Blogs & Virtual Tours

From seasonal gardening blogs to virtual tours of hidden parts of our property, learn more about our fascinating estate here on our website.  

Our vlogs and virtual tours can be found here on our YouTube Channel.

 

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On the hunt … for plants! Plant Hunting, Collecting and Specimen Trees.

The information concerning the history of plant acquirement at Middleton is complicated and, from this historian’s perspective, infuriatingly patchy. It isn’t that we are just missing the box of the jigsaw, we are also missing quite a lot of pieces. However, it is also one area where we suddenly discover a new titbit of information, which fills in another piece of the puzzle.

Plant hunting and collecting has actually been going on for thousands of years. In fact, many plants and trees now found in Britain are a result of plant hunting imports. At Middleton, two European species that were first introduced to England in the 15th century were being grown within a century of that date. These were hops, which were being grown on a large scale at Middleton by 1580, and the sycamore.

The first plant collectors at Middleton, we think, were the 17th century naturalists Francis Willughby and John Ray. At Cambridge University, Ray had attempted to create a garden that contained one of every type of plant in Britain. As Ray and Willughby travelled around Britain and on their European Tour, they sought the seeds and specimens of unusual plants and trees that they came across. There are letters that mention in passing the “store” of live plant varieties Willughby had growing at Middleton. Additionally, they both created dried herbariums that have both miraculously survived. What is more uncertain are the precise details of what they planted at Middleton. Partly, this is because much of what they planted has since become naturalised in our environment. In regard to the trees specifically, the legacy of their hunting is thought to be a surprising number of odd oak hybrids in various places around the Estate. To them many plants, even within Britain, were so different to what they knew as to make them unusual enough to be hunted (even though we may consider those plants now to be weeds!).

Hortus siccus

When French Jesuits were sent to Asia in the 18th century, they sent back many exotic and unusual descriptions and specimens of plants. Those in England with a keen interest in botany then quickly dispatched their most intrepid botanists to go off and find as many species as possible (and they really did risk life and limb to get plants). These Asian journeys inspired a style of garden planting that became known as the English Landscape Garden Style. It was observed that Chinese gardens avoided formal flower beds and rows of trees. Instead, they focused on irregularly placed, spaced and thus eye-catching trees, plants and structures. During the Victorian era, plant hunting for even more unusual and exotic plants reached its peak popularity.

At Middleton, the Glade was remodelled in an English Landscape Garden style in the Victorian era. We know that it was done in two stages. Unfortunately, we only have a vague idea of when it was first created, 1856 to 1880. Therefore, we think that it was created by one of two tenants, John Peel or Hanbury Barclay (we are placing our bets on Barclay!). The initial specimen trees planted were all Asian and have been dated to about 1860. These include the Deodar Cedar (Himalayas) and a couple of Oriental Thujas (northwest China).

The second phase of specimen trees were planted during the tenancy of Egbert de Hamel (1886-1924). Egbert was a keen natural historian and travelled the world studying the natural world and collecting samples. We know that he specifically visited Canada, Japan, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Iceland. From South Africa, we know that he brought back Sparrmannia Africana. This was grown in the glasshouse at Middleton Hall and the flowers were even used in his daughter’s wedding bouquet! He also introduced many American trees to the Middleton Estate. The specimen trees that he added to the Glade were the Giant Sequoias (USA) and Monkey Puzzle (Chile). He introduced numerous Scarlet and Pin Oaks (USA) in the Glade and along the Nature Trail. Near the entrance drive, he also planted a Patagonian Oak (Chile).

Hence, thanks to the centuries of plant hunters and collectors at Middleton, in one small part of Warwickshire you now have a garden containing plants from all over the world.

It goes together like … The importance of the separateness of Middleton Hall’s buildings.

One thing that many people struggle with in regards to the layout of Middleton Hall’s structures is the separateness of the buildings. How can an important stately home be so … unimposing? I get this view. When I was at school we often had classes in a group of separate buildings we called the huts. It did not matter that the huts had double glazing and heating, the very fact that they were separate buildings seemed to denote a lesser status than the imposing grammar school, which was a single structure. However, the concept of a single structure is actually relatively recent.

The separateness of Middleton’s buildings is a testament to the age of the Hall and a legacy from its earliest times. In the 13th century, important manor houses were a collection of buildings. The main reason for this was fire safety. By having lots of separate buildings a fire break was created between the different structures.

By the 15th century, as Middleton Hall evolved, passages were constructed to link the buildings together.

It was not until the 16th century that Middleton began to evolve into a single structure. Surprisingly, this is actually when the concept of a single entity manor house began to develop. To accommodate the new fashion of a single structure, often the previous version was completely demolished and a whole new singular building was constructed in its place. However, Middleton was never fully knocked down. There are bits remaining of most periods of its construction. Things just got tweaked a little. In the 16th century, many of the passages were replaced by a first floor level gallery corridor. We know a lot about this corridor because one section of it survives intact within the north wall of the Great Hall.

It was not until the complete 18th century Georgian makeover that Middleton truly began to look like a single structure. New buildings were jointed between existing structures. However, although a couple of wings were knocked down, yet again most of the changes were cosmetic. Beneath the surface, the original features remained as well as the core separate structures that had existed from the 13th century. Even when rebuilding the South and West Wings in brick, they rebuilt these ranges clearly showing where the end of the earlier buildings had once been. However, from a modern perspective, at this point Middleton did finally look like an imposing important stately home.

We then come to the 20th century. Ironically Middleton does a full circle. John Averill, who purchased Middleton Hall in 1924, knocked down the central buildings. He and his family lived in the West Wing and Great Hall, which could no longer be separate due to the gallery corridor being part of the Great Hall walls. However, he turned the older East Wing buildings into separate cottages. These buildings essentially simply reverted back to their earlier separateness that had just been hidden.

Today, we get a little wet when it rains as we move from building to building! However, as we scurry along, it reminds us that Middleton Hall’s separateness is not something to make it seem a lesser structure, a poor cousin. It is a mark of its antiquity, its survival against all the odds and actually it is the true core of the building of Middleton Hall.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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Why is Middleton Hall logo an owl?

