1 August 2013

Half-way house: the Stuarts at Titchfield

The ruins of Place House/Titchfield Abbey. The mansion would have evoked difficult memories for both Charles I and his eldest two sons.

Titchfield Abbey (or Place House) in Hampshire is perhaps best known for its Shakespeare associations: its owner, the Third Earl of Southampton, was the playwright's patron (and, many assume, the 'Fair Youth' to whom the majority of his sonnets are addressed), and some of the bard's plays are believed to have been performed there for the first time.

Less well-known, but no less dramatic, however, is Titchfield's association with the Stuarts ...

Lying between Southampton and Portsmouth and a couple of miles inland from the Solent, Titchfield Abbey was established in the 13th century as a house of Premonstratensian worship.

Entrance from the road to the Abbey site.

For this purpose it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries, though the intervening years also saw it used a royal stopping-off place and marriage venue.

Conveniently position between two major ports, Titchfield made an ideal base for visiting or returning from the Isle of Wight or continental Europe: Richard II and Anne of Bohemia stayed there in 1393, as did Henry V in 1415 on his way to invade France, and in 1445 the abbey church played host to the wedding of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. Edward VI and Elizabeth I would also later stay there as invited guests.

From the pathway walking up to the front of the gatehouse.

In 1537 the estate passed to Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton. Wriothesley had risen under Thomas Cromwell to hold various offices abroad, culminating in his appointment to Lord Chancellor in 1544, but had also gained notoriety from his personal and rather unpleasant involvement in the trial and torture of Anne Askew.

At Titchfield Wriothesley set about building a property befitting his status as a senior courier. Central to to his plans for 'Place House', as it would be called, was the partial demolition of the Abbey and conversion of existing buildings into a new mansion. This is what now remains: a ruined Tudor mansion incorporating the older ecclesiastical building.

The gatehouse.

Henry, the Third Earl and Shakespeare's patron, died in 1624 aged 51 fighting in the Netherlands. A courtier of Elizabeth I and James I, he had frequently passed in and out of favour throughout his colourful life, though by the time of the accession of his teenage son, the Fourth Earl, Thomas Wriothesley, the family had repaired relations with the Crown, as in 1625 the new monarch, Charles I, was welcomed at Place House.

Fleeing the plague which had taken hold of London during the summer, the king arrived with his bride of only a few months, the French princess, Henrietta Maria, herself only 15 years old. The stay for the newly-weds, however, would not be a happy one.

Rather than enjoying the first precious days of a new life together an argument which had been brewing between their respective courts would finally come to a head at Titchfield - and all but trigger a diplomatic incident.

Uncovered medieval tiles near to the door of the refectory. Others nearby bear Latin inscriptions reminding the canons to remember the poor before they sit down to eat. 

Potted biographies of Charles I often suggest that the king who tragically lacked empathy with so many others was nevertheless blessed with a loving and harmonious relationship with his wife. This was not the case - at least for the first year of their marriage.

By the time they arrived in Hampshire in June 1625, the English and French entourages accompanying the royal couple had been doing their best to spoil the honeymoon. Quarrels between Charles and his bride over religion and status been exacerbated by their own intransigence and the refusal of their respective courts to reach a compromise.

Drawing showing how the abbey would have appeared in the 14th century. The gatehouse as seen in my photos above cuts through the middle of what was the nave (roughly where the 'church' label is on the illustration above).

Resolving the ongoing religious issue on arrival in Hampshire was made more difficult by the fact that the young couple would not be staying under the same roof. The size of their respective parties meant that one house could not accommodate both. While Henrietta Maria lodged at Titchfield, the king would take up residence at Beaulieu Abbey, the other side of Southampton Water in the New Forest (also converted from a former abbey in the previous century by Thomas Wriothesley).

While Charles amused himself with hunting, the queen retreated into her religious devotions, horrifying the English visitors by living the life of a nun, observing the disciplines of fasting and going barefoot, activities deemed entirely inappropriate for a queen.

Charles was also given to complain on his visits that Henrietta Maria "eschewed his company" and from the "little he required of her made herself difficult": the pious regime imposed by her confessor meant that they were not sleeping together, threatening their chances of delivering an heir to the throne.

Artist's impression showing the full extent of Place House after it was completed in 1542.

But the larger problem was still the wide influence of the dozens of Catholics in the queen's court. Three incidents, all at Titchfield, illustrate how serious things had become.

One evening when Charles was dining with the queen, her confessor, the hot-tempered Father Sancy, tried to intervene with prayers of his own while the king's own chaplain, Hacket, was saying grace. Shoved away by Hacket, Sancy tried again to say prayers beside the queen, only for the king to object, ignoring him and beginning the meal. Sancy tried again after eating to say grace, only for Charles to jump up, take the queen by the hand, and storm off to her bedchamber.

