"THIS IS ASHRIDGE"
CAPTAIN HENRY GORDON
Foreword (by Lieut. Col. Alfred Burne); This is Ashridge - Introduction; The Monastery; The Royal Residence; The Manor House and The Mansion; The College; The Hospital; The College after the War
THE MANOR AND THE MANSION
We do not hear anymore of Elizabeth at Ashridge after her tragic departure which led to the Tower. Apparently the place was let to Richard Coombe, a cousin of Thomas Waterhouse, the former Rector of the Monastery. It is known that the cousins had shared a house after the dissolution.
In the succeeding years there were a number of tenants, including William Gorge, one of Elizabeth's gentlemen pensioners. In 1575 John Dudley and John Ayscough are shown in possession, and they were followed by Henry Lord Cheyney.
In 1605 Ashridge passed into the possession of a family which was to hold and foster the property for many generations. On October 21st of that year, Randolph Crewe, Thomas Chamberlain and Richard Cartwright, granted by their indenture "the Manor of Ashridge, Gaddesden Parva and Frithsden to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Ellesmere" - the founder of the House of Bridgewater.
Sir Thomas was the son of Sir Richard Egerton, a Cheshire Squire. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1556 when 17 years of age, and later proceeded to Lincoln's Inn. His subsequent career was extraordinary. In 1581 he was appointed Solicitor General; in 1592 Attorney General; in 1593 he became Master of the Rolls and, in May 1596, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. On the accession of James I he was confirmed Lord Keeper in May 1603, and in the July of the same year constituted Lord Chancellor and raised to the Peerage, adopting the title Baron of Ellesmere. He was created Viscount Brackley in November 1616, and died in the following spring, age 77.
The "checkrolle of the household" on February 20th 1603 shows 99 people employed, and the quarterly account amounted to £658. 1s. 4d.
Ashridge then passed to John, the eldest surviving son, who was created the Earl of Bridgewater on May 27th 1617. The new Earl was a soldier who had fought under Essex in Ireland in 1599, where he had been knighted. In 1631 he was promoted Lord President of Wales and the Marches, and he occupied Ludlow Castle as his official residence.
Milton wrote "Comus" around an adventure of the Bridgewater children when Lady Alice Egerton was lost for a time as they were passing through Haywood Forest. The Masque was performed in 1634 at Ludlow Castle with music by the royal musician, Henry Lawes, who was Milton's friend.
In passing it may be recalled that in July 1930, "Comus" was performed in the gardens of Ashridge. "The Rout of oughly-headed monsters" dancing wildly in the beauty of the limelight with a wooded background of oak and beech, which may well have been familiar to the first Earl, remains a vivid memory, even with the passing years. John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, who witnessed one of the performances, wrote "It was a most lovely thing and we'd have come on foot to it, twice the distance."
The Earl was a great classical scholar and when he retired finally to Ashridge he devoted himself to literary work, and to building up his library. These were probably his happiest days, because he was a man of simple tastes. He died on December 4th 1649, and a monument to his memory may be seen in Little Gaddesden Church.
John, Viscount Brackley, who succeeded to the Earldom and to the estate of Ashridge, inherited a Cromwellian mistrust of the House of Bridgewater. Wisely he remained at Ashridge carrying out the responsibilities of his estate and immersed in literary pursuits.
Like his father he was a scholar, devoted to his library and an earnest supporter of the Established Church. Chauncey, who was well acquainted with the Earl, tells us that he was a person of middling stature, with a modest and grave aspect, and that he was very temperate in eating and drinking, but remarkable for his hospitality to his neighbours, charity to the poor, and liberality to strangers.
It is odd, therefore, to find a man of this character accepting a challenge to duel with Lord Middlesex. The King, on hearing of this, tried to settle the quarrel, but failed owing to the obstinacy of Middlesex. Both noblemen were ordered into custody and, after further enquiry by the King, they were reprimanded and Middlesex directed to make an apology.
Lady Bridgewater accompanied her husband while he was under arrest and died in the house in which he was confined. The devoted husband never really recovered from his loss, and this is recorded on a memorial in Little Gaddesden Church, which was erected when he died in October 1686. The monument records that he desired no other memorial of him but only this: "that having (in the 19th year of his age) married the Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter to the then Earl, since Marquis, and after that Duke of Newcastle, he did enjoy (almost 22 years) all the happiness that a man could receive in the sweet society of the best of wives, till it pleased God, in the 41st year of his age, to change his great felicity into as great misery, by depriving him of his truly loving and entirely beloved wife, who was all his worldly bliss : after which time humbly submitting to, and waiting on, the Will and Pleasure of the Almighty, he did sorrowfully wear out 23 years 4 months and 12 days, and then on the 26th day of October, in the year of our Lord 1686, and in the 64th year of his own age, yielded up his soul into the merciful hand of God who gave it."
