St Neots links to Royalty

Blog Editorial May 2022

To celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in May 2022, we take a lighthearted look at local links with Royalty. As far as we know Elizabeth II never visited St Neots so we have tried to find any local links to royalty that we can, from ancient coins to visits by medieval kings and local people who have met royalty.

Our earliest link is to the Iron Age ruler of the St Neots area, Cunobelin leader of the Catuvellauni tribe. Whom the Roman writer Sutonius, called the King of the Britons.  This small gold coin has CUN standing for Cunobelin stamped on it and is part of the hoard of gold Iron Age coins found at Kimbolton and now part of the museum collection.

Coin of Cunobelin, AD40

Casting round for other royal links we recalled that St Neot himself was said by some ancient sources to have been one of the brothers of King Alfred the Great who ruler England 870 – 899. Alfred was famous for uniting England and fighting off the Vikings who raided England and tried to conquer the whole country. There is no evidence that St Neot and King Alfred were in fact related, but sources do suggest that they knew each other.

Not all rulers were as successful as Alfred and a coin, which was found close to the local village of Southoe, shows King Ethelred, who reigned 978 – 1013. He was known as Ethelred the unready because he was unable to expel the Vikings from Britain and preferred to pay the invaders enormous bribes not to attack the country.

Drawing of coin of Ethelred the Unready, AD990

After the Norman conquest of 1066, St Neots priory was rebuilt and we know that King Henry II visited the Priory in 1156, when he was a young man at the beginning of his reign. Perhaps he brought with him his friend Thomas Becket, whom he later fell out with and whom some of Henry’s knights murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This beautiful medieval casket designed to hold a relic of Becket was found in St Neots in 1765 and is now in the V&A museum in London. The glory days of the St Neots Priory were the 1200s and King Henry III, a pious but weak ruler, visited the Priory three times in the 1200s (1229, 1235 and 1236).

Coronation of Henry III in 1216

St Neots remained a small market town throughout the medieval period, dominated by the larger surrounding towns. It was in July 1533 that Queen Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was brought to Buckden Palace, the home of the Bishop of Lincoln, where she was imprisoned while Henry struggled to divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn. Catherine was later moved to Kimbolton Castle where she died in January 1536.

Perhaps the most important Tudor royal link was the link created when Henry VIII closed all the monasteries in Britain after the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. St Neots Priory closed in 1539 and was demolished and all the building materials and contents were sold off. Sadly, no-one knows what happened to the body of St Neot.

The dissolution of the monasteries marked the beginning of a new era for the country symbolised by the religious toleration and increasing prosperity of the later Tudor period. In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I stayed close to St Neots at Hinchinbrooke House, outside Huntingdon, when she visited Cambridge university.

Other members of the royal family passed close to St Neots as they travelled the country. In 1835 Princess Victoria and her party, stopped to change horses at the Cock Inn on the Great North Road in Eaton Socon. There she was charmed by a landlord’s young daughter and is reputed to have said ‘What a pretty child, I should like to kiss her’, and the child was held up and the princess kissed her.

Once Victoria became Queen she and her husband, Prince Albert, became hugely popular as they developed a new style of friendly and approachable royal family. When their eldest son Prince Albert (later Edward VII) married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, the whole country celebrated. This photograph shows the decorations put up in Cambridge Street, St Neots to celebrate the wedding and is one of the earliest photographs we have of the street.

Cambridge Street decorated for the wedding of Prince Albert, 1863

In 1870 when Joseph Barringer, a baker in St Neots heard that Queen Victoria would be travelling by train along the Great Northern Line and stopping at Peterborough he determined to present the queen with a bunch of grapes he had grown in his own heated greenhouse. He travelled to Peterborough station and was allowed to present the grapes to Victoria on his best silver salver, they were graciously received – but Mr Barringer never saw his silver salver again!

