Wing Village Mysteries: Part 6

                                                  Wing Mysteries: Part 6

This is my sixth article, and for the moment, my last in a series about Wing mysteries – mysteries concerning; people, places and situations, things that puzzled me during the reading and research I undertook for the book ‘A History of Wing Village and Its Setting 1066-2018’, published late last year, and in this particular case the further research I undertook this year related to the ecclesiastical setting of the Wing Maze during the medieval period.

Having previously covered; ‘The Disappearance of the Sheild family dynasty from Wing’, ‘Lord Henry of Clipstone and the Wing Church Plaque’, ‘The Location of Wing Church School 1718 to 1853’, ‘Wing Windmills’, and ‘Earl of Gainsborough Landholdings in Wing’, this article focuses on the enduring enigma of the ‘Wing Maze’.

If you have any information on this mystery or any of the previous topics, please contact me at

Reference to Wing maze occurs on pages 11, 12, and 13, within my history of Wing, and on pages 3,4,and 5, of ‘Wing Village: A Directory of Listed Buildings’ which I also published late last year and which appears on the Wing Village website under the tab for ‘Neighbourhood Plan’. Strictly speaking Wing Maze is neither a building, nor Listed, but it is a Registered National Monument under the terms of earlier legislation and appears within the Historic England Schedule of Listed Buildings and structures after the various pieces of protective legislation were consolidated into one data base in the custody of this Executive Government Agency.

Local historian, Gloria Whight, published a brochure entitled ‘Wing Turf Maze (A medieval Christian Labyrinth)’ in 2017 which provides a very good synopsis of local descriptive information about Wing Maze, together with an overview of the types of labyrinths down the ages.

Nevertheless, the origins and purpose of medieval turf mazes in England remain a mystery.

Accordingly, it is not my intention to rehearse the previous commentaries other than to observe; that the previous explanations have covered the labyrinth motif appearing as a representation of an Ancient Greek defensive structure which created ‘killing zones’ for would be aggressors who penetrated outer-defensive walls, later adopted by the Romans as a mystic military symbol, then in the medieval period appearing both as a mystic symbol relating to a search for God through the trials of life and as a penitential road (on hands and knees) to atone for sins, whilst by the 16th Century they seem to have been appropriated into rural fun day events akin to Maypoles, which were then condemned during the rise of Puritanism through the 17th Century Protectorate period, followed by inclusion within aristocratic English gardens after the Restoration, and thereafter with the rise of both archaeology and palaeontology during the 19th Century, the beginnings of the need to protect them as pieces of our heritage.

The Wing Maze is now protected but still unexplained.

Recently, I have reviewed the ecclesiastical, historical, and topographical setting for the Wing labyrinth between the late 12th Century and the late 13th Century. I believe this to be a key period to an understanding of its purpose and the primary salient points are set out below. Individually, they appear to be random but collectively they paint a definitive and inter-related picture.

Wing doesn’t appear in the Domesday Book which was compiled in 1086 but records the situation of English settlements both as at that date and as at 1066. Wing is thought to have been a sub-berewich (hamlet) of the Manor of Ridlington and Glaston which at 1066 was part of Royal (possibly dower) lands of Edward ‘The Confessors’ Queen, Edith. These passed to the Countess Judith, William ‘The Conquerors’ niece by 1086. Thereafter, they remained in Royal family ownership until disposed of by Queen Elizabeth I.

By 1150, the beginning of the period I have focused on, stone church buildings existed at both Preston and Wing, both called St. Peter and St. Paul. In the case of Wing, the church at this time was probably a small chapel, maybe used by pilgrims journeying along the main highways between York, Lincoln, Northampton, and London, and those between Leicester and Stamford, which crossed at Wing within fifty yards of Wing Church and a shorter distance from the Wing labyrinth and a windmill which stood adjacent to the latter site before 1297.

By 1208, Wing was in the Lordship of Simon de Montfort (the elder), 5th Earl of Leicester, 1175 – 1218, and he was a French warlord and leader of the Albigensian Crusade, who had close ties with Chartres Cathedral. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth pavement on which the Wing labyrinth design is based. The 5th Earl will have enjoyed the company of King John who stayed at Preston in 1208.

Simon de Montfort, the elder, had a son also called Simon, who became the 6th Earl of Leicester (1208 – 1265), and married King John’s daughter, Eleanor Plantagenet (1215 – 1275), that is after King John’s death and during the reign of his son, Henry III. This Simon effectively ruled England with a council of barons and bishops between 1263 and 1264, after winning the battle of Lewes and holding King Henry, his brother in law, captive whilst he attempted to restore and enhance the provisions of Magna Carta conceded by King John in 1215.

My earlier research into the Wing windmills had revealed that on the 15th July 1209, so during the time of the 5th Earl, the Lord King’s Justices (at this date King John) met to hear and sanction a property transaction involving William, the Prior of St. Neots, Ralph, the Abbot of Thorny, and based on a previous gifting of advowson for Wenge (Wing) by Thurstan de Montfort, to be held in moiety between the two religious houses along with the appurtenances and the mill of Wenge, also held in moiety. This essentially meant that previously the ‘church living’ was within the gift of the two religious houses conjointly, as were the benefits of all that went with such ‘living’, along with those benefits accruing to the Wenge mill. The hearing in 1209 confirmed the above position as an accurate interpretation of the original historical provision, and then sanctioned the transfer of all those benefits wholly to the Prior upon his payment of fifteen marks to Thurstan’s estate from which the Abbot received five marks. This court roll material not only confirmed the existence of a windmill in Wing from that date but also confirms the ecclesiastical controlling interest in a site that almost certainly included the labyrinth/maze.

