|Bacon of Redgrave etc.|
The surname Bacon is undoubtedly of ancient origin in East Anglia, and one tradition is that they trace their descent from Grimbald, a follower of William the Conqueror. It is said that a branch of the family was established at Hessett (Suffk) by the late 12th century, and there was certainly an armigerous family of Bacons there by the early 15th century. The Bacons of Drinkstone (Suffk) were a cadet branch of that family, and the genealogy in part 3 of this post begins with Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79), kt., who was a son of Robert Bacon of Drinkstone, yeoman.
Sir Nicholas was one of those fortunate men, rare in any age, who possess ability, wit, loyalty, and discretion: qualities that enabled him to rise from relatively humble origins to high office and to earn not just the respect but often the affection of his contemporaries. He progressed from the local abbey grammar school to Cambridge, where his friends included Matthew Parker (later Archbishop of Canterbury) and William Cecil (later Lord High Treasurer). He went on to Grays Inn, became a lawyer, and made a successful career in the Court of Augmentations and the Court of Wards and Liveries. Both offices were especially lucrative, and over the years he was able to invest £35-40,000 in the acquisition of estates in Suffolk, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and elsewhere. One of his earliest purchases was the manor of Redgrave in Suffolk, where he built a new mansion between 1545 and 1554. This gave him a taste for building, and he went on to rebuild the hall of Grays Inn, to construct and later extend a new house at Gorhambury, and to direct the building of his son's house at Stiffkey in his last years. In religion, he was firmly in the reformist camp, but while many of his friends went into ostentatious exile during the reign of Queen Mary, he contrived to remain in office by being very good at his job, keeping his head down, and avoiding inflammatory public declarations. Within weeks of her accession, Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Nicholas to be her chief law officer, with the title of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, but with all the powers and duties of the Lord Chancellor. She is said to have baulked at giving him the Chancellorship or a peerage because of his plebeian origins, but this seems to have been the only respect in which his background hampered his rise. He held the Lord Keepership until his death in 1579, and the Queen is said to have wept at his passing, so much did she rely on his calm authority and balanced judgement. The motto he bequeathed to his family - Mediocria firma (Moderate things endure) - was a just reflection of the principle which guided his public life.
Sir Nicholas married twice, and by his first wife, Jane Fernley (d. 1552), had four sons and three daughters. After her death he quickly married again, to Anne Cooke (1528-1610), who, as one of the five daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke, had been taught Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian and French at his 'female university' at Gidea Hall (Essex). Anne no doubt provided Sir Nicholas with stimulating intellectual companionship, but her reformist religious opinions were as trenchant as his were moderate. By his second wife there were two more sons, who lived to maturity, and two daughters who died young. As his family grew up, Sir Nicholas provided for his daughters through good marriages and handsome dowries, and he aimed to set up each of his sons on an independent estate. The eldest, Sir Nicholas Bacon (c.1543-1624) received Redgrave and Culford; Sir Nathaniel (1546/7-1622), Stiffkey; Edward (1548-1618) married into Shrubland Hall; and Anthony (1558-1601), received Gorhambury, subject to his mother's life interest. An estate had not yet been bought for his youngest son, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), later 1st Viscount St. Alban, by the time of Sir Nicholas' death, but it would seem that he had been liquidating other assets with a view to making such a purchase. Unfortunately, Sir Nicholas died unexpectedly, and the operation of his will meant that rather than going to Francis in lieu of an estate, this money was distributed equally among his sons. This unintended effect led to dissension between Sir Nicholas' widow and her stepsons, but it does not seem to have stopped the stepbrothers sharing lodgings in London or to have prevented Lady Bacon from showeing her sons and stepsons equally with letters of unsolicited moral advice. In the end, Anthony predeceased his mother, and she then provided for her younger son by making over Gorhambury to him before she died.
