The Town of Reading in The Wars of the Roses- Guest Post by Jo Romero

In this latest guest post, I welcome back Jo Romero. You can view her previous post on a riot, dog and the George Hotel in Reading here.

Jo has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. She has been published in The Historians magazine and runs the blog Love British History where she shares articles, travel and historic sketches.

The Wars of the Roses was defined by the fight for power between Yorkists and Lancastrians and tales of castles, battles and political twists. But how far was a rural, textile-producing town in Berkshire involved in these turbulent events of the fifteenth century?

Reading was a modest but busy town, with a population of around 2,000-3,000 at the mid-fifteenth century.(1) A huddle of timber-framed buildings housed clothiers, butchers, fishmongers and cooks. Its river snaked through the town, and the spires of three Medieval churches pierced its sky.

Taverns and ale houses nudged wonkily into the streets, with names like The Bell, The Bear and The George. These establishments enjoyed custom not only from work-weary locals, but also from pilgrims visiting the town’s abbey, founded in 1121 by Henry I. There were royal visits too, along with a large and wealthy entourage.

And it was here, while locals washed down ale at taverns and haggled over prices at the market, that events concerning the security of the unstable crown played out just yards away.

When plague threatened London, parliament sometimes gathered in the leafier, safer suburbs of Reading Abbey. Henry VI was here in 1451, 1452 and 1453, and Edward IV in 1464 and 1467.(2) Henry VII visited in 1486.

It was during one visit in 1452 that Henry VI requested 13,000 archers for the defence of his realm.(3) Although this was three years before the 1455 ‘official’ start date of the Wars of the Roses, by the time Henry added his seal to this act he and his advisers would have known trouble was brewing: Gascony had been lost, nobles struggled for control over the king and his closest adviser William de la Pole had been beheaded at sea in 1450. The king’s request was enacted at the end of 1457.(4)

Reading Abbey ruins, © Jo Romero

As the Wars progressed, Reading itself provided military support to the crown. In November 1462, The Corporation Diary records payment for arrows and “sondyers ye last went to the king”. It’s possible that these soldiers were at The Battle of Towton in March 1461. We know that Edward IV’s army was made up of many supporters from the south and south east and it’s probable that Reading townspeople made up some of the 20,000 Yorkist troops that fought there. The battle site would have been a five-day ride from Reading but we know that soldiers did attend from Berkshire and as far as Dorset.(5)

Although 1487 marks the Battle of Stoke, considered by many the end of the Wars of the Roses, an inventory of Reading’s armour four months later could hint that Henry still had concerns.(6) The town didn’t routinely inspect its armour and it’s possible that this October inventory was driven by a real or perceived threat to royal control. Two years into Henry VII’s reign, security was far from watertight. A new pretender, Perkin Warbeck, would emerge in 1491 and Henry faced trouble in France as well as Scotland in the coming years. While town officials counted steel-plated vests and chain mail in Reading’s town centre, Lambert Simnel and the 1486 Lovell Conspiracy would also have been fresh in Henry’s mind. As historian Thomas Penn writes about the years following Stoke, “old loyalties simmered, and the after-shocks of rebellion rippled on”.(7)

But after-shocks rippled in Reading long before The Battle of Stoke.

In September 1464, Edward IV chose Reading Abbey to publicly introduce his new, secret bride, Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of Lord Rivers. They had married despite him being in negotiations to marry the French princess Bona of Savoy. Elizabeth was led through the abbey past stunned nobles within its cool, stone walls with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘The Kingmaker’) by her side. It’s easy to imagine him barely concealing his rage after working to negotiate a politically advantageous European match for the king and not having been consulted on the secret Woodville marriage. By February it was reported that “King Edward and the Earl of Warwick have come to very great division and war together.”(8)

The Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, from the Anciennes Chroniques, Jean de Wavrin, c1470-1480. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading’s streets buzzed with gossip about the wedding, and there were even plots within the town to have the union dissolved. A Milanese ambassador wrote: “The greater part of the lords and the people in general seem very much dissatisfied at this, and for the sake of finding means to annul it, all the nobles are holding great consultations in the town of Reading, where the king is.”(9) Taverns and street corners around Reading may have been alive then with the angry whispers of exasperated nobles.

