For me, one of the joys of being an historical author is visiting stately homes. We are so lucky in the United Kingdom in the number of properties run by the National Trust, English Heritage and other such organizations and thus open to the public. If I can visit a country house in the company of another author or a good friend, then even better. I love first to go for a walk around the grounds with my dog and then take my time absorbing details of architecture, furniture and furnishings.
I write Regency romance and am proud to do so, but I also like to weave real historical detail into the fabric of my stories. If, therefore, I can come across real-life romance and true scandal I can use, then all the better! In few places could you find a more newsworthy and juicy story than at Hanbury Hall.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I met up with lovely Regency author Elizabeth Johns and we spent the afternoon at Hanbury. We went first to view the Ice House, which is set in the grounds of a cottage a short walk from the Hall. Ice Houses vary in design; this one is approached via a low, dark tunnel which I confess I found somewhat claustrophobic even though it was only a few yards long. At the end is a railing, because the tunnel opens into a circular chamber which drops three metres below ground level. It was rather disorientating, looking down into the shaft and with the air temperature considerably cooler than outside, even though it was quite a cold day. Water from a pool was drained into the ice house via a sluice gate and when it had frozen, was removed via the tunnel. It was used all the year round, for drinks, cooling foods, ices, sorbets etcetera. Having seen the base of the chamber, where there is a drainage hole for meltwater, I am very glad I have a fridge!
We then returned to the house for a guided tour, something I had always missed on previous visits. The house dates from 1701, according to the date on the stone plinth over the doorway, but this may be disputed. The house was built by wealthy lawyer Thomas Vernon, although the estate was bought by his grandfather Edward Vernon in 1631. Somehow, Thomas persuaded Court painter Sir James Thornhill (the first English artist to be knighted) to travel into Worcestershire and execute various paintings in the house. Hanbury Hall is justifiably proud of the works, particularly the staircase murals. According to Nikolaus Pevsner, the staircase dates from c. 1710 and can be compared with those at Hampton Court, Drayton and Boughton, both in Northants. This then dates the paintings to that time. The main mural depicts Achilles being found by Odysseus.
|Finding of Achilles|
Intriguingly, although this is ostensibly a painting of classical mythology, Sir James Thornhill was the Court painter and one piece of salacious gossip is wickedly referred to by the artist. The two ladies to the rear and right of the painting were ‘bosom buddies’, you might say. The lady in turquoise, who looks enceinte, is Queen Anne. The little boy peering behind her is Prince William, who suffered from Water on the Brain (Hydrocephalus). The lady on the left is Abigail Masham (née Hill, cousin of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough). A former servant, Abigail was brought to Court by Lady Sarah.
Brought up together in the household of the Duke of York, Princess Anne and Sarah Jennings (Jenyns) became the most devoted of friends and companions. They even coined the names Mrs. Morley (Anne) and Mrs. Freeman (Sarah) in order to exchange letters and converse freely on an equal footing. Anne was a bit of a dull, easily coerced personality, while Sarah was forceful, blunt and opinionated. Sarah’s close friendship with and influence over Princess, and later, Queen Anne led to her becoming a most powerful figure of the Court, with a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. She was made Lady of the Bedchamber, among several other titles. This success was in no way hindered by her marriage to John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough and later 1st Duke of Marlborough, a soldier and statesman who rose to Captain-General of the British Army. The Queen described her relationship with Sarah as a ‘most sincere and tender passion’. Unfortunately for their Graces, however, Sarah’s political manoeuvrings eventually tried the patience of even her close friend the Queen and they drifted apart. When she discovered that not only was Abigail occupying apartments in Kensington Palace Sarah considered hers, she was spending two hours a day in privacy with Anne, Sarah was furious. It is suggested she may have instructed her secretary, Arthur Maynwaring, to produce satirical pamphlets and poems proclaiming the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark Deeds at Night’ that Abigail allegedly provided to Anne the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark Deeds at Night’ that Abigail allegedly provided to Anne.
Whether or not there was a ‘romantic friendship’ between Anne and Abigail, a rift occurred between the Queen and the Duchess which was never repaired. Sarah was made to resign her offices and the Churchills were dismissed from Court.
So, to return to the painting at Hanbury, Abigail is pointing towards Achilles (centre, with the spear) and smirking. Achilles has the face of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and is depicted looking away. Sir James was having a little laugh at their expense. If you now cast your eye to the foreground, dear reader, you will espy two more tongue-in-cheek inclusions. The lady in green is holding a hand glass and in the arms of the seated lady behind her is a King Charles spaniel. Of course, neither of those things existed in Achilles’ time!
