England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 1

The first full day of our England adventure found us hitting two fantastic literary sites. The first was a small, insignificant place in a town no one’s ever heard of.

Oh my gosh, no, seriously, we went to Shakespeare’s house. Yes, Shakespeare’s HOUSE. Because it was awesome, that’s why!

Yes, this the house in which William Shakespeare was born & grew up. No, I don’t know who those random selfie-taking tourists are in the foreground.

I’ll spare you the entire set of “I’M IN SHAKESPEARE’S HOUSE!!!” vacation pictures, unless you’re friends with me on facebook. In that case, once I get them uploaded you’ll never hear the end of it.

From Stratford-Upon-Avon it’s a short drive to Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth in Warwickshire. In fact, it’s only about fourteen miles away. I would hope that Jane Austen would have known when she visited the house in 1806 that she was so close to Shakespeare country – and she may have. It became a tourist destination for the literary-minded in her lifetime:

Once the family line had come to an end, the house was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair until a rekindling of interest in the 18th century. Isaac WattsCharles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle were among the notables that visited the birthplace and autographed the walls and windows. Many of the signatures still remain on the windowpanes around the house, although the signed walls have long since been painted over. A guest registry book includes the signatures of Lord ByronAlfred, Lord TennysonJohn Keats, and William Thackeray.

It’s not surprising to see the ever-romantic Byron on the list. And as I found out later, he was in the area for more than just a Shakespeare pilgrimage. But you’ll have to keep reading to find out about that.

After our most excellent tour of Shakespeare’s Birthplace we intended to head directly for Stoneleigh in time to pick up the Jane Austen Tour. Of course, because I am a scatter-brain (me? never!) and we were all running on jet-lag and English food (kidding, it was good), we got there right on time! Half an hour late! I guess I just wrote it down wrong. I have been known to do that kind of thing on a few occasions. Okay, on many occasions.

However, I was expected, because I’m special and amazing. After being greeted by the ever-patient and good humored young man at the desk, we repaired to the Victorian Orangery, now converted to a charming tea room, and waited for the Austen tour to finish. (Click to make the pictures bigger.)

David, our tour guide, met us after he finished the Austen tour and answered some of my questions. The most important thing I learned from him, however, is that the people who work at Stoneleigh Abbey are among the nicest people in England. He even stayed in his Austen costume for our non-Austen tour – and believe me, staying in boots and a tailcoat is just above and beyond the call of duty for a young man. Well done, David.

At this point we finally got ourselves onto an actual tour. It began at the 14th century Gatehouse. “Oh, boring, a Gatehouse, yawn” – right? Wrong.1

You see, way back in 1154, Henry II granted some land to a band of Cistercian monks who weren’t happy in their current home. (Not surprising, as they’d been repeatedly robbed. I’d want to move too.) Henry wasn’t too busy, between all the battles and political subterfuges and claiming territories & whatnot, so he said “Sure guys, why not. Take this land for your Abbey, and I’ll move my hogs somewhere else. No biggie.”

See? Hogs.
See? Hogs.

For a little while the monks moved to a local village, into a peaceful, restful, truly spiritual place. I’m kidding again:

“These monks first settled at a house in the neighbourhood of Stonele called “Crulefield,” now Cryfield, a name ascribed by local tradition to the cries of the children slain by a “foreign Earl,” who was a great robber, and infested the country, and who lived here till removed by the king’s orders to make room for the more peaceable monks.” (History of Stoneleigh Abbey)

Suprisingly, they got robbed there too. So they said “forget it, we’re not staying here to be robbed and screamed at by the ghosts of murdered children,” and they took their God stuff to Stoneleigh, where they built their Abbey. And now we come to the Gatehouse. Everything was finally going well for the monks, and they were left in peace to pray and raise crops and focus entirely on pure, Godly thoughts, ha ha, oh boy, I am kidding again! Apparently the monks were not popular in their new home, because in 1241 King Henry III visited nearby Kenilworth Castle, and while he was there he ordered 40 trees cut down and sent to Stoneleigh to rebuild the Gatehouse. The original Gatehouse was sacked and burned in what must have been an extraordinary riot.

The loss of a Gatehouse to a band of angry torch-wielding peasants was probably quite a dramatic sight to behold. But anyone who missed it only had to wait another century or so, because they did it again. This time the monks got wise to the world, and rebuilt the Gatehouse in stone. This 14th c. Gatehouse still stands, and it makes quite a beautiful entrance to the grounds.

