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History of Charlecote Park

The Great Hall at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire
The Great Hall at Charlecote Park | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
Sir Thomas and Lady Lucy with Seven of their Children
Sir Thomas and Lady Lucy with Seven of their Children | © Derrick E. Witty

Charlecote house and estate

Deep in the Warwickshire countryside, Charlecote lies peacefully on the banks of the Avon between Warwick and Stratford. A grand Tudor house surrounded by a deer park and formal gardens, it is still the home of the Fairfax-Lucy family.

There have been Lucys living at Charlecote since the 12th century. Wealthy country gentry, their income came primarily from land, occasionally augmented by fortuitous marriages. Explore their lives and their home for over 900 years.

Three Sir Thomas Lucys, 1558-1640

There was an earlier medieval house but the present house was built in 1558 by Thomas Lucy and his bride Joyce Acton, a Worcestershire heiress. They married when he was 14 and she aged 12.

The family’s strong Protestantism and loyalty to the crown found favour with Queen Elizabeth who knighted Thomas and later his son, also Sir Thomas. The Queen visited Charlecote on her 1572 royal progress. Look for her portrait in the Library.

In the Great Hall is a bust of Shakespeare, a reference to the legend that as a young man he was caught poaching in Charlecote Park. The story is improbable, but there is evidence in two plays that Shakespeare knew Sir Thomas and had little liking for him, mocking him as the character Justice Shallow. Belief that Charlecote’s Shakespearian links would attract visitors motivated the National Trust to acquire it in 1945.

The second Sir Thomas also married an heiress. Constance Kingsmill, of Highclere Castle (filmed as “Downton Abbey”) brought a £40,000 dowry, a fortune then!

Entering the Great Hall your eye is caught by an enormous painting over the fireplace. Dating from the mid-1620s it depicts the family of the third Sir Thomas Lucy, his petite wife Alice Spencer, their seven children (they would have five more) and the children’s nurse. They were a cultured, educated couple. Sir Thomas knew the poet John Donne. His great friend, Edward Herbert, who is also pictured in the Great Hall, was the brother of the poet George Herbert. Alice became a devout Puritan.

The Civil Wars, 1640s

By the time the Lucy children reached adulthood the country would be torn apart by Civil War. Sir Thomas died in 1640 and so did not witness the turmoil. His eldest son Spencer, the boy carrying a bowl of peaches in the family picture, fought at Edgehill, the first battle in October 1642. He became a colonel in King Charles’ army.

Warwickshire was deeply divided, Warwick itself being a parliamentary stronghold. Soldiers on both sides marched over the county. A parliamentary army camped overnight in Charlecote Park before proceeding to Edgehill. That area, just over the river from the house, is still known as Camp Ground.

An oil painting of a bird's-eye view of Charlecote Park from circa 1696-1700. In the painting you can see the formal garden of canals and parterres surrounding the house which were removed by Capability Brown around 1760. In the foreground, sitting on an escarpment, can be see Colonel George Lucy, owner of Charlecote, sitting on a white stallion surrounding by his wife, family and their dogs.
Bird's-eye view of Charlecote painted in late 1690s showing the formal gardens, with Colonel George Lucy sitting on a white stallion in the foreground. | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Richard Lucy, the Cromwell letter and Parliament:1650s

Another picture, high up in the Great Hall, catches the eye. It shows four young children, the eldest of Sir Thomas and Lady Alice. Among them is a toddler draped in a red blanket. This is Richard Lucy. Below, is his portrait in middle age. He is reading a book, fitting as he built up Charlecote’s very fine collection.

Richard was a local MP, as were his recent ancestors. At Charlecote you can view a letter from Oliver Cromwell commanding his presence at the Barebones Parliament, 1653. Cromwell deliberately restricted membership to a small number of loyal, handpicked supporters.

As Richard’s two elder brothers died without issue, he inherited Charlecote in 1658.

Restoration of the Monarchy 1660

The new King, Charles II, was keen to heal divisions and so issued pardons to those who had supported Oliver Cromwell. The price was high. Richard had to pay the annual income of the Charlecote estate, £3,513, a vast sum. He remained an MP under Charles.

Late 1600s

Richard’s son Captain Thomas, portrayed in the Great Hall above the staircase, owned Charlecote from 1677-84. He died of smallpox aged 30. Within 6 months, his widow Catherine secretly married an illegitimate son of Charles II, George Fitzroy, Duke of Northumberland, taking the family jewels with her.

