It is not easy to say when this house was built. The estates were given to Baldwyn de Hampden by Edward the Confessor, and the name seems to indicate that De Hampden was a Norman, one of those "foreign favourites" about whom the Saxons used to murmur. It was because of his nationality, probably, that when the Conqueror gave England piece-meal to his knights, the estate of De Hampden escaped confiscation, passing from father to son in succession. The family increased in influence and wealth. There is a tradition that Edward III. and the Black Prince once paid a visit to Hampden, and that while the Prince and his host were amusing themselves with games of chivalry, a quarrel arose and the prince received a blow in the face, which greatly enraged his royal father, who instantly left the house with his son; and afterwards seized some valuable manors belonging to De Hampden as a punishment for his want of manners and loyalty. The following lines are said to refer to this incident:-
Queen Elizabeth visited Hampden during one of her progresses, and Griffith Hampden, in order that his sovereign might find an easier road to his house, cut an avenue through his woods, still called "the Queen's Gap."
The Hampdens were a chivalrous race, and represented their county in several parliaments.
In the Wars of the Roses they wore the Red Rose, and lost some lands by it; but when Henry VII. came to the throne Edward Hampden was made one of the Esquires of the Body and Privy Councillor to the King. In Henry VIII.'s reign Sir John Hampben of the Hill was appointed one of the attendants on the Queen of England, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His daughter, Sybil Hampden (Mrs. Penn), was nurse to the Prince of Wales (after wards Edward VI.), and was ancestress to William Penn, of Pennsylvania. Her monument in Hampton Church, Middlesex, records her possession of much wisdom and many virtues. Griffith Hampden, who cut down his trees for Queen Elizabeth, served as sheriff of his county, and represented it in Parliament in 1585.
His eldest son, William, married Elizabeth, second daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell, of Hinchinbrook, in Huntingdonshire, and was thus, by marriage, uncle to the Protector.
John Hampden born 1594, was consequently cousin to Oliver Cromwell. He succeeded to his paternal inheritance in his infancy. He was educated at the Grammar School at Thame, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, and at nineteen he was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple, where he carefully studied English law. He was rather a wild youth; fond of sports and good company, but on marrying Elizabeth, only daughter of Edmund Symeon, Esq., he completely reformed. Love for his wife and her gentle and holy influence caused him to give up his life of licence for a very quiet and devout one. Thus sedately and happily he dwelt in the old home in a pleasant woodland country, the hills of which were covered with beech trees, and close by a very ancient church, "standing in a park-like enclosure." When he sent his dear friend Eliot, who was then a prisoner in the Tower, a buck out of his paddock, he writes "that it must be a small one, to hold proportion with the place and soil it was bred in." 1 Thus it is evident that Hampden was not very wealthy. He served in all the parliaments of Charles I.'s reign, and in 1636 became generally known by refusing to pay ship-money, because it was an illegal tax. For his refusal he was imprisoned, but his conduct under the persecution he endured gained him a great reputation. In the beginning of the civil war he commanded a regiment of infantry, and fought with distinguished courage at Edgehill. Macaulay and Clarendon have both told the story of his last field, at Chalgrove. We will give a brief extract from Macanlay's spirited account of it:-
"In the early part of 1643 the shires lying in the neighbourhood of London, which were devoted to the cause of the Parliament, were incessantly annoyed by Rupert and his cavalry. Essex had extended his lines so far that almost every point was vulnerable. The young prince, who, though not a great general, was an active and enterprising partisan, frequently surprised posts, burned villages, swept away cattle, and was again at Oxford before a force sufficient to encounter him could be assembled. The languid proceedings of Essex (the Parliamentary Commissioner) were loudly condemned by the troops. All the ardent and daring spirits in the Parliamentary army were eager to have Hampden at their head. Had his life been prolonged, there is every reason to believe that the supreme command would have been entrusted to him. But it was decreed that, at this juncture, England should lose the only man who united perfect disinterestedness to eminent talents - the only man who, being capable of gaining the victory for her, was incapable of abusing that victory when gained."
On the evening of the 17th of June Rupert rode out of Oxford on one of his raids. At three in the morning of the 18th he attacked and dispersed a band of Roundheads, who lay at Postcombe. He then gallopped off to Chinnor, burned the village, drove off the cattle and prepared to return with his booty and his prisoners to Oxford.
As soon as Hampden heard of this affair he sent off a messenger to tell the General what the Cavaliers had done, and that they could only return to Oxford by Chiselhampton Bridge; would Lord Essex send a force at once in that direction to intercept them? Meantime, aware of the dilatory character of the general, he determined to go out himself with all the cavalry he could collect to impede Rupert's march. A considerable body of horse volunteered to follow him. He was not their commander; he did not belong to their arm of the service, but "he was," says Lord Clarendon, "second to none but the general himself in the observance and application of all men."
The Royal and Parliamentary cavalry came face to face in Chalgrove Field, and at the first charge Hampden was struck in the shoulder by "two bullets which broke the bone and lodged in his body." His followers seeing him wounded gave way and fled. Rupert pursued them for a short time, then crossed the bridge and arrived safely at Oxford.
Hampden, with his head drooping and his hands leaning on his horse's neck, moved feebly from the field. "The mansion which had been inhabited by his father-in-law, and from which in his youth he had carried home his bride Elizabeth, was in sight. There still remains an affecting tradition that he looked for a moment towards that beloved house, and made an effort to go thither to die. But the enemy lay in that direction. Turning his horse, therefore, he rode back across the grounds of Hazely on his way to Thame." At the brook dividing the parishes he paused; then suddenly summoned his courage, clapped spurs to his horse and cleared the brook. No wonder that he arrived at Thame almost fainting with agony The surgeon dressed his wounds, but they were mortal, and he knew it. In spite of the dreadful pain he suffered, he wrote several letters to the Parliament about public affairs, and sent a message to Lord Essex, entreating him to concentrate his troops.
Then he prepared for death. He was attended by an intimate friend, a clergyman of the Church of England, and by Dr. Spurton, the chaplain of the Buckinghamshire Green Coats.
He received the Holy Communion, declaring that, though he disliked the government of the Church of England, he agreed with its doctrines. Then he lay murmuring prayers in a low voice. "Lord Jesus," he exclaimed at the last moment, "receive my soul, O Lord, save my country! O Lord, be merciful to-" In that unfinished ejaculation his noble soul passed to God.
He was buried in Hampden Church. His soldiers, with reversed arms and muffled drums, followed him to the grave, singing as they slowly marched the ninetieth Psalm.
Had he lived we might have had a constitutional government or a Republic; but Charles I. would not hate been put to death; and probably there would have been no desire for a Restoration; for Hampden would have respected the liberties of his country and have ruled wisely and well.
Of the house, as it is, there is not much to say. It is entered by a curious old hall, surrounded by a wooden gallery. Among its relics are a bust and two portraits of Hampden; portraits of Henrietta Maria, and of Sir Kenelm Digby, by Vandyck; of Oliver Cromwell in armour, and some others. There is a full length portrait of Elizabeth in the room she occupied when she visited Great Hampden.
At the top of the house is a long room full of books, called "John Hampden's library." and there is a small library below, in which is a Bible with a register of his birth and those of his family.
The Church is, as we have said, close to the house. On the south wall of the chancel is a monument erected by Hampden to his first wife Elizabeth, with this epitaph:-
The patriot's grave has no memorial, but he sleeps near his first love.
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