BBC One explores Cromwell legends at Stonyhurst College

Jan Graffius with the film crew on the banks of the Hodder
Jan Graffius with the film crew on the banks of the Hodder

If you live in the Northwest region of England, be sure to tune in to BBC1 at 7.30pm on Monday 10th December to watch River Walks: The Hodder 

This new series follows the watercourses of the area and explores their myths and not-so-known snippets of history.  In this first episode broadcaster Stuart Maconie follows the flow of the River Hodder in the Forest of Bowland.

The river runs close to Stonyhurst College, which features in the programme. The filming took place few weeks ago and scenes to be broadcast include some spectacular drone footage of the College. The television crew was guided along the river by Curator of the Stonyhurst Collections Jan Graffius.

In August 1648, during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the Parliamentary forces, was advancing with around 8,500 troops down the Ribble Valley towards the Royalist and Scottish allied armies as they marched south through Lancashire.

Legend has it that Cromwell’s men crossed what is today known as the Cromwell Bridge, near Hurst Green. The bridge has no parapets – allegedly because Cromwell had them removed to expedite a faster crossing for his men and materiel.

“There is actually not much truth to that story,” Jan Graffius explained. “Walking on that bridge today is scary: one foot in the wrong place and you slip off. I would not imagine crossing it with so many soldiers and guns. In fact, Cromwell’s armies found another crossing.”

Royalist families like the Catholic Shireburn family of Stonyhurst fled and went into hiding at the army’s approach. Cromwell billeted himself in the current college’s Great Hall, then known as the Shireburn Mansion, sleeping in full armour on a table.

Cromwell's table“The table is still there, in the Hall,” said Jan, “with a plaque which reads ‘Oliver Cromwell slept on this table in this hall during the night of August 16th 1648’. That part of the story, therefore, must be true. Apparently, he refused to lay in one of Francesca and George with Stuart Maconiethe family’s beds, for fear that his Catholic enemies might hide behind the bed curtains and try to assassinate him.” St Mary’s Hall pupils Francesca and George appear in the programme showing the presenter the famous table.

Cromwell was quoted as saying Shireburn Mansion was "the best half house" he had seen (the hall was still under construction). Cromwell finally caught up with the Royalists the next day at Preston Moor. Despite a valiant stand the Royalist troops were defeated, and Cromwell was able to force the surrender of the remaining Royalists on 25th August.

The Shireburn family continued to build and extend the house which passed through inheritance to Thomas Weld of Dorset in 1754. Thomas Weld was educated by the Jesuits at St Omer's and he gave the mansion to the Jesuits in 1794 when they arrived homeless in England, having fled the French Revolutionary Wars. It thus became Stonyhurst College.

The original hall has been altered and extended over the years to become the largest inhabited Grade 1 listed building in the UK.

Read more about Thomas Weld and his legacy