Many years later in 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated 60 years on the throne – her Diamond Jubilee.  A national bank holiday was declared for Tuesday 22nd June 1897 and special celebrations were held across Britain and the Empire. In St Neots a committee was formed and organised a whole range of celebrations, including a street procession, prize competitions on the market square and meals for children and older residents.

Barrel race on the Market Square, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897

In the 20th Century the celebration of royal occasions have continued to be enormously popular. After the death of Edward VII in 1910, George V (son of Edward VII) came to the throne and was crowned in 1911. With the celebrations for Victoria’s Diamond jubilee still fresh in people’s minds the coronation was celebrated widely across the country.

In 1935 King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee after reigning for 25 years and again across the country the flags and bunting were put out and the High Street and Market Square were the focus for celebrations in St Neots. This photograph shows well-known local sportsman, Laurie Evans, conducting the singing of ‘God save the King’ on the Market Square in May 1935.

Market Square celebrations for Silver jubilee of George V, 1935

Sadly, George V died in January 1936 and in 1937 (after the abdication of Edward VIII) the town was celebrating the coronation of George VI, the father of the present Queen. This photograph shows the butchers shop of John Raynes Smith on St Neots High Street with the flags out and his new fleet of delivery vans parked outside.

Albert Humphrey wagon at George VI coronation parade, 1937

The celebrations for royal events cheered up the depression years of the 1930s and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 cheered up the tough years of the 1950s after the Second World War. These photographs give a glimpse of the street celebrations and children’s parties held locally.

Shaftesbury Avenue, coronation celebrations, 1953

Celebrations for the coronation of Elizabeth II, 1953

In recent years more local people have met members of the wider royal family as they have attended local events, unveiled memorials and opened local centres. In 1980 Mike Van De Kerkhove began working with the Princes Trust (established by Prince Charles) raising and distributing funds to support young people, this photo from 1992, shows him meeting Prince Charles in Cambridge at a major fund raising event.

In 1987 local teacher, Geoff Watts took a group of Ernulf school children to see Princess Anne open Wood Green Animal Centre, there was great excitement when she arrived by helicopter.

A few years later in 1992 Princess Anne opened the new Bedford Disabled Horse Riding Association centre at Willington and met Ivan Twigden, of St Neots, who had donated the land for the centre.

On 25th May 1999 the Duke of Gloucester visited St Neots town centre to mark the completion of the Market Square and the Brook Street Environmental Improvement Scheme.

Local people have also been honoured over the years in the Queens New Year Honours List. In 2006 local teacher and magistrate, Geoff Watts, was awarded the MBE for his services to Education, after teaching at Ernulf school for 32 years. Geoff was presented with his MBE by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. And in 2013 Richard Shaw, who now lives in St Neots, received an MBE from the Queen for his volunteering and fund raising with cancer charities in Norfolk.

Ernulf school teacher, Geoff Watts, receives his MBE, 2006

Eaton Socon has been part of St Neots since 1965 but did not gain its own community centre until 2010 when the Duchess of Gloucester came to open the centre and met the Mayor, Cllr Gordon Thorpe and other local people including Lucy from Bushmead School who presented the Duchess with flowers.

2012 marked the Queen’s Golden jubilee and Her Majesty attended a series of jubilee garden parties across the country, including one at Burghley House, Stamford, which was attended by 20 local people chosen to represent St Neots. Here the Queen waves to well-wishers as she arrives at the event.

A year later in 2013 Prince Charles unveiled a war memorial at RAF Tempsford commemorating the men and women of the secret services who gave their lives during World War 2. These brave women and men flew from RAF Tempsford and were parachuted into enemy territory in Europe to work with foreign agents.

The closest Her Majesty the Queen has come to St Neots in recent years has been in 2019 when she visited Cambridge for a day of engagements including opening the new Royal Papworth Hospital. We send Her Majesty our congratulations on her Platinum Jubilee, marking a life of incredible service to the people of her country.