Reading Abbey also saw the rise of Elizabeth Woodville’s sister, Margaret, when she married Thomas Fitzalan, heir to the Earl of Arundel here, also in 1464. As the 25-year old Margaret stood solemnly at the abbey’s altar next to her new husband, the October light glinting through the stained glass window, she must have felt stunned: elevated to Countess, Margaret would have four children and lived into her early fifties.(10)

It wasn’t all fairytales and weddings, however. Reading was also the scene of an act of treason that gives an insight into one of the root causes of the conflict.

In 1444, Thomas Kerver walked through the church of Reading abbey with three men, uttering ‘treasonous proposals’ about the government of Henry VI. He was quickly arrested and charged with having “falsely and traitorously… schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king.”(11) Kerver’s sentence was death, although Henry reduced it at the last minute to imprisonment. Kerver’s actions reveal that it wasn’t just the nobility who were disillusioned with Henry as a ruler but a deep-seated disappointment simmered among his subjects, too.

Lastly, Reading has one more, macabre link to the Wars of the Roses.

In 1538 John London wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the canon at Caversham Priory  “was accustomed to show many pretty relics, among others the holy dagger that killed King Henry… all these… my servant will bring your Lordship next week.”(12)

There was a reason for glorifying this grisly piece of criminal evidence. Henry VI was said to have been murdered at the Tower of London in 1471. Despite his failings in kingship, he was posthumously adopted as a martyr and considered responsible for a number of miracles, including curing the madness of Geoffrey Braunston’s wife in 1486, restoring Beatrice Shirley from the dead in 1489 and William Cheshire, who “having made a vow to visit the blessed King Henry, was immediately made glad by the restoration of his lost eye.”(13)

Unfortunately, we have no idea what happened to Caversham’s holy dagger after it was spirited out of Reading by London’s servant, or the specific miracles it was said to perform.

At first glance then, it would seem that a small cloth-producing town in the Thames Valley 40 miles from the nearest battle and 45 miles from Westminster would have been insignificant to the development of the Wars of the Roses. But evidence points to Reading’s involvement in royal (and secret) weddings, militia, political tensions – and of course the prized relic: the miracle-performing dagger that was said to have killed a fragile but worshipped king.

Notes

1 Joan Dils, Reading: A History. Carnegie Publishing, 2019. Dils uses the 1381 and 1525 tax records to estimate a population of 1,300 in 1381 and 3,400 in 1525. Our figure for the mid-fifteenth century would be somewhere in the middle of these estimates. Page 44.

2 Ibid., p.31. Also Coates, in his History and Antiquities of Reading (1802) adds that Henry VI held parliament here in 1451 and 1452. page 253.

3 Charles Coates, Ibid., page 253.

4 Dan Spencer, The Castle in the Wars of the Roses. Pen and Sword Publishing, 2020.

5 Adrian Waite lists those whose property was confiscated after supporting the Lancastrian side after the Battle of Towton, including ‘Thomas Manning, of New Windsor in Berkshire’. AW History, accessed 18th July 2021.

6 JM Guiding, Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation, vol. 1. J Parker, 1892. p85

7 Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, Penguin, 2012 page 24.

8 ‘Milan: 1465’, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 115-117. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].

9Milan: 1464′, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 110-114. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].

10 The Peerage, Margaret Fitzalan, accessed 18 July 2021.

11 C.A.F. Meekings, Thomas Kerver’s Case,1441, The English Historical Review, Volume XC, Issue CCCLV, April 1975, Pages 331–346.

12 ‘Henry VIII: September 1538 16-20’, inLetters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, August-December 1538, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1893), pp. 141-154. British History Online[accessed 18 July 2021].

13 The Miracles of King Henry VI: being an account and translation of twenty-three miracles … with introductions by Father Ronald Knox and Shane Leslie. CUP archive. 1923. Pages 39, 50 and 73.