Willoughby Coat of Arms (Sketch by Debbie Jordan)

Whenever you visit Middleton you will see icons of owls, owls and possibly even more owls! They also normally have a crown. Your first blog crowned owlguess may be that we are owl crazy … crazy possibly but no. Second guess is that as a site of special scientific interest we must have lots of owls … but no not particularly. Third guess is that it could be a nod to our famous ornithologist Francis Willughby FRS … but that is wrong again. The correct answer is actually heraldry and we need to go all the way back to the 15th century for crowned owl to make its first appearance.

In heraldry, the male lineage carries their coat of arms to the next heir. However, if the wife was an heiress, the last of her lineage, her pedigree was carried forward on the shield of her heir. In this situation, the heir receives the combined coat of arms of both parents. For every heiress more coats of arms are added. This process is known as dividing the field by halving and then quartering. The pedigree of Middleton ownership, due to some very good marriages by the de Freville family, has been used as a textbook example of quartering.

It all begins in the 13th century with Philip de Marmion who married the heiress Joan de Kilpeck. Next came Alexander de Freville who married Philip de Marmion’s granddaughter, Joan de Cromwell, who was Philip’s heiress. She brought to the shield both the de Marmion and Kilpeck arms. Their son was Baldwin I de Freville, who brought to his shield the arms of de Freville, de Marmion and Kilpeck. He married Elizabeth de Montfort, who was the heiress of the de Montfort family. She was also, from previous generations, the heiress of the de la Planche and Haversham families. Thus, their son Baldwin II de Freville brought to his side of the shield the arms of de Freville, de Marmion, Kilpeck, de Montfort, de la Planche and Haversham. He is the only one in this lineage not to add anything extra to the coat of arms as he married Ida de Clinton who was not an heiress. Their son was Baldwin III de Freville (yes there were a lot of Baldwin’s) who carried through the same coats of arms as his father. However, unlike his father, he married the heiress Joyce de Botetourt. She was the heiress of the de Botetourt family as well as the heiress from previous generations of the Dudley (de Somery) and de la Zouche families. Their daughter and heiress was Margaret de Freville, who carried the de Freville, de Marmion, Kilpeck, de Montfort, de la Planche, Haversham, Botetourt, Dudley and de la Zouche coats of arms. When this was added to the shield of her husband, Sir Hugh Willoughby, this created a full coat of arms.

West Wing Fountain Head 1892

Margaret and Hugh’s son, Robert, was the first to receive this full coat of arms. It contains from top left to right the arms of: Willoughby; de Freville; de Marmion; Kilpeck; de Montfort; de la Planche; Haversham; Botetourt; Dudley; and de la Zouche. To it he added a motto, mantle, helm and crest. The crest was a crowned owl. This is the first known use of the crowned owl in the history of Middleton. It also was seen to represent Middleton specifically. Not only was it the culmination of the lineage of owners of Middleton Hall but also at this time Middleton Hall was the primary residence.

The design of the owl has been a little bit changeable. Sometimes the crown is on the top of the head whilst at other times it is around the neck. Sometimes the crown has a chain, sometimes it does not. We do not really know what the correct image is, only that it is an owl with a crown.

The owl became a lesser feature in the 16th century after Bridget Willoughby, the heiress of Middleton, married her cousin Percival Willoughby and the coat of arms and motto were changed. However, the crowned owl made a resurgence in the 18th century. During the Georgian renovation of Middleton, Thomas Willoughby 1st Lord Middleton returned to the traditional Nottinghamshire Willoughby coat of arms with the crowned owl. We know that the Willoughby family also had wooden carvings of the crowned owl in their Halls. Thomas even had it added as a feature on the guttering at Middleton Hall! You can still see it on the rainheads of the Great Hall and West Wing, just look up when you next visit!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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The Smithy at Middleton Hall

One of the favourite attractions at Middleton Hall is the blacksmith hard at work in our smithy in the Small Walled Garden. The smithy has also proved to be a great asset to Middleton Hall Trust during the restoration of the Hall.

 

Inside the Smithy (photographed circa 198)

We do not know precisely when our smithy was constructed. It is definitely there on a map from 1924. There is a building in the right location in 1886 and 1834. However, before 1820 there was a very different building on the same location. We do not know whether that building, which is present on a map from 1762, was also a smithy. However, it cannot have been the location of the historic smithy serving the Willoughby family at Middleton because it was constructed on top of a section of filled-in moat. The main smithy in Middleton parish was in the village. Today, it is aptly still called “The Old Smithy”. The current Old Smithy building was constructed in the 17th century. However, the fact that there was a smithy in the village does not exclude the possibility that there had been a second smithy nearer the Hall and that we simply haven’t found where it was …!

The Smithy, 1981

What is blacksmithing? A blacksmith’s workshop can also be known as a forge. The forge is the last stage of the ironworking process. In the forge, a fuel source was ignited (at Middleton the heat material was traditionally charcoal) and then intensified by bellows to a temperature at which wrought iron would become malleable. The blacksmith would then create items from the malleable metal.

 

When the volunteers first arrived at Middleton Hall in 1977, the condition of the smithy was diabolical. Although the basic structures of the forge remained, the entire outbuilding range had lost its roof and the brick walls were beginning to collapse. Part of this range was not salvageable. However, we are very relieved that the forge was.

Arthur in the Smithy

It was actually one of the first buildings to be restored in 1981. About the time its restoration was completed, a recently retired blacksmith called Arthur Bastow stopped by the Hall and asked whether his tools would be of use. He was told “Yes, but you will have to come as well as we have no one who knows how to use them”. Arthur happily agreed to become a volunteer and then started making all the ironwork the Trust needed for the restoration of the remainder of the Hall. The legacy of his work can still be seen throughout the Hall and its grounds from door studs and handles to the cooking ranges and weather vane.

 

Since Arthur, the smithy had hosted a number of blacksmiths. Our current blacksmith, Di, can often be seen at the Hall during the summer months.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

 

 

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What the owner of Middleton Hall was doing 500 years ago? – The Field of the Cloth of Gold

June 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This famous and very extravagant summit between King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England took place between the 7th and 24th June 1520. The summit gained its name because of its extravagance with so much expensive cloth of gold on show. Sir Henry Willoughby of Middleton Hall went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold as part of the English Queen Katherine of Aragon’s retinue.

