Bracon Ash Village

and its many links with the wider history of England

BRACON ASH is situated on the New Buckenham turnpike road (now the B1113) exactly 6 miles from Norwich - according to the milestone near the lane to the Church.

In White's Directory of 1883 it is described as 'a parish with a village in an elevated situation, and its air is pure and bracing...'!

The following is based on the Coronation Day programme, 1953, which accompanied a pageant about the history of the village researched and written by the Head teacher, Miss de Caux, and performed by children of the school.

Today's spelling is Bracon Ash, sometimes (wrongly) abbreviated into one word, but nothing to do with trees, broken or not. The words mean 'broad' and 'leas', a 'lea' of course meaning a meadow or pasture land... In ancient records are found variations such as Braccas, Bracoles, Brakene and Brakn, not always with the 'ash' included. It is clearly named 'Braken' on Christopher Saxton's map of Norfolk - the first map of any English county, first published 1574 and reproduced from the same plate for another century - and that name can be seen on some of the older gravestones in Bracon Ash church.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, a tree was planted near the bus shelter on the main road - an ash tree - that will keep alive the more usual meaning! 

The Manor(s) of Bracon Ash

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Manors of Bracon Ash and Flordon were held by Olf the Dane, who was allowed to keep part of them, probably because he does not seem to have taken up arms for King Harold against William. Much of Norfolk, including the rest of Bracon Ash, was given to Roger Bigot, a Norman Knight, by King William, and he in turn gave land in this area to a fellow-knight, Ralph Peverel.

The Peverels became a notable family, linking Bracon Ash with the history of England. Olivia Peverel, a widow with two children, was given (along with her Manors) to William de la More for 40 marks by Richard the Lion Heart when he was trying to raise money for the Third Crusade. Later, King John sold the manor in 1204, first to Hugh de Rising (for 20 marks and a palfrey), but then in the same year took it back to sell it again to Cecily de Sancto Omero for 10 marks. The next year, William Peverel regained it for his family.

In 1250, King Henry III allowed Henry Peverel to erect a ducking stool 'for scandalmongers and scolds'. In 1281, Sir Andrew Peverel had to raise a fighting force from his Manors to accompany Edward I on his campaign against Wales.

In 1362 began another connection with a famous family when Sir Hugh Peverel sold the Manor to Bartholomew Appleyard, M.P., whose son William became the first Mayor of Norwich when Henry IV made it a City on May Day, 1403......

There is then some confusion over exactly which manor was sold and which manor house was built.... By 1470 the Appleyards owned Mergate Hall which then passed to the Kemps through marriage. The Appleyards would have owned far more than this small manor and may well - as the 1953 programme claims - owned the rest of Bracon Ash and built a new and even finer manor house where Bracon Hall now stands, but there is little evidence for this.

The Appleyard family remained in Bracon Ash until 1569 and helped to make history. William helped with the defence of Norwich during the Litster rebellion (last of the Peasants' Revolt) of 1381 and Bartholomew bribed the rebels to save the city from destruction. During Kett's rebellion in 1549, two Appleyard brothers were captured by Kett's men and held hostage until they managed to escape from the rebels' camp on Mousehold Heath and were put in charge of one of the cannons defending Norwich.

But to John Appleyard - the last of the family to be associated with Bracon Ash - remains the greatest claim to fame, or at least to influence the affairs of England. Since his father had married Elizabeth Robsart, widow of Sir John Robsart and mother of Amy, John became Amy's half-brother. Little wonder he was involved in the Amy Robsart - Robert Dudley - Queen Elizabeth I scandal. It was openly said that the Queen looked with favour on Dudley, regrettably Amy's husband, and that marriage would follow if Amy was 'removed'. In 1550 she conveniently fell down the stairs at Cumnor Hall in Berkshire, where she was staying, and it was noted that Dudley seemed little interested in his wife's death. The inquest verdict was 'misadventure'.