A Riot, a Dog and The George Hotel in Reading- Guest Post by Jo Romero

Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.

Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.

Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey –  the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.

Photograph of The George by Jo Romero

Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.

Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.

All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:

“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)

At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?

A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?

While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)

Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)

The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.

The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)

For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.

It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.

Notes:

  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
  2. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
  3. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
  4. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
  5. Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
  6. The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.

A ‘Love of Wandering’[i]: The Webb Family Abroad- Guest Post by Harriet Bird


Harriet Bird graduated with an undergraduate degree in History from Nottingham Trent University in 2019 and is currently studying for her master’s in Museum and Heritage Development. After beginning a volunteer position at Newstead Abbey in 2018 she became interested in the history of the Webb family and has begun researching this alongside her studies.  

Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Madeira, Egypt, South Africa, Jerusalem, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand. The Victorian owners of Newstead Abbey travelled extensively.  

From an early age, William Frederick Webb (1829-1899) was used to travelling to different countries. Although born in England, he was largely raised in France and was known as “the French boy” when he began his education at Eton College.[i] After leaving Eton he became a captain of the 17th Lancers and spent time in Ireland, however, “the monotony of regimental life” did not suit Webb and he resigned his commission and turned his attentions to Africa.[ii] At the age of 22, he landed in South Africa to begin a two-year expedition of the country.[iii] After reluctantly leaving Africa early in 1853, he visited India after hearing so much about the country but found “after the free life of the African wilderness the India of those days failed to attract him” and he returned to England by the end of the year.[iv]

Figure 1: A photograph of five of the Webb children stood in front of Eagle Pond in the gardens of Newstead Abbey. Photograph from Webb Family Photo Album.

In July 1857, Webb married Emilia Jane Goodlake (1835-1889), the daughter of Thomas Mills Goodlake of Wadley at Farringdon in Berkshire (1808-1877).[v] The couple moved to Pepper Hall in Yorkshire where their first three children, Augusta Zelia (1858), Geraldine Katherine (1860), and Wilfred (1861), were born. Shortly after Wilfred was born in spring 1861 the family moved to Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, where four more children followed, Ethel Mary (1862), Mabel Cecilia (1863), Algernon Frederick (1865) and Roderick Beauclerk (1867).

The Webb children’s childhoods were filled with tales of their father’s excursions abroad, in particular, his expedition to Africa, so much so that Augusta later claimed, “Africa played such a familiar part in our childhood’s days as to be almost as real to us as our home surroundings”.[vi] From surviving letters and family photograph albums, we find that William and Emilia continued to travel and often took the children with them. Not only did the family spend their summers in Scotland at Arrochar, but they also travelled abroad to places such as Switzerland, Italy and Egypt.[vii] Emilia managed to fulfil her “great desire” and visited Jerusalem, as Augusta related, “it was a very real and true pilgrimage”, and she was “very proud of her pilgrim’s ring”.[viii]  It is perhaps not surprising that their children continued to travel and may have acquired the same “love of wandering” Augusta describes her father as having.[ix]

Figure 2 : Photograph taken by a member of the Webb family identified as Jerusalem. Photograph from the Webb Family Photo Album.

Three years after her marriage to Philip Affleck Fraser in July 1889, Augusta found herself settling in Jamaica during her husband’s work with the railway.[x] Already an experienced and talented author having published articles and short stories in the periodicals in England, Augusta began her first full-length novel. Inspired by her new surroundings and the stories told to her by the local population, A Study in Colour was published in 1894. A second novel, Lucilla (1895), and a collection of short stories, A Reluctant Evangelist (1896), followed, all published under the pseudonym, Alice Spinner. Augusta’s fourth work, Livingstone and Newstead, was published in 1913 under her married name.

In the 1890s Geraldine and Ethel got the opportunity to accompany their father on a trip to Japan. On their return, inspired by their visit, rooms began to be filled with purchases and souvenirs, the Henry VII bedroom being redecorated to create a Japanese Room. Ethel also took this inspiration out into the gardens and set about designing a Japanese Garden, her sketches and research having survived to be shown to visitors at the Abbey today.