Charlecote then passed to the youngest brother Fulke and eventually to his son, Colonel George Lucy. When his wife, Mary Bohun, died, Colonel George married her cousin Jane. The Bohun family owned valuable property in Spitalfields, London.

Bachelor George: 18th century elegance

The Billiard Room is lined with beautiful family portraits, many of quite recent origin. The one above the fireplace from 1758 is probably the most arresting, however. Batoni, a fashionable Italian portrait painter, depicted 'Bachelor George' Lucy wearing a wig and very elegant clothes. He looks prosperous and plump. It is a 'swagger portrait'.

George was then living in Rome. He spent most of his time in Italy believing it to be beneficial to his health. He had inherited Charlecote in 1744, aged 30, but was in no hurry to settle down. Indeed, he never married, preferring the company of married women.

He did not neglect the estate. In 1755, he had brought back some Jacob sheep, the first in Britain. There is still a flock at Charlecote.

Like many landowners, he had the parkland landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. On 29th September 1757, Mrs Hayes the housekeeper recorded in her diary:

Mr Brown began to make alterations upon Wellesborn Brook to create a new cascade where it met the Avon.

The cascade is a favourite spot of visitors today who like to sit and picnic there.

'Bachelor' George helped David Garrick organise the first Stratford Shakespeare festival in 1769, 200 years after Shakespeare’s birth. Despite the rain, it was a success and did much to popularise the writer and his links with Charlecote. A portrait of Garrick is in the Library.

George left the estate to a cousin, the Reverend John Hammond, who changed his name to Hammond Lucy. Like many clergy of that era, he was not particularly pious, but was a typical country squire. Two years later, aged 54, he married Maria Lane, aged 30.

Their son George inherited in 1823. Later that year he married Mary Elizabeth Williams of Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales.

Two visitors with a baby in a carrier explore the Dining Room in the house at Charlecote Park, with a marbled fireplace and large painting visible in the background
Visitors admire the Dining Room at Charlecote Park | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

Victorian Charlecote: re-creating Elizabethan splendour

George and his wife would transform Charlecote.

Mary Elizabeth was appalled at the state of the house on her arrival as a 20-year-old bride. Little had been done since the time of 'Bachelor George'. In her diary she despaired about

Its old worn stone floor, small panes of glass, old window frames creaking and rattling with every gust of wind, and so cold!

All this would change in the following years. The couple added a grand dining room and library. Thomas Willement, renowned London designer of heraldic glass, made new windows and re-set the Elizabethan windows in the Great Hall. He also designed the sumptuous Dining Room wallpaper, still in remarkably good condition.

The old stone floor was eventually replaced by one in marble. The couple had it transported from a Venetian palace and re-laid in the Great Hall. (The old flagstones were put in the new Victorian kitchen.)

Replica Tudor ceilings were installed. A new fireplace in the Great Hall inscribed with the date 1558, when the house was built, also re-creates the Elizabethan age.

They were extravagant people. After coming into his inheritance in 1823, George splashed out on 59 items at the Fonthill Abbey sale. Half the money he spent went on one purchase, the splendid pietra dura table now in the Great Hall. It is said that George outbid the king, so determined was he to acquire it.

Tragedy on a Grand Tour

In 1841, the whole family and some servants went on a grand tour to Italy to view art and buy antiques. They travelled over the Alps in a snowstorm. Their one-year-old son died in his mother’s arms, possibly of gastro enteritis. His body was shipped back for burial at Charlecote. They continued with their stay in Italy. By the time they returned in 1843, Mary Elizabeth had another baby. You can read about this in the Carriage Room – the family coach is on display next door.

Gradual decline in family fortunes

George died in 1845, not long after their return. His widow remained at Charlecote, living in the extension to the south wing built in the 1850s. She died in 1890. Her second son Henry Spencer, who had inherited, died soon after. He was succeeded by his eldest daughter Ada who married Sir Henry Fairfax, a Scottish baronet.

By this time, the family fortunes were diminishing. From the late 19th century, agricultural rents fell as British farming faced competition from cheaper food imports.

When Montgomerie, the eldest son, inherited in 1944, he offered Charlecote to the National Trust who acquired it the following year.

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