The aim of this summit was to improve the fledgling good relationship between the traditional enemies of France and England. This was achieved in the traditional renaissance manner of a show of extravagance with both sides trying to outdo the other in terms of wealth and prowess. At this time, England was being courted as a lesser but strategically important ally by both of the major powers of Europe: Francis I of France; and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The summit was held at a place called Balinghem, which at that time was just in the Pale of Calais and consequently part of England. The English were based at Guînes and the French, on the French side of the border, at Ardres. Between them, on the English side, a Camp was erected where tournaments were held. One of the most stunning features of this summit were the temporary structures constructed for the event, which included a palace for King Henry VIII.

Fab5669/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

The new ostentatious temporary palace built by King Henry VIII for the summit at Guînes consisted of four blocks around a central courtyard that were each 328 feet (100m) long and encompassed an area of 1,312 feet (about 12,000 square yards or 10,000m2). The foundations were brick and the walls were timber-framed with cloth affixed to the timber to resemble either brick or stone masonry. Even the roof was made of an oiled cloth painted a lead colour to make it resemble slate. Every window was gold gilt, so that the structure appeared to shine in the sun. Inside, the walls were covered with rich cloths and tapestries. The English retinue consisted of a total of about 5,804 people and 3,223 horses. Although the palace contained a great many rooms it was still not enough to provide lodgings for all of the nobles. Therefore, many tents were erected in the adjacent field, said to be about 820, which only added to the spectacular sight. The palace did not only contain the lodgings but also the official state rooms and the working rooms necessary to run a household.

Before the entrance gate to the palace, a fountain was constructed that was gilded with gold and a colour described as bice, which was a green-blue colour. The fountain was engraved with the image of Bacchus, the God of wine. Bacchus was depicted pouring the wine, which by conduits generously poured out of the fountain to all the people. The fountain poured red, white and claret wine. On the other side of the gate was a pillar of an ancient Roman design that bore four gold Lions. The pillar was wrapped in a wreath of interwoven gold and on the summit was a statue of Cupid with his bow and arrows of love ready to strike.

King Francis I had commanded that his lodging was to be made near the town of Ardres in the territory of an old ruined castle. There, a large tent supported by two large masts was erected. The roof hung on a second mast and the ropes and tackle bore the colour blue set with stars of gold foil. The orbs of the heavens by the use of colours in the roof were curiously wrought in a manner like the sky and a crescent angled towards the town of Ardres. The crescent was covered with frets and knots and made of yew bushes and box branches and other things that would remain green for a long time. The French encampment was said to contain a further 300-400 elaborately decorated tents of velvet and gold cloth.

The area called the Camp was 900 feet in length, 320 feet in breadth and surrounded by broad and deep ditches except at the entrance. Numerous stands were created around the Camp for the ease of the viewers, including special ones for the Queens. It was noted that on the stage for Queen Katherine hung an expensive tapestry made completely of pearls called “Huges Dyke”.

Giogo/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

The first meeting of the two Kings took place on the 7th June. On this day the Kings with their entire retinues of Marqueses, Dukes, Earls, Lords, Knights, Squires, Gentlemen, Bishops and their footmen lined up in their finest clothing and after firing a cannon towards the other settlement, both sides began to march (or ride on their horses) towards each other. When they came face to face the Kings dismounted and went into a large cloth of gold tent where the formal addresses explaining the reason for the summit were spoken. Afterwards came the first banquet.

Apart from the banquet at the first meeting, the other main banquets were held on the 16th June and at the end of the summit on 23rd and 24th June. At the banquets on the 16th and the 24th, the Kings switched places. King Francis going to Guînes and was entertained by Queen Katherine whilst, at the same time, King Henry went to Ardres and was entertained by Queen Claude. On both of those occasions Henry and his accompanying noblemen went in masked clothing, whereas Francis only went in masked apparel to the last banquet. There was much dancing and music. It is even said that a firework display, with a firework in the shape of a dragon, took place at Guînes.

The 9th June was another formal ceremonial day where the shields of the Kings and their challengers for the upcoming sporting events were placed on a symbolic tree that had been constructed on a hill next to the Camp. Those that were to answer the challenge then brought their shields to the tree. This tree was a mix of Hawthorn (symbolising King Henry) and Raspberry (symbolising King Francis). It was artificially wrought but with such skill as to resemble nature as much as possible. The leaves were made of green damask and the trunk, branches, boughs and withered leaves were made of cloth of gold affixed to timber. The trees were 33 feet tall, 43 feet wide and covered an area of about 129 feet. On the trees were flowers and fruits that were wrought in silver and Venice gold.

From the 11th June to 19th June the jousting took place in the Camp. The Kings and their challengers faced in turn the band of the answerer to the challenge. All participants, including their horses, wore extensive expensive armour as well as rich clothing. Throughout the jousting events, King Francis came in different attire each day, which through embroidered images and words created part of a sentence on each appearance.

The 20th and the 21st June was the Tournament competition. On horseback with swords the Kings and their challengers fought against the answerers. Injuries were unsurprisingly commonplace and there were required to be a number of substitutions of those taking part for the second day. This time it was King Henry who wore the symbolic attire. On one day branches of Eglantine (Rosa rubiginosa) were embroidered onto the cloth. This was to symbolise pleasantness and sweetness when handled gently, but when handled harshly it would prick and hurt. A symbolism that went beyond just the imminent use of swords!

Friday 22nd June was dedicated to wrestling, archery and battles on foot at the barrier with spears, swords (both single and double handled) and darts. The Lord of Fleuranges wrote that King Henry was a wonderfully good, strong archer that made it a pleasure to watch. It had been carefully arranged so that the Kings would not compete against each other during the summit. However, King Henry suddenly challenged King Francis to a wrestling match, which rather soured the mood when Henry quickly lost.

The summit concluded on the 24th June with the exchange of gifts between King Henry and King Francis. It was hoped that the scale and sight of this summit would prove to be a good omen for the future relationship. Ultimately, it had little political impact. From the French perspective, it was a very expensive failure. In the end an alliance between England and the Holy Roman Empire was agreed instead. The fledgling good relationship between England and France worsened when the Holy Roman Empire went to war with France the following year (Four Years’ War, 1521-1526). England and France found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefields. Ironically, the first town that England captured in that war was Ardres!