Death also haunted trips abroad. In 1889, Emilia became “hopelessly ill” and the “South African climate had been recommended to her”.[xi] Accompanied only by her husband, she travelled to South Africa where the weather did “allay much of her suffering” but in December she passed away just two months after arriving.[xii]  Two years later, a visit to Madeira was extended for some time on account of Mabel’s “delicate health” and her “suffering from the effects of a severe fall”.[xiii] When she eventually returned to England in July it was decided for her to undergo an operation, however, shortly after chloroform had been administered Mabel “sank rapidly” and died from a complication with her heart.[xiv] In 1898, Webb, like his wife, had travelled abroad for declining health.[xv] Suffering from acute laryngitis, Webb spent his last months in Egypt, passing away in February 1899 potentially from heart failure.[xvi]

Figure 3: Photograph of a sphinx taken in Egypt. Photograph from the Webb Family Photo Album.

In December the same year, Geraldine married Sir Herbert Charles Chermside (1850-1929) in a quickly arranged and quiet ceremony on account of Chermside’s departure for South Africa on active service on 4 January 1900, both Geraldine and Ethel later joined him.[xvii] Following his appointment as the 9th Governor of Queensland, a post he held between 1902 and 1904, the couple relocated to Australia.[xviii]  Whilst there, Geraldine visited New Zealand in October 1903, her husband joined her for Christmas before they both returned to Australia at the end of January 1904.[xix] Like her parents, when her health was failing she travelled abroad to Switzerland for improvement but died in June 1910.[xx]

The youngest Webb sibling, Roderick, also found himself in Australia. Likely leaving England after being examined by a bankruptcy court in 1896 for debts of over £11,000, Roderick is reportedly to have taken up mining, farming and “dairying” in Australia.[xxi] Like his father, Roderick had begun a military career after leaving school, a career he retained in Australia after taking the position of aide-de-camp to his brother-in-law, Chermside.[xxii] During the war, he was ordered to East Africa where he died from heart failure in 1916.[xxiii]

With Newstead Abbey as their base, the Webb’s travelled extensively for exploration, enjoyment, employment and easing of illness. Their combined “love of wandering” led them to places as far away as Australia and Japan and their travels often coincided with important landmarks in their lives making it almost impossible to tell their story without reference to them.   

Photographs from the Webb Family Photo Album used with kind permission from Simon Brown, Curator of Newstead Abbey.


[i] Fraser, A.Z. 1913. Livingstone and Newstead, London: John Murray, p.3.

[ii] Ibid, pp.1-2.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 2-6. See Chapters 2-6 for an account of his time in Africa and meeting with Dr Livingstone.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid, pp. 41-42.

[vi] ‘Marriage in the High Life’, Morning Post, Thursday, 16 July 1857, p.5. ; Fraser, Livingstone, pp. 64-65.

[vii] Fraser, Livingstone, p.33.

[viii] A copy of the Webb family photograph album is available for visitors to look through at Newstead Abbey and some of the letters are also on display.

[ix] Fraser, Livingstone, p.170.

[x] Ibid, p.3.

[xi] Bryan, P. (2000), The Jamaican People, 1880-1902: Race, Class, and Social Control, University of West Indies Press, p.40, 199.  

[xii] Fraser, Livingstone, pp. 248-251.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] ‘Sad Death of the Daughter of Mr Webb, of Newstead Abbey’, Mansfield Reporter, Friday, 3 July 1891, p.8.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] ‘Mr W. F. Webb’, Nottingham Evening Post, Saturday, 25 Feb 1899, p.4.

[xvii] Ibid. ; ‘Stray Pellets’, Sporting Gazette: The County Gentleman, Saturday, 18 March 1899, p.345.

[xviii] ‘Major-General Sir H. Chermside and Miss Geraldine Webb’, Nottingham Journal, Thursday, 28 Dec 1899, p.6. ; ‘Major-Gen. Sir H. Chermside, G.C.M.G., C.B., to Miss G. K. Webb’, Gentlewoman, Saturday, 13 Jan 1900, p.56.

