Sunday, 31 March 2013

Foxbridge Castle: a History

Like many similarly-named houses in Britain, Foxbridge Castle isn’t really a castle: it’s a large Elizabethan mansion that was remodeled, much later, to look like a castle. There was a castle at Foxbridge, though, so the estate has retained the designation.

Situated on a bent ford of the Fox River in Gloucestershire, the original Saxon castle stood on a high spur of rock overlooking the river, built to guard the bridge of an ancient Roman road between Gloucester and Cirencester, which had occasional military importance but was mostly a trade route.

The Sieurs de Saint-Clair, who had come over with the Conqueror and racketed around the island for the next couple of centuries as a clan of warriors-for-hire, came into possession of Foxbridge in 1275, upon returning from the 9th Crusade with Edward Longshanks (though the crusade was a dismal failure, Prince Edward became King Edward I on the way home, and largesse fell like rain on his companions in battle). The previous occupants, an old established line of Norman barons who’d  found themselves on the wrong side of King Henry III after the Battle of Evesham and forfeited the estate along with their heads, had over the years enlarged the old motte-and-bailey into a quite imposing stone fortress, with a tall square keep and a long curtain-wall studded with massive towers.

The Saint-Clairs defended the road and the bridge in the coming years, but thrived on farming and crossing-tolls rather than conquests, and gradually became so rich and complacent that the old warrior strain began to peter out. They survived the Wars of the Roses by keeping their heads down and playing both sides against the middle, and breathed a collective sigh of relief when Henry Tudor came on the scene and settled the dust.

By the fifteenth century, the Soldier Saint-Clairs had evolved into the Sycophant Saint-Clairs, and were busily enlarging their fortunes at Court under the Tudors with skilled flattery and timely loans of money that were usually repaid with land, profiting particularly from the confiscation of monastic estates when Henry VIII broke with the Church.

Seeing no further point in occupying a fortress in such halcyon times, the head of the family, one Lord William Saint-Clair (or Sir William, it was never made clear if the old Norman title of Sieur had evolved into a barony or a baronetcy), decided to build a proper mansion on the long meadow that lay beneath the castle, between the old road and the foothills.

He didn’t get much farther into the project than leveling a knoll, casting thousands of bricks from the iron-rich russet mud of the Fox River, and quarrying a great deal of pinkish-buff stone from the hills: Henry VIII died, and the hapless young Edward VI went soon after him; next thing anyone knew, Bloody Mary was on the throne and persecuting Protestants with alarming zeal.

Though William Saint-Clair had no interest whatever in matters divine or ecclesiastic, and could care less if the church services he dozed through were Catholic or Protestant, the fact remained that a great portion of his wealth derived from abbeys and monasteries given him by the late King; he didn’t want to lose either the estates or his head, so he simply retreated back into his castle and hid out for the next few years, like a tortoise withdrawing into its shell.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, William didn’t have the nerve to sidle into her favor after being so signally useless under her sister’s rule; but soon enough he died in his obscurity, and his very attractive grandson, Lord Francis, went to Court; there he caught the eye of the Queen and made himself agreeable to her in varied and numerous ways. When she properly elevated him to the peerage as Baron Saint-Clair of Foxbridge, he celebrated by resuming construction of the house on the meadow.

Like most great houses built during the reign of Good Queen Bess, whose thirst for sycophancy was never quite slaked, it was laid out in the shape of an E in her honor, facing west to the New World.  The great house was a marvel of Renaissance symmetry, the walls made from the red-brown bricks from the river, the foundations, quoins, and bays built of the pinkish-buff stone from the hills; its windows were high and wide, set in stone mullions with iron grids; its chimneys were decorated with carved chimney-pots, and the corners and peaks of its gables were surmounted by elaborate stone finials designed to combine the Tudor rose with the Saint-Clair lily.

The house was inaugurated by a visit from the Queen during her annual Progress in 1580; it was said that the young Lord Saint-Clair spent more money on pageants, costumes, feasts, fireworks, hunts, bear-baitings, and gifts than he’d spent building the house; but he could certainly afford it, as the gradual quiet sales of extraneous manors and lands granted under Henry VII and VIII were filling his coffers with more gold than he knew what to do with.

Queen Elizabeth outlived the first Baron by a few years, and the second Baron was rather unfortunate-looking, knock-kneed and chinless, so he didn’t get on well at Court; he didn’t even bother to suck up to King James when that well-known keeper of handsome favourites came to the throne, and instead sat out his reign and the one after it at Foxbridge; he spent his time getting richer by funding privateers in the colonies and then spending the new wealth on the house, filling it with paintings and sculptures and books.

The third Baron, however, was a throwback to the old warrior strain, and the Civil War provided him an excellent outlet; though the Roundheads never got within spitting distance of Foxbridge, he refortified the castle and moved all the house’s treasures there for safekeeping, then went off with as many men as he could muster and as many weapons as his smiths could produce to fight for the Royalist cause. Even when the Commonwealth was established and the fighting more-or-less stopped, he harassed the Parliamentary forces every chance he got, and participated in every Royalist conspiracy he could find… it was a decade of bloodshed and strife, and the third Baron gloried in every minute of it.

