Charlecote: bringing history to you

Although Charlecote Park, Warwickshire is closed at the moment, due to the current social distancing regulations, we can still enjoy its history.

Charlecote Park, managed by the National Trust, lies 5.4 miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon.

In the 1550s the estate was at the south edge of the Forest of Arden, but over time the landscape became more open as trees were removed to create a deer park. In the eighteenth century the grounds were landscaped by Capability Brown.

The Lucy family managed the house for generations. From 1823 to 1867, under the care of George Hammond and Mary Elizabeth Lucy, the house was rebuilt in the Elizabethan style. In her time, Elizabeth I had visited Charlecote, as had possibly another well-known person…

I’ve been reading a lot of books about Shakespeare lately.

A 19th century oil painting showing the apocryphal story of Shakespeare poaching deer from Charlecote. Shakespeare is shown with Sir Thomas Lucy before the gateway.
SBT 1970-7: Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

One of the most popular stories from Will’s lost years is that he was caught poaching on Sir Thomas Lucy’s land, and maybe that’s why he went to London. This idea was first put in print in 1709 by Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare’s earliest biographer, but was in general circulation at the time. R. Bearman (2004) has suggested that while the story deserves consideration it could have arisen out of a passage in the Merry Wives of Windsor, and notes that Shakespeare probably had little time for Thomas Lucy and wanted to satirise him.

Thomas Lucy, a Protestant, and supporter of Queen Elizabeth, was in his day the local anti-Catholic enforcer, while Will’s father, John had been on a list of recusants, although John used fear of being served with a writ for debt as an excuse for non-attendance. It seems likely, however, from the company he kept, that John was a Catholic supporter. This would have given his son, Will ample reason to dislike Lucy.

The Renovations

Centuries later, as part of the re-building of the house in the Elizabethan style, Charlecote’s Great Hall was renovated:  the barrel vaulted ceiling was created in plaster, then painted to look like timber, while the walls were finished in plaster and painted to look like stone. This reminds us that history is not always all it seems.

The gatehouse was the only sixteenth century feature to survive the nineteenth century restorations completely unaltered.

George Hammond Lucy, the owner at that time, died intestate in 1845 – he was only fifty-six. Perhaps house renovations wore him out – I know that feeling. After George died, Mary Elizabeth’s brother, Hugh suggested she should let Charlecote and sell off some of her possessions to provide for her younger children. But Mary Elizabeth was a spirited, lively character. She was determined to stay on at Charlecote, ‘even if I have to live upon a crust, nor shall any of the paintings or furniture be sold.’

A few years later, two thieves broke into Charlecote.  

‘What have they taken?’ Mary Elizabeth asked, in panic, springing out of bed.

‘Everything,’ the butler said, ‘but don’t be frightened ma’am…’ The irony is she’d been more frightened by his knocking than by the burglars themselves.

The thieves were caught, sentenced and found guilty. Mary said: ‘Bradshaw was sentenced to fifteen years’ transportation and Evans ten. The lightness of the sentence surprised the prisoners as indeed it did… all in court, and more particularly myself.’ Mary was a woman of her time and class.

An early twentieth century embroidered needlework copy of the Sheldon tapestry map of Stratford-upon-Avon.
SBT 1928-9/2: Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The Later Years

Sadly, (Henry) Spencer Lucy, Mary Elizabeth’s son didn’t share her appreciation of fine things. He was the last of the old era and enjoyed a squire’s life of entertaining. Spencer was  said to be a generous host and full of stories. Charlecote was now warmed by hot air which flowed through ornamental grills in the floors. Life could be good. But when the bills began to mount, Spencer decided to start selling off the paintings.

That was in 1888 and by 1890 he was dead.

In 1946 the National Trust took over management of the property.

Sources

Lucy, Mary Elizabeth (1989) Mistress of Charlecote: the memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy, Victor Gollancz.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: Discover Shakespeare (Online Catalogue)

Wood, Michael (2003) In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide.

Note: Featured Image: Charlecote Park, twentieth century, unknown artist. SBT 1985-15: Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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