Romsey, Hampshire, a brief history by Colin Wintle
Romsey’s glory is its Abbey Church, one of the most superb Norman buildings in England, erected on the site of earlier structures from the year 907. It was a Benedictine convent under an Abbess and was a place where kings and nobles sent their daughters to be educated.
On the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539, the church was saved from destruction by the townsfolk themselves, who had been using part of it as their parish church.
They bought the Abbey for £100.
Virtually nothing is left of the ancillary buildings, but the Abbey itself remains to this day the town’s parish church.
The lofty magnificence of the massive Norman columns, and arches of the nave, rising to the triforium and above again to the clerestory, produce a dramatic surprise on entering the building which, viewed externally, appears almost squat.
Through the centuries the interior has been enriched by a succession of treasures and monuments, including a Flemish chest containing church records dating back to 1569.
That was just thirty years after the good townsfolk found the money to make the church their own.
One of the earliest surviving domestic buildings in all Wessex is at Romsey: King John’s House, close to the Abbey.
That unpopular monarch is believed to have used it as a hunting lodge. It was in use as a royal residence until 1221, when it became an Abbey guest-house until the Dissolution. Later, it was enlarged by the addition to one end of a Tudor cottage — all that is visible from the street — masking the 700-years-old stone and flint building lying behind.
At a corner of the Market Place a restored half-timbered house, formerly the Swan Inn (now a club) still retains the ironwork of its protruding sign. It was from one of the struts that the Roundhead General Fairfax had one of his soldiers hanged because he had got drunk and killed one of the townsmen.
A building of charm and dignity in the Market Place is the White Horse Hotel — a hostelry since the 16th century, Behind its Georgian frontage are beams and panelling denoting its Tudor origin. In a lounge, portions of wall paintings of that period are revealed; and on entering the yard through an arched doorway, the open gallery leading to some of the bedrooms may be seen, though it has now been enclosed by glazing.
The centre of the Market Place is dominated by a statue of the third Lord Palmerston, the Victorian statesman who became Prime Minister when seventy and, but for a short break as Leader of the Opposition, remaining in office until his death in 1865 at the age of eighty-one.
Broadlands, where lord Palmerston was born in 1784, is less than a mile from his statue in the Market Place of his beloved Romsey. The splendid Palladian mansion overlooks the river Test and is set in a park landscaped by the celebrated Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown.
When Palmerston died, Broadlands passed to a stepson and eventually to the late and much loved Countess Mountbatten, wife of the last Viceroy of India, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
Lord Mountbatten, as Palmerston did before him from Broadlands, identifies himself with the affairs of the town, holding the office of High Steward of Romsey. His wife’s name is commemorated in the charming Edwina Mountbatten Home for old people, built in 1970. In 1947 Prince Philip, Lord Mountbatten’s nephew, married Princess Elizabeth — now the Queen — and part of the royal honeymoon was spent at Broadlands.
The year before, the Princess , with her parents and sister, had attended the marriage in Romsey Abbey of the Mountbattens’ daughter, Patricia, with Lord Brabourne.
As Queen, in 1957, she made an official visit, with the Duke of Edinburgh, in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the town’s charter of incorporation as a borough, thus forging one more link between the town, Broadlands and the monarchy.
North of the town is Stanbridge Earls, which once belonged to the second King of England, Ethelwulf (839-858). The present house (now a school) is mainly Tudor.
Across the Test is the hamlet of Timsbury, whose 13th-century church with timber porch contains a 15th-century rood screen and a beautifully carved Elizabethan pulpit.
The Hampshire headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem was at North Baddesley, to the west of Romsey. Its church’s treasures include a chained Bible.
Off the Winchester road is a tenuous link with Nelson: Highwood House, built in the last century and now The Stroud preparatory school. Highwood was the home of the naval family of Suckling. Captain Maurice Suckling (1725-78) was Comptroller of the Navy and young Horatio Nelson was his nephew and proterge.
His descendant, also a Captain Suckling, planned a galleried hall for Highwood House: thus he could imagine that he was afloat again — on the quarter-deck of his ship. The “main deck” below is now the school’s hall.