Kirby Hall


Kirby Hall


A history of the Elizabethan country house, Kirby Hall, owned by the Lord Chancellor to Queen Elizabeth I. It describes the typical grandeur of the house during Queen's Elizabeth's visits and laments the then-decayed state of the house.


Howard, Constance


January 1888


essay (English history)


pp. 99–105


Buried in lime avenues and lovely woods in the good county of Northamptonshire lay Kirby Hall, the seat of the great Sir Christopher Hatton, Chancellor and favourite of Queen Elizabeth. It was originally built for the Staffords, and completed for Lord Keeper Hatton by John Thorpe—"John of Padua," as he was occasionally called. The arms of the Staffords are still distinctly visible. It is commonly said that Queen Bess exchanged Holmby or Holdenby House, at the other side of the county, built likewise by John Thorpe (who was also the architect of Burghley House, Stamford, the seat of the Marquis of Exeter), with Sir Christopher Hatton for Kirby; but this must be a mistake, as Holdenby belonged to his family in the reign of James I. As an actual fact, Sir Christopher Hatton not only built Kirby, but Holdenby House also in the short space of some five-and-twenty years; and it is small wonder that the man who built two such palaces in so short a time and at such a cost should have ruined himself by his enterprise. In an account of Holdenby House, written by my lamented father, the late Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, which I propose to reprint for the benefit of my readers, he says: — "In the Upcott MSS., British Museum, additional MSS. No. 15,891, from which Sir Harris Nicolas quotes so largely in his ‘Life of Sir Christopher Hatton,' p. 125, is a letter from Sir Christopher to Lord Burleigh, August 9th, 1579, in which he says, ‘Holdenby was built in direct observation of your house and plot at Tybald's, so I earnestly pray your good lordship that by your good corrections at this time it may prove as like the same as it has ever been meant to be.’ To this letter Lord Burleigh replies on the 10th of the same month: ‘I visited all your rooms, high and low, and only the contention of my eyes made me forget the infirmity of my legs; and where you were wont to say it was a young Theobald's—truly Theobald's I like as my own; but, I confess, it is not so good as a model to a work, and no otherwise worthy in any comparison than a foil. God send us long to enjoy her [Queen Elizabeth], for whom we both meant to exceed our purses in these.’” Never was a truer word spoken—at least, in the instance of the Lord Chancellor, as the event proved. Kirby was the Lord Chancellor's second house, and together with Holdenby House it cost its builder, Sir Christopher Hatton, so much money that within thirty years Holdenby had to pass out of the possession of his heir as part of his debt to the Crown. The inner court of Kirby was wrought into its beautiful shape by Inigo Jones for Lord Hatton, Controller of the Household in the time of Charles I., and the huge palace stood in a hollow (surrounded by many stately avenues of chestnuts, beech, and limes) in Rockingham Forest, of which the Lords Hatton were rangers. There were two lines of lime avenues and two of horse-chestnuts, but not on the same side of the house. The trees were magnificent—many of them being contemporaries with the Edwards and the Henrys who had wielded the sceptre of England; and over the soft grassy glades of the vast forest the sturdy yeoman's plough had never passed. All was as God had created it, without touch of the hand of man to, maybe, mar what He had made so passing fair. Deer and rabbits in numbers were the denizens of the forest, whose soil was fertilised by the leaves when in autumn they dropped off the parent stem on to the rich soil below. The front court was surmounted on three sides by an open-work of stone. The gateway was surmounted by a chevron between three garbs or wheat-sheaves, the insignia of the Hattons. The inner court was square, and enclosed a large range of apartments; Ionic pilasters decorated the façade, the corners ornamented with the Stafford knot, initials, fruit, flowers, badges and crests of corn carved in stone. To the south, supported by great Corinthian pilasters, each terminated by a lofty pinnacle, upon which were squatted quaint stone animals, half bears, half dogs, was the great hall; it was panelled half the height of the walls with oak, magnificently carved in quaint devices: at one end was the music gallery. The picture gallery, 160 feet long, extended nearly the length of one side of the quadrangle, and was a most beautiful room, though perhaps rather narrow for its length. Numerous pictures hung on its walls; gallant knights, courtly