As Jonson crossed the little bridge into Buntingford on Saturday 11 July 1618 he will have seen a building site on his left. This was to be a small ‘chapel-at-ease’ on which work had begun in 1614, but was not finished until 1628 at a cost of £420. St Peter’s, as it became known, was the great project of Buntingford’s minister, the Rev Alexander Strange, in order to spare the town’s inhabitants the trials of crossing a swollen river to the parish’s main church in Layston. You can still visit it today, though its Victorianisation in 1899 means that it has been altered from the building whose foundations Jonson will have seen. In the western transept, however, there is a plain wood-paneled gallery front from around 1615, and a stone on the east gable bears the inscription DOMUS ORATIONIS 1615.
Inside, a brass plaque of 1620 hangs on the south wall depicting the minister preaching to his congregation in a small Renaissance chapel, thought to represent Strange and his parishioners, on which is inscribed ‘
In Stature small, yet great in mental powers,/ Good
Alexander built this Church of ours’. Rev. Strange appears to have been a singular fellow, and we are lucky that his memorandum book survives, his distinctive hand recording the parish accounts and administrative decisions, his advice and a tract on poverty. From its pages emerges a deeply conscientious and intensely godly man, whose concern for his parishioners and the poor amongst them results in several schemes to help them.
The first was to ensure their godly souls by erecting this convenient new chapel, and money was set aside for vicars to include thanks in a sermon to those, like Jonson, ‘at whose expense the chappell was built’. Then Rev Strange himself donated several lands whose income was to be used for the poor. He encouraged wealthy Londoners also to make charitable grants, such as one by a goldsmith in 1623 who gave £20 ‘to be ymployed in the buying of flax to sette the poore to work’.
But Buntingford had a problem common to other towns on the main arterial roads in London’s hinterland. A population explosion in southern England had forced many from their villages in search of work. These itinerant families created a pressing problem in towns such as Buntingford, their numbers outstripping the capacity of the rates collected for poor relief. As Rev Strange wrote in his Advice of 1636, ‘I see and am sorry to see the misery into which Buntingford’s residents are fallen …. I will be bold to tell you the Causes of it. Your misery is this, there are come into your parish within the space of these twenty years past, no less than twenty Families, all of which receive’ the parish’s alms. At the same time, the increased pressure on housing led Rev Strange to castigate his parishioners for having fallen victim to ‘the roote of all evill, covetousness’ in their raising of rents.
Jonson and Strange will have had something in common (if not the minister’s more puritan godliness) since Strange had a library filled with classical volumes, including eight volumes of Tulley. At almost the same age (b.c.1570) as Jonson, both had enjoyed an education shaped by classical humanism, its influence plain in Strange’s Advice of 1636 in which he terms Layston and Buntingford a ‘little commonwealth’ where it was every citizen’s duty to play his part.
Jonson was to experience a number of these ‘little commonwealths’ as he progressed north, towns in which their civic communities fretted equally about how to look after, and control the poor, at Huntingdon, Stamford, Newark etc. And as he left Buntingford, he walked along the road that joined them, a route still marked by road signs bearing its medieval name of Ermine Street. It’s a remarkably straight route, and one I’ve driven now several times at dusk, imagining Ben’s weary footsteps as he toiled up long slopes towards the light and warmth of a welcoming inn.