So conspicuous was his valour that Charles II, on regaining his throne, rewarded the baron by creating him Earl of Vere and Viscount Foxbridge; the earldom came with an eponymous estate in southern Sussex  that including some forty thousand acres, two good-sized towns, and numerous villages. Though the new Earl was delighted with the income this estate derived, he never went there; instead he took a house in London and spent his time carousing with the new King and his rakehell cronies. Three years of fast living accomplished what twelve years of Cromwell had not: the Earl was a gouty, syphilitic wreck in very short order, and dropped dead at a banquet from a surfeit of wine.

The second Earl was a much more sober man, and though he was popular at Court, he preferred building to whoring. He went to his Sussex estate and erected a massive new house called Verevale Court in the august Carolean manner, a vast square of gleaming limestone with classical pediments and marble columns, topped by a lofty dome and surrounded by acres of formal Italian gardens. The third Earl continued the building habit, erecting a Palladian mansion in Whitehall Palace Garden in London, as well as various model farms and villages around Vere.

For the next hundred and fifty years, the Earls of Vere essentially ignored Foxbridge Castle: though the buildings and farms were well-maintained, the gardens went wild and the old fortress fell to pieces; the manor-house became a sort of barracks for inconvenient relatives, its many rooms populated by mad uncles, spinster aunts, and bastard children. The heirs-presumptive were given Foxbridge to manage, a dress-rehearsal for the earldom; but they never lived at the great house, preferring the more manageable (and quiet) Foxbridge Lodge, an elegant little mansion beside the gatehouse and the old bridge, which had formerly served as a fishing-lodge and banqueting hall and then been enlarged as a dower-house.

This benign neglect was a saving grace by the end of the eighteenth century: so few Elizabethan mansions survived the Georgian period intact; the more fortunate were stripped of their ornamentation to be dressed up in pediments and balustrades, or were appended with ill-considered neoclassical wings, but many were simply torn down or made to serve as a foundation for a fashionable new mansion.

So, at the tail-end of the Regency when the Gothic movement took hold, and many landowners had to settle for building brand-new castles or Gothicizing their neoclassical houses, the seventh Earl of Vere already had an ancient manor (complete with picturesquely ruined castle and eccentric inhabitants) ready to hand. The seventh Earl returned to Foxbridge and restored the tower keep of the old castle for his own residence (he liked the manor and its people, but found it a bit crowded); there he wrote dreadful Byronic poetry, smoked opium, and indulged in romps with milkmaids and farm-lads that scandalized the neighbours.

His successor was not quite so silly, but the eighth Earl was nevertheless a man of whims, and was very young when he acceded: he decided that, if Foxbridge was going to call itself a castle, it ought to look like a castle; and so, after nearly four hundred years, the great house finally succumbed to Fashion.

The eighth Earl had all the loose stone from the old fortress carted down the hill and used it to turn the mansion into a Victorian fairy-tale of a castle: he ran crenelated battlements along every wall, constructed tall turrets at ever corner, and replaced the square panes in the windows with beveled diamond panes and stained-glass heraldic lozenges; as his pièce de résistance, he erected a nearly-exact duplicate of the Norman keep at the north-east corner of the house (with a number of interior alterations for bathrooms and wardrobes that the old keep lacked), making it look as if the house had grown out of the tower rather than the other way around.

When the Earl decided to marry, his bride-to-be (the daughter of a Scottish duke and quite extravagantly whimsical herself) wanted to be married at Foxbridge Castle; however, the old chapel in the house was not quite large enough for the lady's dream-wedding, so the Earl turned it into a billiards room and built an enormous Gothic church--more of a young cathedral than a private chapel-- at the end of the south wing, balancing out the Norman tower. The gardens were then overhauled, the wildness of neglect made even more wild with studied romanticism, appearing as if it had all happened on its own (though thousands of pounds were spent to make it so).

The best treasures were brought back from Verevale Court, every stick of furniture that was less than two hundred years old was packed into the attics and replaced with Renaissance reproductions.  The eighth Earl and his new Countess enjoyed their wedding so much that they kept on having huge house-parties, one after another, with royalty invited and entertainments more lavish than had been given for Elizabeth back in the old days.

