The history of Shephall Manor is one of part of an apparently insignificant agricultural village of roughly a hundred souls set in about twelve hundred acres ( five hides ), near to the Great North Road, thirty miles from London ( in the 1779 Estate map, Field 105 is called Milestone Close ) and within walking distance of Stevenage, now a town of about eighty thousand people ( 2002 ). Less than a mile further up the Great North Road towards Stevenage is one of the best preserved sets of Roman burial mounds in England called the Six Hills, although there have been no Roman traces have ever been found in Shephall yet.
However, the more I have delved into the history of Shephall the more I realise that it is the history of all of England and what makes up the history of the English. Late Iron age ditches ( 100 to 50 years BC ) were uncovered near the site of the present manor house in 2002 when an archaeological survey was carried out prior to the Egyptian Coptic Church building a cathedral in the grounds. The lives of all the people that have gone before leave traces that affect our own. How could a now, small insignificant hamlet, on the edge of Shephall, called Broadwater ( Saxon Bradewatre ), give its name to one of the eight Hundreds of Hertfordshire ( it was in fact a double hundred and stretched from Baldock down to Welwyn ), unless it was in times before the Domesday book, indeed a great lake. It has always puzzled me as to the alignment of the main road into Shephall village, but if you imagine it dropping down to a great lake or marsh this could be the reason, also as to why Aston ( east facing ) was so called, what did it face? Before the time of the Domesday book there is talk of draining the great marsh in Shephall. Perhaps the marsh was the early source of food for the first settlers? One of the oldest things ever found in Shephall was a partly polished Neolithic axe in Aston Lane in 1945, it was found near the present site of a very old peat bog now called Ridlins Mire ( looked after by the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Nature Conservancy ). These axes were generally to be used for ceremonial purposes, perhaps at a sacred site, was it lost in the marsh before it could be fully polished?
The word 'bury' is common in North Hertfordshire and is said to come from the old Saxon word 'burgh' meaning a strong or fortified place and the earliest recording I can find is of 'Shephall berey' from Margaret Nodes's brass plaque in 1582.
Here under lyeth the bodye of Margaret Noodes ye wyfe of Gorge Noodes late of Shephall berey Sargyaunt of ye Bucke Houndes unto Kinge Henry Kinge Edward Quene Mary & Quene Elizabeth, which Margaret deceassed the vjtth daye of January in the yeare of our Lord God 1582.
There is said to be traces of an older house in the Rectory, recently renovated by the church and this could be a contender for the first known house if it can be dated, but at the present time I believe the first Manor house was adjacent to Shephall Lane, to the south of the main village and church and was probably moated as a defence in troubled times, like the one in Whomerley Wood only two miles away which is thought to have been occupied from Roman to Medieval times. The 'moat', as called by the villagers, next to Shephall Lane, existed up until the building of the Stevenage New Town in 1946 was possibly one side of the enclosure, I have been told by a then resident of Leaf Springs ( just across the way from Broadhall Way ) that when the council drained the moat about 1960 and were about to fill it in he noticed and unusual sharp v shape to the sides ( perhaps in times past a moat?)
The churchyard is an oval mound produced by years of burials and is probably pre - Christian in origin. George Nodes was Master of the Buckhounds to Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and in the quaint brasses of George and his wife Margaret can be seen the evolution of the English spelling.
Here lyeth the body of George Nodes Gentylma Sargeante of ye bockehoundes to Kyng Henry viijth, Edward ye vjth Quene Mary and to Quene Elyzabeth which Dyed the xvij daye of May ano 1564 and Margaret his wyff dyed the -- daye of -- ano 15 --
What would have happened to English history if George Nodes' employer Henry VIII had died early a few miles away hawking ( instead of hunting deer ) near Hitchin in 1525 , would the dissolution of the monasteries have taken place five years later without Henry VIII? How different English history could have been.
Through the inscriptions in the church on Shephall Green and entries in the parish registers the influence of Latin, the language of the learned, can be seen. It was interestingly said of Shakespeare, that he knew little Latin and even less Greek. We can be very grateful that this was so and during the Elizabethan age the English vocabulary grew by a quarter and the language that we know today began to evolve. One of George Nodes' 'natural' ( illegitimate? ) daughters, Joan, married Thomas Chapman of Tilehouse Street in Hitchin and was the mother of George Chapman, the great playwright and scholar, who lived later in London and certainly knew William Shakespeare and was by some for some short time considered a better author! His great claim to fame was that he translated Homer's Illiad ( 1598 ) and Odyssey (1616 ) into the English language for the first time, he considered it his greatest achievement in life. When George ( a name the Nodes were fond of ) died penniless in 1634 Inigo Jones paid for his tomb in St Giles in the Fields.