Normally, in telling the story of a large family with several different houses like the Bacons, I would make each branch of the family the subject of a separate post, but in this instance the complex intermarriages between different branches and the movement of properties between them would make this approach very cumbersome, and it seems neater to treat the whole family as one. I shall try to summarise here how the different properties descended through the family.
|A simplified family tree of the Bacon family in the 16th-18th centuries, showing the principal property owned by each member of the family.|
Sir Nicholas Bacon (c.1543-1624), the eldest son of the Lord Keeper, who in 1611 became the first person ever created a baronet ('of Redgrave'), inherited the largest portion of his father's property portfolio, including Redgrave Hall, an estate at Great Ryburgh, and an estate at Culford (Suffk) (the latter being the subject of a long-running ownership dispute, finally resolved in 1586, after which Sir Nicholas built a substantial new house there). Through his marriage to Anne Butts he also acquired Thornage Hall (Norfk), Foxearth Hall (Suffk) and other property in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. His purchase of a further estate at Gillingham in about 1600 is no doubt explained by his large family and his desire to follow his father in establishing each of his sons with landed property. Of the six who survived to maturity, Sir Edmund Bacon (1569-1649), the eldest, received Redgrave and Thornage, but when he died without heirs they passed with the baronetcy to his next brother, Sir Robert Bacon (1574-1655), whose own share in the estates had been Great Ryburgh. Of the younger sons, Bacqueville (1578-1635) received an estate at Hockham (Norfk); Sir Butts Bacon (1580-1661), 1st bt. of a new creation, was provided for by property at Mildenhall received through his marriage; Nicholas Bacon (1583-1641) was left Gillingham; and Sir Nathaniel Bacon (1585-1641) inherited Culford Hall.
Sir Robert Bacon, 3rd baronet, outlived his eldest son, and at his death in 1655 the baronetcy, Redgrave Hall and Thornage Hall descended to his grandson, Sir Edmund Bacon (c.1634-85), 4th bt. Indeed, only two of Sir Robert's nine sons outlived him; Butts Bacon (d. 1662), who inherited the Great Ryburgh estate, and Peyton Bacon (b. 1620), who may have received a financial legacy, but who appears to have been financially dependent on his brothers and their descendants in the late 17th century. Sir Edmund Bacon, 4th bt., had six sons and ten daughters, but all of his sons died in childhood and at his death the baronetcy passed with Redgrave Hall to his first cousin (the son of Butts Bacon (d. 1662)), Sir Robert Bacon (c.1651-1704), 5th bt. Sir Robert also inherited the Great Ryburgh estate from his father, but the house there - about which nothing is known - may have been abandoned, as he lived at Egmere in north Norfolk until he inherited Redgrave. He found the Redgrave estate heavily indebted, and in 1702 he sold it to Sir John Holt, the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, in order to clear the debts. With the money left over, he bought Garboldisham Hall, a smaller house adjacent to his property at Great Ryburgh. This was the estate which passed to his son and successor, Sir Edmund Bacon (1680-1755), 6th bt., who was one of the MPs for Norfolk for many years. Sir Edmund had no sons, and at his death the Garboldisham-Ryburgh estate passed to his eldest daughter, Letitia (1715-59), the wife of Sir Airmine Wodehouse, who sold it the following year to Crisp Molineux (1730-92).
In 1627, Sir Butts Bacon (1580-1661) of Mildenhall, the seventh son of Sir Nicholas Bacon (c.1543-1624), was also created a baronet ('of Mildenhall'). He purchased an estate at Herringfleet (Suffk), where he built a modest new house. This descended in turn to his son, Sir Henry Bacon (c.1615-71), 2nd bt., and grandson, Sir Henry Bacon (1644-86), 3rd bt.
Sir Butts Bacon's younger brother, Nicholas Bacon (1583-1641) was left Gillingham Hall by his father, and this descended to his son, Sir Nicholas Bacon (1623-66), who was given a third baronetcy ('of Gillingham') at the Restoration. Both this baronetcy and the estate passed in turn to Sir Nicholas' two sons, Sir Edmund Bacon (d. 1683), 2nd bt., and Sir Richard Bacon (d. 1685), 3rd bt. The latter was married to his second cousin, Anne Bacon, the sister of Sir Henry Bacon of Herringfleet, and when he died without issue in 1685 he left Gillingham Hall to Sir Henry. The baronetcy of Gillingham expired at that point, but in 1686 Sir Henry's son, Sir Edmund Bacon (1672-1721), inherited the Mildenhall baronetcy and the Herringfleet and Gillingham estates, and made his home at Gillingham.