priests, astute statesmen, lovely ladies, in all costumes were there portrayed. There also were rare hangings of tapestry, representing allegorical and other subjects. The wainscoting was of chestnut. The floor was of polished oak, strewn with fresh-gathered rushes; and all down the length of the gallery were ranged cabinets and cupboards of oak, ebony, and ivory, varied by pedestals holding china from the Orient, and statues in marble of men and women bearing in their raised arms large silver lamps. Gilt chairs, the seats and backs covered with rare satin and brocade, others with green leather stamped with golden wheat-sheaves and chevrons, a spinning-wheel of ebony and ivory, and an open harpsichord of rosewood inlaid with silver, with a painting of St. Cecilia on the lid, and an open piece of music (the last volta then composed, the favourite dance of Queen Bess and Sir Christopher Hatton), filled up the rest of the room. Under the piazza lay numbers of huge bloodhounds. To the west of the house was a smooth green lawn, a large garden of many terraces on the right. In the middle of the length of the supporting wall was an alcove surmounted by statues; projecting from the wall as a buttress was a large chimney, admirable indeed in the proportions of its upper parts, and with pinnacles surmounted by stone dragons, from the centre of which it arose. To this fair palace in Rockingham Forest came a goodly cavalcade one day in 1589, when the chestnut-trees had just donned their bravest array of pink and white spiked fragrant blossoms and tender green leaves. Down the pretty avenue, treading the thickly-strewn carpet of sweet flowers under their palfreys’ prancing feet, and thereby causing them as they died to emit their gracious perfume, wound the gay party. First a band playing dances as they came, the musicians attired in scarlet and gold, their surcoats emblazoned with the Royal arms of England; then numerous gentlemen on horseback, each having a lady bravely attired beside him; then many pages on foot, dressed in the livery of the noble house of Hatton; and last, mounted on a splendid white palfrey, whose trappings, bridle, and saddle were of cloth of gold embroidered with real jewels, rode Elizabeth, Queen of England (the Virgin Queen)— commonly called "Good Queen Bess.” Her dress was of cloth of silver embroidered with eyes and ears; the sleeves, puffed to the wrists, were divided between each puff with bands of pearls, each one as big as a nut, and finished at the wrists with rare old Venetian point; on one arm a serpent was embroidered in rubies and pearls, signifying "Wisdom." The ruff was of the same costly point, made very stiff, held out by pieces of wood or ivory, and stiffened with yellow starch, first invented in this reign, in 1564, when Mistress Dingham Van der Plasse, a Fleming, came to London, rose into immense reputation, and acquired a large fortune as a teacher of clear starching, for which she charged five pounds (a very large sum at that period), and an extra sum of one pound for showing how to make the starch. On her head the Queen wore a crown of magnificent jewels, and the stomacher of her dress glittered with diamonds and rubies; her gloves were embroidered with the Royal arms in emeralds and pearls, finished at the edges with gold lace. Her stockings were of knit black silk, presented to her in 1560 by her silk-woman, "Mrs. Montague." Woven stockings were invented by the Rev. Mr. Lee, of Cambridge, in 1589, twenty-five years after he had first learnt to knit them with needles. Her shoes were of perfumed red leather, redolent with her favourite scent, "Peau d'Espagne;" the toes were very broad, crusted heavily with gold, and “bedight with gems." At the Queen's waist hung a chain of diamonds, from which was suspended a large fan of peacock's feathers, with a looking-glass let into the back, surmounted by the crown in rubies and diamonds; next to it hung a watch-pocket of cloth of silver studded with pearls, in which was placed her watch of enamel and diamonds (pocket watches were brought to England in 1577); and on her other side hung a large pocket, to which she consigned her letters of importance from foreign potentates, ambassadors, and other persons of consequence. Her handkerchief, of the finest cambric (which she also carried in her pocket), was embroidered with the crown and Royal arms, and trimmed with point-lace a quarter of a yard deep. The gentleman who walked by her side, holding her bridle, was none other than Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England, Queen Elizabeth's favourite statesmen and courtier, her true and faithful servant and most devoted lover, the unequalled dancer of her gay Court, and the owner of Kirby and Holdenby and