Monumental Musings: The village cross at Kings Newton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 May 2018
The South-Derbyshire village of Kings Newton is one of the county’s most charming small settlements. Nestled alongside its larger neighbour Melbourne, protected from mainstream traffic, it commands the epithet ‘backwater’ in the most positive sense – a quaint and peaceful haven replete with fine architecture and a timeless air rendering it almost a ‘best-kept secret’.
At its heart stands the village cross – in 1967 Grade II listed as a monument of historic interest. Yet superficially the modest structure seems unremarkable. Only the stepped base survives from antiquity – the plain shaft and blank Celtic cross replica were erected in 1936.
But the date itself signposts the monument’s peculiar interest – it was raised to mark the ascent to the throne on 20th January 1936 of Edward Prince of Wales. For 326 days he reigned as King Edward VIII before sensationally abdicating without a coronation to be succeeded by his younger brother George VI. Edward thus famously acquired the dubious moniker ‘the King who was never crowned’.
The problem had arisen due to romantic involvement of ‘the wrong kind’ – by October 1936 it had become clear that the monarch intended to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. This was seen by many as thoroughly scandalous, and the complexities of both convention and law dictated he had to choose – Wallis or the throne.
In the event, his rejection of the ‘supreme duty’ in favour of an unconventional ‘love’ was considered at best distasteful and at worst treacherous, on a serious level provoking a grave constitutional crisis, and in more basic terms just plain embarrassing.
But ‘the King’ had his mind set. The throne duly sacrificed, the newly-dubbed Duke of Windsor married Wallis in France on 3rd June 1937 – in the interim the nation had squirmed and countless markers of Edward’s brief and controversial reign were pulled or erased. The few test coins struck before the abdication are now supremely rare. Even a set of Wills cigarette cards ‘The life of H.M. Edward VIII’ was printed but never circulated – the odd escapees command high prices. And Edward and his wife were compelled to acquiesce in this air-brushing exercise – after periods of travel away from Britain they settled in France.
But the Kings Newton cross was somewhat more solid than a set of cigarette cards. Pulping was hardly an option – put up prior to the abdication it still remains. Whether brazenly or with a sheepish ‘royal flush’ it does not yield – but it is making the best of it! The legend on the plinth proudly proclaims in bold capitals: ‘HERE STOOD THE ANCIENT CROSS OF KINGS NEWTON. THIS ONE WAS ERECTED TO MARK THE ACCESSION TO THE THRONE OF HIS MAJESTY KING EDWARD VIII. AD 1936’ – it is quite possibly the only such cross in the land.
It would be easy to assume that the good citizens of Kings Newton were borne by patriotic fervour to ‘jump the gun’. But in truth the cross was erected more by ‘dint of circumstance’ or ‘deemed necessity’ – the culmination of a protracted narrative attaching to the site which in itself makes a curious story.
The saga begins around the 12th century when Lords of the Manor were increasingly establishing new settlements to boost a growing economy – generically labelled ‘new towns’. The one contiguous to Melbourne was first mentioned in the reign of Henry II circa 1160 simply as ‘Neutonia’. The ‘Kings’ prefix distinguishing it from other villages such as Newton Solney had been added by 1269 when it is recorded as ‘Neutone Regis’ – and by 1306 this had been anglicized to ‘Kyngesneuton’.
The settlement prospered, and after a 1231 charter had granted ‘Kings Newton’ its own Saturday market, a market cross was soon erected in the open space at the heart of the village. It ultimately suffered the fate of many such village crosses – destroyed and discarded probably during the Civil Wars (1642-51). Certainly by the 1700s only the medieval stepped base and a stump remnant survived in situ.
The years passed, and it was recorded that ‘around the year 1790 one Thomas Scott of Kings Newton planted a seedling lime tree more or less on top of the remaining steps’ – this grew into a new focal point for the village, by the 1890s described as ‘a large and well-proportioned tree’.
