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History of Canons Ashby

Visitors walking along a grass path through the garden at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. There are summer flowers in bloom on the right and neatly clipper topiary can be seen in the background with the house behind.
Visitors walk through the garden at Canons Ashby | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Canons Ashby was home to the Dryden family for over 400 years and has a rich history. The name is made up of ‘Ashby’ meaning ‘farmstead’ and ‘Canons’ from the group of canons who founded the Augustinian Priory in the 12th century. Read more to find out about how the house developed and the people that shaped the house we see today.

A mystery castle....

Within Canons Ashby's parkland is a mysterious mound, previously believed to be remains of the medieval village, geophysical surverys suggested there may actually be a great deal more going on.

Archaelogical digs were undertaken in 2014 and there is conjecture the mound could be home to the foundations of a Norman motte and bailey castle, located not far from the site of the medieval village.

The Augustinian Priory

The canons who founded the original Augustinian Priory at Canons Ashby, were a small order of no more than 13.

The Augustinians were ordained priests, who worked amongst the lay community with pastoral care part of their ethos.

Building the church

In the 13th century, the canons built the church which they shared with the local community.

In the 14th century, the nearby village declined due to the change from the feudal system to a more ‘modern’ farming system (enclosure), which had an impact on the prosperity of the priory.

Priory is suppressed

The priory gained a dubious reputation over the centuries so became one of the first priories to be suppressed in 1536.

It was granted to Sir Francis Bryan, known as the ‘Vicar of Hell’, a childhood friend of Henry VIII, who reduced the church to its current size – approximately one quarter of the original priory size.

Architectural remnants of the priory are still visible in the manor house today, where they were removed and recycled from the site of the priory over the road.

A model of what the original building might have looked like is housed in the church tower.

The west front of St. Mary's church at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire
The west front of St. Mary's church at Canons Ashby | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

New beginnings

In 1551, John Dryden from Cumberland married Elizabeth Cope, whose father owned the Canons Ashby estate. John and Elizabeth were given Wylkyn’s Farm by Sir John Cope.

John and Elizabeth built the tower house sometime after 1551 and then eventually joined the farmhouse to the tower house, creating the H-shaped manor house.

John’s son Erasmus was the second owner. He extended the building to join with existing farm buildings to create the courtyard building you see today.

Changes are made

In the 18th century, Edward Dryden made significant changes to the south facade, by facing it with dressed stone and replacing the stone mullioned bay windows with fashionable sash windows.

Sir Henry's Museum room at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. A dark coloured room painted with trompe l'oeil effect columns. A wooden drawer unit with glass cabinet is against one wall and through the door is a room lined with wooden bookcases filled with books.
Sir Henry's Museum at Canons Ashby | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Antiquary

Sir Henry Dryden inherited Canons Ashby in 1837, at 19 years of age. Known as ‘the Antiquary’, he was passionately interested in architecture and history, especially that of his own family and estate, recording everything he could.

He cared for Canons Ashby for most of the Victorian era.

In 1864 he started restoring and reinstating the water system including installing the pump, lead piping and a lead lined wooden tank.

Sir Henry made few changes to the structure of Canons Ashby. He reinstated the mullioned windows in the east front and his carefully drawn plans were used for the garden restoration, completed in 2012.

Inside he changed only one room – the Book Room.

Marriage takes place

Sir Henry married late in life at 47, to Frances Tredcroft who was 42. Their only child, Alice Dryden, took plenty of pictures at the turn of the century, so there is evidence of what the site was like over 100 years ago.

Sir Henry made detailed drawings and plans of the house which have been an invaluable source of much of the restoration undertaken by the Trust in recent years.

The 20th century

Canons Ashby declined through the 20th century and was let to various tenants.

One, the goldsmith Louis Osman, created King Charles III investiture coronet, when he was Prince of Wales’ as well as many other beautiful items at Canons Ashby.

The estate was given to the care of the National Trust in 1981, when there was extensive work to rescue parts of the building which were close to collapse, and to stabilise it for the future.

Thanks to the support of our visitors, Canons Ashby will be looked after for future generations to come.

The Drawing Room at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. The walls are dark dusty pink colour with a large barrelled plasterwork ceiling and a large marble fireplace featuring heraldic crests above.

Canons Ashby's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Canons Ashby on the National Trust Collections website.

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Visiting Canons Ashby house 

Explore the historic house at Canons Ashby with grand rooms, stunning tapestries and plasterwork which contrasts with the servants' quarters. Find out more about what you can see.

The south front of Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire

Visiting the garden at Canons Ashby 

The garden provides plenty of space for the family to have a great day out and enjoy the fresh air. You can also stretch your legs with one of the walks in the wider grounds.

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Eating and shopping at Canons Ashby 

Grab a bite to eat in the tea-room, and find a souvenir to remember your visit in the Coach House shop. Head to the old brewhouse where you will now find a second-hand bookshop.

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Family-friendly things to do at Canons Ashby 

Discover family-friendly activities and days out with the kids at Canons Ashby, including nature trails, wild play and school holiday events.

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Our work in the house at Canons Ashby 

Caring for Canons Ashby goes on all year round, much of it behind the scenes. Find out more about the work being done to protect and restore this centuries-old family home.

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Our work caring for nature at Canons Ashby 

Find out more about the work the team are doing to improve biodiversity at Canons Ashby, including a recent project to restore the medieval stew ponds.

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Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.