Could it be the revival of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield?

on Apr 19 in News by

Update: Sutton Coldfield’s Royal status was confirmed by the Government in an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons on Thursday, 12 June, 2014: http://www.transformingcities.co.uk/?p=6362

Why is the name the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield important? It is about the extraordinary legacy of Henry VIII and Bishop Vesey.

John Harman – who became Bishop Vesey, has left a unique legacy. He was born at Moor Hall Farm in Sutton Coldfield, the son of a farmer, over 550 years ago. He became a visionary developer, planner, Bishop, and Statesman, who attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit in France, with Henry VIII, King of England, and Francois I, King of France.

Henry VIII befriended Harman and bestowed great favour upon him and his hometown – Sutton Coldfield.

Harman, as Bishop Vesey, completely transformed Sutton Coldfield by securing for it the status of a Royal Town.

The impetus for this came when Bishop Vesey returned home from the Field of the Cloth of Gold and found Sutton Coldfield had gone into serious economic and social decline.

Vesey knew what the potential strengths of his hometown were, for example it had a vast forest and chase full of game – but local people weren’t allowed to hunt in it or even to take fire wood. It had a favourable location in the middle of England – but it lacked a market place, pavements and bridges; it was poorly connected.

Vesey decided to rebuild Sutton Coldfield upon a set of principles that would address people’s needs and the results have endured for over half a millennium. He encapsulated his strategy in a Royal Charter and a series of measures equivalent to a masterplan.

Henry VIII signed the Royal Charter for Sutton Coldfield in 1528 and in his own written words he decreed, “And that the same town and village shall for ever hereafter be accounted, named, and called, The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, in our County of Warwick.” (King Charles II also signed a Royal Charter for Sutton Coldfield in 1676, confirming the rights and benefits granted by Henry VIII).

Forest of Arden, Warwickshire, with which Sutton Coldfield shares heritage.

Bishop Vesey didn’t just produce a masterplan; he also delivered it. He become very wealthy as the Bishop of Exeter and he funnelled the riches of Devon back into delivering his plan for Sutton Coldfield. (Consequently, he was not very popular in Devon).

The Royal Charter wasn’t just about transforming the town it was also about transforming its people. Vesey’s visionary town and country planning for Sutton Coldfield included:

1: Establishing Sutton Park as royal forest from which Sutton’s residents could take timber and hunt (only nobles would have normally enjoyed such rights)

2: Investing in a positive image by securing the Royal Town status

3: Investing in public realm. Vesey used his own funds to create a new market place for trading and to provide a stage for the public life of the town. The streets were paved to promote pedestrian freedom. New connections were made and new bridges built

4: Investing in design excellence. Based upon the population of Sutton Coldfield at the time, it is possible that the 51 stone houses built by Vesey were sufficient to provide a new home for every family living in the town. The houses were very well-built and some of them are still lived in after 500 years. The river bridge that Vesey built at Water Orton, before Shakespeare was born, still carries modern traffic

5: Investing in education: Sutton’s excellent Grammar School was established which many thousands of pupils have attended

6: Investing in local decision making: A unique system of local town government was established, with a Warden and Society, so that local people could determine their own future rather than having decisions imposed upon them from afar

7: Investing in people’s needs: An endowment fund was created with Bishop Vesey’s land and property. This is now the Sutton Coldfield Municipal Charities and it’s worth around £40 million

Whilst so much of Vesey’s legacy has survived the Royal Town name, allegedly, has been lost.

People tend to think that Sutton Coldfield lost its Royal Town status when it became part of Birmingham but that isn’t correct.

In 1887 when the new Borough Council of Sutton Coldfield was created they forgot to renew the Royal Charter. That’s when Ministers and Civil Servants in Whitehall wrongly claimed the Royal Town status was legally lost, (no wording within the 1887 Act appears to nullify use of the Royal Town name).

The people of Sutton Coldfield have campaigned for the official reinstatement of the Royal Town name for over a century.

Government files, available in the National Archives at Kew, reveal civil servants in the Home Office wrongly claimed Sutton Coldfield lost its ancient royal town title when it became a Borough Council under the Municipal Corporation Act of 1883.

