The site known as Buckden Towers has a rich history spanning over 900 years.
For much of that time, as Buckden Palace, it had been home to the Bishops of Lincoln. It is listed in the Domesday Survey of 1086 as a manor belonging to the Bishop of Lincoln, valued at just over £16, consisting of a church, a mill, a few cottages and a wood a mile square.
The current Church of St Hugh takes its name from the great Hugh of Avalon who was Bishop of Lincoln from 1186 to 1200. St Hugh was a holy Bishop and a valiant statesman who was always prepared to make a stand even if his views brought him into conflict with King Henry II, his successor Richard I or the primate, Archbishop Hubert.
Another Hugh (Hugh de Wells) built a new house at Buckden in around 1225. The previous structure had been of timber only. This new house was intended to be a more permanent building and its development was continued by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, who was responsible for adding a Great Hall. He was another outstanding Churchman of the Middle Ages. Although loyal, he did not hesitate to oppose both the King, Henry III, and the Pope, Innocent IV, when his conscience dictated. He also tried, without success, to reconcile Henry and Simon de Montfort.
In 1291 a fire destroyed most of the buildings constructed by Hugh de Wells and Robert Grosseteste so that now only some stone foundations remain.
Construction of the Tower itself was completed by Bishop Rotherham in 1480 prior to his translation to the archbishopric of York. However, Bishop John Russell (1480 - 1494) was responsible for the majority of the extensive rebuilding on the site. The arms of Bishop Russell can be seen on the Inner Gatehouse (1480) and on the south gable front. They comprise azure or, between three roses argent. The new chapel was the work of Bishop William Smith (1495 - 1514) who was also one of the founders of Brasenose College.
Although the period from 1514 onwards was a busy one for The Towers, by 1595 Bishop Chaderton had decided that he could no longer afford to run the Palace and he bought a smaller estate at Southoe, south of Buckden. His successor, however, returned to Buckden despite it having started to fall into disrepair. More prosperous days for Buckden came during the episcopacy of John Williams (1625 - 1642). The cloisters were repaired and refurbished and the stables and barns in the outer courtyard were rebuilt. Improvements were also carried out to the grounds.
However, Williams who lived lavishly and became the holder of the title "Lord Keeper of the Great Seal" fell into disfavour with Charles I and Archbishop Laud over his conciliatory attitude towards the Puritans. In 1637 he was accused of perjury, of revealing state secrets and of suborning false witness. Fined £10,000 and deprived of his ecclesiastical revenues by the Star Chamber, he spent some time in the Tower of London. Although Laud assumed jurisdiction of the See of Lincoln, he could not take away Williams' title of Bishop of Lincoln unless he resigned, which he refused to do. A solicitor, Kilvert, was sent by the Star Chamber to administer the Buckden estate. During the three years he lived there, Kilvert despoiled the Palace, sold the organ, books and pictures for ridiculously low prices and ruined the park by cutting down trees and killing deer.
In 1641 Bishop Williams was succeeded by Bishop Winniffe, who had the misfortune to have the Palace at Buckden and other appurtenances of his See taken from him by the Parliament during the Civil War. In 1649, the property was sold for £8,174.82 to Alderman Sir Christopher Pecke, one time Lord Mayor of London.
With the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the Palace was returned to the See of Lincoln to which Bishop Sanderson was appointed in that year. Although he only lived for three more years, Sanderson undertook the restoration the Palace with great speed, care and charge. The Great Hall was not, however, restored to its former glory.
The Palace continued to be used by the Bishops of Lincoln; Bishop Barlow being known as the "Bishop of Buckden who never saw Lincoln". The dean made efforts to induce him to show more interest in the Cathedral City, but Barlow remained loyal to Buckden, and when he died there in 1691 he was buried in the Parish Church.
The Eighteenth Century saw new methods in the techniques of road building; travel became easier and with its location on the Great North Road, the Palace became popular with visitors. Bishop Thomas in 1750 received Count Zingandorf, the first Bishop of the Moravian Sect in England.
