Foxbridge Castle: A History

Like many similarly-named houses in Britain, Foxbridge Castle isn't really a castle: it's a stately Elizabethan country-house of red brick and buff-pink stone, with some Victorian Gothic-revival additions tacked on.  However, there was a castle at Foxbridge, and so the estate and the house have retained the designation.

Situated on a bent ford of the Fox River (named in typically prosaic Saxon fashion for the fox-coloured mud of its bed) in Gloucestershire, the original 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.

My ancestors, who had of course come over with the Conqueror, 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 Saxon motte-and-bailey into a quite imposing stone fortress, with a tall square keep and a long curtain-wall studded with thick round 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.  By the time of the Wars of the Roses, the Soldier Saint-Clairs had evolved into the Courtier Saint-Clairs: though they provided the required military support to whichever faction happened to be closest at the time, the family enlarged its fortunes more by playing both sides against the middle and then selling them iron from our mines and food from our farms.

When Henry Tudor came on the scene and settled the dust, the now incredibly rich Saint-Clairs parlayed their cash-wealth into timely loans of money to both Henries, which were invariably repaid with land; Lord Robert Saint-Clair (or Sir Robert, it was never made clear if the old Norman title of Sieur had evolved into a barony or a baronetcy) profited quite spectacularly when Henry VIII broke with the Church, raking up abbeys and priories like so many fallen leaves.

Seeing no further point in occupying a fortress in such halcyon times, old Robert's son William decided to build a proper mansion on the long meadow that lay beneath the castle, straddling the Roman road between the foothills and the forest.  He had various architects draw up rather elaborate plans, but was delayed from beginning construction as he worried about building too grand of a house: he remembered the King snatching the exquisitely grand Hampton Court Palace out of Cardinal Wolsey's hands, and did not want to repeat that particular mistake.

While he hemmed and hawed about the house, he occupied himself in getting the common folk further away, enclosing the park, and converting the bridge and the Roman road into his own private drive; he diverted the ancient trade-route to the southwest, shortening the road considerably and bridging the Fox over a narrow rushing gorge that the Romans would never have considered.

He even built a brand-new town to capitalize on the brand-new bridge, calling it Newbridge Saint-Clair and building a rather impressive Gothic church dedicated to Saint John Nepomucene—the patron saint of bridges, you know, though I always thought it rather cruel to make a martyr patron to the thing he was martyred on: if I had been tied to a wagon-wheel and thrown off a bridge, I think I'd develop rather a dislike for the things.

At any rate, William never did start his house, and in fact didn’t get any 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 wouldn't even notice 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 favour after being so signally useless under her sister’s rule; but soon enough he died in his obscurity, and his very attractive grandson, Francis Saint-Clair, 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 many great houses built during the reign of Good Queen Bess, whose thirst for flattery age could not wither nor custom stale, it was laid out in the shape of an E in her honor; it was hailed a marvel of Renaissance symmetry, the walls made from the red-brown bricks from the river, the foundations, bays, and ornaments built of the rosy-buff stone from the hills; its windows were high and wide, set in stone mullions with iron grids; its chimneys were decorated with patterned brick and carved pots, the numerous turrets and the peaks of its many gables were surmounted by elaborate stone finials designed to show the Tudor rose entwined 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 the Henries were filling his coffers with more gold than he knew what to do with.

Queen Elizabeth died only a year after the first Baron; the second Baron was rather unfortunate-looking, knock-kneed and chinless, so he didn’t even bother to suck up to King James when that well-known keeper of handsome favourites came to the throne; instead, he sat out both James's and Charles's reigns at Foxbridge, spending his time getting richer by funding privateers and shipping 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 coastal Sussex that included some fifty 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 gallivanting with the King and his rakehell cronies. Three years of riotous 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 carousing. He went to his Sussex estate and erected a massive new house at 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. His son the third Earl continued the building habit, putting up a Palladian showplace in Whitehall Palace Garden in London, as well as various villages and follies around Verevale.

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 great 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's estates; 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 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.