all the broad acres which appertained to them. Sir Christopher was born at Holmby, and educated at St. Mary's Hall, Oxford, from whence he proceeded to the Inner Temple. He possessed great abilities, highly cultivated by study and business, and he was remarkable for his eloquence and powers of persuasion, which often served his interests well, and made him greatly esteemed and favoured by Queen Bess. It was his well-timed speech, when he was Vice-Chamberlain, that persuaded Mary, Queen of Scots, to come before the Court, which, pleading her dignity, she had before refused to do. All Sir Christopher's greatness, however, was destined to be short-lived. The Queen suddenly demanded of the Lord Chancellor the summary payment of £42,000 for first-fruits and tenths, which he was not prepared to meet. This claim so greatly harassed his mind that it threw him into a fever, which brought him to his grave, and in spite of her visit to him on the 11th of November, 1591, her coming was of no avail, and he died on the 20th of the same month at his house in Ely Place, Holbom; at which time an extent was laid upon it for the debt due to her — a claim which descended to her successor, James I., and caused Holdenby to pass into the hands of the Crown; for though Queen Elizabeth could comfort her "Lyddes" and "Sheepe," as she called him on his death-bed, we are not told that she forgave him his debt; and in February, 1607-8, his nephew and heir covenanted to convey the great mansion of Holdenby and about 1,768 acres of land (including the park) to the trustees of King James I., the lands being valued at that time at an annual sum of £1,596 13s. 11d. Let us take a look at Sir Christopher as he appears in the full-length portrait of him at Eastwell Park, Ashford, Kent, which, equally with Kirby, was the property of the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, my dear and lamented father, to whom I am indebted for many of the particulars here written. In this picture he is standing with one hand on his hip. He wears a doublet of white satin heavily barred with gold, a ruff round his neck, and a short black velvet cloak studded very thickly with enormous pearls. Long white silk hose gartered at the knee, and neat black velvet shoes embroidered with pearls, complete his costume. In face he is very good-looking—a smiling mouth, deep blue eyes shaded by long lashes (with a sweet kind look in them), curly brown hair, and a long pointed beard. At his side lies a very small curly white dog. And thus attired on this lovely May day in 1589 walked Sir Christopher, leading his Queen to his stately home, while hearty shouts of "Long live Queen Bess! may our great Eliza flourish ever! God preserve the Queen!" came from the throats of many a stalwart Northamptonshire man, and resounded through the still forest air. The reception of her loyal subjects was indeed a hearty one. The Queen smilingly and graciously acknowledged the enthusiasm displayed, and then with Sir Christopher's aid she dismounted, and passed through the quadrangle into the withdrawing-room, and from thence into the library, with its stores of valuable books and MSS. On a table of ebony and silver stood a silver tray with silver cups full of wine; while carved tables and buffets, first used in this reign, were scattered about. Here Lady Frances Howard, Lady Sheffield, Lady Wodehouse, Blanche Parry (the ally of the famous sorcerer Dr. Dee, and the friend and confidante of her Royal mistress), and the beautiful Isabella Markhara (wife of Sir John Harington) had already preceded the Queen, and were reposing upon couches covered with Turkey carpets, now first brought to England. Most of these ladies were attired in white, much in vogue in those days. After reading the English Mercurie, the first newspaper printed in England (in July, 1588), her Majesty retired to her bed-chamber and was seen no more until dinner was sensed. As a rule Queen Bess ate very little and drank weak beer, or wine and water; and unless it was a state occasion, such as I have described, she took her meals with a few of her attendants. Before dinner she and her attendants sweetened their dainty persons with rose-water previous to beginning their meal. Queen Elizabeth's breakfast, except on fast-days, consisted of butter, eggs, boiled steaks soddened with water and thickened with bread, and ale made from the hops now first grown in England. This she partook of at eight in the morning; she dined at eleven off beef, mutton, veal, or pork, and supped at six. In her day a cow cost 7s.; an ox, 13s. 4d.; a sheep, 2s. 5d.; and a hog, 2s She studied much, and if a difficult point arose she sent for some learned man to help her, and argued the matter. After breakfast she