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Monday, 20 September 2010

Open House London 2010: Charlton House Part One




On Sunday I flung myself out of bed at 7.30 am determined to keep to a hectic itinerary marking the final day of the annual Open House London weekend. I had earmarked two specific locations on the basis that both afforded me the best opportunity to peruse buildings or parts of buildings not normally open to the general public. My second port call of call was the Old Royal Naval College complex at Greenwich; my first was Charlton House, acknowledged as the finest example of a Jacobean mansion extant in London. As with Eastbury Manor House in Barking, Charlton House is another of those architectural jewels few have heard of outside the immediate vicinity, an oversight its supporters are keen to overcome. 
Henry, Prince of Wales
 Neither teaching nor the Church are generally thought of as being lucrative professions. But then Sir Adam Newton was no ordinary cleric or teacher. As Dean of Durham and a royal tutor to boot he was very much the exception to the rule and was able to commission a magnificent mansion for himself at Charlton, now to be found in the London Borough of Greenwich, but then set in the rural tranquillity of the Kent countryside. His house was fit for a king, not surprising given that the heir to the throne, Prince Henry Frederick, had been Adam Newton’s most illustrious pupil. Nor would Newton have been particularly concerned about Biblical strictures on rich men, camels and eyes of needles. According to the National Dictionary of Biography Newton had used royal influence to secure the post of Dean of Durham, despite not being in holy orders and had promptly sold it on again when it suited him, leaving others to carry out his priestly duties. He had already spent part of his early adulthood passing himself off as a priest in France. Around 1600 he returned home to his native Scotland where his talents secured him the post of tutor to the King’s eldest son. It was a fortuitous time to have joined the Scottish royal household. A short while later, Queen Elizabeth of England died and Newton’s royal master, King James, became sovereign of two kingdoms. Like many another Scot, Newton eagerly followed James southwards to England to make his own fortune. 

 By 1607 Newton was wealthy enough to begin building his house at Charlton. By the time it was completed in 1612, Prince Henry had died suddenly at the untimely age of 18, leaving the hopes of his Stuart dynasty resting upon the slight shoulders of his younger brother Charles, destined to be King Charles I. Fortunately for Newton, royal patronage did not cease with the death of the young prince and he was appointed as a senior official in the household of the new heir to the throne, Prince Charles. Having been naturalised as an Englishman by King James’ first parliament, Newton was later made a baronet in 1620. Charlton House remained his principal residence until his own death in 1629, by which time Prince Charles was now King of England.
King Charles I
 Historians both trained and amateur sometimes like to speculate as to what might have happened if Prince Henry Frederick had not died so young. His brother Charles like King Henry VIII was never meant to be king. It was always assumed that their elder brothers would live long enough to succeed to the throne before them and perhaps sire their own heirs. But whereas Henry had always been robust and extremely athletic compared to his sickly elder brother Arthur, it was Prince Charles who was deemed the runt of his family compared to his own brother Henry Frederick. His poor constitution as a child had also left him unusually small, possibly only around five feet in height, when compared against his son Charles and paternal grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots both of whom were said to be six feet tall and certainly Charles would have been dwarfed by the 6 foot 2 Henry Tudor. He also suffered from a stammer. Had Prince Henry lived, there is no reason to suppose that Newton’s family would not have continued to enjoy royal favour.
Sir Walter Raleigh's Prison Cell: Bloody Tower
Sir Walter Raleigh's Cell: Tower of London

