Friday, 15 January 2010

“Pastime with good company, I love, and shall until I die”.(Revised October 2011)

During the 1950s there was a great cull of stately homes in England as they became too large for their impoverished owners to maintain. From my personal perspective I am most saddened by the demolition of Brooke House in 1954. This ancient mansion, once the home of Tudor royalty, ended it days as a private asylum before sustaining substantial damage from aerial bombardment during the Second World War, causing a decision to be made to demolish it a decade later. It was not just its great age that sparked my interest in a place which can now only ever be visited through the imagination. It was also the fact that the thwarted love affair of its one-time owner inadvertently changed the course of English history forever.

In his diary of the 25th June 1666 Samuel Pepys wrote: "Mrs. Pen carried us to two gardens at Hackney (which I every day grow more and more in love with) Mr. Drake's one, where the garden is good, and house and the prospect admirable; the other my Lord Brooke's, where the gardens are much better, but the house not so good, nor the prospect good at all. But the gardens are excellent; & here I first saw oranges grow: some green, some half, some a quarter, and some full ripe, on the same tree, and one fruit of the same tree do come a year or two after the other. I pulled off
a little one by stealth (the man being mightily curious of them) and ate it, and it was just as other little green small oranges are: as big as half the end of my little finger. Here were also great variety of other exotique plants, and several labarinths, and a pretty aviary."

My own thwarted love affair with Brooke House began a century earlier when it was owned by Henry Percy otherwise known as the 6th Earl of Northumberland. On his deathbed Henry bequeathed Brooke House to the reigning monarch, Henry VIII, an extraordinary decision in view of how closely these two men’s lives were intertwined by their mutual passion for one woman.

As was the custom, the sons of the nobility were often sent to live and serve in the households of other great noblemen in order to forge alliances and gain a greater understanding of courtly manners and ritual. Henry Percy was no exception to the rule. The household he ended up in was not that of some high born aristocrat. Nevertheless it was owned by the second most powerful man in the realm after the King of England. Some privately thought that the magnificence of Cardinal Wolsey’s establishment surpassed that of even Henry Tudor.

It was whilst in the service of Cardinal Wolsey that Henry Percy began the doomed love affair that would blight his life until his dying day. He had fallen madly in love with one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies in waiting, the Lady Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, Anne had also caught the eye of the King and Cardinal Wolsey publicly upbraided Lord Percy for his infatuation and the young man was forced to relinquish any matrimonial hopes he might have harboured towards Anne.

By a twist of fate, Percy found himself involved in arranging for the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey on a charge of High Treason in 1530. His hatred for Wolsey was no doubt intensified by a deeply unhappy marriage to Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary Talbot had been intended for Percy from an early age and certainly well before he ever came into contact with Anne Boleyn. Mary was jealous of her husband’s former regard for Anne and tried to use it as a pretext for dissolving her own marriage, claiming that Lord Percy had a pre-contract with Anne Boleyn, rendering any subsequent marriage invalid. Mary’s accusations were publicly discredited for if Anne had a pre-contract with Percy then she could not legally marry the King and few were going to argue that point in 1532, at a time when Henry Tudor was still infatuated with Anne, who became his wife in November of the same year.

The last bitter twist in their triangular love affair occurred in 1536 when Henry Tudor had Anne placed on trial for High Treason. One of the members of the jury was Henry Percy. However, whether through illness or sheer emotion, he had to withdraw early from the proceedings. He died little more than a year after Anne at Brooke House, a lonely embittered man who had quarrelled with his family and his wife to such an extent that he sought his revenge by leaving his entire property to King Henry VIII, knowing full well that the latter’s rapacious propensities meant he would never decline such a bequest.

Brooke House was the setting for  a reconciliation between Henry VIII and his daughter Princess Mary in 1536. The royal connection continued when it was rented out in the 1570s to the Countess of Lennox, grandmother of the future King James I of England and later sold in 1578 to Anne Boleyn’s nephew by her sister Mary. When Anne Boleyn’s nephew and therefore Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin lay dying, the Queen came to his sick bed. She brought with her the letters patent for the Earldom of Wiltshire, which he had failed to secure on several other occasions, prompting him to gently chide:  "Madam, seeing you counted me not worthy of this honour whilst I was living, I count myself unworthy of it now I am dying."

Sisters' Place

Some scholars, including David Starkey, would argue that England’s premier Elizabethan playwright died at Brooke House in 1604. Not William Shakespeare but the aristocrat they contend actually wrote the plays: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. There is a set of early Georgian houses known as Sisters’ Place, built on the site of one of the Earl’s other mansions in Hackney. I recall catching the end of a documentary about these houses, one of which apparently had poltergeist activity, resulting in an inner window pane constantly breaking for no apparent reason.

Two hundred years after Elizabeth I came to the throne, Brooke House was turned into a private asylum. None of the inmates could have matched the insane decision of Hackney Council to allow Brooke House to be demolished in 1954. Heartbreakingly, it could have been saved. Poignantly, at Sutton House, built by Ralph Sadlier during Henry VIII’s reign, there is a print of Brooke House in the red dining room, being almost all that remains of one of the greatest jewels of Hackney’s Tudor past.  

Revised October 2011.
In the above I lamented the fact that Brooke House was demolished by Hackney Council in the 1950s. It was small consolation that they had commissioned a comprehensive architectural survey of the site immediately prior to demolition. To my delight I later came across a copy of this survey online. I was fascinated to read the detailed report. Amongst other gems it contains a large number of old drawings of Brooke House, several of which I have never seen before. Some show fragments of wall paintings that would have decorated the medieval chapel, including an image of the man who had endowed the original chapel praying to St Peter. I like to think that it was an image Anne Boleyn’s first great love, Henry Percy, would have been familiar with when he owned the house. In addition, there are photographs showing Brooke House both before and after it had sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II. The authors of the report claim in the frontispiece that the building could not have been saved. In view of the fact that it was Hackney Council who paid for their survey, they could hardly criticise their paymasters’ philistine actions.
Brooke House


  1. Beautifully written and a fascinating account of a wonderful house and its place in the history of so many important figures. I think I'm repeating myself, but I love your blog.

  2. Me too - beautifully written and wonderful mix of topics. Have a look at "England's Lost Houses" (from the archives of Country Life) if you want to have a really good weep!


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