Over the next few weeks- before the Winter finally leaves us free to travel about the country again, I thought you might like to undertake some virtual armchair travelling with me to places and houses with Austenian connections, and also to look at some books- new and old- that will aid us on our perambulations.
Today I want to share with you some shots of Stoneleigh Abbey from a recently BBC Bargain Hunt programme. Stoneleigh Abbey was inherited by Jane Austen’s kinsman, the Reverend Thomas Leigh in 1806 and she visited it with him when he went to “stake his claim”. I thought you might like to see them for they demonstrate Stoneleigh’s development, from medieval Cistercian Abbey to Palladian Palace.
We are very familiar I think with this view of the West Wing of the Abbey, below:
But this is, of course, only one aspect of the building: the rest is Elizabethan, and the remnants of the medical Cistercian Abbey are incorporated into the Elizabethan house, which abuts the new West Wing.
(©Frank Knight INternational)
This drawing, above, shows the lesser known view of Stoneleigh- from the air admittedly, but also from the north-eastern aspect. It clearly shows where the new West Wing, built between 1720 and 1726 by the architect Francis Smith of Warwick, joined the old 16th century house.
Here, below, you can see the North front of the Abbey, with the stone West Wing,
abruptly tacked onto the 16th century local sandstone building. The first Leighs to live at Stoneleigh were Thomas Leigh and his wife, Alice Barker. Here they, below, both are in portraits that are on show at Stoneleigh:
Alice was the heiress to Thomas’ business partner, Sir Rowland Hill. On the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 the Abbey had reverted to the ownership of the Crown, and was then given by Henry VIII as a gift to his brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. It was left neglected and by 1561 when Thomas Leigh inherited this and the Adlestrop estates through his wife, the Cistercian Abbey was a roofless ruin. The Leighs rebuilt it and enlarged it, and by 1626 the inventories of the estate show that the Abbey had grown to be the largest house in Warwickshire and, even though it was of a somewhat plain appearance, it had 70 hearths for fires. It was to this house that Charles I sought refuge when he was refused entry into nearly Covernty and which resulted in Thomas and Alice’s grandson, another Thomas, being ennobled by the grateful king.
This is a clearer picture of the Elizabethan North Wing, and gives a better impression of how the 16th century building looked prior to the 18th century additions.
This is the East Wing of the Abbey, and this was the part of the Abbey that Mrs Austen , Jane’s mother referred to in her famous letter written from Stoneleigh to her daughter -in-law, Mary in 1806:
The house is larger than I could have supposed. We can now find our way about it, I mean the best part; as to the offices (which were the old Abbey) Mr Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up directing posts at the Angles.
So you can see, that prior to the improvements of the 18th century, the Abbey was large but not particularly grand in appearance. The additions made by the 3rd Lord Leigh transformed the buildings into a very different house.
One piece of the medieval abbey does survive today: the Gatehouse.
Even Humphrey Repton, engaged to effect improvements to the grounds and buildings by Thomas Leigh in 1809, was impressed by its antiquity: he wanted it retained for
…circumstances which add much to that impression so grateful to those who delight in whatever is ancient and venerable and therefore worthy to be retained in these days of upstart innovation ..
Which is an interesting sentiment from the man we presume Jane Austen was criticising when he was recommending that the avenues at Mr Rushworths’ friend, Smith’s estate were to be cut down:
Mr. Rushworth, however, though not usually a great talker, had still more to say on the subject next his heart. “Smith has not much above a hundred acres altogether in his grounds, which is little enough, and makes it more surprising that the place can have been so improved. Now, at Sotherton we have a good seven hundred, without reckoning the water meadows; so that I think, if so much could be done at Compton, we need not despair. There have been two or three fine old trees cut down, that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down: the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—
“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”
Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said in a low voice—
“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
He smiled as he answered, “I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 6
As Sotherton was most decidedly based on Stoneleigh, you can see how very important was that visit Jane Austen made there in 1806, and also that its blend of ancient and modern-ish buildings must have impressed themselves on Jane Austen’s imagination.