 It is very doubtful that the Elizabethan adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, a personal favourite of Prince Henry Fredrick’s would have ended his life a prisoner in the Tower and later executed on a charge of High Treason either. I visited Raleigh's prison cell in the Bloody Tower last year, which has been staged as  it might have looked whilst Raleigh was held captive there. As it was, King Charles’ disastrous reign led to civil war and Newton’s second son and ultimate heir Henry being forced to sell Charlton House. Having fought on the losing Royalist side, Henry Newton was subject to a heavy fine by Parliament and obliged to lead the life of a private gentleman far away from state affairs. Consequently, he sold Charlton House to one Sir William Ducie in 1647 and retired to his estates elsewhere in England.
Initials and coat of arms of William and his wife Frances Ducie
Sir William Ducie, like Sir Henry Newton, was another second son who had ended up inheriting his father’s wealth and titles, following the death of his elder brother Richard. William’s father like Henry’s was a self-made man who had accumulated a fabulous fortune as a banker to King Charles I. He had also served as Lord Mayor of London in 1630. The strong family ties with royalty saw Sir William elevated to the nobility when he was made Viscount Downe by the restored King Charles II.  Even if he had not been born one, William certainly knew how to spend like a lord. Thus, when he died in 1679 he had run through his father’s fortune and was heavily in debt, resulting in Charlton House being sold in 1680 to another Sir William, this tine Sir William Langhorne.

Sir William Langhorne
Sir William Langhorne’s chief claim today is twofold; first, that he married the hapless 17 year old Mary Aston when he was 84 in the forlorn hope of siring an heir, having failed in his quest with his other wife. Mary must have been eternally grateful that he died within a matter of months, leaving her, one would hope, a wealthy widow even though the Charlton House and estate were left to a nephew. Mary Aston went on too marry one George Jones of Twickenham. Let us hope he was far closer in age to her and that they enjoyed a long and happy marriage together. Langhorne's second  claim to posthumous fame is that his shade is said to haunt the grounds of Charlton House, doomed to spend eternity seeking for that elusive woman with whom he could engender a line of descendants. Perhaps there is a poetic justice in the fact that Langhorne failed to have a direct descendant to leave his wealth to. His fortune could be attributed to ill gotten gains. Having trained as a barrister and with shares in the East India Company, Langhorne was sent out to India on the company’s behalf to adjudicate in a dispute. He stayed on and became in time the Governor of Madras. However he fell out with the East India Company when they accused him of acting on his own behalf, as opposed to the company’s, and amassing a huge personal fortune.  As a result he was sent home in disgrace. But the canny Langhorne somehow managed to hold on to his money and used it to attract the hand of the Duke of Rutland’s widowed sister Grace in marriage. Whilst out in India Langhorne is believed to have built Guindy Lodge for his official residence as Governor of Madras. Though much altered since Langhorne’s era, since Independence the present building is now styled Raj Bhavan and serves as the official residence of the Governor of Tamil Nadu.

Subsequent owners of Charlton House were far less colourful than Sir William Langhorne. The Maryon-Wilson family can claim the longest ownership of Charlton House from 1767 to 1923. They also have the highly dubious distinction of enclosing what had been for centuries the village green in front of the house, something which far grander previous owners had never thought fit to do. They moved  an ornate gate onto it to leave the other  residences of the village in no doubt as to their claim to the hitherto communal land.  

A kind of redress was made to the local populace when Greenwich Council bought the house and land in 1925. Much of the land has since been turned into public parks, which means from the rear of the house and from certain angles, the windows afford views not too dissimilar to what might have been seen over a hundred years ago, when Carlton House was still in private ownership.

Nowadays, Charlton House, like Eastbury Manor House, must earn its keep. Accordingly, it can be hired out for business functions, weddings and filming. The Mulberry Café is located on the ground floor Minstrel’s Hall where I partook of coffee and cakes. The former Jacobean chapel and another room serve as the local public library. Unfortunately that was probably why these rooms were closed to visitors on Sunday. A single storey Victorian extension to the house had originally been converted into a library by Greenwich Council, until they decided it was too large for their needs and chose the chapel instead. The 19th century extension is in the vernacular of early 17th century architecture, complete with strap work details on the ceiling. The wood did not look sufficiently ancient but given that the room was called the Old Library I was rather confused as to its true age. Now I realise that the Old Library is in the new wing and the New Library is in the old wing.
I shall return to this subject anon to describe the interior of Charlton House and my own spooky encounter in the reportedly haunted Long Gallery.

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