Simon, the 6th Earl, enjoyed a very close friendship with Robert Grosseteste, 1175 – 1253, who was a zealous religious reformer and leading church theologian and academic. He was the Archdeacon of Leicester and then became the Bishop of Lincoln in 1235. He was also appointed as the Chancellor of Oxford University. Simon’s two eldest sons were placed in Robert’s household to receive an education between 1248 and 1250, and Robert supported Simon in his reforming work and in his many early and difficult exchanges with King Henry. Eleanor even lent Robert her cook and subsequently acceded to Robert’s request to retain him, revealing a close domestic relationship.

Robert is recorded as instituting personal visitations to the religious houses within his Bishopric and there is a record of his visit to St. Neots. The Lincoln Bishopric had roots in Leicester from 679, and by the time of Robert Grosseteste, the Bishopric was the largest in the country, stretching from the Humber to the Thames and included Oxford, Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire. This is significant because it meant that this Bishopric had immense power over both the religious and temporal lives of inhabitants through church courts estimated to cover one fifth of the English population.

“But the place of Edmund Rich as leader of the ecclesiastical opposition devolved upon his friend, the brilliant and lion hearted Robert Grosseteste. The hand of this bishop can be traced in the protest of the Berkshire rectors; and for thirteen years to come he was the most considerable opponent of royal and papal absolutism.” Connected to the Franciscans, he obtained a ruling that no foreigners could be inserted into any of his benefices unless by Papal ruling. He also cleaned up the lax secular priests and degraded unworthy abbots and priors through the assertion of his personal visitations, whilst also removing popular shows from church buildings and reforming church services. (‘England Under the Normans and Angevins 1066 – 1272’, H.W.C. Davis, C.B.E., Regius Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford, 1905/1928.)

Fundamental disagreements between the Church, Papacy and the English Crown, concerning legal jurisdiction were not simply a product of Henry VIII and his requested divorces, they existed long before the 16th Century and had become critically interwoven with other aspects of Church and Crown dissent and reform during the period in question, leading to the Excommunication of King John, and the subsequent alignment of important bishoprics with Simon de Montfort’s attempts to subordinate King Henry III to a national parliamentary council as the restitution and extension of Magna Carta.

In this period, Bishop of Lincoln palaces existed at; Nettleham in Lincolnshire, two miles from Ermine Street, which originally led to the lost Roman Humber ferry port some three miles from Alkborough, at Lyddington in Rutland, three miles from the Welland crossing on the old Northampton Road referred to above, and at Buckden in Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire), the latter being both three miles from the original line of Ermine Street and the burial place of Robert Grosseteste, which is also just over three miles from St. Neots.

Turf mazes or labyrinths of the Chartres design can be found at Hilton in Cambridgeshire, just a mile from the line of Ermine Street and four miles from Buckden, Wing in Rutland, adjacent to the ancient north/south and east/west crossroads referred to above, and at Alkborough in Lincolnshire, more or less at the termination of Ermine Street at the said lost port referred to above. All three are therefore located on, or very close to, the major ‘highways’ of the 12th and 13th Centuries that traversed the lands that were subject to Lincoln Bishopric Church Court jurisdiction.

The rivers ‘Nene’, ‘Welland’, and ‘Great Ouse’, also connected many of these locations and other centres mentioned within the same ecclesiastical jurisdiction; Peterborough, Ramsey, Thorney, Crowland, St. Ives, and Spalding.

Finally, when reading ‘Great Buildings of the World: Cathedrals of Europe’ (Ann Mitchell, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1968), I came across entries for Chartres; “Guild business, the conferring of degrees, even buying and selling, all might take place in the nave, the preserve of the lay community.” “At Chartres labour was hired in the transepts, and the crypt was always open for the shelter of pilgrims and the sick.” “A copy of a medieval drawing of the labyrinth at Chartres. Labyrinths were inserted into the nave pavements with a central plaque naming the founder bishop and the master masons.”

For me this proved to be a final piece of a jigsaw that had been gathering momentum within my thinking based on all the above information and much more that I’ve either presented in my other historic publications about Wing or noted as part of the background reading.

Yes there are good reasons to believe that the turf mazes/labyrinths, referred to above, perhaps acted as ‘Signposts’ for pilgrims on long-distance routes and perhaps as indicators of nearby resting points where spring water and a night’s shelter might be found but I also think that they were an early form of ‘Branding’ at major cross-roads and access points, declaring that travellers had entered the legal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Lincoln and that Bishop was Robert Grosseteste, followed in November 1258 by Richard Gravesend, who had been Robert’s second in command and now stood as one of the most powerful men in England and was also a member of Simon de Montfort’s close circle of supporters in legal, constitutional, and religious reform before Simon was defeated and killed by Prince Edward (King Henry III’s son) at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. 

Can you cast any further light on this mystery?

David Seviour 10/07/2019


In addition to those sources recorded in the above text and to others listed at the end of ‘A History of Wing Village and Its Setting 1066 – 2018’, and within ‘Wing Village: A Directory of Listed Buildings’, I would particularly like to mention ‘The Song of Simon de Montfort: England’s First Revolutionary And The Death of Chivalry’, a very recent book of new work by Dr Sophie Thérèse Ambler, Lecturer in Medieval History at Lancaster University, published by Picador in 2019.

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