transacted business with her Secretaries of State— papers of public interest relating to public affairs were read aloud; she gave the orders she thought necessary in notes by herself or her tutor and secretary, Roger Ascham (who used to teach her Latin, and pinch, nip, and hol [slap] her if she displeased him in the least; he died in 1568). When tired with work she took a matutinal walk with her ladies, if the weather was propitious. She hated a high wind, and seldom stirred out in it; but rain, if not too violent, did not prevent her or her Court from enjoying their usual exercise under umbrellas. According to Bohun, she would chide her familiar servants so loudly that those at a distance heard her voice, and for small faults she would strike her maids-of-honour with her hand. When Queen Elizabeth took her walks abroad, special officers had to go beforehand on the road she intended to pursue and order away all deformed, ugly, and diseased persons. Supper-time was when she enjoyed herself most; then she would laugh and talk, and encourage her friends and attendants to do the same. After that she would play on the cittern or lute, or on the virginal (a keyed instrument of one string), listen to a song, dance a coranto, a pavo or pavin (so called after the strutting peacock), or a volta (her favourite dance), or witness a masque, specially performed for her pleasure. When she retired to bed she was attended by all the married ladies of her retinue. As soon as she felt tired she sent them all away, except the lady whose turn it was to sleep in her bed-chamber. A gentleman of good quality sat in the next apartment, so as to be in readiness to awake her should anything extraordinary occur. Such was Sir Christopher's illustrious guest. On this evening the banquet was spread in the great hall, the table was covered with gold and silver plate (in many cases enriched with jewels), and every possible delicacy covered the board, which groaned under the weight of its good cheer. After the Queen, Sir Christopher, and their guests had eaten of the dishes which the Queen preferred, the remainder was taken to the ladies of the Court. Huge silver lamps shed a soft ray over the brilliant scene; the band in the gallery pealed forth sweet melodies; in the intervals a blind negro boy played divinely on the lute; the conversation was sparkling and gay; all looked bright, and every one seemed happy. The banquet over, Sir Christopher led the Queen up the staircase of solid carved oak into the noble gallery, 160 feet long, where they sat down to a game of backgammon or tables. Then, in the prime of his courtly graces and his noble presence (their game of backgammon being over), "my grave Lord Keeper led the brawls " (figure dances then in fashion), as Gray describes him in his well-known poem, and after the dance he passed with Elizabeth out on the fine smooth lawn. Sir Christopher and Queen Bess enjoyed the air for a short time, and then they passed into the chapel, with its beautiful carvings of walnut-wood, and heard a few short prayers; then back again to the library, when muscadine and sweetened sack were served in large silver bowls to each guest. Then once more Sir Christopher besought Queen Bess to walk with him yet again in the beauty of the night, and on her complying he led her Majesty to the front of the lovely old house, and there, where the silver moonlight bathed the whole fair scene—avenues, house, park, deer—in its pure light, Sir Christopher bade his Royal mistress a loving and gallant "Good-night!” Now what is left of a palace, a house once so very fair? Of all the ruins in the country, the saddest of all is that of the Lord Keeper's second home, stately Kirby Hall. So utterly is it concealed by trees that you may pass within fifty yards of what was one of the finest houses in the kingdom without knowing that a house is there. Desolate, deserted as it now is, until 1836 it was a habitable house. My grandfather, the Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham, lived there when he first married; and his eldest daughter (my aunt, Lady Caroline Turnor, widow of Christopher Turnor, Esq., of Stoke Rochford, Lincolnshire) was born there. Since 1836, when my grandfather left Kirby, it has never been inhabited by any of the family. By a curious will he was obliged to live so many consecutive months in the year at another of his places, Haverholme Priory, Lincolnshire, or else he forfeited it; he had also Eastwell Park, in Kent, to keep up. He did not wish to forfeit Haverholme, and the expense of all these places was too great, so Kirby was sacrificed. Why he did not let it, even if he had only received rent enough to keep it in habitable repair, I have never been able to understand. All