The villages lie along an escarpment on the north side of a former glacial valley formed during the Ice Age and now occupied by the river Nene which flows northeast to the Wash.
There are many Iron Age settlements along this escarpment, succeeded by Roman and Anglo-Saxon farms and villages. Both Billings and Earls Barton existed in those times. Earls Barton church has the most famous Saxon tower in the country from which the vicar preaches to the villagers on the adjoining green each year. The tower was fortified against the Danes who periodically raided the Nene valley during the Dark Ages. Both Billings are mentioned in the Domesday Book. The most interesting of these accounts is the presence of a priest in Little Billing where there is a Saxon font.
Both villages had mills. The Great Billing mill still exists on the Nene, though obviously rebuilt over the centuries. Little Billing had a larger population than Great Billing in those days, more meadowland and ploughs. Shortly after the Norman Conquest its religious importance grew further with the building of an Augustinian Priory opposite the church. Its remains still exist incorporated in a modern house.
But, as the Middle Ages developed, the balance gradually moved up hill to Great Billing. A fine church was built there in the 12th century. Records of the manor, the predecessor to Great Billing Hall, exist from the 15th century. It was owned by Baron Dundalk. In 1629 it became the county seat of the Earls of Thomond, descendants of Brian Boroihome, King of Ireland in 1002.
But in the mid 1500s the Reformation fundamentally changed the religious ethos of the area for the next 300 years. The Priory was dissolved, the churches became Anglican and in Northamptonshire as a whole this took a very Low Church form. The Cromwellian Revolution was strongly backed in this area and even following the restoration of the Monarchy a very strong Nonconformist element continued on.
Gradually, any Catholic traces vanished and by 1800 were confined to a few recusant families, itinerant workmen mostly from Ireland, served by a tiny number of priests still having to be discreet about publicising their calling. As far as is known the Billings had few, if any, Catholics.
The tide turned with the arrival of the Elwes family. The subsequent history of the Billing parish is inextricably linked to them.
In 1795 Robert Elwes bought Billing Hall, which was rebuilt in Palladian style by Lord John Cavendish in 1776. He was a typical country gentleman keen on hunting and racing. Close by the Hall at Billing Lings he bred horses including two Derby winners, Mameluke in 1827 and Cossack in 1847.
His grandson Valentine Cary-Elwes took over the estate and was received into the Church in France in 1874. Immediately he erected a chapel in Billing Hall and encouraged estate workers to attend Mass there. His son Dudley Cary-Elwes, subsequently 5th Bishop of Northampton 1921-1932, witnessed this period and described how his father persuaded the Bishop to post a priest to the village. Luckily the former parish priest of Wolverton, Father (later Canon) Blackman, had just been obliged to give up his large parish through ill health and was deemed ideal to build up a small alternative in Great Billing. He arrived in the village and stayed until 1907.
Father Blackman proved to be the Saint Paul of Great Billing, (with Mr. Cary-Elwes’s active ‘assistance’), introducing many villagers to the faith. Initially Mass was said in the Hall chapel, but this soon became too small, and Mr. Cary-Elwes built what is now the present small, but beautiful, church in a simple classical style. A small Catholic primary school was also started in what is now the village hall, but this did not last beyond World War I.
On Mr. Cary-Elwes’s death there followed an even greater Catholic following. His son, Gervase Elwes, the famous tenor, took over the estate. Married to the Earl of Denbigh’s daughter, Lady Winifred, and blessed with an unusually pleasing and gregarious nature, he made the Hall and village both the centre of Catholic life and the musical focus for the area.
Dudley Charkes Cary-ElwesGervase was the friend of all the eminent musicians of the day including Elgar. He was the first great Gerontius, singing this demanding role 118 times. He held many musical soirees at the Hall; famous musicians came from far and wide to attend these. The hymn title “Billing” is thought to have been given to Stanford’s setting ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ (incidentally sung at Cardinal Hume’s funeral) to commemorate his tragic death at the height of his powers in 1921, when he was accidentally killed by a train in Boston U.S.A. while on tour. His funeral was in Billing and he, and many members of his family, including his parents, his brother Bishop Dudley, and his son, Monsignor Valentine Elwes, who was parish priest of the village in the 1960’s, are buried in the Catholic cemetery in the village. His second youngest daughter, Margaret, was buried there in 1997, aged 91 years.
It is worth observing that the saintly Bishop Francis Thomas asked to be buried in Billing. His grave has become a modest centre of pilgrimage.
After Gervase’s death his widow stayed on at the Hall until just before World War II when she moved to London. Until then she continued to encourage the wonderful annual Corpus Christi procession which used to end up in the grounds of the Hall; tea and buns were then served by Lady Winifred on the verandah. The Corpus Christi procession remains one of the most vibrant examples of Billing Catholic life. It has become the official Deanery Annual Procession.
Billing has been steeped in the faith for over 1500 years. It remains today one of the most ancient and interesting in the diocese. May it long continue to be so.