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Tudors and Stuarts

Tudors and Stuarts

The Tudor and Stewart period in Forest history was a time when iron was being produced locally in large amounts, possibly one sixth of the production of the Kingdom was coming from the Forest of Dean.

This early industrial revolution' was not achieved without social effect, and, as we shall see, one family had a profound influence on both iron production and local affairs - they were the Wintour family of Lydney. The Winters had a part to play in the Civil War, taking the side of the King against local sentiment which favoured the Parliamentarian cause.

However we will pick up the story at the time of Sir William Wintour, a favoured admiral of Elizabeth the first. He was granted the manor of Lydney in 1588 in recognition of his services against the Spanish armada. It is believed that Sir William built White Cross Manor in Lydney. The connection of the Wintour family went back at least one generation as John Wintour (d. 1546), William's father, also owned a house in Lydney. The linage continued with William's son Edward, who also had a naval career, and was knighted in 1595. He was obviously an important man in his time as he was warden of the Forest and Constable of St Briavals during the period 1601-1608. He died in 1619. So we come to the main player in our story - Sir John Wintour - who was born in about 1602.

Before we unfold his deeds we should place into context the use of the Forest and it's assets at the time of Sir John Wintour. The Forest had originally been used for Royal hunting and had no other purpose. Later the timber of the Forest was used to produce charcoal to fire the iron furnaces and also to build naval ships. Timber was also sold illegally to coopers and carpenters, as was oak bark to tanners. There was often a conflict between those needing the timber for charcoal production and those requiring timber to build ships for the navy. The government of the day was not always clear in it's policy, as leasing the Forest to those who made iron produced a good income for the Treasury. However on the other hand the policy of leasing land to unscrupulous iron masters often meant that the reserves of naval timber were used in iron production. The activities of the iron masters in denuding the Forest of trees and of fencing off parts also led to local unrest as commoners often illegally cleared sections of the Forest themselves. The commoners were used to having access to common pasturage and had ancient rights to mine anywhere they chose within the Forest. None of this sat easily with the rights associated with grants awarded by the crown.

It was around 1625 that Sir John Wintour became active as an iron master. During the course of his life he became the second most important iron master in the realm, at one point owning six furnaces and eight forges. In six years between 1628 and 1634 he produced more than 11000 tons of iron in his furnaces. However over zealous clearing over timber led him to be called to account in July 1634 when he confessed and was fined £20,230.

This setback did not prevent him being appointed Secretary to Queen Henrietta Maria in May 1638. Perhaps he was able to use his position to advantage because in 1640 he signed an agreement with the Crown whereby he would pay £106,000 over six years, and an annual farm fee of £1951 to secure the timber and mineral rights to 18000 acres of Royal demesne (Forest) land. The agreement called for him to supply an amount of wood to the King's own ironworks and to preserve 15000 tons of ship timber for the Crown. This grant of lease to Sir John gave him control of most of the ore and iron mines and timber production in the Forest area. His activities in enclosing and felling made him very unpopular locally. The Long Parliament' of the time ordered an inquiry and collected evidence of misappropriation of ship's timber and other abuses of his grant. He was deprived of his grant by Parliament in 1642, and the commoners took their chance to demolish the enclosures he had erected.

The Civil War intervenes in our story at this point. The lands of the Forest stood between Royalist Chepstow and Parliamentarian Gloucester. Sir John Wintour was a Royalist and so he made Whitecross Manor a fortified Royalist stronghold in an area where most of the inhabitants had Parliamentarian sympathies. There were no major battles in the area but there were a number of skirmishes between the opposing forces, with Edward Massey, the commander at Gloucester, wasting no opportunity to travel to the Forest to attack Sir John. In one incident in May 1644, whilst Sir John was away, Mary Wintour (his wife) beat off an attack on Whitecross Manor.

However Sir John was ultimately unable hold off the Royalist attackers and in 1645, rather than allow Whitecross fall into the hands of the Commonwealth, he burnt it down. In May 1645 Sir John left England for France with Queen Henrietta. His ironworks, which were important for the Royalist cause, were destroyed by Parliamentary troops.

In 1649 Sir John was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but by 1652 his position had improved to such an extent that he was free to buy back his estate from the Parliamentary Commissioners. The purchase left him in debt and he was forced to sell off a large part of his estate. He resumed ironmaking by constructing a new furnace in the grounds of Whitecross Manor. The restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II in 1660, led an upturn in the fortunes of Sir John. We can catch a glimpse of the affairs of this remarkable man in the diary of Samuel Pepys in an extract from 20th June 1662;

"Up by 4 or 5 o'clock and to the office and there draw up an agreement between the King and Sir John Wintour about the Forest of Dean: and having done it, he came himself, whom I observed be a man of fine parts; and we read it, and both liked it well. That done I turned the Forest of Dean, in Speedes Maps, and there he showed me how it lies; and the Leabayley with the great charge of carrying it Lydney, and many other things worth knowing."

By 1663 Sir John had re-established control over much of the area and allegedly had as many as 500 woodcutters working in the Forest. Somewhat inevitably by 1667 his controversial over activity in timber cutting was again a matter for Parliament. We know that by 1674 his son William was providing an annuity for him, so presumably he had retired from business by then. He was dead by 1687.

The estate remained in the hands of the Wintour family until 1723 when Dame Francis Wintour sold it to Benjamin Bathurst, son of Sir Benjamin Bathurst of Cirencester. The residual estate remains in the hands of the Bathurst family to this day.

The history of the Wintour family still resonates through the local area. Whitecross School now occupies the site of Whitecross Manor and furnace, with the fortified banks created to defend the Manor house in the civil war still being visible in the school playing fields. A little further away, just outside Woodcroft on the Chepstow to Coleford road is the stretch of river cliffs known as Wintours leap. Legend has it that when the Parliamentarians attacked Whitecross Manor for the final time, Sir John escaped on horseback but was chased to the cliffs where his pursuers presumably thought they had him cornered. He went over the cliffs on horseback, the legend has him leaping, but pathways do exist and it possible that he knew of a way down that certainly his pursuers did not. He was allegedly taken on board a Royalist ship laying at anchor in the River Wye at the foot of the cliffs. A remarkable escape for a remarkable man!

Article provided by the Forest of Dean History Society.

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