During this part of your virtual tour, I’ll try to reconstruct the ancestral folk festival that culminated in Stoneleigh Abbey landing in the hands of Mrs. Austen’s cousin, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, rector of Adlestrop.
I’ve pasted in another part of “A History of the County of Warwick” from British History Online, this time from Volume 6, published in 1951. I’ll blockquote the parts from that book.
After the dissolution of the monastery, its site, with lands, mills, &c., was leased to Richard, Lord Grey, in February 1538 for 21 years, the reversion of the property after the expiry of the lease being granted in December of that year to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who is said to have sold it to William Cavendish. From him it was bought in 1561 by Sir Thomas Leigh. He was son of Roger Leigh of Wellington (Shrops.) and had served as factor to Sir Rowland Hill, a wealthy London merchant, whose niece he married.
This Sir Thomas Leigh was so accomplished in business and life that he became the Lord Mayor of London during the reign of Mary, after whose death he rode in front of the coronation procession of Queen Elizabeth I. According to the Wellington Town Council, he gained her favor even before she was crowned:
“Thomas was instrumental in deferring the accession of Elizabeth I so that the politically sensitive issue of realigning the English monarchy’s sympathies from Catholic to Protestant would not result in anarchy. As Lord Mayor, Thomas arranged and led Elizabeth’s coronation pageant in January 1559 and gained a knighthood for his efforts.”
Sir Thomas obtained the lordship of the manor in 1562 and died in 1571, his widow living there until her death in January 1604.
His wife, Sir Rowland Hill’s neice Alice Barker, was 11 at the time of their marriage – he was 31. They had several children, and she outlived him by 32 years. She was notable not only for her long life, but for the almshouses she founded in the village, which still stood as of the Victorian times.
Their second son Sir Thomas bought the manor from his nephew William son of Rowland Leigh in 1605; he was created a baronet in 1611, and died in 1626 seised of the manor,
Rowland Leigh was the first son of Alice and Sir Thomas. He was provided for by the largesse of Sir Rowland Hill, and it is with him that the Adlestrop branch – Jane Austen’s branch – of the Leigh family was established. His son William sold Stoneleigh to his uncle, as mentioned above. This uncle Sir Thomas passed the estate on to his grandson:
which passed to his grandson Thomas, who was created Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh in 1643 and died in 1672, aged 76.
…and this grandson had quite a history. When Jane, Cassandra, and their mother visited in 1806 I’m sure they would have seen the portraits of this Sir Thomas and his wife Mary, daughter of Sir Thomas Egerton, and would most likely have heard of their involvement with history. In fact, one wonders if Cassandra Austen née Leigh ever subjected the girls to an evening in which she “followed the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family, in the usual terms: how it had been first settled in Cheshire; how mentioned in Dugdale, serving the office of High Sheriff, representing a borough in three successive parliaments, exertions of loyalty, and dignity of baronet, in the first year of Charles II., with all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married…”
Stoneleigh Abbey, from its foundation to the present time says of Thomas Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh that he “was reputed a giant; and it is told of him, though with what truth we know not, that on one occasion, finding a man riding a donkey trespassing within his park, he lifted up man and beast and threw them over the gates.” He certainly must have impressed King Charles I, who stood less than five feet.
Charles I had reason to respect Thomas Leigh for more than his prodigious height. In the summer of 1642, when the gates of Coventry were shut against him and his assembled armies, Charles retreated to Stoneleigh Abbey and received (or demanded) the assistance of Sir Thomas. In exchange for hosting the armies of the King, Sir Thomas was created Thomas Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh on July 1, 1643.
It must have been quite a sight to see the assembled armies of the king, with their tents and hangers-on, spread across the manor and park. And Thomas 1st Baron Leigh would have given other material assistance besides his land. But after this episode he was marked in the public mind as a Royalist – a label he would not have denied – but one that became dangerous for him as the tide turned against Charles. When the Parliamentarians came to power Thomas was imprisoned at Coventry, a place notorious for its bad treatment of Royalists. He was only freed by the hard work of his wife. For four years she begged the Parliamentarians to release him, but was finally only able to secure his freedom by making a payment of £75,000. That’s almost $18 million in 2014 dollars. She now had her husband back, but the family’s finances were in a less than ideal state.