At this period, although successive owners had made additions, the monastic buildings remained unchanged. The whole property was surrounded by a splendid park about five miles in circumference.
Entry was obtained through a handsome gateway formerly the porter's lodge. This was enlarged subsequently, and additional buildings added to the East end to accommodate the family.
Entering the gateway one reached a court which enclosed the front part of the house. At the back of this court was the Hall, conspicuous by its seven high Gothic windows, each decorated with arms painted on the glass. At each end of the Hall, as though to anchor it in position, were projecting wings with large embattled windows - one of the wings contained the famous library, afterwards destined to suffer sadly through neglect and damp. The Hall was 44 feet in length and 22 feet wide, with the entrance through a doorway in a passage facing the courtyard.
The Church and Cloisters stood at the back of the Hall. On the walls of the Cloisters were forty compartments beautifully painted in water colours, representing incidents in the life of our Lord. The Cloisters surrounded a large reservoir, which is said to have caused the dampness which defaced and finally destroyed the paintings. The absence of water in the vicinity is singular for a Monastery. In this case the nearest stream is the Gade at Water End, several miles away, and presumably the main supply was from a large well which still exists.
The house was entirely surrounded by a wall within which was a formal garden containing, among other things, the famous Ashridge maze. Sretching away on the West side were the stables, barns and granaries. One of these buildings still stands today, and occupies the North side of the Monk's Garden. Originally a tithe barn, but now restored in many places and with the beautiful lines of the red tiled roof broken by dormer excrescences, probably put in during Victorian days, the old building stands as a memory of other times.
On the death of John, 2nd Earl, the estate passed to his son, also a John. He inherited the prudence of his forebears, a quality which may have saved him, as a vigorous Churchman, from ignominy at a time when the Crown made its final effort to restore Roman Catholicism. This family characteristic of playing for safety had retarded his ambitious predecessors, but the 3rd Earl was a man of strong character and considerable attainments, and he would probably have wielded a powerful influence in the State during the reign of William and Mary but for his premature death in March, 1701. His two eldest sons, Charles and Thomas, lost their lives in a disastrous fire at Bridgewater House in 1687.
The third son, Scroop, succeeded and became 4th Earl. He was a man with no outstanding characteristics or merits, but was nevertheless created a Duke in 1720. This was largely due to the influence exerted by the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, his father-in-law and mother-in-law. As a young man of twenty-one Scroop had fallen in love with Elizabeth, their schoolgirl daughter, and although she was only 15, he obtained consent and married her. The marriage was a fortunate one, as Elizabeth was not only beautiful, but her wit and brilliancy made a way for her mediocre husband.
She died in 1714, but eight years later he married again, this time to a daughter of the Duke of Bedford. Eight children were born as a result of this marriage, six of whom died in infancy.
Scroop died in January, 1745, and his eldest son John, Marquis of Brackley, became 2nd Duke of Bridgewater, but he died unmarried at the age of 20 in 1748.
The only surviving brother, Francis, a boy of 12, succeeded as 3rd Duke. He is described as being at this time a morose, bad-mannered ignorant child. A lengthy tour of Europe subsequently broadened his mind and improved his health, and he settled down, apparently content to lead the easy-going life of a moneyed young man of his day.
He was ultimately carried away by the beauty of one of the famous Gunning sisters, and pressed his offer of marriage with great determination, but the lady of his choice had already given her affections elsewhere.
This rejection had the most momentous effect on the Duke's career, because he foreswore the fair sex and it seems probable that his disappointment brought him face to face with the realities of life. Whatever the cause, he changed his mode of living and retired to Ashridge. Gradually he felt the urge for achieving something constructive, and with this dawned the plan of his famous canal.
In order to be near the scene of his proposed work, he moved to his Lancashire home, Worsley Old Hall, and here, associated with his agent, John Gilbert, and the engineering genius, James Brindley, he spent the next few years of his life and a great deal of money. The problems were many, the opposition fierce, delay followed delay, and above all financial difficulties were a continual nightmare. The complete canal of about 40 miles cost over £200,000, but in due time Francis was to be amply repaid for his courage and tenacity. It was a wonderful conception, which pioneered inland waterways, improved transport and reduced its cost : as a natural sequence industry benefitted materially through the lower cost of coal.
Lacking any sense of humour and steadfastly refusing to read any books, untidy in his dress and habits, Francis was a dull companion. In later life he was induced to take an interest in pictures, but the attraction was really in searching for a bargain rather than an appreciation of art.