But the past was not yet dead. An increased interest in antiquities led to the discovery circa 1891 of what was believed to be the original Celtic cross-head from around the late 13th century. Of absolute proof there was none – but the dates tied well. The cross was consigned for safe-keeping to Melbourne church.
The discovery of this ancient artefact stirred academic hearts. In September 1915 the secretary of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society visited Kings Newton to present a plan for the complete restoration of the cross. It was noted in the report that ‘to achieve this, the lime tree would need to be sacrificed’.
All the relevant authorities approved the plan, but the people of Kings Newton objected vociferously – they preferred their trusty tree. A referendum was called, presumably won by the villagers, because the cross restoration was shelved. In any case, the terrible progression of the First World War had concentrated minds on matters far more serious than archaeology.
But the battle of ‘the cross and the tree’ was a slow burner. Almost 20 years later in January 1934 the Derbyshire Archaeological Society proposed afresh that the old village cross be restored. By this time the tree had grown even more – as had road traffic – and was arguably ‘in the way’.
Although a few diehards again objected, the consensus was that most parties, including the villagers, were now in favour of the restoration. But doubt was soon raised over the cost – and crucially whether the medieval cross-head was in a fit condition to be exposed again to the elements.
By early 1936 nothing had outwardly happened – the lime tree still flourished. But Edward VIII had recently ascended the throne. Might a King trump a tree? It seemed moves were afoot, for on 14th March 1936 the Archaeological Society enigmatically announced that ‘the matter of the cross is very much in hand, and the way seems clear’.
It had been decided to leave the Celtic cross-head in Melbourne Church as an exhibit and erect a new cross in honour of the monarch. The lime tree was sacrificed, and the cross erected ahead of the anticipated Coronation. But in that extraordinary ‘year of the three kings’ the crowning never happened – rendering Kings Newton cross an immediate curiosity.
The prime mover behind its creation was Sir Cecil Walter Paget of Kings Newton Hall. Already he had beautifully restored that grand edifice after it had been gutted by fire. The retired General Superintendent of the Midland Railway had made Kings Newton his home for some 25 years – and here was a man who cherished the village’s heritage. Now he would leave a lasting gift for ‘King and Country’.
His Kings Newton cross has occasionally been dubbed ‘Paget’s Folly’ – a little unfair perhaps – for how was he to know that a royal romance would change the course of history?
December 1936 proved an interesting month. It was reported in the local press that on Monday 7th December Cecil Paget strolled the village ‘in his usual rude health’ – presumably he gazed upon the village cross with particular pride.
But on Wednesday 9th December King Edward VIII informed the Prime Minister that he intended to marry Wallis Simpson – the very next day he signed his own Instrument of Abdication and on 11th December delivered his historic abdication speech to a worldwide radio audience. A reign had ended.
It is difficult not to wonder how Sir Cecil Paget felt about this remarkable turn of events. But the question was never answered. He had died suddenly aged 62 on Wednesday 9th December – the irony of serendipity knows no bounds.
That is how Kings Newton gained its celebrity cross. It keeps company with all sorts of odd facts and trivia associated with ‘the uncrowned king’. As usual Derbyshire gets a look-in. If you have an Edward VIII Coronation mug, don’t get too excited – thousands were made – but do notice that it was designed by Derbyshire-born artist Dame Laura Knight, a native of Long Eaton.
Rather rarer, in fact unique, is the only Victoria Cross conferred by Edward VIII. It was awarded posthumously to Captain Godfrey Meynell (1904-35) of the well-known Derbyshire family – presented at Buckingham Palace in July 1936 to his widow Sophia.
The reign of Edward VIII certainly raises many ‘what-ifs’ for historians to ponder – and perhaps in Kings Newton too. But for Cecil Paget’s enthusiasm the village would not have its infamous ‘King’s Cross’. Instead it might be notorious for something else entirely – the only village in the land with a huge great lime tree right in the middle of its main street!