“I have ever had a pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1771.
And here is the place from which those ancestors came: the English village of Ecton, Northamptonshire, depicted in a magnificent estate map drawn up in 1703. Please look carefully at the image of the church in the center, because you’ll see it again.
This image appears by permission of Northamptonshire’s county archives, where the map can be seen today. But you need a big table to put it on – the map is more than seven feet long.
Below – the church of St Mary Magdalene, Ecton, as it is now, still much the same as it was in the early eighteenth century.
And here in the churchyard are the family headstones: Benjamin Franklin’s Uncle Thomas and his aunt Eleanor. In 1758 Franklin came to Ecton to visit the graves with his son William, but they found the stones covered with moss which they had to clean away with a brush and a basin of water.
Headstones as old as these, dating from the early 1700s, are quite rare in English country churchyards, and so the fact that the Franklin family could afford to have them erected is important evidence that they were relatively prosperous. The location is important too: the graves are very easy to find and close to the principal door of the church, and this was a mark of social status.
When Benjamin Franklin came to Ecton, this is what he saw just across the street from the church: the handsome rectory house, begun in the 1600s and then completed in the early eighteenth century. It was the home of the Palmer family, who knew the Franklins extremely well. Far from being a remote and impoverished backwater, Ecton was a thriving village near the highway to London. Only an affluent village would have a rectory as fine as this.
And here is the rector, John Palmer – clergyman, scientist, and friend and patron of the Franklins from the 1640s until his death in 1679 – in the superb portrait bust on his monument inside St Mary Magdalene’s. It’s the work of the sculptor J-M Rysbrack, who also made Sir Isaac Newton’s monument in Westminster Abbey.
Below is another splendid work of art, which also appears as this website’s cover image. It’s the memorial to Thomas and Margaret Catesby from the church of St Mary the Virgin at Whiston, a few miles from Ecton. Thomas Catesby (1632-1699) was the squire at Ecton and he employed Benjamin Franklin’s uncle Thomas as his land agent and surveyor. Like the Franklins, Mr Catesby was a staunch Whig by way of his politics.