All this while, of course, the Industrial Revolution was raging along, and land was no longer as profitable as it had once been. Though previous Earls had enriched the estate with investments in the various colonies of the Empire, the eighth Earl spent most of it on the Castle and high living; when he died, his heir the ninth Earl discovered the estate deeply in debt—and since the entail had just been renewed, there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Verevale Court was let on a hundred-year lease to a rich but landless new peer, and three sweet little seaside fishing villages were ruthlessly expanded into resort towns to increase their income; but the ninth Earl’s countess was as extravagant as her predecessor, and loved to entertain at Foxbridge and at Vere House in London; she went twice a year to Paris for her gowns and Monte Carlo for the gambling, and sponsored a number of bad artists and worse poets.  Despite strenuously milking every pound they could from the land, there never seemed to be enough money to keep everything going in proper style. The Saint-Clairs were still rich, but they weren’t as incalculably rich as they were used to being.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Foxbridge Castle ate up more money than the Foxbridge estate generated, and there was more debt than there was cash; so when the tenth Earl came into the title, he did what most of the aristocrats of the day were doing: he married an American heiress. He had his choice, as he was quite pretty in a way that girls find endearing, and possessed one of the oldest names in the land; the one to win the coronet was a Miss Charlotte Savarell of Cincinnati, who was as beautiful and charming as she was wealthy.  She was the only child of a patent-medicines millionaire who’d made his fortune selling foul-tasting but highly alcoholic herbal syrups as cures for everything from indigestion to consumption, succeeding to such an extent that he was able to elbow himself and his ex-chorus-girl second wife into English society, buying himself a knighthood and a house in Carlton House Terrace without making much of a dent in his fortune.

Though the new Countess brought a fabulous income with her, Matthew Savarell did not trust his Dresden-doll son-in-law with too much capital: he settled a fairly massive sum as a dowry, which was immediately put to use redeeming debts and updating the Castle's plumbing and lights, but the rest of the Savarell fortune was put in trust for the heirs of her body (as the lawyers so delicately put it); the interest was to be paid to her husband until her death or the dissolution of the marriage, but was otherwise tied up as tightly as the Vere entail, which would not lapse again until after the next Earl acceded.

Not long after marrying, the Countess presented the Earl with the necessary heir, but did not manage to produce any spares after that; then the Great War came along and brought their idyllic way of life to a crashing halt. Foxbridge was abandoned in favor of London, where the Earl and Countess threw themselves into wartime work, he at the Foreign Office and she at the hospitals.

The Countess died at the end of the war, in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed more people than the late war had; the Earl, grief-stricken, never returned to Foxbridge, leaving it entirely in the care of his unmarried sister, Lady Emily Saint-Clair. He went on to lease out his London house to a fledgling Balkan nation, and took up a bachelor’s existence with rooms in Westminster and an almost religious devotion to his career in Parliament.

Foxbridge Castle sat forlorn again for nearly a decade, ignored by its owner and housing only a single spinster lady, a little boy, and a handful of servants. But that little boy was me; and at the end of the summer of 1927, I decided to bring the place back to life with a fantastic prolonged house-party.

Sebastian Savarell Saint-Clair, Viscount Foxbridge
in his 'Memoirs of the 20s and 30s'

My first attempt at the house was extremely formal, an E-shape around a courtyard, largely inspired by Hatfield House.

Ground floor layout, without any subdivisions

The entrance front

The garden front

Hatfield House, which you'll recognize from a number of films.

The Sims 3 version of this style.

But after further researches, studying Elizabethan architecture (particularly in Gloucestershire), I came to feel that this plan was too formal, too grandiose, and  much too big.  It just didn't seem the kind of place my Lord Foxbridge would have grown up in.  And so I semi-scrapped it and came up with the following, which was inspired by Stanway House, which is in the right part of the country:

Interior of the Great Hall at Stanway House, showing the double-height extra-deep bay window.

The entrance front overlooking the churchyard.
A rough floor plan of the second version of Foxbridge.
A rather half-assed render of the west front, showing the mass and shape; the vase-shaped things are meant to represent a six-foot-tall person, to give it some scale.

The east front, with explanations as above.
The Sims 3 version; there are a number of constraints in the game that squished the house a bit.
The west front, with gatehouse and service wings shown.
The east front.

This version is what I had, or was in the middle of, when I started writing the essay above.  It definitely struck the mark for what I was aiming at, looks-wise.  However, I wasn't entirely satisfied: the floor plan wasn't really Elizabethan, nor even Victorian... it's too simplistic and not structurally sound with the twenty-foot-deep bays.  But it gave me the idea of the E and F shapes back-to-back, as well as tacking a Norman tower at one end, which should look something like this:

So with the history of the house more firmly fleshed-out, I approached it again from the proper direction: a formal Elizabethan house remodeled into a Victorian castle.  My chief inspiration for this incarnation was Castle Ashby, with its garden front on one side:

So a formal Elizabethan plan with Victorian additions, in two distinct stages, came out.  Of particular note is the suite of south-facing double-height state rooms, which don't show on these plans but do in the Sims 3 version, and the complete absence of north-facing windows.



So, for my next trick, I need to draw up some proper floor plans (with all the little passages and closets of a real English country house, rather than the massively simple ones above) and external views.  I'm going to do them by hand, too, so they won't look quite so lame.  Oh, and of course get back to work on the stories.

Let me know what you think!