(With the arrival of spring, the Brimstone Butterfly has deemed it high time that she emerge from her winter hibernation and once more seek out stately homes to explore).
To act as a counterbalance to the power of the aristocrats who were there as of right, Henry VIII also chose men from relatively humble backgrounds to serve on his council. Unlike high born courtiers, these men owed their wealth and rank to Henry’s continued patronage. As such, they would never aspire to the throne itself, something Henry always fretted about when it came to aristocrats with a more impressive royal lineage than his own. John Russell, a former owner of Chenies Manor, was one such Tudor courtier, who, like Thomas Cromwell before him, rose to the lofty heights of an Earldom under Henry VIII, despite lacking aristocratic antecedents. Unlike Cromwell, Russell was able to hang on to both his head and his title and as a consequence, his descendants became Dukes of Bedford in their turn.
He entered Henry’s service as plain John Russell and it was over a decade later before Henry raised him to the lowest rung of the aristocracy by knighting him. Even then that owed more to the unfortunate fact that he had he lost an eye on one of Henry’s military campaigns in France than to his abilities as an administrator. Now that he had been knighted, Russell decided to align himself with the twice widowed Anne Sapcote in 1526. Anne was related to the Cheney family, who had first owned the estate in he 12th century. In the late 13th century the family were obliged to surrender the manor to Edward I who promptly turned it into a hunting lodge.
All that remains of Edward's hunting box is a stone undercroft which, alas, I did not have time to explore. Above the entrance was the legend, written in chalk, that it had either served as Edward’s wine cellar or else a dungeon. Given the King’s soubriquet as the Hammer of the Scots it might well have served as both: nothing like a drop or two of the hard stuff when you want to get hammered or go a hammering.
By 1430 Sir John Chaney was able to win back his ancestral lands and he built a fortified brick manor house, part of which can be seen today in the crenulated buildings set at an angle to the three storied range known as the New Lodgings. The latter range was built by John Russell between 1551 and 1555. Channel 4’s popular Time Team programme, from January 2005, proved conclusively that apart from Sir John Chaney’s crenulated manor house, little remains of the buildings Henry VIII would have known when he and his court were guests at Chenies.
King Henry’s first visit was made in the company of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. Several years after Anne’s execution Henry came a-calling again, this time with his fifth queen and Anne’s cousin, Katherine Howard. Given the events which came to light in the autumn of 1541, Chenies might well have been left off Henry's itinerary as an agreeable place to linger. In November 1541 Queen Katherine Hoiward was taken from Hampton Court and placed under house arrest at Syon House. There she was questioned at length about her sexual conduct both before and during her marriage to the king. Prior to Katherine's own arrest one Sir Francis Dereham had already been seized and taken to the Tower of London. Under extreme torture he was made to confess the extent of his involvement in the matter. He insisted that any sexual impropriety with the queen had ended long before she became the consort of the king. Furthermore, he regarded Katherine as being his wife in all but name and had planned to marry her upon his return from a trip to Ireland. In the interim she had been presented at court where Henry’s eager eyes had alighted upon her youthful beauty. Dereham’s efforts to prove his innocence were not helped by the fact that he had solicited a key post in Katherine’s household after she had become queen. Consequently, Dereham was accused of having every intention of renewing their former intimacy, which doomed him to the full horrors of a traitor’s death. Chenies Manor is mentioned by name in the state papers cataloguing the case. According to one witness, Alice Restwold “lately called Alice Welkes: the Queen at her last being at Cheyneys, the lord Admiral's house, sent for her, by Dereham and by Kath. Tilney, and at her coming, kissed and welcomed her and ordered her to lie with her chamberers; and afterwards sent her, by lady Rochford, upper and nether habiliments of goldsmith's work for the French hood and a tablet of gold”.
For failing to inform the king that he was marrying a woman no better than she ought to be Alice, along with numerous others, was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of all her worldly goods. After the chief protagonists had been executed, a suitably chastened Alice and the other lesser characters were released from the Tower after a number of months, allowing them to slip back into blessed obscurity.
When John Russell, now Earl of Bedford, died in 1555 his widow, Anne Sapcote, had a special chapel built to house his ornate tomb by the side of the parish church. This chapel became the family mausoleum for subsequent generations and is still owned by the Bedford estate today. Public access is barred, although tantalising glimpses of ornate Italianate polychromatic marble tombs can be viewed through the screen of carved wood and glass which separates the chapel from the rest of the church.
The New Lodgings were completed by 1555. Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, three years after John Russell had died. According to the guidebook, Elizabeth first came to Chenies as a baby with her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. As queen she paid many a subsequent visit to Chenies, by then the home of one of her chief ministers the 2nd Earl of Bedford. It is not known for certain whether Elizabeth occupied any of the rooms in the new range but tradition has it that she had her council chamber on the second floor. The Time Team archaeological dig found evidence on site of far grander and more extensive buildings, which would have housed the suite of state apartments. The team even unearthed the foundations of Henry VIII’s ground floor bedchamber, now concealed beneath the present day car park.
Set apart from the house is a building which both served as and was refereed to as being the Nursery. It also provided overflow accommodation for Elizabeth’s court when the state apartments were filled to the brim. As poor Simon Bowyer discovered to his great consternation in May 1574 at Croydon Palace, trying to sort out the logistics of providing lodgings for the queen and her retinue on one her jaunts around her realm was no easy matter.
Despite owing their titles and fortune to her family, the ungrateful Bedfords turned traitor when the 3rd Earl became involved in the Earl of Essex’s plot to seize the throne. Whereas the Earl of Essex’s head was permanently removed from his shoulders, the Earl of Bedford got away with mere house arrest at Chenies. The anti-royalist sentiment persisted at the manor during the English Civil war when it held as a stronghold for Parliament. The attics (not part of the tour) on the top floor of the New Lodgings apparently served as makeshift barracks. Another intriguing part of the house, again sadly not on the tour, is the network of underground passages terminating some distance from the house, built to enable persons unknown to either enter or flee from the house without detetection.
Chenies ceased being a principal residence of the Earls of Bedford once Woburn Abbey became their main country seat in the 17th century. Over time Chenies sank into a decline and ended up as a farmhouse. The wings of the mansion that had once housed apartments literally fit for a king, fell into ruin or else were simply pulled down, their exact location hidden from memory until the Time Team’s three day visit in 2005. The Macleod Matthews family bought Chenies from off the Bedford family in the mid 1950s when the Bedfords were obliged to sell it as part of their efforts to meet death duties. The furnishings of the rooms (left bare by the departing Bedfords) and the gardens are a tribute to the Macleod Matthews’ dedicated mission over the decades to overturn centuries of neglect and restore the house and grounds to something approaching its former Tudor glory.