Mean in his private affairs, he was a good employer, and if he avoided softness he at least treated his employees fairly, and it is interesting to observe that the germs of the social services were already in operation. Houses were provided for work people with shops in the vicinity to give convenient service. The shopkeepers were also tenants, and by this means a control of prices was established which prevented excessive charges. Compulsory contributions to Sick Clubs was a rule, and the establishment of Sunday Schools showed a surprising side to the character of a man reputed to be notoriously irreligious. All this points to the fact that the Duke's enterprises were well-administered, and whatever the motive his treatment of his employees was far in advance of his time.
This extraordinary man died on March 8th, 1803, and was buried in Little Gaddesden Church. Today the Duke is still known as "The Father of Inland Navigation", and the monument to his memory about a mile north west of Ashridge can be seen as a landmark from the House. The great column can be ascended by an inside spiral stone staircase of 170 steps, and the view from the top is magnificent. The monument is in the care of the National Trust, and the key can be obtained from the nearby cottage.
Francis, the 3rd Duke, was succeeded by Lieut.-General John William Egerton, a childless cousin. Although a fortune accompanied the succession, Francis by his Will conveyed the Canal and his Collieries to Trustees for a period of approximately a hundred years. The income from the Trust was to be paid to his nephew, the Marquis of Stafford, who was debarred from any active direction or power in its management. In addition to the income from the Trust, the nephew, and afterwards his nephew's second son, was to benefit by the Lancashire and Cheshire estates, Brackley in Northamptonshire and Bridgewater House, with a magnificent collection of pictures. John William Egerton inherited Ashridge, together with the Shropshire estates and some £600,000. As there was no provision for heirs male general in respect of the Dukedom, the title ceased and General Egerton assumed the title of 7th Earl of Bridgewater.
He found Ashridge in a sad condition, and it is recorded that there was no room which could keep out the rain. The house had been neglected by his predecessor, who fostered ideas of rebuilding and had accumulated much valuable material for this purpose. The Earl claimed that in building the new Ashridge he was carrying out a sacred trust imposed upon him by his cousin. Money was plentiful, labour was cheap and the great building, a thousand feet in length, offered James Wyatt, the architect, an unrivalled opportunity. He died on September 4th, 1813, before the work was completed, and his task was taken over by his nephew, Jeffrey Wyatt.
The architect was instructed to fit the building in between a row of lime trees on the east and a row of elms on the west, and this was accomplished with great precision. The limes still flourish, tall magnificent trees bordering the main walk on the east side of the gardens. They have passed their zenith, but will survive for many years. The elms were taken down in 1937 as they were in a dangerous condition, and an avenue of liquidambars has been planted in their place.
The monastic buildings were demolished, and today all that remains are the tithe barn to which reference has been made previously, and the crypt which is still in an excellent state of preservation.
Ashridge is built of Totternhoe stone obtained from the Bridgewater Quarries at Totternhoe. This stone is a soft clunch which unfortunately disintegrates under the action of wind and weather; in addition it contains a certain amount of iron pyrites which, in the course of time, rust if exposed and produce pockets in the fabric. To make matters worse some of the stone was cut on the wrong face.
In the course of time all these factors have produced a problem, and the wondrous white building of 1814 now shows sign of wear which belie its age. Repair of the whole fabric as one operation is impossible owing to the enormous cost, and the difficulty was met by restoration of a section every year, but even this work is now suspended. Totternhoe stone does not take satisfactorily to cement, and all restoration is now carried out with Portland Stone.
Building operations commenced in 1808 and finished in 1814. The cost was about £300,000, and the architecture in Gothic style has been much criticised.
In spite of his great wealth the 7th Earl was not a happy man. Beyond question he laboured under the grievous disappointment of not having a son to succeed him, and this seems to have influenced his entire outlook on life. He took little part in Court or Government affairs, but spent his time dealing with his estates and local or County problems. In this he achieved considerable success, and he has the reputation of being a good landlord and public-spirited man, devoted to the welfare of his tenants and the neighbourhood in general. He was a sincere Churchman, given to judicious benevolence, but his charity was accompanied by considerable discretion, and this to some extent may have given him a reputation for meanness. Todd, writing at the time of his death, says "no man sooner forgave an injury", and attributes to him far more than the usual share of human virtues, but as this was really in the nature of an obituary notice, it was probably too early and too close to assess the Earl's character in its true proportions.
The heir presumptive was his brother, the Rev. Francis Egerton, a half-crazy parson of whom the Earl disapproved. The Rev. Francis forsook his parish and took up permanent residence in France, where his eccentricities, to give them no worse name, were outrageous. In due time he was to become the 8th and last Earl of Bridgewater, but as he did not succeed to the Ashridge property his career need not be enlarged upon.