The event is commemorated by an annual celebration at Guînes and a commemorative plaque to mark the site.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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Jail the Lawyer! – Philip de Marmion and the right to hunt

One of the favourite stories told at Middleton Hall concerns Philip de Marmion. He owned Middleton Hall from 1241 to 1291. This story focuses on something known as the right of free warren. Before you ask, no this is nothing to do with the right of rabbits to run free. It is the right to hunt. The story ends with Philip’s lawyer doing hard time …

In fact our story must actually begin over a century before Philip was born with a Lord called Henry de Newburgh (family name Beaumont) who was the 1st Earl of Warwick. He only owned the Middleton estate for about a year, from 1118 until he died in 1119. In 1088, Henry had quelled a rebellion in the Midlands on behalf of King William Rufus and received many lands including Kingsbury, Arden, Rutland and, most importantly to our tale, Sutton Chase. He was also given the full right of free warren for Sutton Chase. Although Middleton is not part of Sutton Coldfield, its woods (and it was a much wooded area at the time) were part of the Chase.

Moving forward a few decades we come to Robert II de Marmion, 1st Baron Marmion of Tamworth. He owned Middleton from 1130 to 1143. In 1130 he was granted a charter by King Henry I that confirmed on Robert the right of free warren in all his lands in Warwickshire, particularly in Tamworth, just as his father had enjoyed. At that time, Tamworth was half in Warwickshire and half in Staffordshire but Middleton was, as it has always been, in Warwickshire. This apparently gave the de Marmions the right to hunt at Middleton. That is certainly what Philip de Marmion believed.

One hundred years later these two conflicting charters were to cause a massive and long running feud between Philip de Marmion and Ela, Countess of Warwick. The first known court proceeding was in 1247 and by 1249 King Henry III had been asked to make a decision concerning the conflicting charters. However, the court cases continued for at least another 40 years.

Ela accused Philip of trespassing, of having no right at all to be within the forest of Sutton Chase even if that did include land on the Middleton Estate. Philip countered by saying that the de Marmions had by the charter of 1130 always had the right to hunt in the forest at Middleton. The judgment sort of went against both of them. Philip did have some rights within the forest at Middleton but he did not have the right of free warren. That belonged to Ela.

It appears that Philip did not abide by the judgement and so Ela regularly brought Philip to court. In fact, Philip went a stage further and constructed a saltatorium, or deer avenues, within Middleton Park.

The avenues were constructed in an area to the north of Middleton Pool. There was a central clump of trees enclosed by an embanked circle about 90 metres across from which radiated six avenues. The avenues were about 18 metres wide and extended to the outer boundary. One avenue contained a leap 10 metres wide with a trench that was three metres wide. The original forest trees between the avenues were also replaced with willow and hazel. It is said that in one avenue Philip constructed a shed to provide shelter for the deer.

However, in no shape or form was the saltatorium anything but for hunting. Men, and women, would position themselves along the avenues with bows and shoot at the deer as they were chased towards the central clump. The trenches created an obstacle course for the deer.

So much is known about this because the earthworks from the obstacles were still present in the 20th century. In fact the deer avenues, although it is believed that they were straightened and landscaped in the 18th century, are still visible in aerial photographs.

The fact that they remained so visible confirms that Philip did not demolish the deer avenues as he had been instructed to do when Ela had taken him yet again to court. He was therefore brought to court on a further occasion. However, on this occasion it is known that Philip did not attend in person. Instead, he sent his legal representative on his behalf. As was common for the time, the punishment was carried out on whoever attended and therefore Philip’s lawyer was imprisoned on his behalf!

In some respects the lawyer was lucky to just be imprisoned. The common penalty at that time for hunting deer illegally was castration …!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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The Industry of Table Decorations: The Middleton Water Lilies

One of the more unusual industries to take place at Middleton Hall was the commercial production of water lilies. These water lilies were sold to hotels, such as The Ritz, who used them as table decorations. This trade continued for decades, at least, but ended after World War II.

Collecting lilies on Middleton Pool

In Victorian times, women from the village would harvest the lilies on Middleton Pool. They harvested them in little

boats that were said to be very unstable. These boats were kept along the edge of the Walled Garden. The lilies were harvested early in the morning. They were taken to the area that is now the Small Walled Garden, which was at that time filled with small buildings. One of these buildings was a packing shed. In the packing shed, six lilies were placed in a box. The boxes were then transported to Tamworth train station and were put on the 12:30 train to London. The lilies were then sold at Covent Garden. We have also been told that the lilies were sold to hotels in Birmingham and Manchester too.

White Water Lily

Middleton was most noted for its white water lilies. In fact, when Middleton was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1973, one of the plants noted was the White Water Lily (Nymphaea alba).

In the summer of 1893, the gardener and journalist William Robinson (1838-1935) visited Middleton. In his book The Wild Garden he wrote:

“at Middleton Hall, Tamworth, I saw the finest example I remember of its beauty, not only in growth and large flowers, but in effect over a lake – in masses and sheets divided by open water – an enormous sheet of Water Lilies, and the picture, in association with a pretty old manor house, was lovely. The flowers were very large, and of two forms – one with a bronzy-green outer division of the flower, and a flush of delicate pink inside; the other, a smaller form, pure white with outer dark green divisions; so we have at least two forms of our native Water Lily, and there may be others.”

It is thought that the larger white lily that Robinson described was Nymphaea alba and the smaller one that he saw was possibly Nymphaea candida.

Egbert de Hamel was the tenant of Middleton Hall from 1886 to 1924. He would entertain his workers from Bolehall Mill in Tamworth by bringing them to Middleton Hall for their summer party. Hundreds of workers would arrive by boat. They were greeted by Egbert and his wife, Ernestine, at the landing stage where every worker was reported to have been presented with a White Water Lily and a gold pin.

Middleton Pool

In 1977, a survey of the flora and fauna of Middleton was conducted. This revealed a third variety of water lily on Middleton Pool, thought to be the yellow waterlily (Nuphar lutea).