The ruined lodgings, at the east side of the gatehouse.

The second incident occurred on 18 September, when the Anglican vicar of Titchfield came to preach at the queen's court. Whilst his sermon was progressing, Henrietta Maria and her maids of honour burst through the assembly, as related by Amerigo Salvetti, a Tuscan diplomat based in London at the time:
Suddenly Her Majesty issued from her apartments with a number of French attendants, and with her little hunting dogs, all of them entering the hall with the loud cries usual in chasing hares. Thus they interrupted the minister and forced him to stop his sermon. He took an opportunity of complaining to the King and this coming to the ears of the French they abused him and threatened to pistol him.
Another account claims the women then ran back through the room "with greater noise and disorder than before."

Again, behaviour inappropriate and unbecoming of a queen, perhaps, but it is hard not to smile at the wilfully disruptive behaviour of a teenager. Was this a religiously devout, politically astute young woman wanting to create a scene, or just a girl and her friends having a bit of fun?

Samuel and Nathaniel Buck's engraving of Place House in 1733.

The final Titchfield incident was certainly not amusing for the aforementioned vicar, and was serious enough for Charles to rush back from Plymouth where he had been overseeing the navy with Buckingham.

In the following days the Titchfield vicar received death threats from the French household. Then, when out walking in the grounds of Place House, a shot was apparently directed at him from two men attached to the French court shooting birds in an adjoining orchard. Charles arrived to deal with his wife, though the incident seems to have been resolved swiftly, with the man who fired the shot charged with murder.

However, reports of the incidents had quickly passed back to London and gave further reason for those who feared the influence of Catholics at the centre of power to now consider their threat very real indeed.

The rear of the gatehouse.

The issue of Catholic influence at the royal court would, of course, fail to be resolved, and would play a significant factor in the events leading up to outbreak of war in 1642.

The relationship between Charles and his wife, however, would take a turn for the better soon after their 1625 stay in Hampshire. The following year the king would expel most of the queen's French entourage, and after a period of readjustment the couple would settle into a decade of harmonious marriage, returning briefly to Titchfield in 1630 after the birth of their first child, Charles - a visit, one assumes, much happier than the previous one.

Arches to the rear of the gatehouse leading into the courtyard. The arches would have been entrances into the Long Gallery.

Charles' next visit, some 17 years later, would come in altogether more desperate times. In 1647, fleeing captivity after escaping from Hampton Court, the king would again lodge at Titchfield on his way to presumed safety on the Isle of Wight. Here he hoped Colonel Robert Hammond, governor of the Isle, would allow him shelter (it was also closer to the continent, if he needed to secure passage abroad), only for Hammond to keep him in custody in Carisbrooke Castle on the orders of parliament.

The following year the army would take charge of the king, meaning he would never see Titchfield, or his wife, again.

Titchfield Abbey from the air. The layout of the abbey can clearly be seen. Also note the medieval fish ponds to the north-west, recorded by the commissioner of the sale of the Abbey to Wriothesely as being "a mile in length to ford and harbour" and containing an estimated 100,000 "carpes, tenches, breams and pike". View larger map

Charles death was not the last time a Stuart would visit Titchfield, or consider it important to their plans.

Charles II visited Place House in 1675 to dine with Edward Noel, First Earl of Gainsborough, the husband of the Fourth Earl of Southampton's eldest daughter, who had inherited Titchfield from her father. The house was also earmarked for James II's queen, Mary of Modena, as a convenient place from which to flee to the France when a Dutch invasion was imminent in 1688.

It survived in tact for roughly another 100 years, when much of it was demolished for building stone. What was left was the romantic ruin we see today: a house that the Stuarts saw as place of safety and retreat, but one that more often than not proved an uneasy refuge.

An awkward, troubling, stepping stone for Charles I and his queen on their journey towards emotional understanding, it would be one of the final ports of call on his misguided and ultimately doomed quest to reclaim his kingdom.

Further reading

A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, Kate Whitaker (2010)
History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War 1603 - 1642, Samuel Rawson Gardiner (1884)
The Court and Times of Charles I, Thomas Birch (1848)


Titchfield Abbey - English Heritage site with visitor details (free entry). An audio tour can be downloaded from the same site here, if you're thinking of going.
Titchfield Abbey Conservation Area Appraisal And Management Strategy, Fareham Borough Council (2013)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Struan
    I have just stumbled over your wonderful website whilst searching for a print of Titchfield Abbey.....I love the top photo you have with the pink blossom. I use to live not too far from the abbey & have always been fond of her. Could you please advise where you sourced this photograph so I may obtain a copy?
    I now live overseas and the plan is to surround myself in English History.... hope you can help!
    Holly from Perth, Australia