All this must have had some bearing on the 7th Earl's most extraordinary Will, which was framed with great ingenuity to by-pass the Rev. Francis, but at the same time to place him beyond financial worry, and subject to the life interests of his widow and niece, Lady Farnborough, to leave the bulk of the Estate to Lord Alford, the son of Lord Brownlow, then a boy of twelve. The Will, however, contained the remarkable provision that the estates and fortune only passed to Lord Alford on condition that he acquired the dignity of a Dukedom within five years of his succession. Failure to do this meant the forfeiture of the property to his younger brother, Charles Henry Hume Cust, who had to comply with the same condition or in turn forfeit his right to William Tatton Egerton, on whom no such burden was laid.
The Earl's ambition was the restoration of the Dukedom to his family, and he probably held that with an income of over £70,000 a year and an estate valued at £2,000,000, it should not prove a difficult achievement at a reasonable cost in a corrupt administration. In making this plan he had left nothing to chance. The Will had been drafted with the greatest care under the advice of the ablest lawyers of the day. Every legal possibility had been considered and assessed - two things had, however, been overlooked, human longevity and the probity of the English Courts of Law.
The Earl died in October, 1823, and the widow was left the enjoyment of Ashridge for her lifetime, with a competence of £12,000 a year. Lady Farnborough, who was to succeed to a life interest after the widow, died in 1837, but Lady Bridgewater survived for nearly 26 years, dying in February 1849, at the age of 86.
Following the terms of the Will, Lord Alford, then a man of 38, had five years in which to comply with the Dukedom clause. Unfortunately he died within two years, and his young son, John William Spencer Cust, laid claim to the reversion. This was challenged by his Uncle, Charles Henry Cust, Lord Brownlow's second son, who claimed that the Dukedom conditions not being met, the fortune reverted to him under this clause. The Uncle won his case in the Lower Courts, but the decision was reversed in the House of Lords on appeal, when the clause was over-ruled on the grounds that it was contrary to public policy, the Law Lords laying down that "No man can leave his property clogged and conditioned by his own personal views of public affairs, or by his posthumous ambition."
In the interim, owing to the death of his grandfather, John William Spencer Cust, at the age of eleven, had succeeded to the Brownlow title. The new Earl therefore combined the possessions of the Brownlows and Bridgewaters, owning some 60,000 acres, including both Ashridge and Belton House, Grantham. He was delicate, and in spite of the constant maternal care of Lady Marion Alford, died at Mentone on February 20th, 1867, when he was only twenty-four.
He administered his estates with care and kindness, but his popularity was impaired temporarily by an unwise attempt to enclose part of Berkhamsted Common as the right of the Lord of the Manor. Local feeling was outraged by the erection of railings on the Common. They were demolished by some hundreds of people in a well-planned night enterprise. Lord Brownlow wisely accepted the situation, and did not pursue his claim further.
The Earl was succeeded by his younger brother Adelbert, who was a year later to marry the lovely Lady Adelaide Talbot, youngest daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. She was considered the most beautiful woman of her day, and the plaster memorial to her on the wall in the Chapel corridor at Ashridge shows her features in exquisite profile. From this plaster model the actual memorial in marble was made. It forms the principle feature of Lady Brownlow's tomb, and is placed in an elaborate recessed alcove in Belton Church, Lincolnshire. The sculptor was Lady Fedora Gleichen. The plaque is based on a beautiful pastel portrait of Lady Brownlow by Clifford, now hanging in Belton House. There is also a memorial to Adelaide on the village green at Little Gaddesden, surmounted by a cross which can be seen from the house through a cutting in the trees.
She was loved by all, and her death on March 16th, 1917, after a long illness came as a grievous blow to her adoring husband, who never fully recovered from his great loss, and only survived four years. Adelbert died at Belton on March 17th, 1921. So ended an ideal marriage. Blessed with great beauty and dignity, she was the perfect hostess, and her lavish hospitality brought many visitors to Ashridge, among whom we find Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and in 1889 the Shah of Persia. Photographs still exist showing Nasir-ud-Din in a group taken on the lawn. By the side of the insignificant little figure of the Shah stands the Duke of Clarence. A tree planted by the Shah still flourishes on the North side of the rose garden.
It is suggested that Lord Brownlow felt his vast possessions, amounting in all to about 54,000 acres, a heavy burden, and in consequence he directed in his Will that the Ashridge property should be sold to defray death duties and other charges. The sun had set on the day of the Squire, but was to rise again on a new epoch of impersonal ownership no less important.
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