Sadly, in recent years the number of white water lilies on Middleton Pool has reduced. When the M6 toll road was constructed, a large amount of sediment and other pollutants found its way into the Langley brook, which feeds Middleton Pool. What was once a blanket of water lilies has been, as a result, greatly diminished. Hopefully, they will eventually recover.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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Up, Up and Down – The Staircases of Middleton

When taking visitors on a tour of Middleton Hall, when we reach the fourth (and last) staircase that we go up I normally say “be glad that you weren’t here in the 19th century as the Hall had 62 staircases then”! Harry Potter has nothing in comparison to Middleton when it comes to staircases moving or changing although I will concede that ours didn’t change of their own accord. Nonetheless, the volunteers’ legs are very glad that we don’t have that many staircases anymore!

The oldest known staircase at Middleton Hall was built in 1285 and it was an external stone staircase attached to the south end of the Stone Building. It was the main entrance. This staircase is thought to have been demolished in the 16th century.

Staircases were a feature of solely stone-built structures until the 16th century. Second floors for timber buildings did not develop until the 15th century and at that time they were accessed by ladders. However, within a century, staircases soon became a common feature in most multi-storeyed buildings.

Middleton Hall can boast three different styles of staircase construction: the winder; the newel; and the cantilever.

First you have the winder staircase. These are often known now as spiral staircases. They rise in a spiral form around a central post. The steps are angled and narrower as you get closer to the central post.

By the 17th century, the newel staircase had become the most favoured design. This type of staircase has separate treads (the horizontal part that you stand on) and risers (the vertical bit that gives the height of the step). In a newel staircase all of the treads and risers were the same shape and angle. They were supported by large corner end posts, which were called newels. The newel post was affixed to the floor.

Great Hall staircase in 1993 (photograph by Beryl Ellerslie)

In Georgian times, the cantilevered staircase developed. A cantilevered staircase is only fixed to the wall that it is adjacent to. It is now often known as a floating staircase. The grand staircase at Middleton Hall is a cantilevered staircase. Its construction was severely tested when the Hall was in its ruined state. One night vandals decided to ride their motorbikes up and down it. The impact of this act of vandalism was that the staircase was then described as “swinging freely” from the wall. Thankfully

The original spindles on the Great Hall staircase were badly damaged. New ones were hand-made by volunteer, Geoff Fox.

it has been restored to its former glory along with all the 128 spindles that had to be re-made by volunteers. The spindles are in an alternating barley twist design and were a reproduction of the design visible in old photographs of the Great Hall.

 

 

 

In terms of the historical location of the staircases:

  • The Great Hall grand staircases which are of a Georgian construction that replaced an earlier Tudor staircase.
  • There was also a staircase from the Great Hall down into the building to the north of it. When that building was removed in 1925, that staircase was replaced by a concrete version and is now the main entrance to the Hall.
  • The main stair section is thought to have been constructed in about 1647. It was affixed to the west face of the John Ray Building. This had stone stairs going down to the cellars and stairs going up to access both the first floor and attic level. This section was demolished in 1925.
  • There was a second staircase to access the first floor between the Great Hall and the John Ray building. This was also demolished in 1925.
  • To the north of the old kitchen was a staircase that descended to access the cellars.
  • In what we call the Annexe (the bit between the Stone Building and the South Wing) there was another stair section that provided access to the South Wing and Stone Building, which was demolished in 1925.
  • In the area that is now Willughby’s Tea Room, there was another main stair section. This stair section was added in the 19th century and provided access to the first floor of the West Wing.
  • In what is now the Trust kitchen, adjacent to the Old Kitchen, there was a narrow staircase to provide access to the laundry (now restoration room) in the room above it. This was removed by 1925 and moved into the Old Kitchen (at that time it was a garage).
  • There is an obscured staircase in the Peel Museum which leads up to the West Wing attics.
  • In 1925, John Averill added another staircase into a projection off the West Wing to access the first floor, which is still there today.
  • John Averill also added staircases against: the internal west wall of the Jettied Building (still there); the internal west wall of the John Ray Building (not there); and the internal wall in what we call the Cottage (currently RSPB office, not there but another staircase has since been added to this area).
  • The external staircase between the John Ray Building and the Stone Building was constructed by Middleton Hall Trust.

However, this rather obviously does not come to 62! We are yet to find the location of them all. We were told that there were once 62 staircases by Mrs I. E. March who was the granddaughter of Egbert de Hamel (tenant of Middleton Hall from 1886 to 1924). She spent much of her childhood at the Hall and reported that she used to count the staircases. However, she didn’t say whether her total included all the little steps and the external buildings.

When you are next at Middleton, how many can you count? And just be glad that there are no longer 62 …! Oh and don’t ride a motorbike up a cantilevered staircase … it is not good for its structural stability!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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What if Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett? The Marriage of Sir Francis Willoughby I and Elizabeth Littleton.

What if Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice character Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett?

This may sound like a nonsense theoretical question but maybe it is closer to reality than anyone might have imagined. Jane Austen is related to the Willoughby family of Middleton Hall and we know that she used the family names as inspiration in her books. Maybe she also used the written family history as a source of inspiration for the characters too?

If that was the case, then in my opinion Sir Francis Willoughby I is very much like Mr Bingley and his wife, Elizabeth Littleton, has elements of Mrs Bennett. Even Francis’ sister Margaret could make an entrance stage right as Caroline Bingley. But what would a marriage of Mr Bingley and Mrs Bennett look like? Probably not too far off the disastrous marriage that Francis and Elizabeth experienced.

Francis Willoughby

Francis wanted to and thought he was marrying a Jane Bennett, someone of a similar sweet character to him who was happy with a quiet life in the country away from politics, high society and did not judge people for their associations. He wanted to avoid high society so much that he regularly slipped out of gatherings before the end. By this action he managed to avoid being knighted for nine years even though the Queen had intended to knight him and it was only her notification that she was going to stay at his house that he was knighted. As a person, from his letters, Francis appears to have had a mild temperament with a sweet disposition who loved to be hospitable but could also be a little too imposed upon by others who sought their own advantage.