No matter her personal preferences, Queen Anne conceived eighteen children. For those of us who love the Georgian and Regency eras, it is perhaps as well none of them lived beyond infancy, or we would not have had the Hanoverian rule which has given us so much in the way of architecture, furniture and literature, not least Jane Austen. Without her, Sir Walter Scott and others, Georgette Heyer would not have created the Regency genre, so loved by readers across the globe, nor would the many wordsmiths writing now have been inspired to bring their own Regency stories to life.
We continued our tour of the ground floor, progressing via the Smoking Room to the Dining Room, once part of Thomas Vernon’s own apartments. In about 1830, a wall was removed and the ceiling aligned to conjoin his withdrawing room and lobby. On the ceiling of the Dining Room (Withdrawing Room) are two more Thornhill paintings, one of the North Wind, Boreas; the second of Apollo and his chariot. My apologies for the quality of the photo.
Emma made the acquaintance of one Henry Cecil (1754-1804), both nephew and heir of the 9th Earl of Exeter, incumbent of one of the great stately homes, Burghley House. One cannot help wondering if Lady Vernon had a hand in the marriage, for it was certainly not a love match. How many were in those days? The bride had a portion of £6,000 a year and the groom £3,000.They married in 1776 at St. George’s Chapel, Hanover Square and on removing to Hanbury, set about landscaping the gardens in the style of Capability Brown, who had completed the sweeping vistas of Croome Court, near Pershore (also in Worcestershire) for the Earl of Coventry. They did away with the formal parterre, but thanks to the detailed plans commissioned by Bowater, the National Trust has been able to restore the original gardens. The interior was also substantially remodelled.
Nevertheless, despite a combined fortune of £9,000, the marriage ran into debt and disillusionment. Emma had a mind of her own and was inclined towards wilfulness, while Henry was, on the whole, disinterested and detached. The one child of the union died when but a few weeks old. Possibly as a result of this loss, Emma began to imbibe Madeira and Norris’ Drops, a Georgian cure-all. The latter contained opium, but she may have taken them to combat early symptoms of Consumption.
Then, in 1785, just weeks after his arrival to assist the rector, she fell in love with the new curate from Lichfield, William Sneyd,. They had a passionate affair, conducted over four years. William also suffered from tuberculosis, so did they share the Norris’ Drops along with billets doux? In May1789, with her lover convalescing in Lichfield, Emma finally confessed to her husband. The marriage was in disarray. Henry had had no idea, but it would appear he was more bemused than irate. Emma was deeply in love with William and after much soul-searching, eloped with him whilst on a business trip with Henry to Birmingham. In an ironic twist, the lovers travelled first to Exeter, followed by Devon and thence to London. The Countess acquired lodgings and was visited there by William. Cecil sued Sneyd in 1790 and was awarded £1,000 in compensation.
Deep in debt, Henry shut up Hanbury and assuming a new identity, departed to a village in a remote part of Shropshire to lick his wounds. A year later, he had a nine day sale and sold the contents of Hanbury Hall. While in Shropshire, he met and bigamously married (albeit under his false name of John Jones) the sixteen-year-old daughter of Thomas Hoggins, a local farmer. This was a serious matter at the time and he and Sarah had to undertake a second wedding ceremony in London in October 1791. Known as the Cottage Countess, Sarah never quite settled into her role as the mistress of a large house when Henry succeeded to his uncle’s estates in 1793 and they moved to Burghley.
Following an Act of Parliament, Emma and Henry were divorced in 1791, enabling Emma to marry William. Since he was in poor health, they moved to Lisbon, but he died only two years later. Distraught, Emma came back to England, but she could not mourn for long. A further two years on, in 1795, she married for the third time, to John Phillips, a friend and executor of her second husband. They moved to a house near Bewdley to live retired from Society. However, Fate had not finished with Emma. In 1804 she once more took up residence at Hanbury Hall, following Henry Cecil’s death. Much work on the estate then had to be undertaken, in the way of repairs and rebuilding work to the farms, due to neglect. She had returned to where she belonged and the Vernon name to the family seat.
Emma herself lived at Hanbury until her death in 1818. Whether or not she was happy with John Phillips, we shall never know, but it is said she refused to be buried in the Vernon family vault, instead choosing to be wrapped in a sheet which had once covered William Sneyd, thence to be buried near the Hanbury churchyard wall.
Life is often stranger than fiction, but love did at least triumph in the end!
We didn’t get to the Orangery on this occasion, but one of these days I will post some pictures of that. However, here is a view towards the house along the Cedar Avenue. You can imagine what it must have been like in the house's heyday!
Unless otherwise stated, all images are the property of the author and may not be copied or republished without expressed permission.
© Heather King