Suicide? Amy was said to be suffering from cancer and must have felt neglected, but after so many years it must remain conjecture. For certain, Robert Dudley, already created a knight in 1559, later became Earl of Leicester. John Appleyard remained dissatisfied with the verdict - believing Amy was pushed rather than fell - and inspired the scandal which helped to prevent a possible marriage. He was arrested, confessed to blackmailing Dudley and recanted. Later, he lost his possessions when he became involved in a plot to expel Dutch and Walloon weavers from Norwich. Amy Robsart's ghost is said to walk at midnight on September 8th, the anniversary of her death, in the grounds of Rainthorpe Hall, about 3 miles south-east of Bracon Ash - the Hall then being the property of her father Sir John Robsart of Syderstone.

Bracon Ash Manor was then sold to Thomas Townsend, grandson of Sir Robert Townsend, knight, of Raynham. He married the widowed Lady Stile (nee Peryent), both with Catholic sympathies, and it may have been they who hosted Queen Elizabeth I when she dined at their home on her way to Norwich in 1578 [see below]. In 1599 the Manor passed to Sir Edwin Rich (who also held the Manor of Mulbarton); who sold it to Robert Woode in 1622 - whose father (also Robert Woode) had been created Mayor of Norwich by the Queen in 1578 and knighted at the same time. A descendant, also Robert, married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Richardson, Lord Chief Justice of England under Charles I. The Woodes held the Manor until the middle of the 18th century. Several members of the Woode family have tombs in the chancel displaying their heraldic arms, and the registers indicate that many of their large families died in infancy.

The Berneys have been Lords of the Manor since the mid-18th century when they moved from Swardeston. The Berney family maintained  traditions of the past by providing a High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1760 and in 1813 and, in the person of Thomas, a Rector of Bracon Ash for 39 years from 1856 to 1895. The present Bracon Hall was built by and for them and is still the family's home.


During all these centuries, the 98 acres of Bracon Ash that Olf the Dane had been allowed to keep, became another Manor, now known as Mergate, which also included much of the parish of next-door Flordon. During the Middle Ages it passed to the Appleyard family and when John Appleyard's daughter and heiress, Elizabeth, became the 1st wife of Robert Kemp (before 1470) he was able to add Mergate to the manors he already owned in Weston and Gissing. Even then, the Kemps were an old and renowned family ('Kemp' comes from the Saxon for 'Champion), and they were to own Mergate Hall for almost five centuries. They sold Weston to consolidate their huge estates which stretched from Bracon Ash in the north, through Flordon to Gissing in the south, and sometimes even further south and east. Elizabeth Kemp, daughter of Robert Kemp and Elizabeth Appleyard, was a Lady of the Bedchamber to the unfortunate Katherine of Aragon. Five generations later, another Robert Kemp was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber to Charles I and made a baronet - though he had to flee the country and had land confiscated for supporting the king in the Civil War.

Yet another famous name was that of Thurlow. Rev Thomas Thurlow ministered to he people of the village, though never as Rector. His eldest son, Edward - born in Bracon Ash in 1733 - became the first Baron Thurlow and Lord Chancellor from 1778-92; another son, Thomas (1737-91), became Bishop of Lincoln and later of Durham.  

Another leaflet, 'A Short History of Bracon Ash' by Ken White and Miss de Caux begins:
'It is perhaps one of the great charms of the English village that few indeed cannot look back on a varied past, a past which will quite often reveal connections with some of the greatest people in the land; yet retaining the affections of those, less exalted by today's values, who have really created the country in which we live; the 'ordinary' people to whom we owe so much. Bracon Ash has many of both.' This is abundantly true!! 


Queen Elizabeth 1 on reverse of Great Seal of England 1584 (6 years after her visit to Norwich) 

On Saturday 16th August 1578 Queen Elizabeth I and her vast retinue left Bracon Ash, where she had stayed overnight, and travelled along the Turnpike to Norwich. 

Queen Elizabeth made a tour of part of her realm during almost every summer until the end of the 1570s, and then less often until the end of her reign. It was important to her that she should be seen by her people - and meet men of influence outside London. The court got used to the upheaval, planning the itinerary well in advance, inspecting possible places to stay, and advising towns and cities on the queen's reception and entertainment. Wherever she went, the Court, all the Household departments, her Council of Ministers and Advisers went. Sometimes foreign ambassadors had to tag along, too. It was a huge undertaking. During her long reign she visited most of southern England, but she only paid one visit to Norfolk, and that 'progress' in summer 1578 is particularly well documented in two eye-witness accounts.