Between 1704 and 1750 the holders of both the surviving family baronetcies were named Sir Edmund Bacon, and contemporaries distinguished them as Garboldisham Sir Edmund and Gillingham Sir Edmund. Gillingham Sir Edmund married twice. His first wife was his third cousin, Philippa Bacon, one of the surviving daughters of the hapless Sir Edmund Bacon (d. 1685), 4th bt. of Redgrave, who lost so many children in childhood. They had eight sons and three daughters (all but two of whom survived to maturity). His second marriage was to an heiress, Mary Castell (d. 1758), who brought the adjoining Raveningham (pronounced Ranningham) Hall estate in Norfolk into the family in the mid 18th century. At his death in 1721, Sir Edmund left Gillingham Hall to the eldest son of his first marriage, another Sir Edmund Bacon (1692-1738), 5th bt. The younger Sir Edmund died relatively young and the estate passed to his son, yet another Sir Edmund Bacon (1725-50), 6th bt., and when he died unmarried at the age of twenty-five, it passed to his sister Susan (c.1728-86), who carried it in marriage to the Schutz family.
The Gillingham baronetcy reverted in 1750 to the second son of Sir Edmund Bacon (1672-1721), who was Sir Henry Bacon (1693-1753), 7th bt. Sir Henry was a bachelor who lived in lodgings in Beccles (Suffk). At his death, the title passed to his next brother, Sir Richard Bacon (1695-1773), who was a solicitor in Colchester. Two years later, when 'Garboldisham Sir Edmund' died, he also inherited the original family baronetcy 'of Redgrave' as the senior surviving male descendant of Sir Nicholas Bacon; the two baronetcies have been united ever since.
When Sir Richard died in 1773 his two baronetcies passed to his half-nephew, Sir Edmund Bacon (1749-1820), 8th and 9th baronet, who had inherited Raveningham from his father, Castell Bacon, in 1770. As heir to both his father and his uncle, Sir Edmund was well able to afford to build a grand new house at Raveningham Hall, which remains the family seat of the Bacon baronets to this day. Sir Edmund had three sons: Sir Edmund Bacon (1779-1864), 9th & 10th bt; Nicholas Bacon (1786-1863) and Henry Bacon (1788-1862). Sir Edmund was heir to the titles and the Raveningham estate; the spendthrift and gambler Nicholas was established on an estate at Blundeston (which had belonged to the Bacons in the 17th century but which was sold soon after 1700 to the Allins of Somerleyton Hall and now repurchased from them) and Henry became a banker and wine merchant in Kings Lynn. Henry's life was, however, unexpectedly transformed when in 1826 he found himself the heir to a very distant kinswoman, Frances Hickman, who left him the large Thonock Hall estate near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, on the sole condition that he took the name Hickman. Neither Sir Edmund, the 9th & 10th bt., nor Henry Bacon had any surviving male issue, and the baronetcies, and the Raveningham and Thonock estates were all united in the next generation in the person of Nicholas' eldest son, Sir Henry Hickman Bacon (1820-72), 10th & 11th bt., who fortunately did not inherit his father's lack of prudence in financial matters.
Sir Henry Hickman Bacon had five sons. The eldest, Sir Hickman Beckett Bacon (1855-1945), 11th & 12th bt., inherited the baronetcies and the Thonock estate; and the second, Nicholas Henry Bacon (1857-1947), inherited Raveningham. As Sir Hickman Bacon was unmarried and had no children, however, the family baronetcies passed at his death in 1945 to his younger brother, who became Sir Nicholas Henry Bacon, 12th & 13th bt., while the Thonock estate was transferred directly to the next generation, in the person of Sir Nicholas' son, later Sir Edmund Castell Bacon (1903-82), 13th & 14th bt., who also inherited Raveningham from his father. Sir Hickman Bacon left Thonock Hall in a poor and unimproved condition at his death, and in 1956 his nephew, who had made his home at Raveningham, pulled Thonock Hall down. Both estates remain in the possession of his son, Sir Nicholas Hickman Ponsonby Bacon (b. 1953), 14th and 15th bt.