[xix] ‘Queensland’s New Governor’, Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday, 1 Jan 1902, p.8. ; ‘Army Personal’, Army and Navy Gazette, Saturday, 11 Jan 1902, p.28. ; ‘Sir H. Chermside Resigns’, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947), Friday, 30 Sep 1904, p.4.

[xx] ‘Lady Chermside’s Departure’, The Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld: 1861-1908), Tuesday, 6 Oct 1903, p.12. ; ‘Governor Gone’, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld: 1872-1947), Wednesday, 16 Dec 1903, p.7.

[xxi] ‘Death of Lady Chermside’, Nottingham Evening Post, Thursday, 23 June 1910, p.6.

[xxii] ‘The Affairs of Roderick B. Webb, of Cowton, Yorks, and Newstead Abbey, Notts’, The Freemans Journal, Thursday, 12 Nov, 1896, p.7. ‘Obituary: Major R. B. Webb’, Warwick Examiner and Times (Qld: 1867-1919), Wednesday, 9 Aug 1916, p.1.  

[xxiii] ‘Obituary’, Warwick Examiner, 1916, p.1.

[xxiv] Ibid.

Audley End- Aristocrats, Avenues and Espionage: a Guest Post by Laura Adkins

This guest post has kindly been written by Laura Adkins, the creator of the For The Love of History Blog, which I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about ones found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.

One of the grandest houses in England, Audley End stands proudly in the countryside of Saffron Walden. Its origins date back to the 10th Century, where it began life as Walden Abbey, given to Thomas, Lord Audley, by Henry VIII, who converted the monastery into a house. 

The rooms are high and hung with beautiful tapestries: the beds amply decorated with golden velvet and silk bed hangings and covers.’

From the account of the visit of Johann Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, to Audley End, September 1613

In this post, I will be exploring three parts of Audley’s history, those who lived there – the Howards, its beautiful gardens designed by the one and only Capability Brown and its role in WW2 and the polish resistance.

Aristocrats:

The creator of the current structure of Audley End was Thomas Howard, part of the infamous Howard family. He inherited the House in 1605 and set about transforming the site into a country estate fit enough for royalty as he wanted to show off his wealth. Unfortunately, not much survives of his transformations and what we know from his estate comes from archives and documentary evidence. We know work began in 1605 and completed around 1614. Along with his uncle Henry Howard and Bernard Janssen, a Flemish mason, the three set about creating one of the greatest houses in Jacobean England.[1] Audley End had all the parts one expects in a Jacobean Mansion including symmetrical inner court, lodgings for his guests, including one for both the King and a separate one for the Queen for when they would stay. Today the house is only half the size of what it once was.

Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk by Unknown Artist, National Portrait Gallery

The Howard family’s rise to power began in 1483, when King Richard III created John Howard the Duke of Norfolk. This was the third time that the Title of Duke of Norfolk had been used, and John had blood links to the first ever Duke of Norfolk – Thomas Mowbray (made 1st Duke of Norfolk in 1397). The head of the Howards would not only hold the title of Duke of Norfolk, but that of Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey, and Earl of Norfolk in addition to holding six baronies. They were a powerful family, who in the reign of the Tudors were ones to watch out for. Thomas Howard, son of John would be successful in defeating the Scots at the Battle of Flodden with two of his nieces – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard being married to King Henry VIII. Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, would hold the title of Lord Admiral and lead the English against the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. For more on this infamous family, I suggest reading House of Treason by Robert Hutchinson.

In 1751, after the 10th Earl’s death, Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth brought Audley End which in turn would be inherited by her nephew, Sir John Griffin Whitwell, on the agreement that he took the surname of Griffin. John was a retired soldier and MP for Andover. He had fought and was wounded at the Battle of Kloster Kampen in 1760 during the Seven Years War.