Then came the eighth Earl, who, though not quite as silly as his great-uncle, was nevertheless a man of very strong whims: 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 fantasy of a proper castle: he replaced the Italianate balustrades along the roof-walks with crenelated parapets, knocked the delicate stone pinnacles off the turrets to make room for battlements and gargoyles, and replaced the square panes in the windows with beveled diamond panes and stained-glass heraldic lozenges; he tacked on towers here and there, surrounded the Italian garden with arched cloisters, built false turrets around the chimneys, and shoved an immense clock-tower into the center of the main block so that one could consult the hour from two miles away.

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 gas that the old keep lacked), making it look as though the house had grown out of the tower rather than the other way around.  Though architecturally questionable and loaded with anachronisms, the house had a certain bric-a-brac charm that was very pleasing to the eye.

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 small cathedral than a private chapel—at the end of the south wing, using the new cloisters to anchor it to the house.

Balance required something be added at the north end, so a new gatehouse was constructed, as well as service wings around the base of the keep.  The entire park was 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, and 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 highborn and 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 generously sponsored a number of bad artists and worse poets.  Despite strenuously milking every pound they could from the estate, 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 my father, 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 Mummy brought a fabulous income with her, Grandpa Savarell did not trust his Dresden-doll son-in-law with too much capital: he settled a really substantial 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 income 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 the twelfth Earl might accede.

But Mummy and Pater were very happy, and very much in love with each-other, so the disposition of the money wasn't really a problem.  I came along in due course, but something happened to Mummy's insides during my birth that precluded the possibility of brothers or sisters to act as spares.  As a result, I was treated rather delicately, like a fragile figurine that had to be wrapped in cotton wadding for fear of breakage; and I was a little lonely, with no other children to play with, though Mummy made a point of inviting friends with children my age so I wouldn't be completely isolated.

Then the Great War came along and brought our idyllic way of life to a crashing halt. I was still in the schoolroom, and so was left behind with my father's unmarried sister, Lady Emily Saint-Clair, when they abandoned Foxbridge in favor of London; Pater joined the Foreign Office, and Mummy visited hospitals every day, raised funds to aid injured soldiers, and coordinated the billeting of refugees from our embattled allies—even taking in several of them at Vere House, rather to Pater's dismay.

When the Armistice came, everyone expected that life would resume right where it had left off in '14; I was overjoyed that Mummy and Pater were coming home and there would be parties and visitors again, that the silent Castle would come back to life.  But then the Spanish Influenza swept down on England, carrying off my mother before she even had time to take the victory buntings off the balconies of Vere House.

I was in my first term at Eton when it happened, and though I was allowed to come to London for the funeral, I was sent right back afterward; plunged into a new universe crowded with people, with social codes and ancient traditions and complicated lessons to learn, I was too busy to grieve.  Pater, however, had nothing to do but grieve, and he did it in one great burst of Romanticism: he closed down Vere House and moved into bachelor rooms in Westminster, dressed himself in lugubrious mourning complete with black neckties and fusty top-hats, refused all invitations to dine or dance, took up a permanent post in Parliament, and never returned to Foxbridge Castle after one trip to seal up Mummy's room like a shrine.  Then he abandoned all romance and became a cranky old man.

Though I went home at every vacation from school, I didn't stay there long: being a naturally gregarious creature, I had made a great many friends at Eton and Oxford (a great many of whom, honestly bids me admit, were also lovers), and I was always being invited to their homes or to join them on their Continental holidays.  Foxbridge always seemed rather gloomy compared to the bustling cheerful homes of my friends, with nobody but Aunt Emily and Nanny living in one corner while the rest of the place was shrouded in holland covers, attended by a skeleton staff of servants and offering very little in the way of entertainment beyond the occasional hunt or village fête.  I suppose I could have invited my friends to stay, but Aunt Em never suggested it, and I didn't like to ask.

And so nine years passed before I returned to Foxbridge to live.  Though Pater was still kicking and I was still only the heir, I had come of age and come into my mother's money, my American grandfather's money, and my Uncle George's money (Pater's younger brother, a bit of a savage scapegrace who'd been sent out East to prevent further embarrassment to the family, made a great fortune by what I imagine were rather indelicate means): though the estate itself was not yet mine, I could afford to bring Foxbridge back to life, the way it had been when Mummy was its chatelaine, filled with laughter and music and friends.

1 comment:

  1. that was WONDERFUL!!! looking forward to reading more...