With one exception, the younger sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79), kt. and Sir Nicholas Bacon (c.1543-1624), 1st bt., did not produce cadet branches of the family that survived for very long. The younger Sir Nicholas Bacon left Culford Hall to his youngest son, the painter, Sir Nathaniel Bacon (1585-1627), kt., whose only son died without issue in 1660. The Culford estate then passed out of the Bacon family to his half-brother, Sir Frederick Cornwallis, 1st Baron Cornwallis of Eye, whose descendants retained it until 1824.
Sir Nathaniel Bacon (1546/7-1622), kt., who inherited Stiffkey Old Hall in 1579 and built the house there under his father's direction, was married twice but produced no surviving male heir. When he died in 1622, therefore, the estate passed to his grandson, Sir Roger Townshend (1596-1637), 1st bt., who proceed to build Raynham Hall (Norfk). Stiffkey became a secondary house on the estate and later a farmhouse, and was partly abandoned before 20th century restoration.
Sir Edward Bacon (1548-1618) married into Shrubland Hall, and was the one younger son to found a cadet branch of the family. The Shrubland estate passed through four generations, all of whom were called Nicholas Bacon, down to Nicholas Bacon (d. 1767). His son, the Rev. John Bacon, employed James Paine to rebuild the house, but when he died unmarried, the estate was sold out of the family. A further subsidiary branch of the family was created by one of Sir Edward's younger sons, Francis Bacon (1600-63), who seems himself to have lived at Kensington (Middx). However, his son, another Francis Bacon (d. 1679), married the heiress of Thomas Waller of Earlham Hall, Norwich, and came into that property in about 1666. His son, Waller Bacon (c.1669-1734), who was a long-serving MP for Norwich, lived at Earlham and altered the house, and so to did his son, Edward Bacon (1712-86). After Edward's widow died in 1793, however, the estate passed to Bacon Frank (d. 1812) of Campsall Hall (Yorks WR) and passed out of the family.
Lastly, there are the two sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79), kt., by his second wife. As was outlined above, Anthony Bacon (1558-1601) was left Gorhambury subject to his mother's life interest, but died before her, leaving his younger brother, Sir Francis Bacon, later 1st Viscount St. Alban, as his heir. Their mother had a much better relationship with her younger son than his brother, and she promptly released her life interest in the estate to him. However Sir Francis, like his brother, had no children, and he left his estate to his friend and secretary, Sir Thomas Meautys (d. 1649), kt., whose brother sold it in 1652 to the Grimston family, who retain it today.
Finally, it falls to mention the Bacon family's London property, a small but remarkably valuable slice of legal London between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane, which has been in the family since Sir Nicholas Bacon bought it in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. It seems to have descended at first to Sir Edward Bacon (1548-1618) and his successors in the Shrubland estate, but after the death of the Rev. Nicholas Bacon in 1795 to have been transferred to the branch of the family at Raveningham. In the 1880s, Sir Hickman Bacon also bought, jointly with Edward Strutt, a larger estate at Notting Hill in West London around Powis and Colville Squares, and formed the Colville estate company to manage both this land and the Chancery Lane estate. The Notting Hill lands were sold in the early 1950s, so the Colville estate name is now attached to the property management company responsible for the Chancery Lane estate.