History often just seems to record births and deaths of nobility but consider the human side when looking at Charles Nodes. He became a Sheriff of Hertfordshire and his father wrote the following touching letter to Charles's sister's ( Jane ) husband during the English Civil War in 1642
Thanke you for sendinge your children unto us I was verye glad to see them. I am ould and crasye [ ill ] and I doubt wether I shall see them againe, wee thinke the tymes more dangerous now then ever they were I praye God amend them. I should have bynn glad to have seene Will but he being in a place infected I thinke you did better to let him staye then to bringe him home to indannger the Familye. I have received of your servannt Stephenn ₤33‑6s‑8d for intearest monye which this my letter ‑ will acknowledge the receit. Mrs. Keeling my wyfe and my selfe had a desire the chillderen should have staied untill the tymes had bynn better settled. I make noe question if they growe more dangerous you will send for them speedelye. I have bynn bould to send your Godsonne and myne and a kinswoman of my wyfes her Sister Tonyes daughter in your Coach to London which ware verye well pleased wich theire iorrnye [ journey ] And thus with my love and my wyffes unto your selfe and your Ladye I rest.
This 16 of Aprill Your assured lovinge Father in Lawe 1642 Geo. Nodes
Charles who died aged 48, married twice and saw his first wife and five children die before him but four children survived from his second marriage. His oldest son George died on 9th April 1654, at that time new year started on the 25th March ( not changed to 1st January until 1752 ) so he was only 14 and not 15 as he would be on our calendar ( George was born on 5th March 1639 and died on 9th April 1654 at the age of 14 years and 16 days ). His other son John died within a few years and the 3rd son Edmund died in 1663 whilst up at Cambridge University. His remaining daughter Elizabeth married the Earl of Westmorland, who was a famous waster, he once lost £500 on a game of cards he had never seen before! Elizabeth sadly died in childbirth within 2 years of the marriage but her mother Francis married again after Charles's death and lived to be 81 and was finally buried in Shephall church with her second husband. What a tangled web life and death can weave.
When Pepys stayed in the Swan Inn down in the small town of Stevenage on the Great North Road in 1667 just after the Great Fire and Plague in London, he rejoiced to meeting Richard Bowcocke again, the Innkeeper, Sarah Nodes had been his first wife in 1655 but she died in 1660. Incidentally in 1706 George Nodes actually owned the Swan Inn ( the lease in my possession ) and rented it out to Richard Nodes, citizen and Ironmonger of London, for one year for the princely sum of four shillings. Struggle with the obscure language of Legal English of 1706 when trying to decipher the lease for the Swan Inn, then one can appreciate part of how the English language evolved.
Hogarth visited Shephalbury in 1739 to paint Katherine Nodes ( nee Vaslet ), the painting I believe now hangs somewhere in Geneva, Switzerland. She was later claimed to be a Vicomtesse by one of her descendants and there hasn't been too many of them living in Shephall over the centuries.
The last remaining male line of the Nodes, again another George died in India in 1766 and the estate split into three parts. A product of this is the beautiful Estate Book produced in 1779.
There is evidence that the estate in some part was occupied by the Heathcotes from 1818, a certain Mr. S.H.U. Heathcote purchased Wymondley Bury, 254 acres of land and the Priory Estate , all in Wymondley, near Hitchin in 1806 ( not to be sold until 1922 ) so the family must have been living locally possibly. But the eventual reunion of the Shephalbury Estate was in 1838 by Samuel Heathcote Unwin Heathcote when he purchased the final part of the estate and started the Heathcote line for 100 years or more and gave us the present Manor House. I am told upon the final sale of the manor the family fortune was invested in a Kenyan Coffee Farm that was later nationalised with little or no compensation. There is a saying that it takes one generation to earn a fortune, the second to consolidate it and the third to lose it.
The present house is an excellent example of early Victorian Gothic and when I finally had the privilege of taking the Listings Assessor ( probably not his official title ) around the building in 1999 he instantly thought that it would qualify. He said it was as though they had ordered it from a mail order catalogue i.e. Gothic windows, gargoyles, Georgian staircase etc. Later it was given Grade II listed status.
Kenneth Heathcote, who now lives in Norwich, has been incredibly supportive of our efforts to save the manor and many of the items seen on this site have been freely given by him, for posterity.
Mary Spicer has kindly given permission to publish her excellent book on the village of Shephall "Tyme out of Mind" on this website for, "Yesterday's children and today's and tomorrow's."
The present house was built in 1864 for the Heathcote family and was used by them up to the 1920's when it went into a variety of uses as a private home, as a school Polish refugees after the 2nd World war and as a residential school for problem boys from London between 1960 and 1990. At the present ( 2003) it is used as Sunday School for an Egyptian Coptic church in London. This is probably at least the 3rd house on the site although the two earlier ones were nearer to the old Shephall Lane.
For details of the present owners of the building