Letters from the past at Beningbrough Hall

Matthew Constantine , Cultural Heritage Curator Matthew Constantine Cultural Heritage Curator
Wooden panel on a historic wall

On the wall of the first-floor landing, overlooking the main staircase at Beningbrough, is a small rectangular panel. Seemingly inconsequential, it poses a few theories of its history and possible origin.

Symbol and significance

Fixed into a carved surround, it is made up of delicately inlaid pieces of wood veneer in an oak frame. At the heart of the design is the knot symbol of the Bourchier family and around that three letters: R, B and E. These have long been thought to stand for Ralph and Elizabeth Bourchier, the first of the family to settle at Beningbrough during the 1560s.

From its style it is thought to be a fragment from a previous Beningbrough house, salvaged when the current hall was built as a replacement in 1716. The builder of this ‘new’ Beningbrough, John Bourchier, was the great-great-great-grandson of Ralph. John was clearly proud of his dynastic origins, placing inherited portraits of his ancestors over the doors of the best bedrooms in his new home.

Links to the past pop up around the hall
Historic portrait of a man on an over door panel
Links to the past pop up around the hall

Did he also frame this panel to represent the 150-year family continuity? It’s an attractive idea, perhaps offering a window into the mental world of a wealthy young man who wanted a fashionable new house but was also keen no one would question his lineage.

However, all is not as it seems

With Beningbrough, things are never quite that straight forward. As eagle-eyed visitors have no doubt spotted over the years, when the light catches this panel at an angle, we can see something curious. Under the letter R is the ghost of a letter B and the letter E appears to have originally been an F. 

This combination of letters – B, B and F – suggests two different names: Barrington and Bourchier. They owned the Beningbrough estate in the 1660s and ‘70s and are known to have significantly enlarged the old hall. Does this indicate it was originally a panel that graced their house? If so, why would someone go to so much trouble to change their initials?

The details offer a hint of changes from the past
Detail of the altered letters on a historic wooden panel
The details offer a hint of changes from the past

Loss and inheritance

One reason may be the circumstances that John Bourchier inherited the estate in 1700. The son of his father’s second wife, he only unexpectedly inherited Beningbrough as a teenager after a year of tragic deaths in 1699/1700 wiped out his two older half-siblings and their infant children.

John’s immediate predecessor was another Barrington Bourchier – perhaps John was a little insecure about his inheritance and changed the lettering, so people did not think it had been his older half-brother who had built the hall? 

There is an alternative idea

In 1760, the Beningbrough estate was subject to a legal tussle which eventually ended with it being claimed by Ralph Bourchier, younger half-brother of John Bourchier (by his father’s much younger third wife). The estate appears to have been immediately used by Ralph to settle a marriage contract between his daughter and the son of the M.P. William Rawlinson Earle.

Earle’s middle name, Rawlinson (which he always used), was from his mother, Elizabeth Rawlinson. She was daughter of a wealthy London lawyer whose sister married into the important North Yorkshire family the Aislabies of Studley Royal; the Earles later claimed the Aislabies as “cousins”. With this in mind, could the letters on the panel have been altered in the early 1760s to stand for Rawlinson, Bourchier and Earle? Was this about making a connection between the incoming family and their Tudor ancestors? 

Yet another twist

Not currently on display is a second panel, very similar to the one at the top of the main stairs, but this time with the Bourchier knot and the (definitely unaltered) letters R and B. 

A simpler and clearer panel has been discovered
Detail of a wooden panel with the initials R and B
A simpler and clearer panel has been discovered

Some recent detective work has confirmed that when the National Trust took over Beningbrough our altered panel was actually hanging not above the main stairs, but on the first-floor landing of the second staircase in the hall. Instead, it was this second panel that was hanging at the top of the main stairs - although a little grainy, it can be seen in this archive image below. 

It appears that it was replaced with the other one when Beningbrough was extensively repaired and refurbished in the 1970s, presumably this version was thought to look better.

A look at the corridor from 1916
Black and white picture of a corridor at Beningbrough
A look at the corridor from 1916

So where does this leave us? Were the two panels always hanging by the two staircases, or had they been taken from elsewhere in the house? Does this change their significance?

We will never know for sure, but it does seem likely that these panels must have had great value for the early owners of Beningbrough as physical links to past generations; so much so, someone went to the trouble of altering one. 

" If only walls could talk"
- Matthew Constantine