that is certain is that he left it empty, thus parting with one of the finest, if not the finest, specimens of that style of architecture extant (so fine a specimen is it that one of the greatest architects of the present day says that it ought to be bought by the Crown and restored); and it has been gradually going to rack and ruin—a process which is now, alas! all but complete. When Lord Winchilsea left it, his agent (Webster) first lived in it. Then a farmer had it, with the land surrounding the house; and now a labourer lives in the library of one of the finest Elizabethan houses ever built. Roof there is none, except to the library and one bed-room. At Holmby, time has done its worst; the hard fight for life is over, death reigns triumphant. One can saunter slowly through the gardens, now restored to grazing land again, with a calmness such as one feels in walking by the graves of friends long since "gone before." But to see, as at Kirby, the very action of decomposition going on, the tattered tapestry in shreds on the walls, the pictures half in, half out of their broken frames (these even are now all gone), the crumbling stucco of the ceiling forming a support for the hanging ivy to cling to: to inhale the damp unwholesome air; to hear the rats and mice scuttling over the organ-pipes and climbing the organ-bellows in the library, where they are the sole denizens of the magnificent room once filled with rare MSS., where used to be the harpsichord whose keys royal Elizabeth's fingers had touched, and the spinning-wheel she had used; to see the machinery of the clock that marked the passage of time in Sir Christopher's day fallen in through the roof of the chapel, of which nothing is left (all the beautiful carved walnut-work is a thing of the past; the seat where Elizabeth knelt has been sold or burnt in sheer wanton mischief by some careless country yokel), and the lovely fresh fronds of green fern sprouting up in the choked gutters; then to see the masonry in all its firmness, without scarcely a stone displaced, the sculpture and devices of the Stafford crest (with fruit, flowers, &c., as sharply delineated as on the first day they were carved), the solid oak staircase yet entire (it is gone now), the quaint stone animals (half dogs, half bears) which in Sir Christopher's time squatted on the pinnacles terminating the Corinthian pilasters, on which the portal of the great hall to the the south was raised (they are now gone, with the exception of a few lying buried deep in the luxurious growth of grass and weeds which fills the whole of the inner courtyard),—this is a melancholy (nay, a despairing) sight, without a single redeeming touch of hope, or joy, or comfort. Down that splendid gallery of 160 feet long, in the prime of his prosperity and favour, and the splendour of his handsome person and courtly graces, “My grave Lord Keeper led the brawls; The seals and maces danced before him." Could even his lightness and agility and quickness avoid the gaping pitfalls now? Down those slippery green steps (still called by her name) Queen Elizabeth, with stately mien, stepped into the trim pleasaunce below, among the grand old yews, now struggling in brave defiance of the gardener's shears. In that beautiful old chapel, of which nought remains but a few crumbling planks, where it is dangerous to walk, a loyal household often knelt in prayer for his most sacred Majesty when such prayer was a crime and the worshipper, if discovered, would have paid for his devotion with his life. From that lovely iron traceried balcony, embowered in ivy (now falling in pieces and worn with rust), did the fair heiress of the Montagues, when hostess here, stepping forth from her dainty boudoir, welcome her coming and speed her parting guests. Ruin and decay have marked Kirby for their own. Nothing remains of its splendour but its beautiful outside walls; though those who linger among the gables, chimneys, windows, and courts of Kirby will find much to please the eye. The ghost of a dead past reigns paramount over everything: the avenues are all gone, cut down, and sold; the approach to the house is over grass and deep ruts; and we who loved it look on with indescribable regret and longing. The old house, which witnessed the Lord Keeper's gallant and loving "Good-night!” to his mistress and Queen, now sleeps in a sleep which knows no awakening, and it is— “Oh! for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still." Truly "the tender grace of a day that is dead" will Kirby Hall know nevermore. [Lady Constance begs to acknowledge with many thanks the information contained in the Quarterly Review of 1857, and also that given her by the Rev. William Finch-Hatton, of Weldon Rectory, Northamptonshire.]