The family did, however, retain some treasures. According to the Leigh’s history of Stoneleigh Abbey, something even more special than Thomas 1st Baron Leigh returned to the Abbey after Charles I’s loss to the Parliamentarians:
This Sir George Beaumont (1762-1827) was a contemporary of Austen. Unfortunately, his discovery of the hidden painting didn’t occur until after her death, but it is certainly a story that Austen fans can appreciate. After all – we’ve been titillated by the possibility of secret portraits in her own works – and of Stuarts, no less! I can only imagine her glee in finally seeing the portraits of her notable ancestors, people who had no doubt been described to her by her fiercely Leigh-proud mama. Proud-Leigh described? (And yes, here is a link for those of you who accuse me of a 1776 pun.)
Now, let us return to the begats:
[Thomas Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh’s] grandson Thomas had been married in 1669 to Elizabeth, the wealthy heiress of Richard Brown of Shingleton (Kent), when they were both under age. He took a violent dislike to her and tried to debar her of her dower by making a fraudulent conveyance of this and other manors.
Imagine my huuuge surprise when I didn’t see Thomas Leigh, 2nd Baron Leigh mentioned in the family history book. Instead, we are treated to a charming diversion on the subject of the 1st Baron’s Aunt, Alice Dudley, Duchess of Dudley, another hard-used woman. The wiki link is interesting if you can wrap your head around all of the Dudleys dead and living, but the History of Stoneleigh book paints us a charming narrative of her abandonment by her husband. It tells us that her husband Robert Dudley was the strong, manly, charming son of Queen Elizabeth’s very own Dudley – that his mistress was “estimable,” “enterprising,” and “very beautiful” – and that Alice, finally victorious in securing a Duchy from Charles I, was resigned, pious, and charitable in her later years, once having gotten over her “affliction.”
Wow. At least she got the land?
Between Robert Dudley and the abusive 2nd Baron, I’m beginning to think women weren’t always happy in marriage back then. But luckily for the Leigh family, their domestic dirty laundry was recorded for all eternity, and now pops up in the records of Jane Austen’s ancestors.
After the 2nd Baron’s first wife died, (I hope much lamented by someone, perhaps her children,) he remarried, and then, thank goodness, hurried up and died so that his son Edward could take over the estate.
After her death he married again and was succeeded in 1710 by his son Edward,
And it was this Edward Leigh, 3rd Baron Leigh, succeeding his unmentionable-in-the-family-book father Thomas Leigh, 2nd Baron Leigh, who undertook to revive the family fortune and the family name. (Speaking of names, he was an Edward because his older brother Thomas died young. Terrible for the young man, but wonderful for those of us getting Lost in Thomases.) With wealth hard-won from his wife’s dowry, he embarked on a plan to enlarge Stoneleigh Abbey with a new West Wing. He hired noted architect Sir Francis Smith to design this new building, and gave him strict instructions to make the building impressive and grand. A visitor can tell simply from the number of windows on the West front of the house that Edward Leigh, 3rd Baron Leigh, wanted to flaunt not only his wealth, but his lack of concern for the window tax. (More details in the photo captions – click on ’em!)
But he was not a brute. Some of the most impressive changes he made at Stoneleigh were to the benefit of the staff. While much of the service rooms were still in the Abbey, the servants were given a large gathering room under the west wing furnished with a massive stone fireplace, which much have come in handy during the cold months. Heck, even in summer it can be cold in England, and especially in a stone basement with stone walls and a stone floor! And most especially when you’ve been up since 4am scullerying & all that.
The 3rd Baron went to great lengths to make his house a showpiece. The staircase hall alone is breathtaking. It’s almost impossible to sense the scale from the picture on the left, but perhaps I can help: if this were Hogwarts, the man in the bottom portrait next to the door would have been able to comment on my hairstyle, because during our visit, his eyes were just above my head. Impressive! Grand! Perhaps the 3rd Baron was looking out for his giant of an ancestor when he made that huge door! (Or maybe they had trolls in the dungeon…)
Edward kept pouring money into this new building, cladding the walls of the northern portion of the west wing with seas of dark oak. The staircase hall leads to the large front room, but I want to skip that for now and stick with the dark oak. First, the drawing room. (Please click on the pictures for the details.)
