The medieval manor house at Baddesley Clinton is one of my favourite National Trust properties. Full of secrets and stories, this is the style of architecture I most love, timber-framed, set within a moat, full of secrets and stories, with its nooks and dens and unexpected corners and disappearing staircases… and of course the much-loved priest-holes.
Not so much loved, I imagine, by the sixteenth century Jesuit priests who had to hide in them for days to escape Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters; although they would certainly have been grateful for the sanctuary, knowing the alternative; arrest, trial and execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.
No, we are the ones who have the luxury of loving the priest-holes; for today we gaze with awe and wonder at the sheer ingenuity, physical strength and building skills of the master priest-hole builder, Nicholas Owen (later canonised by the Catholic church).
The original house was built here in 1400. Its name derives from a Saxon called Baeddi, who first cleared the site in the Forest of Arden where the house stands, and the de Clinton family, who dug the moat in the 13th century.
For 500 years the house was owned by the Ferrers family, passing from father to son for twelve generations. The Ferrers family remained loyal to the Catholic faith despite periods of persecution after Henry VIII’s split from Rome.
Edward Ferrers built much of what we see today, from 1526 onwards.
Many curious tales are told of the house, many by National Trust staff. One of the tales concerns the lingering presence of an unfortunate 15th century priest, one Willelmus Foster, who was killed by the hot-headed owner of the manor, Nicholas Brome (1450-1517) in a fit of misdirected jealousy.
It is in St Michael’s Church, close by the manor house, that we may find ample evidence of Nicholas’s attempt to make amends. This is a fascinating story in which repentant Nicholas went to elaborate lengths to save his soul, according to the accepted beliefs of the time.
He funded the construction of two towers in two churches, one of which is at the church in nearby Packwood, and the other of which is here at Baddesley Clinton. They are called the Towers of Atonement.
Nicholas also became a member of eight religious fraternities, praying each day for the souls of their members. Thus he was spared the usual penalty for murder, according to the law of the land (i.e. paying in the traditional manner for murdering the priest). It may also have had something to do with the fact that he was the lord of the manor.
It makes a fascinating story for us today, and it is recounted in the church, where Nicholas may be seen kneeling in prayer, resplendent in the stained glass of the east window.
He did however, as a final spiritual insurance policy, make reparation for his sins by directing that he be buried just outside the west door of the church, under the step where the doormat is placed, so all who entered the church might walk over him.
This is the sixth in my series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
I have long loved Kenilworth Castle, very close to my home, and one of English Heritage‘s most treasured castles. Not only has it provided the setting for one of the British Monarchy’s most romantic episodes – the elaborate programme of festivities laid on by Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1575, as his last and most extravagant attempt to win the hand of Elizabeth I in marriage – but also it encompasses a glorious, dramatic and turbulent span of English history from as far back as the 1120s.
Of course, many have reported ghostly apparitions, strange occurrences and curious anecdotes about this castle. Stories cluster around the castle stables and Leicester’s Gatehouse.
In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.
Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.
This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history.
The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family. A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.
His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.
Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics. Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.
He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for.
After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.
The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.
When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.
At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.
Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.
Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month. One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.
The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.
Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.
Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.
When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.
And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.
As English Heritage members we’ve visited this castle many times but it was so beautiful to see the trees, castle ruins and grounds illuminated with imaginative light displays. We particularly enjoyed the large projected image of Elizabeth I
on the side of Leicester’s Building – which was constructed specially to accommodate the royal party and all the guests during Elizabeth’s famous 19-day visit to Kenilworth Castle in July 1575, during which Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, made his last attempt to win her hand in marriage.
Dancing figures of light appeared on the walls, and before us a banqueting table was laid out with goblets – just a mere shadow of the lavish parties which John of Gaunt threw here during the 1360’s having turned the fortress castle into a palace.
The Elizabethan Garden looked enchanting with the central statue on the fountain fully illuminated and lights dancing and playing in the garden.
Sir Robert Dudley missed a trick when he tried to impress Elizabeth I with his creation of the original garden here – if he’d put on a light display like that after dark, I think he might have succeeded in winning her hand after all…
Castles always make me happy. I’m lucky to live within a short distance of two of the country’s greatest – Kenilworth and Warwick.
I’ve visited both many times but it’s Kenilworth that most captures my imagination. Is this because it lies in ruins whereas Warwick is still intact and has a Tussauds exhibition in it? When I consider Kenilworth, from the time Geoffrey de Clinton built the Keep with Henry I’s money in the 1120’s, right through to when Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth blasted it after the English Civil War and then moved into Leicester’s Gatehouse and set up home there, I think of the castle’s history blended with all the happy times I’ve spent in it.
As I wander round Kenilworth Castle I wish I had a virtual reality CGI device that I could hold up to the ruined chambers and see superimposed over them exactly how this room looked in the castle’s days of glory. Instead I have my imagination.
With it, I can see John of Gaunt’s great hall in its prime, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs set in the grand fireplace, and the table regularly laden with banquets. I can experience the kitchens as they were, full of heat and toiling cooks and servants, when Leicester’s Building was used to accommodate Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley’s party of guests in 1575 . I can visualise the great mere that surrounded the castle, and picture the tiltyard when it was in full operation. I can replace the floor of the great hall in the Keep, and restore it to how it was when Edward II was forced to abdicate in it.
As for the Elizabethan garden, I imagine it seductive, scented, densely-planted with shrubs in full bloom, with its four obelisks and central marble fountain, and a gemstone-studded aviary filled with lovebirds – for that is how it would have been when Sir Robert Dudley ushered Elizabeth I into it, hoping to persuade her to marry him (she still refused, but I’m sure she enjoyed herself there).
Castles make me happy – to the extent that I only have to glimpse battlements above trees to feel that surge of joy. Why, I wonder? Castles are associated with prisoners thrown in dungeons to die; massive social inequality and injustice, arrogant lords feasting in their halls wth the social elite of the land while the masses labour and starve; wars, battles, sieges, boiling oil, death-holes, trebuchets loaded with rotting animal carcasses… and yet castles make me happy. I suggest this is because they are all bound up with story, and story is all about meaning, and we value meaning above all.