There were subsequently two unsuccessful applications to reinstate the Royal Town name. The first application was in 1911 when the Sutton Coldfield Borough Council instructed its Town Clerk to apply to the Home Secretary, the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, (later Prime Minister), but the Town Clerk erroneously applied for Sutton Coldfield to be a royal borough. Sutton Coldfield had no historical claim to be a royal borough, it had been a unique Royal Town, and so Winston Churchill refused to make a favourable recommendation to the King.

The second failed application was made in 1973 when the Mayor of Sutton Coldfield applied to reinstate the Royal Town name, but this was at a time when the Sutton Coldfield Borough Council was due to be abolished and the town amalgamated with Birmingham City Council. As such, due to the timing, the legitimacy of the request was questioned, and the Secretary of State refused to make a favourable recommendation to the Queen.

The town’s MP, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Mitchell, is leading the campaign to get the Royal status back.

Sutton Coldfield residents and businesses still use the West Midlands County in their postal address, even though the town was part of Warwickshire for a thousand years, and the West Midlands County created in 1974 was abolished in 1986.

But following a marketing exercise, Birmingham Airport, (located within Solihull Metropolitan Borough, which also uses the obsolete West Midlands County in its postal address), now describes itself as being, ‘within the historic boundary of Shakespeare’s County’, because this wording resonates in a positive way around the world.

Henry VIII decreed Sutton Coldfield would forever be ‘The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield in our County of Warwick’. Questions to be answered now are should the town once again be called the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, either in the County of Warwick or the City of Birmingham? Should a new Sutton Coldfield town council be created and if so, should it produce a development plan to breathe new life into Bishop Vesey’s vision?

If 10% of the electorate in Sutton Coldfield voted for a governance review, then under Localism legislation Birmingham City Council would legally have to consider their request, and a new Sutton Coldfield Town Council could be the result. (Update: A petition signed by over 10,000 residents has now been submitted and the governance review is underway).

Neighbouring historic towns such as Lichfield, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Royal Leamington Spa, Kenilworth, and Warwick, all have town councils that exist under larger local authorities, and they all benefit from a strong sense of identity and civic pride.

The bear and ragged staff, symbols of Warwickshire, the county that Sutton Coldfield and Birmingham are historically a part of.

Play Trailer: Palace of Pugin

Palace of Pugin is now an audiobook, produced in New York by Catherine O’Brien

 

8 Comments

  • Michael says:

    great work Nick. I whole heartedly agree with what you are doing and will spread the word to my folks who also find this of great interest.

    Mike

  • Nick Mathers says:

    Great article. I wholeheartedly agree that the spirit of Vesey must be encapsulated with any future plans. Having spent many years as a S/C resident I feel your approach is a breath of fresh air compared to what has gone on in recent times. I hope your ideas generate momentum- you have my full support.

  • Steve says:

    I love what Transforming Cities are doing with this. Engaging, well articulated and – above all – well reasoned. I may be somewhat removed (an ex-“Suttonian,” now living in New York) but keep up the excellent work! Steve

  • Thanks a lot for sharing this with all of us you actually understand what you’re talking about! Bookmarked. Kindly also talk over with my web site =). We may have a link change arrangement between us

  • Matt says:

    Bishop Vesey was not a Brummie – he was a Suttonian. In Bishop Vesey’s day, Birmingham was a tiny village miles away from the Royal Town Of Sutton Coldfield.

  • May I point out and Sutton Coldfieldians(?) may wish to note that the three London boroughs of Kingston upon Thames (where I was born 70 years ago) and Kensington were designated “Royal Borough” a long time ago- while Greenwich was declared of equal rank recently. Chelsea became royal when the former Metropolitan Borough of Chelsea was joined to Kensington when the London County Council increased in area on formation of the Greater London Council.

    Within the last 2 years Wootton Bassett Town Council (a parish council) has become “Royal”.

    So the mistake of 1887 may not be so insuperable after all.

  • George Lawley says:

    I was born in Sutton Coldfield 75 years ago and remember what a happy place it was to grow up in. Having recently gone back to see where I grew up I found it was now a car park(Newhall st)
    What a let down and the town centre, such a mess. I do hope that some way can be found to
    re-instate it’s royal status and give some pride back to the area. Although I don’t think that the horror of the shopping centre will ever go away. Good luck G

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