An idea of the state of the Palace can be gleaned from the diary of the Hon. John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, who visited Buckden in 1790 and stayed at the George: "I had often try'd in vain to see the inside of the Bishop of Lincoln's Palace at Buckden and now unexpectedly succeeded; its appearance is castellated and within the walls certain strong turrets with apertures. This ancient appearance diminishes hourly as much of the moat has been lately filled up and many walls pulled down. The interior is grave, strong and useful; something to venerate; a good dining parlour, a neat chapel, tower stair cases and some stained glass in the windows."
In 1838, with the importance of the Palace diminished, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners decided that about half of the main buildings and part of the Gatehouse were to be demolished. The materials and furnishings that were considered unnecessary were to be removed and sold, the profits being paid into the funds of the Commissioners at the Bank of England. The materials from the demolished buildings were sold in February 1838. The sale of furnishings took place in November 1838. It lasted for three days and was attended by nearly 1,000 people.
In 1842 the Palace and Park were conveyed to the Vicar of Buckden. Part of the main building was used as an elementary school for girls and infants. In 1870, it appeared that the connection with the Church was to be severed since it was in that year that the property was sold to Mr James Marshall. He proceeded to make the place habitable again and, at one stage, it appeared that he was going to restore and enlarge the old buildings, architectural plans for this purpose having been drawn up. Eventually, he decided against this plan and even considered burning down the Great Tower.
The Victorian House, now known as Buckden Towers was built on the north side of the inner courtyard in 1872 by Arthur Wellington Marshall to a design by Robert Edis, (knighted in 1919), the architect of the original Sandringham House. During its construction the Moat was completely filled in.
During the First World War the house was used as a convalescent hospital. After the War, in 1919, it was sold to an eccentric historian from Durham, Dr Robert Holmes Edleston. Although he never lived there, he spent much time excavating and reconstructing parts of the old Bishop's Palace.
He rebuilt the northern half of the Inner Gatehouse, demolished by Marshall, and he was responsible for the inscription "Napoleon III" above the right hand doorway which was to have been the entrance to a small museum of the Emperor's relics.
He also planned to rebuild the old chapel of the Bishops of Lincoln. The foundation stone of this was laid by Canon Wood with holy water, incense and a dedication formula used in the Fifteenth Century by Archbishop Chichele. However, only the crypt was built and this survives as the Lady Chapel between the current Church of St Hugh of Lincoln and the Claret Chapel.
During the Second World War the Towers was home to evacuees from the London Blitz and in particular from Tollington School and it was subsequently used a hostel for agricultural workers.
Left to Dr Edleston's sister, who had no use for the property, The Towers was donated to Bishop Leo Parker of the Catholic Diocese of Northampton for charitable purposes. In 1956, the Diocese in turn passed it on to the Claretian Missionaries originally for use as a junior seminary.
The Claretians took possession in 1957 and embarked on restoration work. The inner courtyard was completed, roofing and flooring of the Great Tower in which a new spiral staircase had also to constructed, was undertaken and a new chapel, simple and modern in style yet harmonising well with its surroundings, was built. It was dedicated to St Hugh of Lincoln by Bishop Parker of Northampton in 1959. A modern parish hall to the north of the Victorian House was built and named St Stephen's Hall after Fr. Stephen Emaldia, the Provincial Superior of the Claretians from 1950 to 1962.
In 1974 the St Claret Centre was opened for conferences and spiritual retreats. In 1988, the Claretian Missionaries launched an appeal to restore and develop the whole complex. The Inner Gatehouse, the Great Tower and the Victorian House were all to be the subject of restoration work. The Inner Gatehouse has been converted into six fully furnished self-catering apartments and a teashop. The Tower has now four levels connected by two spiral staircases. The upper two levels have been converted into dormitories each level containing about twenty beds, showers, wash basins and toilets. The lowest level has been converted into a dining room and fully equipped kitchen and the remaining level has been converted into a large meeting room complete with period fireplace. The whole Tower is now centrally heated and has electric light and running hot and cold water. The Outer Gatehouse now houses offices for the Centre.
The Grounds have also been extensively developed. The National Rivers Authority have dredged the lake; the park has been replanted, the moat re-excavated and Queen Katherine's Tudor Knot Garden has been constructed and was dedicated and opened in 1995.
Work continues to improve the facilities and maintain the fabric of the whole complex.