A riches to rags saga

Everybody loves a ‘rags to riches’ story. It’s the stuff of all the best novels and fairy tales, especially at panto time! But here, in Northamptonshire, we’ve had a true story that’s the exact opposite, a reversal of fortune that’s quite literally, riches to rags.

Brampton Ash stands proudly on high ground near Desborough. For a small community it’s had more than its fair share of highs and lows! For centuries it was home to the Norwich family.

They originated from Norfolk; Hugh de Norwich had sided with King Henry II against Stephen and as a reward was given Norwich Castle and the family was given the title, Earls of Norfolk and Suffolk.

In 1427, one descendant, Simon de Norwich, through marriage to Margaret Holt, came by the manors of Brampton Ash and Islip and the Northamptonshire dynasty began. They married into some of the county’s leading families. For instance, Charles who died in 1605, married Anne Watson, of Rockingham Castle.

By 1641 they were well up in court life and King Charles I created John Norwich 1st Baronet. His son, Sir Roger, was MP for Northamptonshire and married into the Fermors of Easton Neston.

The Norwich family had huge estates all over Northamptonshire and a magnificent home at Brampton Hall. But there was an old saying in the village that ‘The Norwiches rose and fell by the smiles of a woman’.

In the next century, that’s what happened to Sir William. He never married, instead he spent his time womanising, hunting, gambling and leading the life of a very indulgent wastrel.

Mixing with the rich and famous was all very well, but he met his match in the beautiful Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, wife of the victor at the Battle of Blenheim. He met her at a card table and her smile certainly demolished him.

He lost everything, his fortune, his home and estates, even his good name and reputation. He died in 1741 and was buried, without trace, in St Mary’s Church,in Brampton Ash. Through Sarah everything passed to the Spencers of Althorp. Earl Spencer is still Patron of the Parish.

The baronetage passed to a relation, but there was no money left and nowhere to live. A generation or two lived and died with no increase in fame or fortune. Then in the 1860s, we hear the Norwich name once more when a Sir John must have fallen on very hard times, as he died in Kettering’s Parish Workhouse.

His son, Sir Samuel, inherited the title and he, it is said, worked as a sawyer in Kettering although I can find no record of him. He died leaving a widow, Lady Mary, who was so desperate for an income that she earned money by taking in washing. It was all she could do, for tradition says she was uneducated and barely literate. She died in 1860 when she was over 80.