The Estate of Handley Park, Northamptonshire, 1601-1939

Handley Park (also sometimes spelled Hanley Park) was part of a large ancient woodland in Northamptonshire, a few miles west of Towcester. It was purchased from the Crown in 1629 by Sir Simon Bennet, who had matriculated from University College in 1602. Bennet’s father, Sir Thomas Bennet, had been Lord Mayor of London in 1603–4, and the family was prosperous and eminent enough that Bennet himself was created a baronet in July 1627. Bennet, however, was childless, and the baronetcy expired on his death.

It seems that Sir Simon had acquired Handley Park with a very specific purpose in mind. He died in August 1631, and his will, made just a few days before his death, revealed his ambitious plans for his new estate. First of all, the timber on Handley Park was to be cut down and sold off, and the proceeds used to subsidise the building of a new quadrangle at University College. Secondly, the deforested estate would then be turned over to farmland, and rented out. The income from this property would then support a number of new Fellows and Scholars at the College. Bennet left no instructions for their number, merely suggesting that the College elect as many as the income from the estate would allow, and asking that there be an equal number of Fellows and Scholars. He also left no instructions as to the method of their selection.

Information in documents like UC:E14/L1/10 suggests that Bennet had been planning this benefaction for some time, and had made the College aware of his intentions. The reason for his remarkable generosity is unknown, and may simply arise from an affection for the College engendered during his time here. It is suggestive that Bennet’s tutor was Charles Greenwood (F. 1597–1614), a popular and respected Fellow, who kept in touch with the College and his former pupils long after he moved to a living in Yorkshire. It is at least possible that Greenwood advised Bennet on the nature of his benefaction.

Despite Bennet’s best intentions, the College endured a long and difficult struggle to create his endowment as he had hoped, thanks to his family. A genealogy of Bennet family given in UC:E14/L6/22 shows that Bennet himself married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Arthur Ingram. He had a brother, Richard, who had a son, also called Simon. Richard Bennet predeceased his brother, and so Simon Bennet the younger became Sir Simon Bennet’s heir, subject to dower rights to Elizabeth Bennet. Simon Bennet the younger had two guardians, namely his mother, Dame Elizabeth Finch, and Francis Finch.

In the years immediately following Sir Simon Bennet’s death, all went well: work started on a new quadrangle at University College in 1634. However, after Elizabeth Bennet’s death in 1636, matters became more complicated, as the College found itself in dispute both with the trustees of Bennet’s will (who included his former father-in-law Sir Arthur Ingram) and the guardians of Simon Bennet the younger. In particular, the guardians of Simon Bennet the younger claimed a right to the estate and the timber sales, and so in 1638 and 1639 the College had to take them to court in both the Court of Chancery and the Court of Wards. Documents concerning these lawsuits may be found at UC:E14/L1–L2 below.

On 14 Nov 1639 the Court of Chancery decided in favour of University College (UC:E14/L2/24). The Court made it clear, however, that it had no business to decide on the number or nature of Fellows or Scholars to be funded from the Bennet estate. On 27 Jan 1639/40 the trustees handed the property over to the College (UC:E14/D2/12), and work resumed on the new quadrangle. The College also began to lease the estate out. On the other hand, the College had to negotiate with the Bennet family on the nature of the Bennet Fellows and Scholars, the Bennet Family seeking a larger number of both, and demanding that half the places be reserved for relatives of Sir Simon himself (a condition never mentioned in Sir Simon’s will), and the College (with the support of the Chancellor of Oxford, William Laud) seeking a smaller number.

Unfortunately, all the College’s best efforts were undone by the Civil Wars of the 1640s, when nothing could be done on the estate. After the end of the war, and the Parliamentary Visitation of Oxford, which led to the ejection of the Master, Thomas Walker, and several Fellows, Simon Bennet the younger and his supporters took the College to court over the Bennet Foundation. In December 1649 the Court of Chancery ordered a settlement which matched the demands of the Bennet family. A larger number of Fellows and Scholars were to be elected, half of whom had to be founder’s kin. Furthermore, the finances of the Bennet Foundation should be managed entirely separately from those of the rest of the College.

During the 1650s, it became clear that the Bennet family had been overambitious, as the Handley estate proved unable to support the number of Fellows and Scholars demanded under this settlement. In addition, the system of two separate foundations left the College’s finances in a chaotic mess. In 1661, therefore, Thomas Walker (now reinstated as Master) took the Bennet family back to court, and had the 1649 settlement overturned. The new settlement provided for fewer Fellows and Scholars, and made no reference to places for founder’s kin. It also decreed that the finances of the Bennet foundation be amalgamated with those of the rest of the College. Bennet Scholarships would be open to any applicant, irrespective of birthplace, but Bennet Fellows could only be elected from among the ranks of Bennet Scholars. These were the first Fellowships at University College open to people from outside the north east of England.

