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

Video killed the radio star!

 As I have said before, I rarely have my telephone switched on during the day to avoid the inevitable cold calling and the even more annoying automatic dialled numbers, which hang up on you the moment you pick up the handset. Yesterday I realised someone had left me a message. When checked my voicemail I discovered that a producer from one of the most popular radio stations in the UK had read my article in the Guardian newspaper (The Word of Literature ) and wondered if I would be interested in talking to them about it. My first thought was panic. How do I get into shape again after the excesses of Christmas?  Then I breathed a sigh of relief as I realised that it was talk-radio and not television or other visual media. So I shall be ringing them tomorrow to find out what they have in mind. Perhaps I do have the perfect face for radio after all.

Making a grand entrance (hall).

When I last wrote about Southside House in Wimbledon, I had only walked as far as the breakfast room in my mind’s eye.
I had mentioned in passing the adjacent dining room and its fine collection of family portraits. The dining room has a very grand and ornate stone fireplace, quite out of keeping with the rest of the house in terms of its apparent date and scale. However it is a foretaste of the changes made by the family to the interior of the house in the 20th century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second entrance hall.

Now a single dwelling, the building was originally divided into two separate houses with an entrance hall on either side of what is currently the breakfast room. During the Second World War, Southside House was badly bombed. The family decided to rebuild it themselves without resorting to public funding, thereby allowing themselves free rein to restore it as they saw fit. Their imagination took full flight in the second hall. It was recreated as a double height baroque hall, with an open galleried upper landing, a ceiling painted with imitation baroque frescos and the walls partially painted to resemble stone.

A bust of King Charles I sits on top of the doorway leading through to the breakfast room. The royalist theme is continued with a full length oil painting of the 19th century Queen of Serbia, Natalija Obrenović.
 She developed a close friendship with the family after her eldest son, Crown Prince Alexander fell in love with the young Hilda Pennington-Mellor at the fashionable resort of Biarritz. Deeming herself to be a commoner and therefore by her own admission unfit to marry a future king, Hilda turned down Alexander’s proposal of marriage. Of course, it could have been that Hilda preferred not to get embroiled in the Byzantine political intrigues that dominated the Serbia of the period. Alexander’s own mother and father were at loggerheads with one another, leading to an acrimonious divorce as they fought for the hearts and minds of the Serbian people and their eldest son.

Alexander went on to marry one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, much to the Queen’s consternation as she considered this new rival for her son’s affection, Draga Mašin, thoroughly unsuitable. In “Kings and queens I have known” by Hélène Vacaresco, the author describes Draga as being of middle stature and rather plain looking except for her eyes, which “spoke of an oriental houri’s power” Equally damning was the fact that Draga was not of noble birth, was already a widow when she first met Alexander and was almost 15 years his senior. Perhaps that was why Queen Natalija retained a fondness for Hilda, who had not presumed to marry above her station in life. Poor Draga aroused animosity both in Serbia and abroad. The gossips had a field day when her French and Russian doctors disagreed as to whether or not she was expecting a chid in 1901. Her husband, Alexander, certainly thought so and had even amended the Serbian law of succession so that a female could inherit the throne in the event that his wife gave birth to a princess rather than a prince. She gave birth to neither and it was eventually established that Draga had never been pregnant. Her enemies accused her of blatant deception. Others said she was suffering from a phantom pregnancy.                                          
The family trust which runs Southside House also owns Hellens Manor in Much Marcle, Herefordshire. Queen Mary I once stayed there as a child. Following her marriage to Philip of Spain, in 1554 Queen Mary believed herself to be pregnant and countless preparations were made for the safe delivery of the future heir to the throne. 10 months later Queen Mary was forced to concede that she was not with child. Within four years she was dead of natural causes. Within two years of her own phantom pregnancy. Queen Draga was also dead, although in her case, she was murdered alongside her husband in a military coup d'état. Hellens

Along from the entrance hall is an ante-chamber containing 18th century wall hangings. Those who could afford it would hang tapestries made of wool and silk. Those who wanted to emulate their richer contemporaries chose to have classical scenes painted onto canvas instead. As they were regarded as a cheap substitute, such wall hangings were usually discarded when they became threadbare, making them exceedingly rare today. Also still intact is the original powder closet but without the unfortunate child enclosed inside to powder a gentleman’s wig, as the owner of said wig poked his head through a special circular opening. The gentleman would protect his face and eyes with a special mask. The child had no such protection from the toxic white lead powder he would have been forced to inhale.

The music room has two chandeliers made to hang from the wall as opposed to the ceiling. They came from the family’s former home in Biarritz. There is also a portrait of Hilda Pennington Mellor as a young child, which her parents allowed to be used by commercial manufacturers to endorse their product, in much the same way that Sir John Everett Millais painting of his grandson, Willliam Milbourne James, was used by Pears to sell soap. The flaxen haired moppet in the Millais painting grew up to become an Admiral in the British Navy.

On the upper floor of the house is a study, which can be briefly glimpsed as the actor Martin Clunes’ study in his television version of "Goodbye Mr Chips", and a tiny chapel built and consecrated in the latter half of the 20th century.

Also on this floor is the royal bedchamber. Nowadays, King Edward VII is said to have stayed in it. On an earlier occasion I was told that it was named after a visit paid by Frederick, Prince of Wales in the 18th century. Frederick, son of King George II and father to George III, died of a burst abscess on his lungs in 1751. William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of one of my favourite novels “Vanity Fair” penned the following epigram on the Prince’s death. The latter was written from the comparative safety of the 19th century:

"Here lies poor Fred who was alive and is dead,
Had it been his father I had much rather,
Had it been his sister nobody would have missed her,
Had it been his brother, still better than another,
Had it been the whole generation, so much better for the nation,
But since it is Fred who was alive and is dead,
There is no more to be said!"

In the royal bed-chamber is a cabinet containing, amongst other curiosities, an unassuming pearl necklace said to have been owned by another tragic European Queen, Marie-Antoinette. Part of Marie-Antoinette’s downfall has been attributed to a diamond necklace, which was the centrepiece of a notorious fraud trial. Jeanne, the Countess de la Motte, along with her co-conspirators duped Cardinal de Rohan into believing that he was buying a fabulously expensive diamond necklace on behalf of the French Queen. Instead the fraudsters whisked it abroad to be broken down and sold off. When the jeweller who sold the item to the Cardinal demanded his money and was fobbed off, he went to the palace to demand recompense. Like Queen Draga, Marie-Antoinette had many enemies who wanted to believe she was embroiled in the scheme and used this incident to further blacken her name even though at the time, either through pragmatism or personal choice, Marie-Antoinette had long abandoned the opulent jewellery of her flaunting extravagant past. The hapless Jeanne was whipped, branded as a thief and sentenced to life imprisonment. Nevertheless, both Jeanne and her husband were able to escape prison and flee to England, where she died in 1791. Jeanne lies buried in an unmarked grave at the church of St Mary’s, just outside the gates of Lambeth Palace. I took the opportunity to visit the burial grounds and the church when Lambeth Palace last held its open day. St Mary’s now houses a gardening museum inspired by the famous horticulturalist Tradescant family, who are also buried in a tomb in the graveyard, alongside their equally illustrious eternal neighbour Admiral Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. I wonder whether it was Admiral James or Admiral Bligh who found it harder to live down their unwanted early fame?