Redgrave Hall, Suffolk
The manor of Redgrave in Suffolk belonged from Saxon times to Bury St Edmunds Abbey, and by the early 13th century the abbots had a hunting lodge here, set in a deer park. At the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 the estate passed to the Crown and was sold in 1542 to Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79). The house he acquired was described at the time as 'sore decayed', and between 1545 and 1554 he created a new mansion, incorporating part of the old building. The new house was an unusually early example of a perfectly symmetrical building, although we cannot be certain that the symmetry dates from the 1540s: the flanking wings which turned the original half-H plan into a U-plan were only added in 1560-62, and there were further changes in 1569-71 when the original layout could have been updated.
|Redgrave Hall: reconstruction of the plan of the house built 1545-54.|
Image: Suffolk Institute of Archaeology.
In planning terms the house was more traditional, with the central entrance leading into a screens passage with the two-storey hall to its left and the family rooms in the left-hand wing, whereas the service rooms lay to the right. We know an unusual amount about the building of the house from the accounts, which survive among the estate archives in Chicago. Sir Nicholas, who had a considerable interest in architecture and was able to make plans himself, appears to have played a major part in its design, but he was advised by John Gybbon, a London mason who made plans and selected workmen and materials, and by William Ponyard, the mason who created the great oriel window at Hengrave Hall, who was paid for four days work in 1553 'for drawing a platt of the gate'. A kinsman, John Bacon, and later James Lynn (who went on to be bailiff of the estate) acted as successive clerks of works, supervising the project on site. The workmen came chiefly from London, but Bacon's friend and fellow-builder, Edmund Withypoll of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, also sent a group of masons to work at Redgrave in 1550. Up to 1554, the house cost just £1,253, which is about half what was spent on Hengrave Hall a few years earlier and less than half what Bacon himself would spend on Gorhambury in the 1560s.
|Redgrave Hall: the only record of the appearance of the Tudor house is this mid-late 17th century painting. Private collection.|
The appearance of the house is known from a mid 17th century view, which shows the gabled house approached through two balustraded forecourts, which were probably 17th century additions to the original scheme.
|Redgrave Hall: carved panel above the doorway with Sir Nicholas Bacon's|
motto, revealed during demolition, 1946. Image: Historic England AA50/6559
|Redgrave Hall: view across the Capability Brown lake to the Round House, 2014.|
|Redgrave Hall: the park and the mansion from the 1st edition 6" map of 1885.|
|Redgrave Hall: the house as remodelled by Capability Brown, c.1768-73, showing the south and west fronts. Image: Historic England BB46/2880.|
Plans for remodelling the house followed in about 1768. A new south range was built across the ends of the wings of the Tudor house, enclosing a courtyard, and the whole building was clad in Suffolk white brick with stone dressings. The new south front was of nine bays with a central portico of four Ionic columns supporting a pediment: a beautifully proportioned statement of neo-classical architectural purity. The west side was made to echo the south front, with a further three-bay pediment, but the side elevation to the east, also of nine bays, was rather less successful, for while the end elevation of the new block matched the front, the encased older range behind was given different ground-floor fenestration, with taller arched windows set in recesses. Brown proposed the addition of flanking wings, which might have hidden this awkward conjunction, but these were never carried out.
In the 1830s, King William IV visited Redgrave, and considered it 'the most beautiful combination of land and water in Eastern England', but the early 19th century owners lived beyond their means, and in the 1840s the house had to be let. John Wood Wilson (1812-72), who inherited in 1852, worked hard to put the estate back on a sound footing, and by the 1860s he was able to afford the redecoration of some of the principal rooms, with the entrance hall/saloon ceiling being given a Pompeian treatment.
|Redgrave Hall: Pompeian decoration of the 1860s on the saloon ceiling.|
Image: Historic England.
|Redgrave Hall: the fragment of the mansion spared in 1946 but demolished|
in the 1960s when it became dangerous.
Image: University of London, Institute of Archaeology.
In 1971 the park was sold to Guy and Elizabeth Topham, who created a modern industrial farm at Redgrave. The walled gardens were demolished, much of the park was turned over to arable farmland, and many old trees were removed, including the shelter belts laid out by Capability Brown on the north-east side of the park. The Capability Brown stables were partly demolished and the rest remodelled out of all recognition as a new house, while a large group of prefabricated farm buildings was erected in the centre of the park for agricultural storage. Of the buildings erected by Brown, only the Round House and the kennels survive, but the lake still gives a coherence to the estate. In 2014 the whole property was put on the market, and it would be splendid if what is still a noble park could be restored and become again the setting for an appropriate mansion. [A fully-illustrated account of this house, with many images from private collections, can be found here.]