David explained that the monks of Stoneleigh made money for their order by housing pilgrims traveling the road between Coventry and Stratford. Those who could pay more stayed in the stone Gatehouse – the have-nots stayed in the stables or somewhere even less conducive to sleep. Either way, I’m glad I was born in the time of the Econolodge, and the Motel 6. No matter how awful they are, staying in a cheap motel sure beats sleeping in rotten, filthy hay.

David also gave us the interesting history of a certain abbot named Thomas de Pipe. He had the run of the place starting in 1352, and proved to be an incredibly efficient accountant. His new “Leiger Book” not only kept track of local events, but made the Abbey’s accounting easier to reconcile. This ease is perhaps what got him into trouble:

“In 1364 he was summoned before the king’s court on a charge of alienating the property of his abbey. An inquiry was made by twelve men of the neighbourhood, who reported that the abbot had granted land and rents in Finham to Isabel de Beneshale, his concubine, and their eldest son John to hold for their lives quit of rent. Moreover, fearing to be deposed by the visitors of his order, he had given the grange of Melbourn, worth £20 yearly, to Adam de Stokke, cook, and Roger de Cotes, to hold freely for the support of himself and especially for the support and maintenance of Isabel and the abbot’s children by her, who were more in number than his monks.” (History of Warwick)

Apparently having children who were “more in number than his monks” wasn’t too impressive, because there were only eight monks in the Abbey at the time. But the rumor is that he visited his lady-friend Isabel by means of seven secret tunnels that led to seven mills in the area surrounding Stoneleigh. The 1896 History of Stoneleigh mentions that a group of cottages in the village is referred to as “Pipe’s Mill,” after Thomas de Pipe, but that book fails to mention anything more exciting than his ledger.

David claims that Thomas was fired from his job at the Abbey after his embezzlement and other schemes were discovered, and became a highwayman instead. Supposedly, his intimate knowledge of the wealth of the pilgrims who stayed in the Gatehouse served him well in planning his heists. David further claims that after he had successfully robbed lots of people, he was reinstated at the Abbey, because they found that they had more financial success with him inside the walls than outside.

In the ensuing years, things seemed to finally calm down a bit for Stoneleigh. There isn’t much exciting in the records

Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Charles Brandon. The got quite a good value out of Henry's toppling of the church.
Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and Charles Brandon. The got quite a good value out of Henry’s toppling of the church.

until that little bit about Henry VIII. You know, the one who dissolved all of the monasteries. Stoneleigh was not immune from the dissolution, although at least its abbot was pensioned off at £23 per annum – actually quite a princely sum at the time. Henry VIII bestowed the grounds and Abbey (now stripped of treasures, and of glass & lead) to the husband of his sister, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk. I have read differing accounts of the myriad ways in which the manor passed down through the Leigh family, and in the next post I’ll do my best to break down the route through which Stoneleigh eventually ended up in the hands of Mrs. Austen’s cousin.

On to Part 2!

1. Before I dive in too deep here, I want to share two links with you that will give you some fun information on “Stanlei,” which became Stoneleigh. They’ll come up again later. The first is an excerpt from “A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 2,” published in 1908 and found at British History Online. The second is “Stoneleigh Abbey, from its foundation to the present time,” written in 1896 by (what must have been) a Leigh family member. Only 50 copies were printed, but Archive.org has the whole thing preserved online.

6 thoughts on “England Trip: Stoneleigh Abbey, Part 1”

  1. Dang it, Amy, it’s not fair: You co-run the best Jane Austen bookstore in North America, AND you write one of the funniest blog posts I’ve read in ages? Never mind, bring on Part 2. And see you in Montreal!

  2. Ha, thank you both! And you will be very glad to see me in Montreal, because most of this trip was spent buying lovely “only in England” things for our loyal customers. 😉

  3. I should add – forgot to mention it in the post – in the bit where I mention that she may have known it was Shakespeare country. There is a legend that he spent some time near Stoneleigh, and that he perhaps wrote some of his famous plays there. It was mentioned on the tour, and I wonder if that has been passed down from the last page of the Stoneleigh History book, on which is printed:

    One of the beauties of Stoneleigh is its Deer Park, situated at a short distance from the house. Had we, like Shakespeare’s exiles of the Forest of Arden, the power of finding “tongues in trees,” we might gather from Stoneleigh’s famous oaks many other memories worth recording. What tales might they not whisper to us of the jovial monks, and gallant knights, of the merry retainers of the barons of Stoneleigh who chased the deer beneath their branches, or even, it may be, of
    the ” bard of Avon ” himself, who, tradition has it, composed some of his immortal plays in the vicinity of what is still known as “Shakespeare’s Oak” !

  4. fantastic to read your Blog, it was a real pleasure to meet you and share Stoneleigh Abbey, sending you love from the big house.
    Dave x x

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