The next overpoweringly oak room is a card room – I believe it would have been the room to which the men retired to smoke and talk politics. It’s now filled with portraits – perhaps it was then, too. David gave us a quick history of portraiture, and explained that the cost of the portrait went up dramatically with the inclusion of limbs and hands. This explains why many portraits will have one hand hidden, and he also claims it’s how the phrase “costing an arm and a leg” came to be.
The next room on the tour began as the formal bedroom. In the time period that it was built, the bedroom was furnished with the most luxurious and expensive bits of stuff in the house, so it was in a place where it could be easily shown off to interested parties. However, the wife of Jane Austen’s mother’s cousin, nephew of the Reverend who inherited in 1806, later turned the room into a fantastic library. Did I confuse you? I confused myself. Here is a handy family tree, downloaded from the gutenberg.org (FREE!) text of Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters. I’ve tried to give some context. You will probably need to click make this one bigger too.
And here is the library, formerly the bedroom. I know, right? I bout laid an egg.
Now, there are some great stories and great people in that room, but before I get there (Part 3! Part 3!) I want to get us to where I promised we’d be at the beginning of Part 2. We left off at the 3rd Baron Leigh, Edward, who did all of the remodeling, and now we need to find out how the house went from him to his distant cousins over in Adlestrop. The book skips over his son, straight to his
grandson Edward (certified as a lunatic in 1774) [who] died unmarried in 1786, the title becoming extinct.
It’s a bit of a brush-off of this significant man, whose contributions to Stoneleigh amounted to more than simply being a conduit to the Austen visit. He continued the work of his grandfather, most notable in elaborate plasterworks in the stair hall and the front room.
The 5th Baron was, unfortunately, not a well man. He was mentally unstable, and on the tour it was implied that it was partly this instability which led to the intricate and highly meaningful story laid out in plaster in the front hall. Austenonly has a FANTASTIC write-up on this room, and you should go read it RIGHT NOW, I’m serious, I’ll wait. If for some reason you enjoy seeing me squirm, stay here and I’ll try to summarize.
The plasterwork story starts in the center of the ceiling with a massive frieze of the birth of Hercules. The feet! The feet are amazing! They’re hanging off the ceiling. How did they even…? Anyway – around the room, above the doors, are depicted the his six labors. There are different friezes in different places that tell different bits of the story – here he’s killing one mythologically significant family/animal/god, there he’s killing another. You get the idea. And finally, the last frieze shows him dying after putting on the cloak… of something… (you’ll have to excuse me, I was geeking out too much here and forgot to write it all down. No, really, my mom took a picture of it, and if you click on these to make them bigger you’ll get to see my ridiculous, crinkle-faced geekout.)
I believe the idea is that like Hercules, Edward Leigh, 5th Baron Leigh was tormented throughout his life, and he faced many obstacles, yet in the end he couldn’t defeat his own weaknesses. It is highly symbolic and touching, put against the context of his increasingly unstable mental health. Even the doctors who later cared for King George III during his madness could not help Edward, and he was committed to Bedlam, which must have been an absolute horror. He finally retired from the world, and lived under the care of his sister Mary until he died at 44. It was her death, and the confusion left by his will, that initiated the 1806 visit of the Austens to Stoneleigh:
Under his will, dated 1767, the estates passed to his sister Mary for life, with remainder to ‘the first and nearest of my kindred being male and of my name and blood’. At her death in 1806, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, rector of Adlestrop (Glos.), a direct descendant in the male line from Rowland, eldest son of Sir Thomas Leigh, inherited the property, which passed at his death in 1813 to his nephew James Henry Leigh, whose son, Chandos Leigh, was created Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh in 1839, and died in 1850.
So, you remember way back up at the top when I mentioned the Adlestrop branch? Here they are. The line of Stoneleigh Leighs ended with poor Edward and his devoted sister Mary. But that turned out to be quite good news for a couple of ladies who were just itching to get out of Bath in about the year ‘6…
And now, I think that’s enough for part two. In part three we’ll learn more about the Austen visit, peek in on Lord Byron and his friend Chandos Leigh, and finish up our tour of Stoneleigh.