Descent: Crown sold c.1542 to Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79), kt.; to son, Sir Nicholas Bacon (c.1543-1624); to son, Sir Edmund Bacon (1569-1649), 2nd bt, to brother Sir Robert Bacon (1574-1655), 3rd bt.; to grandson, Sir Edmund Bacon (c.1634-85), 4th bt.; to cousin, Sir Robert Bacon (c.1651-1704), 5th bt, who sold 1702 to Sir John Holt (d. 1709), Lord Chief Justice of Kings Bench; to brother, Rowland Holt (1652-1719); to son, Rowland Holt (1698-1739); to son, Rowland Holt (1723-86); to brother, Thomas Holt (d. 1799); to nephew, Admiral George Wilson (1756-1826); to son, George St. Vincent Wilson (1806-52); to brother, John Wood Wilson (1812-72); to nephew, George Holt Wilson (1836-1924); to son, George Rowland Holt Wilson (1867-1928); to son, John Holt Wilson (1900-63); to son, Peter Holt-Wilson (b. 1924); sold 1971 to Guy and Elizabeth Topham; on the market 2014.
Gorhambury, St. Albans, HertfordshireBy 1559, when Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79) purchased the Gorhambury estate near St. Albans in Hertfordshire, he was an experienced builder. He had already been closely involved in the construction of his own house at Redgrave Hall, 1545-54, and as Treasurer of Gray's Inn he had supervised the rebuilding of the Inn hall, 1553-60. Gorhambury was probably bought for its convenience for London, where his political career was advancing, and Bacon may also have had in mind that he was more likely to attract the Queen to stay in Hertfordshire than in deepest Suffolk.
|Gorhambury Park: plan showing the location of the medieval house (GI), Old Gorhambury House (GII), the present mansion (GIII) and Verulam House (VH). Image: St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society.|
|Gorhambury House: an 18th century watercolour of the house built by Sir Nicholas Bacon in 1563-68, with the Gallery Wing of c.1575 to its left.|
In 1579 Gorhambury passed to Sir Nicholas' eldest son by his second marriage, Anthony Bacon (d. 1601), who lived largely abroad and neglected the house. When he died, it passed to his brother, the great philosopher and statesman, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who was created Baron Verulam and later Viscount St. Albans. It is no surprise to find that Francis, who penned the immortal essays 'Of building' and 'Of gardens' in the 1620s, used Gorhambury as a canvas for his ideas. He built on a new site in the north-east corner of the park a compact square house, called Verulam House, of three storeys and five by five bays, with a central chimneystack surrounded by a leaded viewing platform.
|Verulam House, Gorhambury, built c.1618 and demolished 1663,|
drawn from memory c.1671 by John Aubrey.
|Verulam House, Gorhambury: an aerial view of the surviving earthworks of Sir Francis Bacon's garden.|
Sir Francis Bacon put the Gorhambury estate into the hands of trustees for his friend and secretary, Sir Thomas Meautys (d. 1649), to whom he owed money. In 1651, Meautys' widow married Sir Harbottle Grimston (1603-85), 2nd bt, and when the Meautys heir died in 1652 Sir Harbottle bought the estate. He does not seem to have made many changes to the Elizabethan house, except that in 1672-73 the chapel was rebuilt, apparently with design input from Richard Ryder. When Sir Samuel Grimston, 3rd bt., died in 1700, he bequeathed the estate to his nephew, William Luckyn, on condition that he adopted the name of Grimston and paid a legacy of £70,000 to Sir Samuel's one surviving granddaughter. Raising this sum caused him to fell timber in the park, let half the house, and to marry for money a rather stout and tempestuous dowager countess, to escape whom he is said to have built a study approached by a narrow flight of stairs which she was too fat to ascend!