The Queen had no palaces of her own in Norfolk or Suffolk, so manor houses were commandeered to accommodate her. Often, lesser members of her household had to stay in whatever lodgings they could find in surrounding villages, or camp in one of the tents taken for the horses and their keepers. Mostly, the queen and her retinue rode, which meant a large number of horses had to be available. There were also pack-horses and a huge baggage-train of more than 200 four-wheeled carts, each pulled by 6 horses, that carried bedding, furniture, hangings, clothing, plate, kitchen equipment, documents, office items - everything required by Queen and Council. Special arrangements were made to acquire fuel, food and fodder from nearby farms and communities, and to have a reliable postal service wherever she stayed. Teams went in advance to make each house where the Queen stayed as much a 'home from home' as possible.

During her 'Progress' to Norwich in 1578, Elizabeth stayed in Melford Hall, Bury St. Edmunds and Euston Hall in Suffolk and was met at the boundary of Norfolk on Monday 11th August by the Sheriff of Norfolk and about 2500 horsemen, including 600 'gentlemen'. Many of these joined her entourage whilst she stayed at Kenninghall for 3 nights (where the Queens Council met twice), then came on to Bracon Ash for one night - but where did she stay?

The case for Mergate Hall is that it was then owned by the Kemps - who were also distantly related to Lady Styles through another branch of the family, which included Margaret Kemp, a lady in Queen Elizabeth's court, who bequeathed £200 to the queen when she died in 1579 to buy a necklace. There is a strong tradition within the Kemp family that is was they who hosted the queen....

However, there is a counter-claim - that she stayed in a predecessor of Bracon Hall. This claim says that there was another hall which may have been the home of Thomas 'Townesend', who was related to the Townsends of Raynham and had bought the manor of Bracon Ash some years earlier from John Appleyard. Both he and his wife, Elizabeth, Lady Styles, were 'recusants': Catholic believers who did not want to convert to Protestantism and attend Church of England services. The Queen made a point of informing suspected Catholics that she would stay with them and demand their loyalty. This view claims that Bracon Hall itself had been built by an earlier John Appleyard in the 15th century but there is little evidence of its existence and claims about ownership could have been muddled with nearby Mergate Hall.  

Wherever queen herself stayed in Bracon Ash, the hall was too small to accommodate many of the Queen's circle. Her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, had to stay at the 'next best' stately home, Stanfield Hall (on the Wymondham Road), owned by Edward Flowerdew but which had also once belonged to John Appleyard (junior). This must have been rather embarrassing, because this John Appleyard had acquired Stanfield Hall through his marriage to Elizabeth Robsart. Her daughter, Amy, had married Robert Dudley - but after 10 years was found dead at the foot of the stairs of her house with a broken neck. Did she fall or was she pushed? The Earl of Leicester did not attend his wife's grand funeral, which fuelled rumours that Dudley had arranged her murder in order to marry the Queen.... Now he had to stay the night in a house associated with Amy, hosted by a man distantly related to her by marriage, among people who regarded her as a local heiress whose death was no 'accident'.

Many people must have stayed in Bracon Ash and villages around, so it would have taken awhile for everyone to gather together for a late morning meal and then set off towards Norwich. What excitement there must have been in Mulbarton, Swardeston and other villages along the road! And they were near enough Norwich for people to join the festivities there, and maybe earn some money as well.

In Norwich, a large procession of noble gentlemen, wealthy citizens, handsome young men, the mayor and 24 aldermen, the Recorder, the Sheriff and former Sheriffs, left the city itself at 1 pm to meet the Queen at Harford Bridge. She was cheered by a large crowd; the mayor gave a speech in Latin, and presented her with the sword of the city and a silver cup containing £100 in gold. After more speeches, everyone processed to the city through the newly repaired and decorated St. Stephen's gate. Fortunately the next day, Sunday, was a day of rest! The Queen stayed with the Bishop of Norwich until the afternoon of Friday 22nd August, when she moved to Kimberley Hall. But the Lords of her Council stayed on, to hold trials of (important) people who still refused to attend Church of England services. The Norwich visit is described in glowing terms as a great success, but sadly soon afterwards the city was struck by plague. Understandably, it was blamed on the Queen's 'progress'.

Based on 'An Elizabethan Progress' by Zillah Dovey (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1996)