Francis shied away from high society due to his traumatic childhood. By the age of three he was an orphan. His mother had died in 1548 and his father had died fighting on behalf of the King at Ketts Rebellion in Norfolk a year later. By the age of eight his uncle, Henry Grey, and his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (9 Days Queen) had both been executed. And at the age of thirteen Francis had become the surprising heir of the substantial Willoughby estates when his elder brother died suddenly at the age of eighteen. Francis had not been raised to be an heir and therefore his interests had focused much more on the arts, particularly music as he loved to play the lute and virginals, and entrepreneurial inventions. When he was not the heir his wardship was not valued. Then overnight he was a prize because it was customary that the ward would marry a child of the guardian.

Francis became the ward of Sir Francis Knollys and had been expected to marry one of his daughters. It had been viewed by society generally as a good match. However, in 1564, when Francis was seventeen, Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester had other ideas. At the house of one of Dudley’s kinsmen, John Littleton of Frankley, Dudley suggested to Francis that he should instead marry John’s daughter Elizabeth. Francis described her in a letter as a young gentlewoman who had received a good education, was descended from a noble house, was well-connected and lived near his country house of Middleton Hall. In other words, not someone who was always in high society and wanted to be at court. By the end of the year the teenagers were married.

Were they ever in love? Possibly. Young whirlwind kind of love very possibly. They definitely had a shared love of music.

Elizabeth Littleton

However, there were two immediate problems. First, in order to marry Elizabeth Littleton Francis had to break his wardship contract. This was very costly. Second, he got engaged without telling his sister Margaret, his only remaining close relative. As elder sister, Margaret was very protective of Francis. She also had an objection to John Littleton as someone who could not be trusted to abide by the marriage contract. Margaret had been placed as a lady-in-waiting to Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth at Hatfield House, she had then married Sir Matthew Arundell-Howard of Wardour Castle. Margaret spent most of her time at court and did judge people by their associations. Whereas Francis could be seen as naïve, Margaret certainly was not and knew how to play the political game very well. However, initially Margaret vowed to give Elizabeth the benefit of the doubt for her brother’s sake. This did not last and the constant conflict between Margaret and Elizabeth, with each one trying by any means to prove that the other was doing bad things was one of the principal continuing problems in the marriage.

Nonetheless, the first few years of the marriage went relatively smoothly. The young newlyweds enjoyed banquets and a good life but they spent the majority of their time at Frankley. This was because until Francis was 21 he could not legally inherit and run his estates. At 21, this was all to change. Francis had to manage many estates that had been left in the care of stewards. Not all of the stewards had taken good care of their estates and Wollaton Old Hall and Woodlands needed considerable repair. As Francis began to manage his estates, setting up the houses running their economies and looking after the tenants, he decided to spend much more time in the country, working and mixing with those of a similar circle. To add to this economic burden, John Littleton failed to pay the dowry. Elizabeth’s dowry was £1,500 (about £350,000 today). John paid only £110 (about £25,000 today) and Francis wrote how that he was fearful that he would have to sue him. Margaret essentially told her brother “I told you so”.

The greater problem for the marriage though was Elizabeth’s character. For she was no Jane, she was much more like Mrs Bennett. Elizabeth wanted high society, to be at court, money, fine things, parties, her friends and above all power. She certainly did not want to be a housewife in a country manor. Unusually for this era, she would not be submissive to her husband either. Elizabeth was described as a woman of wit and virtue but of a turbulent spirit with ungovernable passions who enjoyed provoking, especially Francis, by saying vexatious things.

The final players in this saga were the servants. These were not servants in our Victorian understanding of servants. They were highly educated and often cousins of the Willoughby family. The servants picked sides. Some supported Francis, some supported Elizabeth and some just supported their own self-interest. These servants spied and spread tales about what was happening in the marriage, notably for Elizabeth and Margaret but some servants also connected with other households outside of the family. This turned Francis and Elizabeth’s private issues into a public joke, humiliating Francis.

From a modern perspective, it is likely that Elizabeth was suffering with either post-natal depression or another mental health illness throughout much of the marriage. Over the course of their marriage, despite all the periods of separation, they had 12 children of which only six girls reached maturity. This meant that she was often either pregnant or recovering from being pregnant. She also writes of a time when she swore that she was pregnant and the doctors said she was not. Her temperament was volatile ranging from loving and happiness to rage and suicidal.

The pressure of not having produced a son also played on Elizabeth’s state of mind. At the age of 40 she offered to try again for a son even though it was hazardous for her health. Francis refused. She swore that the servants were against her and trying to murder her. Murder may have been a bit extreme but she probably was not too far wrong in terms of the servants working against her. She blamed Francis for the deaths of the children, saying that the life he was making her live was causing their deaths. Francis wrote that although untrue he could bear that slight if it calmed her. Eventually Elizabeth refused to stay at any of Francis’ houses. Francis wrote how it was unacceptable and she would destroy her own reputation because she was happy to stay in any man’s house except her husband’s. She also left the children in Francis’ care. She sent them away from her to him to take care of at Middleton. At one point she also threatened to do harm to anyone Francis brought in to take care of the children. Letters show the state of desperation he was in when he had to travel to manage his estates and yet had to look after the children at the same time but couldn’t hire anyone because of Elizabeth’s threats to do harm to herself, them or whoever he hired.

Francis’ breaking point came in 1578. He took the family to Coventry and made a set of rules for the household for while he had to be in London. These rules governed what not only what Elizabeth could do and who she could see but also the children and the servants. Two servants were placed in charge and multiple copies of the rules were distributed. The rules concluded that if anyone broke the rules they would be dismissed from the house. It appears that the first person to break the rules was Elizabeth, outraged that the servants had more power than her, she went into town to see her friends. When she tried to return to the house she was denied access. She fell on the kindness of the mayor and aldermen of Coventry who provided her with a house but nothing else. Elizabeth wrote to Francis to explain her state but it appears that Francis, for the first time, ignored her. This left Elizabeth destitute for more than two years. She travelled around the country relying on the kindness of others to allow her to stay with them and support her. Essentially the Elizabethan version of couch-surfing.

