Cowdray Castle





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Uploaded on Apr 16, 2010

Cowdray castle in West Sussex, England.
Music by Kevin Kendle.

Cowdray Castle's history begins in 1284 when Sir John Bohun finished building a house across the river from the old town of Midhurst . He called it Codreye, the Norman word for the nearby hazel thickets. Two hundred years later it was inherited by Sir David Owen, uncle to King Henry VII.

Sir David began to replace Codreye with a larger home for himself on the same site. This was only half finished in 1529 when he sold it to Sir William Fitzwilliam, Treasurer of Henry VIII's household. Fitzwilliam completed the house, and most of what we see today (and what we know about from drawings) was the work of his masons.

As the years passed, Fitzwilliam became the Lord High Admiral of England and the Lord Privy Seal. As part of the celebrations of the birth of the future Edward VI, he was ennobled as the Earl of Southampton. Until his death in 1542 he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

Later owners made cosmetic changes, altering some of the windows and the internal arrangements, but Cowdray Castle remains as it was built. For us it is a remarkable survival of an early Tudor nobleman's mansion, an example of 16th century architecture at its best, understated and dignified. Cowdray Castle passed to Fitzwilliam's half-brother, Sir Anthony Browne, and from him to his eldest son, also Anthony Browne, who was created Viscount Montague.This was an old family name and his coat of arms on the Cowdray gatehouse shows his line of descent reaching back (like that of the Tudors) to John of Gaunt, son of Edward III.
"Through the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536-3, Easebourne Priory was disbanded and the Prioress and her nuns ordered to leave. At the time of eviction, the Sub-Prioress pronounced a curse of fire and water on the male children and their heirs of he who takes these lands and it shall come upon him and his name shall die out. The Priory and its lands were granted to Sir William FitzWilliam, Earl of Southampton, who was at that time building Cowdray"

The house was a Catholic stronghold when this was a forbidden form of religion. During the reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, the devout 1st Viscount was suspected of being a traitor, but he escaped persecution. A few years later the 2nd Viscount was heavily fined and imprisoned for his faith and for alleged involvement with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Guy Fawkes having been employed at Cowdray.

During the Civil War of the 1640s the 3rd Viscount supported the Royalist cause; in retaliation Parliamentary troops occupied Cowdray for seven years. Although the house was plundered, it escaped demolition. The estates were sequestrated and the owners were once again heavily fined.

It was not until the succession of the 6th Viscount in 1717 that Cowdray began to recover from the depredations of the previous century. Internal changes were made in accordance with Georgian taste. The family, when on its own, now lived privately, but entertained ostentatiously. What had been their first floor dining room became a grand salon for social gatherings with distinguished neighbours and visitors.

The approach route to Cowdray Castle was changed. The old causeway across the water meadows was fenced off. A new carriage road from Easebourne was built and, instead of the house being visible from afar, it now appeared to be secluded among the rolling acres of a landscape that had been redesigned in the new fashionable style.

Georgian polite society was meeting at Cowdray, but the family had over-spent. The young 8th Viscount proposed marriage to the eldest daughter of the wealthy banker Sir Thomas Coutts.
While the house was being refurbished for his wedding he went on holiday to the Continent and his mother and sister visited the elegant resort of Brighton . Very few staff remained at Cowdray. At midnight on 24 September 1793 a spark from a coal basket left burning by the decorators set fire to the woodshavings and paper rubbish in their workroom. Before long it was all ablaze and the flames were spreading fast. Nothing much was done. Fire buckets and the water tanks were in an outside building, the keys to which could not be found and the door could not be forced. Crowds gathered and some treasures were rescued, but many more were stolen. The house smouldered for a fortnight.


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