Sir John, who became Lord Howard, would make more transformations to Audley End, most of which is what we can see today. He hired the architect Robert Adam to transform the house and Capability Brown the landscape. Adam’s work can be seen in the ground floor reception rooms on the south front today. Over time, Sir John started to pick up the architectural bug and his second wife, Katherine the decor. They both, respectively, became amateur architect and decorator and thus set about making many of their own changes to the house. The central range was rebuilt to reconnect the two wings of the house, along with a unique service gallery and detached service wing, all under the eye of Sir John.

Audley End would be one of the first houses to have a flushing water closet (installed in 1775) along with a bell system for the family of the house to call their domestic staff. Today, much of what can be seen at Audley End is a result of Richard Neville, who in the 1820s remodelled the house taking it back to its Jacobean roots.

Audley End, Wikimedia Commons

Avenues:

The beginnings of formal gardens at Audley End were started during the conversion of the monastery into house. It would be Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth, who would begin the transformation of the gardens into a more formal landscape. However, the landscape that we see today was mostly the result of one Capability Brown.

I mentioned above that in 1763, Griffin hired John Adam to assist with the interior development, he had Capability Brown do the same with the estate. Brown’s brief was to widen the river running through the estate, building a ha-ha and transforming the overall look of the gardens into Brown’s ‘naturalistic style’. He would create new roads towards the house, including one with a bridge, which was designed by Adam’s and is a Grade I listed structure. Brown was to be paid £660 (around £1,150,000 today) for his work in three payments, the last being on completion.

The two would eventually fall out with the result being Griffin dismissing Brown and getting the unknown Joseph Hicks to finish the work. However, the elements of Brown’s work are there for all to see and appreciate, including sweeps of grass, water flowing towards the house, long curving drives with stunning views for visitors and wooded areas to hide service buildings.

Espionage:

When I visited Audley End many years ago, I did not really pay much attention to a monument within the estate, remembering fallen soldiers from WW2. It was not until planning this post that Danielle mentioned the Polish secret missions that made me go back and re look at Audley End’s history in the 20th Century.

In 1941, like a number of other country estates, Audley End was requisitioned by the Army to be used as a training facility. By 1943, those who trained there was exclusively Polish Soldiers. They were undergoing training to assist them when they were secretly returned to German occupied Poland and assist the Polish resistance.

WWII Reenactment at Audley End

Code named station 43 (overseen by the Special Operations Executive), the Polish agents, under the command of Captain Alfons Mackowiak (Alan Mack). They would undergo various training in guerrilla warfare which included close combat, assignation, forgery, planting booby traps and of course learning how to parachute out of a plane. In total 527 soldiers passed the training and were sent into Poland. Sadly, 108 of these were either killed in action or at concentration camps and are remembered on the memorial I mentioned above. The soldiers would be known as the Cichociemni (the silent and Unseen). They would be involved in many missions, including recovering a German V2 rocket and smuggling into England.

‘Between 1942 and 1944 Polish members of the Special Operations Executive trained in this house for missions in their homeland. This memorial commemorates those who parachuted into enemy occupied Poland and gave their lives for the freedom of this and their own country.’ Listed Grade II © Historic England Archive PLB/K030323

In 1948, the house was handed over to the nation. Today it is managed by English Heritage, and accessible to the public, for more information on visiting times, exhibitions and events head to https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/

[1] Drury, P (…) English Heritage Guidebooks – Audley End

Sources:

Borger, J (2016) Honouring ‘silent and unseen’ fighters who led Polish resistance. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/10/honouring-poland-silent-unseen-fighters-resistance-nazi-british [Accessed 04.08/20]

English Heritage (2020) Audley End House and Gardens. Available from:  www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/ [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2020) Audley End. Available from: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000312 [Accessed 25/07/20]

Historic England (2019) The Secret War: Resistance in Britain During the Second World War. Avalbne from: https://heritagecalling.com/2019/11/05/the-secret-war-resistance-in-britain-during-the-second-world-war/ [Accessed 05/08/20] Landscape Institute(2016) About Capability Brown. Available from:  http://www.capabilitybrown.org/  [Accessed 4/8/20]