Francis’ friends and sister urged him to stay firm. However, Elizabeth created another twist in the tale. She managed to get the support of Robert Dudley and spymaster Francis Walsingham to raise the issue with the Queen. Given that one of the allegations that Elizabeth had said during arguments was that she would not submit to her husband because she was a loyal servant of the Queen and he may order her to behave in a way against the Queen, this must have been a petrifying development for Francis. Margaret tried to assist Francis and secured him an audience with Sir Thomas Bromley, Lord Chancellor, who she wrote she thought would give him a fair hearing. The exact details of what happened are currently unknown. What is known is that by order of the Queen, Francis and Elizabeth were ordered to separate and that Francis was required to give Elizabeth £200 a year (about £41,000 today).

Ironically, Francis and Elizabeth’s relationship actually began to improve after this and they became friends. This was partly due to the fact that the servants were caught doing the same mischief as they had in regard to Elizabeth with Francis’ son-in-law Percival. It was also probably due to the fact that, without the hormonal disruption from constantly having children, Elizabeth calmed. She remained estranged from her daughters who refused to meet with her but she often visited Francis at his houses and wrote to her son-in-laws. Elizabeth died in London in 1594.

Francis had one further problem in 1588, which built on the allegations that Elizabeth had once made. One of the servants, Payne, went to the Privy Council and Queen with allegations that Francis was in league with the Spanish Armada. Given that the Willoughby family had a number of ships fighting the Armada the allegation is believed to be very firmly spurious. Francis was definitely summoned to appear by the Lord Chancellor but the exact proceedings are unknown. It is assumed that these allegations were rightly dismissed. It is unknown what happened to Payne.

After Elizabeth died, Francis remarried. That, however, is another story as it appears that his second marriage could possibly be classified as worse than his first …

So, what would have happened if Mr Bingley had married Mrs Bennett? A disaster and certainly not a happy love story.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

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Dig, Dig, Dig … What has been found at Middleton?

One of the very frequent questions often asked at Middleton Hall is what archaeological investigations have been conducted? This has a really short answer … not many!

In total there have been five trenches dug at Middleton. These were all conducted in 1981 by Dr Mike Hodder.

  • Trench one examined the old moat in front of the Great Hall. It revealed the construction of the moat and also the foundations of the chapel and bridges that are now buried beneath the car park. The archaeologists also found bits of the ornate coving from what is now the Ballroom that had been used as infill when this part of the moat was filled in the 19th
  • Trench two was dug between the Stone Building and the edge of the moat. This provided information about the construction of the Stone Building.
  • Trench three was dug from the south wall of the Old Kitchen to the edge of the moat. This provided information about the South Wing, which turned out to be much more complicated than previously thought as there were at least three different foundation layers! As a result we know that this section was knocked down and rebuilt a few times.
  • Trench four was dug in the middle of the west lawn and found only garden soil.
  • Trench five was a long narrow trench that went from between the brick pilasters where the chapel used to be, through the courtyard and round to the toilet block. I believe this was dug because the Trust needed to lay a new pipe. This showed the extensive foundations of a warren of many different rooms, some with stone walls others with brick, which were demolished in 1925 by John Averill.

A small test pit was also dug in the base of the Jettied Building during its restoration, which detected the presence of charcoal.

Therefore, with so little archaeological investigation, we always have many unanswered questions about our complicated history. It also means that we often learn new things and have to re-write our history when new aspects come to light.

Illustration of map findings (Debbie Jordan)

Recently a 1762 map of Middleton Hall came to our attention. This provided confirmation of some things that we knew but more astonishingly there were a number of new buildings. It showed three buildings in the area of the circular car park. There was a building double the length of the Tudor Barn directly to the south of that structure. Furthermore, there was a 100+ metre-long lined brick pool stretching from the west side of the moat. It really says something about the challenge of Middleton when structures of that size are still so obscured. However, that map did answer the question of why we can’t get tent pegs into the ground to the south of the Tudor Barn!

A lot of what we know comes from anecdotal evidence, particularly the work of Egbert de Hamel who was a tenant of Middleton Hall from 1886 to 1924. Egbert did write about a large structure, by his time gone, that extended southwards from the Tudor Barn and was made of the same materials. He wrote of the loop of the moat being filled in because it was unsanitary. There was also a structure he had described as the north stable range that had once extended the length of the inner northern loop of the moat. However, we had misunderstood his descriptions. We had looked in the wrong areas and then dismissed most of his comments. Once we saw the map, what he had written finally made sense. Not sure which sentiment was stronger at this point – wow! or duh! We still have so much to learn.

Pottery discovered at Middleton Hall (Debbie Jordan)

In terms of items that have been found at Middleton, I am going to highlight three: a piece of pottery; the Middleton Torc; and the Middleton Jewel.

This piece of pottery was found by a volunteer. It is imprinted with the words Uppingham. Therefore, we know that it came to Middleton during the tenancy of Reverend Robert John Hodgkinson (1881-1885) who was a master of Uppingham School.

Middleton Torc, (Debbie Jordan)

The Middleton Torc was found in 1977 when field walking near the Tudor Barn. It is dated to 150 to 50BC and is the oldest artefact to have been found at Middleton Hall. The Torc consists of 12 alloy gold wires. Two wires have been twisted together to form six strands, which have then been plaited to form a single curved strand. It is believed that there were originally more strands that would have turned this piece into a substantial neck-ring. The Torc is currently on display in the British Museum, London.

Jewel discovered at Middleton Hall

The Middleton Jewel was found in 2014 near the crossroads at the entrance to the Hall by metal detectorists. It is dated to about 1450 and is the lid of a reliquary pendant. The image is of St George in Italian armour holding a lance and spearing a dragon. It is a lozenge shape, which means that it would have belonged to a woman. The Jewel was purchased by Warwickshire Museums.

So, when you are next at Middleton – keep your eyes open as you never know what you may find!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian

 

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The European Tour of Francis Willughby, John Ray, Philip Skippon & Nathaniel Bacon: Bruges

Over the last few months a group of our volunteers have been working on a new exhibition focusing on the European travels of Francis Willughby (owner of Middleton Hall), John Ray (lived at Middleton Hall), Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon that took place between 1663 and 1665. The Tour was so extensive that it couldn’t be covered in one exhibition and so they have broken the journey up into parts and written an accompanying book (which will be on sale once we re-open!). Perhaps this blog post written by Middleton Hall volunteer and historian, Debbie Jordan will inspire you to make a wish list of places to visit once normal travel can be resumed.

