Cheltenham in the 12th Century...
And the Very Well Connected First Known Resident of Arle
In Volume 2 of the History of Hesters Way it is conjectured that the land which later became known as the Arle Court Estate was of particular significance from earliest times because of its close proximity to Gloucester - where many historically important people and events played a major role in English history.
After a long and comparatively peaceful reign, Henry I died in 1135 and a bitter civil war broke out between his daughter Matilda and his nephew King Stephen as rivals for the English Crown. Much of the action was in the West Country and Gloucester in particular. Stephen was at one stage imprisoned in Gloucester Castle. Matilda claimed the Crown, and in her brief reign she appointed one of her most loyal supporters, Miles of Gloucester, Earl of Hereford. His ancestors, the de Pistres family who had arrived with William Fitz-Osbern (who died in 1067) had been given the title by William the Conqueror. Roger de Pistres (died 1086 and buried in Gloucester Abbey) was Constable of Gloucester Castle and Sheriff of the County, and his son Walter was the first to use the name 'de Gloucester', where the local administration was controlled by this family until 1159.
As one of the most important Barons in the county Matilda also gave Miles, among many other lands, the Manor of Cheltenham. After his death on 25 December 1143 (whilst hunting in the Forest of Dean) he was succeeded by his eldest son known as Walter of Hereford. He gave the small manor of Redgrove (part of the Arle Court Estate) to Llanthony Priory, Gloucester, which Miles himself had founded, and where he was buried.
Walter himself became a monk in Llanthony and was succeeded by his brother Roger, the second son of Miles, who inherited the Earldom and all the lands which belonged to his father, an event which was to have special significance in the history of Arle. Recorded in the Cartulary of Cirencester Abbey is confirmation by Roger of a gift of 30 acres of land in Arle which his man, Walter of Brussels made to the church of Cheltenham in exchange for a service three days a week in his chapel at Arle. Here we have the name of a man actually living in Arle in the mid 12th Century, by courtesy of a member of one of the most influential and powerful families in the West Country. This gift was further confirmed by Simon the Bishop of Worcester (1125-50) who, at a date between 1143 and 1150, and at the request of the mother church of Cheltenham consecrated the graveyard at Arle.
Who then was the mysterious Walter of Brussels? Was he, as has been suggested, a Flemish mercenary, recruited by Matilda or Stephen, and rewarded by one of them for services rendered with the Arle Court Estate, a practice of long standing? Or was he a merchant engaged in the business of exporting wool to the weavers of his native country? This trade was readily available in this area, including that from the large flocks of sheep being reared by St. Peter's Abbey.
Sadly it seems that Walter's origins will remain an enigma forever, as will the identity of a Waltero de Arle, who was witness to a notification by Robert Bishop of Hereford of a settlement, at a date between 1174 and 1186, between Reginald the Priest and the Canons of Cirencester Abbey concerning the vicarage at Cheltenham.
It is an intriguing thought however that Walter of Brussels or Walter of Arle (who could be one and the same man) might well be the forerunner of the family of the same name who are known to have lived in Arle from the 13th to the late 15th Century, when Margaret the daughter and heiress of John de Arle married Robert Greville of Charlton Kings and the Arle Court Estate passed into his hands. There is also the possibility that he may have been a member of the de Hereford family, perhaps entrusted with an important role in the civil administration of Gloucester and surrounds, who had received the desirable Arle Court estate by way of a 'golden handshake'.
Cottage opp. The Cross Hands
The earliest documentary evidence of a Court house at Arle is not until 1605 which probably refers to that built by the Lygon family (of Worcester until 1541), but there is a suggestion that there was an earlier house on the same site, or very near, which was moated, and close by was the all important long established Arle Mill. John Lygon (d. 1644 at Arle Court) was Lord of the Manor of Arle in 1608.
A chapel is mentioned at Arle in an 18th century deed relating to the Court House. It is said that recumbent effigies and flat grave stones of the Crusader period as well as Norman stonework were dug up in the 19th Century and according to a record of 1803, a massive beam bearing the sacred monogram in Norman-Latin and the date 1250 was found, but it is not recorded exactly where. It is interesting to note however that in 1250 it is known that a certain Simon was Chaplain of Arle, and that he was the son of Michael the miller of Arle.
The stained glass window
The stone building attached to the east end of the house is often mistaken for the chapel, but this is said to have been added as a potato barn. There was a smaller building attached to the north side of the house, the size of which can be determined by the marks on the external wall where the roof joined the house. There were steps down into it and it was dark and damp, and the floor was of stone slabs about 3 feet 6 inches by 2 feet in size, black with roman numerals on each, which Mr. Moot the owner at the time sold to a teacher at Arle School. There was also what could have been a small altar on which used to grow mushrooms.
A beam in the ceiling of the sitting room of Arle Court is said to represent a complete tree - and tradition has it that the stained glass window in the black and white cottage opposite the Cross Hands came from the Arle Court chapel.