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Meet the Ancestors
Fawsley, Northamptonshire

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh books into an impressive Tudor house in Northamptonshire but is drawn to her namesake’s even older seat.

Now this is what a hall should be. I stare in awe at the lofty vaulted ceiling, the rows of tall windows set high in the pale stone walls, the logs blazing in the enormous fireplace, the warm glow from dozens of sturdy candles. My own hall, in Shepherd’s Bush, is maddeningly narrow. It‘s impossible to get past the bikes without bruising your shins. At Fawsley, the Great Hall is as huge and majestic as a church. Built by Sir Richard Knightley in 1537, it has a dramatic bay window, topped by an intricately carved stone ceiling. Tudor-style portraits peer gravely from gilded frames. A shield contains the arms of all the Knightley marriages from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and stained glass panels show family coats of arms, including the single star of the Washingtons, whose emblem later adorned the American flag.

The Knightleys had a vested interest in the protestant cause, having made a fortune during the dissolution of the monasteries. Queen Elizabeth I came to stay at Fawsley in 1575, and her bedroom is now the grandest suite in the hotel, with a Tudor-style four-poster, and a carved bed-head featuring Warwick dancing bears. During the Civil War, the Knightleys sided with Cromwell and the parliamentarians. Above the bay window in the Great Hall is a secret chamber, where Sir Richard Knightley printed the puritan Marprelate tracts, for which he was later imprisoned. Legend has it that the term ’sub-rosa’, meaning secretive or confidential, came from this hidden room above the carved flower in the ceiling - although perhaps ‘supra-rosa’ would be more appropriate.

Built of warm-coloured local ironstone, the Great Hall has been trendily decorated by its new owners, with pale, limed panelling and floorboards and huge sofas with stone-coloured upholstery. But it has not always looked so beautiful. Requisitioned by the army during both World Wars, the house was used as a timber works in the 1950s, and then lay derelict. In 1974, Fawsley featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition ’The Destruction of the Country House’. A rescue operation was launched by antique dealers Mr and Mrs E A Saunders in 1975, and work started again in 1996, before the house opened as a hotel in 1998. Today the Great Hall is breathtaking - and indeed the whole house is a splendid mix of medieval grandeur and modern comfort.

This intensely rural corner of England has seen little change over many centuries. The gentle hills along the border of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire have little to draw tourists, and as a result, the countryside retains an unspoilt calm, sandwiched between the M40, M45 and M1 motorways. Horace Walpole described the Midlands as a ‘mud pudding stuck full of churches’, and sure enough, when I arrive, it is raining. I’m determined to go for a walk, despite the downpour. To avoid slippery slopes, I drive to the Grand Union canal, a few miles away, and stride along the towpath. Narrowboats chug past, with nerdy helmsmen, clad from head to foot in turquoise plastic, blinking through the rain, as their wives peer out through steamed-up portholes.

“Why do we do it?” the skippers shout cheerfully, as I overtake them. “But isn’t it beautiful?” they add.

And it is. Tangled hedgerows surround tiny fields of black and white cows. The bank is dotted with interesting red-brick canal buildings. Rain drips from the fingers of a nautical signpost, offering me a choice of Oxford, Warwick or Braunston. Turning towards Warwick, I splash through deep puddles to a series of locks, where I help to lug the gates open and closed, and watch the slow descent of the boats as water gushes noisily through the sluices. The gentle pace of canal travel, even slower than my stride, reminds one of days when journeys took days or weeks, and there was time to ponder and reflect.

Back at Fawsley Hall, warm and dry, I sink into a sofa in the Great Hall, and read the journal of the last Lady Knightley - wife of Conservative MP Sir Rainald, and a robust campaigner for women’s rights - who lived at Fawsley until her death in 1913. I notice that she mentions her neighbours, the Shuckburghs of Shuckburgh Hall. The Knightleys lived at Fawsley Hall for 400 years, but the Shuckburghs became feudal lords of the Shuckburgh manor not long after the Norman Conquest - and they haven’t moved since.

I am not a proper Shuckburgh - merely an ex-wife of a distant cousin of this senior branch - but I have been to Shuckburgh Hall before. In 1975, I spent a week on a narrowboat, with six Shuckburgh in-laws. One day, we found ourselves chugging into the village of Lower Shuckburgh. We disembarked and plodded up the hill, arriving unannounced on the doorstep of the family seat. We looked so bedraggled and unwashed, that Sir Charles Shuckburgh entertained us outside, beneath the substantial portico.

Thirty years later, I feel bold enough to try another visit. I ring up and suggest myself, and the current baronet, Sir Rupert, invites me for tea. I mention that I am staying at Fawsley Hall. “Appalling bare floorboards,” he mutters.

I follow Shuckburgh Road to Lower Shuckburgh, and peep into the parish church, built by George Shuckburgh in 1864, in an eccentric Moorish-oriental style, after he came back from the Crimea. (Sheer ugliness, says Pevsner. Colourful and jolly, declares Simon Jenkins.) Above the village is Upper Shuckburgh, where Shuckburghs have lived a private life for almost a thousand years. Like Fawsley, which means ‘forest of fallow deer‘, Shuckburgh is surrounded by rolling parkland, where herds of deer roam. Red brick farm buildings nestle in a dip in the park. The ancient house has an austere façade of grey concrete cladding.

Sir Rupert and Lady Shuckburgh come to the door, with three large dogs, and this time I am invited in.

“I think I’m your second cousin by marriage, but divorced,” I begin.

“More like a third cousin-in-law, ex, by default, from the wrong branch of the family,” interrupts Sir Rupert, with a twinkle.

We walk through the great hall to a cosy study, where we sit beside a log fire with mugs of tea. Once, Rupert tells me, the Shuckburghs owned most of Chelsea and Knightsbridge, but a Victorian ancestor lost it all, gambling. Rupert’s son arrives, shotgun in hand, and adds that the Shuckburgh Arms, in Chelsea, survived until this year, but has now turned into a cake shop.

“James, have you met your former fifth cousin by default, ex, once removed, from the wrong side?”

The family’s most exciting moment occurred on October 22nd 1642 - the eve of the first battle of the Civil War. Unlike the puritan Knightleys of Fawsley Hall, the Shuckburghs had no strong political allegiance, but as the royalist troops marched south, King Charles spied Richard Shuckburgh, 19th feudal lord, cantering cheerfully past. With a deep sigh, the King inquired, “Who is that gentleman, hunting so merrily, while I am about to fight for my crown and dignity?” Richard was introduced, and obligingly armed his tenants and joined his sovereign. The following day, the royalists narrowly won the battle of Edgehill, and Richard was knighted by the King.

After downing a pewter goblet of wine, I leave my hospitable ex-cousins, and return to the bare boards of Fawsley Hall, for a delicious dinner of local venison. The next morning, the rain has stopped. Walpole’s ‘mud pudding stuck full of churches’ shimmers in the sunshine. I stroll through the hotel’s tunnel of pleached lime and laburnum, past a cedar of Lebanon estimated to be over 500 years old, and out across Capability Brown’s landscaped grounds. Three lakes gleam beneath a translucent sky. Beyond, Fawsley church, built in 1209, is all that remains of two ancient villages demolished by the Knightleys in the 15th century, to make room for their sheep. Faint ridges and furrows show where long-ago fields were tilled. I gaze at the view, breathing in a thousand years of rural life, and then I get in my car and drive back into the 21st century.

First published by the Telegraph

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