“When I was asked what place was the highlight in the section of their journey covered by the first book (Dover to Ghent) there was only one answer: Bruges. The travellers stayed in Bruges from 24th to 27th April 1663.

Lock gates

The travellers arrived at Bruges via canal boat from Ostend. This journey was one of their highlights, not from a scenic point of view but from a scientific engineering perspective. This canal had only been finished in 1623 and when travelling along it they journeyed through locks. Today, locks are locks but to them this technology was novel. In England we still used the ancient technology of flash locks but on the continent they used pound locks enhanced by the design of the mitred gate by Leonardo da Vinci. At the time of their visit Ray wrote that pound locks had only been erected twice in England: on the river Trent (but since destroyed); and on the River Wey (the Wey Navigation, still present today) in Surrey. The travellers took the time to record in detail the entire mechanism of how the gates worked.

Gentpoort (photograph by Richard Jordan)

When they visited Bruges, there were nine gates. Only four have survived: Smedenspoort (1368); Ezelpoort (1368); Kruispoort (1402); and Gentpoort (1402).  There were also extensive earthwork defences but over the centuries these were left to slowly decay and all that remains is the earthen bank. On the earthworks the travellers were many windmills. Today, there are four windmills on the ramparts. However only one is a native to Bruges, St Janshuismolen, and that was only built in 1770. The current windmills are also all grain mills but in the two mills the travellers investigated sheepskin was being used to make parchment in one and in the other calfskin was used to make vellum.

Water buckets sketch from John Ray’s Travel Book

Another engineering aspect that caught their eye were the waterworks. In Bruges at this time every house was connected by pipes to a machine which brought up water to a cistern from the canals in buckets hung over a waterwheel on a chain. They were also completely and utterly fascinated by fountains. Fountains didn’t make it to England until quite a few decades after their visit. Imagine their surprise when they go into a yard and see statue of Neptune to then be suddenly surprised when water shoots up through the pavement any sprinkles them all with water! The water was even made to form shapes as it came out through pieces of brass. Skippon tried to draw one, which in my opinion looks just like a modern-day shower head.

They met with a Mr John Taeks, who was a giant of a man. Skippon was able to stand with his hat (about 6ft) on beneath Taeks’ armpit. They took the time to measure each of his limbs and compare it to their own.

They also visited two of the guilds in Bruges: St George’s guild for the crossbow; and St Sebastian’s guild for the longbow. Both of these guilds have survived and St Sebastian’s is still in the same building as when they visited. In St Sebastian’s Guild they saw the great hall, which had actually been paid for by King Charles II of England. Within the hall were many portraits including one of Henry, Duke of Gloucester and another of King Charles II. In the garden the travellers saw a wooden parrot on top of a very tall pole. They were told that whoever shot down the parrot was the next master of the guild. That is the game of popinjay. The symbol of St Sebastian’s guild remains the parrot. Originally the members used to shoot the sails of the windmills on the ramparts behind the guild. The first pole was erected, with a wooden parrot, in 1641.

The travellers described Bruges Town Hall as well adorned with statues on the outside, having a stately high tower and cloisters around the outside in which merchants walked. Bruges Town Hall was constructed between 1376 and 1420 and originally had many statues that were painted and gilded. In the 18th century, the occupying French Revolutionary soldiers destroyed them all.

They also visited what they called a “pawnbroker’s house”, which had “Mons Pietatis” written above the gate. Here they learned that things that were pawned would be kept but forfeited if they were not claimed within a year and six weeks. If the item was sold, the profit was then given to the owner. This system had been introduced to Flanders by Archduchess Isabella. This house is now the Gruuthuse Museum. Last year, one of our volunteers went to Bruges and we asked them to see if they could find the Mons Pietatis sign. They went into the museum and asked on the desk … no idea but the gentleman contacted the historian … no idea. Out of luck the volunteer thought they would have a look around the museum anyway, maybe there would be something else of interest. Just inside the door of the first room he entered there was the original stone that once hung above the gate with the engraving “Mons Pietatis”!

St Walburga’s Church (photograph by Richard Jordan)

The travellers also visited many religious houses in Bruges. They saw the bishop of Bruges, Robert de Haynin, and commented that the scarlet of his robes looked like those of English judges! They noted that there were two English convents in the city, one Augustinian (founded in 1629 and still survives) and one St Clare. They visited the Cathedral Church of St Donation and made a note of many of the tombs. St Donations was destroyed by the French Revolutionary Army in 1799, but its foundations can be seen in the cellars of the Crowne Plaza Brugge Hotel. They visited St Salvator’s Church, which is now a Cathedral, and saw a very enthusiastic and animated Capuchin monk give a sermon. They visited St Bartholomew’s Abbey (also known as Eekhout Abbey), which was also destroyed by the French and is now the site of the Groeningemuseum. The monks there were printing and selling paper copies of Imago Flandriae, a prophecy by abbot Lubert Hautscilt. They visited the Dominican’s Church on the Predikherenrei, also demolished by the French and now an apartment building. Here they saw a burial and made quite a detailed account of it too! They visited the abbey of St Bernard (Ten Duinen Abbey) which had been built in 1643. It is now the Great Seminary of Bruges. They visited the Jesuit Church, which is now known as St Walburga’s. The travellers were fascinated by the flooring which had been laid in a designed that created the shape of crosses in the floor. Can you see it?

One of their highlights was the Jerusalem Church. This private church remains exactly as it was when the travellers visited it. The church is an exact replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and was built in the 15th century for the Adornes family. To make sure that it was an exact replica the travellers took the time to measure everything and the distance between everything to make sure that it was the same, which it did.

On 26th April they visited the Church of Our Lady. Here they saw a marble sculpture of Madonna and Child, which they said was worth its weight in gold. They are probably correct, it is by Michelangelo. They also noted the tombs of Charles, Duke of Burgundy and his daughter Mary and what they described as a very nice picture of The Passion above the high altar. The painting was by Barend van Orley and Marcus Gerards. The travellers also saw a very large statue of St Christopher in the church, we are not too sure what happened to this statue, if anyone finds where it has gone please let us know!

Painting of the Passion in the Church of Our Lady (photograph by Richard Jordan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian