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The Winter Queen and the history of Ashdown House

The East Facade of Ashdown House, Oxfordshire
The East Facade of Ashdown House | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Built by Lord William Craven for Elizabeth Stuart – the woman known as the Winter Queen – Ashdown House marks the culmination of a story of royalty and war, love and devotion.

Who was Elizabeth Stuart?

Elizabeth was the daughter of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. She married Frederick, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, and they reigned as King and Queen of Bohemia for just one year, 1619 to 1620.

The portrait of Elizabeth that now hangs at Ashdown House was painted in 1650 when she was 54 years old.

Why was Elizabeth called the Winter Queen?

After Frederick arrived in Prague as the new ruler of Bohemia, Elizabeth wrote to a friend that he had been received ‘with a great show of love of all sorts of people’.

Yet, less than three months later, in November 1620, Frederick was defeated by the Habsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain and forced into exile in The Hague. His reign lasted just a single winter, earning him the derisive nickname the Winter King.

Elizabeth’s sobriquet, the Winter Queen, resonated in a different way.

Fleeing from Prague

As she fled to the safety of The Hague, snow began to fall, the roads became blocked and Elizabeth was obliged to ride on horseback with an English captain, Ralph Hopton.

According to a contemporary account, ‘he carried the Queen of Bohemia behind him… forty miles’ through the ice and snow and praised her fortitude for travelling in such discomfort without a word of complaint.

Elizabeth’s courage during the retreat from Prague, and the gratitude she showed to all those who helped her, made her greatly loved. For her, the name the Winter Queen was a term of affection and admiration.

Oil painting on canvas, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, 'The Winter Queen' (1596-1662) by Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656), signed and dated "G.Honthorst 1650,",GH in monogram. A half-length portrait, to left, wearing a blackcap and veil falling over her sholders, and black dress with pearl brooches.
Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, 'The Winter Queen' by Gerrit van Honthorst | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Who was Lord William Craven?

A nobleman and renowned soldier, William Craven was one of the richest men in 17th-century England. He inherited his money from his father – a self-made man and former Lord Mayor of London – along with large amounts of land. This included the Ashdown Estate, where William came to indulge his love of hunting.

William was a loyal friend to Elizabeth’s husband Fredrick, the Elector Palantine. While off fighting for Fredrick’s cause in Europe, William used his fortune to help fund Elizabeth’s brother King Charles I against the English Parliament in the English Civil War.

For siding with the Royalist cause, Parliament confiscated William’s lands, including those in Berkshire where Ashdown now stands. William’s estates were restored to him at the Restoration of 1660. King Charles II, Elizabeth’s nephew, granted William an Earldom in recognition of his staunch support to the Royalist cause, and with his fortune restored William set about building Ashdown.

Elizabeth and William

William first met Elizabeth when he was a young soldier in The Hague. When Frederick died in 1632, Elizabeth was left destitute and William provided her with financial support.

After the Restoration, Elizabeth and William returned to England, where she lived in his home in London’s Drury Lane until her death in 1662. William acted as the informal head of her household, escorted her to the theatre, and spent much of his time in her company. He died aged 89, having never married.

Although the exact nature of their relationship remains unknown, it is clear that Elizabeth and William were devoted to one another.

Exterior view of Ashdown House, Oxfordshire
Exterior view of Ashdown House | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Ashdown House

Concerned about continuing outbreaks of the plague in London, William aspired to build Elizabeth a small palace in the countryside. Aware of her love of hunting, he chose Ashdown as the site for her hunting lodge but Elizabeth died before the house was completed.

She bequeathed William her papers, hunting trophies and portraits, including many which can now be seen hanging in Ashdown House.

The last member of the Craven family left Ashdown in 1926. The house was given to the National Trust in 1956.

View towards the house from Weathercock Hill, Ashdown House, Oxfordshire

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Exterior view of Ashdown House, Oxfordshire

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