Although the College had achieved a better settlement for the Handley Park estate, there remained a problem. From the 1650s to the 1670s, the tenant of Handley was always a trustee acting for Ambrose Bennet, a nephew of Sir Simon Bennet, and a former Bennet Fellow of University College from 1649–c. 1658. During Ambrose Bennet’s de facto tenancy, much was done to turn the estate over to arable purposes, and a farmhouse was erected on the estate at this time. However, Bennet proved an exceptionally difficult tenant, being slow to pay his rents, and highly disputatious and litigious to boot (more on the College’s dealings with him can be found in UC:E14/L7 and UC:E14/C1). Eventually the College sued Bennet for rent arrears, but Bennet, who had been accumulating debts from many sources, unexpectedly fled to Jamaica in February 1672, where he died in August that year. More information on Bennet’s colourful life can be found in the two articles by Jack Zoeller below.

After the departure of Ambrose Bennet from Handley Park, the management of the property appears to have settled down to normality, and Bennet’s foundation at last worked as he had intended. At the turn of the 20th century, the College enlarged its estate at Handley, acquiring two pieces of glebe land in 1885 and 1925, and the neighbouring property of Rignals Farm in 1905. Deeds concerning these properties can be found at UC:E14/D4–D6 below.

The College retained the Handley Park estate until the 1970s, when it was decided to sell them off in three transactions between 1971 and 1975 (copies of the related conveyances may be found at UC:EB1/A/11 pp. 175, 186 and 267).

All the documents in this collection were found in the archives during the stocktaking of 1993 with the exception of the following, which were all transferred from the Estates Bursary:

    UC:E14/M1/2–3 were transferred in December 2001 as part of Acc. 307.
    UC:E14/D4/1, UC:E14/D5/1–48, and UC:E14/D6/1–4 were transferred in July 2002 as part of Acc. 378.
    UC:E14/D3/52–54 and UC:E14/M1/9 were transferred in December 2007 as part of Acc. 753.
    UC:E14/C4/39, UC:E14/F3/27–33 and 35–45, and UC:E14/M1/8 were transferred in December 2015 as part of Acc. 1171.

The archives of University College contain other significant collections concerning Handley Park. First of all, the papers of Thomas Walker, Master from 1632–48 and 1660–5 (UC:MA26) include several items relating to Walker’s attempts to achieve a settlement for the estate and to manage its finances. Secondly, the College was given some papers in the 1960s by Lord Boothby concerning Handley Park which originated from Temple Newsam Park, the home of Sir Arthur Ingram, Sir Simon Bennet’s father-in-law (UC:P164). The archives also include a set of accounts created by Ambrose Bennet when he was Bursar for the Bennet Foundation for 1653–4, when its finances were still managed separately (UC:S11/F1/1).

Further Reading:

Robin Darwall-Smith, A History of University College, Oxford (Oxford, 2008), pp. 156–64, 173–5, 181, and 184.    
Jack Zoeller, “Ambrose Bennet: College Fellow, Adventurer, and Scoundrel—I”, University College Record, Vol. 14 no. 3 (2007), pp. 95–104.
Jack Zoeller, “Ambrose Bennet II: London Orphan, Virginia Planter, and Oxford Fellow”, University College Record, Vol. 15 no. 1 (2008), pp. 95–110.

The collection has been arranged as follows:.

UC:E14/D1 - Deeds on the acquisition of the site of Handley Park by Sir Simon Bennet, 1601–31
UC:E14/D2 - Deeds on the acquisition of the site of Handley Park by University College, 1631–40
UC:E14/D3 - Leases of Handley Park and related papers, 1636–1939
UC:E14/D4 - Deeds concerning the purchase of a portion of glebe land from the parish of Towcester, 1885
UC:E14/D5 - Deeds concerning Rignals Farm (purchased 1905), 1714–1905
UC:E14/D6 - Purchase of a second portion of glebe land from the parish of Towcester, 1925
UC:E14/L1 - Papers on the lawsuit between University College and the trustees of Bennet’s will, 1637–9
UC:E14/L2 - Papers on the lawsuit between University College and the guardians of Simon Bennet the younger, 1638–9
UC:E14/L3 - Papers concerning attempts at a settlement of the Bennet estate, 1639–41
UC:E14/L4 - Papers on the lawsuit between University College and John and Thomas Jackson, 1640–53
UC:E14/L5 - Papers on the 1649 settlement of the Bennet Estate, 1647–50
UC:E14/L6 - Papers on the 1662 settlement of the Bennet Estate, 1661–1721
UC:E14/L7 - Papers on lawsuits between University College and Ambrose Bennet, 1651–73
UC:E14/L8 - Certificate for a Bennet Fellows’ stipend, 1835
UC:E14/C1 - Correspondence with Ambrose Bennet and related papers, 1659–97         
UC:E14/C2 - Correspondence on tithe and rate payments at Handley, 1641–1854
UC:E14/C3 - Later 17th century Correspondence, 1678–87
UC:E14/C4- General 18th–20th Correspondence, 1788–1914
UC:E14/E1 - Surveys, rentals and extents of Handley Park, 1631–1824
UC:E14/F1 - Accounts for Ralph Radcliffe, 1636–40
UC:E14/F2 - Later 17th century financial records, 1673–5
UC:E14/F3 - Later Financial records, 1730–1927
UC:E14/F4 - Papers on the Handley allotments, 1881–91
UC:E14/MS1 - Notes on Handley Park, 1911–1936
UC:E14/M1 - Maps and Plans, 1652–1936
UC:E14/N1 - Press cutting, 1932
UC:E14/X1 - Printed Poster, 1818

The complete text of the catalogue may be downloaded as a PDF file here.