resuming the thread of the story of the Barhams, I will briefly recount the vicissitudes of their former home at Sissinghurst. When Sir John Baker had acquired the whole of the Sissinghurst estate, demolished the old manor house of the Saxonhursts and Berhams, he built himself a splendid new mansion in the Tudor style. Nothing of this remains today, but the great outer gate house, which opened on to the courtyard; a brick­work tower crowned with conical caps, through which access was afforded to the main quadrangle; and two detached buildings, one of which is known as the Priests House, for of course Sissinghurst had its private chapel and chaplain. The principal chambers surrounded the main quadrangle, but they were largely timber framed structures, and have completely vanished.

The whole was surrounded by a moat, a portion of which remains, and stood in a spacious park, which has long since been disparked. The present carriageway which leaves the main road a short distance form the village of Sissinghurst is a comparatively modern construction. The original entrance was from the Staplehurst road, and is represented today by a farm known as 'The Horse Race'.

By this time Sir John's mansion was in a sad state of dilapidation. Every­thing had been demolished except the brickwork structure aforesaid, these were in use as farm buildings and labourers dwellings. Outside the gatehouse a substantial modern residence had been erected for the farmer. In my youth it was possible to visit the tower, which had been restored by a member of the Cornwallis family. It stood isolated in a vegetable garden where once the great quadrangle had been. Visitors would be admitted by the woman who inhabited the lower rooms. She would conduct them to a large upper chamber, where stood an antique writing table, with innumerable secret drawers which the custodian would display. On the wall hung grim portraits of the Tudor monarchs, painted on wood, which for all I know may have dated from the days of the Bakers. One 'could then ascend to the leads by one of the turret stairs. The roof commanded a view of the surrounding woods and farmland, once the park of the manor house.

In 1930 Sissinghurst Castle was purchased by Lady Nicholson (nee Sackville-West, the poet and authoress) and restored what was left of the structure as a residence for herself and Sir Harold Nicholson. The great upper room in the tower, where once the writing table stood, became Lady Nicholson's study. She and her husband surrounded the castle with beautiful gardens, open to the public. Lady Nicholson, who was of the Sackvilles of Knole, Sevenoaks, claimed descendence from Sir John Baker. She died in 1962. It is understood that the place will eventually become the property of the National Trust.

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