|Gorhambury House: a watercolour of 1787, showing the old house partly demolished.|
|Gorhambury House: an engraving published in 1818 showing the new house as built by Sir Robert Taylor, 1777-89.|
|Gorhambury House: the entrance front in the mid 20th century. Image: Historic England CC56/491.|
|Gorhambury House: garden front, as it is today. Image: Srlee. Some rights reserved.|
|Gorhambury House: entrance hall designed by Sir Robert Taylor; the gallery balcony replaced by William Burn, 1846-47.|
|Gorhambury House: the east front today, showing the 19th century service wing added in two stages by William Atkinson.|
Stiffkey Old Hall, NorfolkIn 1571 Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-79) bought an estate at Stiffkey on the north Norfolk coast for his second son, Nathaniel Bacon (1546-1622) and by March 1573 plans were in hand for building a new country house on the site adjacent to the parish church where the previous manor house stood. Sir Nicholas designed the house, with some (but not much) advice from London craftsmen, and directed its building by letter from London, with Nathaniel merely controlling matters on site. Construction began in August 1576 and finished in about 1581, when a mason was contracted to rebuild the tops of four chimneystacks.
|Stiffkey Old Hall: aerial view of the site, 2014. Image: John Fleming. Some rights reserved.|
The original intention was to build a courtyard house, with eight round towers at the external and internal angles of the building, entered from the south. Perhaps because Sir Nicholas died in 1579 and Nathaniel did not share his interest in architecture, or perhaps because Nathaniel was always short of money, building came to a halt in 1581 with only the hall range and the west side of the house completed. The east wing was added in 1589-92, and either then or in 1604 the planned south range, with the towers at the inner south-east and south-west angles, was abandoned, so that the house ended up as the fashionable U-plan form of the mid-late 16th century. In 1604, a freestanding gatehouse was built, partly filling the space between the east and west wings, and reusing a classical doorcase which had probably been intended for the centre of the south range. This is the only explicitly classical reference in the whole building, and perhaps reflects the fact that Sir Nicholas' architectural tastes were formed in the 1540s rather than the period when the house was built. The house was then complete, unless, as there are some grounds for thinking, the south-east and south-west round towers were not constructed until c.1630.
|Stiffkey Old Hall: north side of the house in 2016, showing the house after recent restoration. Image: Abaroth.|
The walls of the house are of flint with brick dressings, and the surviving original windows have mullions and transoms. Nathaniel reported to his father that he intended to borrow the brick-moulds used for the windows at Oxnead Hall to make the windows at Stiffkey, perhaps thinking moulded brick would be cheaper than stone. Inside, the towers in the courtyard were intended to hold staircases, while the outward-facing towers provided closets off the rooms they adjoined. There is a surviving newel staircase in the remaining inner tower. The abandonment of the south range left the rooms at the far end of the west range rather hard to access, and so a new staircase was built, perhaps also in 1604, in a square projection added to the west side of the house close to the south-west tower; it has stepped windows that reflect the rise of the staircase inside. Relatively little survives of the original interiors, thanks to remodellings in 1791 and 1911, but the attic of the west range has a barrel-vault and there are some early fireplaces downstairs.
|Stiffkey Old Hall: west front in 1984. Image: © George Plunkett. Some rights reserved.|
|Stiffkey Old Hall: gatehouse of 1604, as recently restored. Image: Blosslyn.|
|Stiffkey Old Hall: looking through the newly restored gatehouse, 2014. Image: Draper & Nicholls Ltd.|
|Stiffkey Old Hall: the courtyard side of the surviving building in 1984. Image: George Plunkett. Some rights reserved.|
|Stiffkey Old Hall: the house from the north-west after recent restoration. Image: Draper & Nicholls Ltd.|
After the Second World War the house again fell into considerable disrepair, from which was rescued by the conservation architect, Sir Bernard Feilden, who divided it into four units and lived here with his extended family. In 2001 the whole house was sold to the present owners, who have carried out a major programme of restoration work to both house and gardens, and who occupy the whole building.
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