Sunday, 19 June 2011

Chavenage House - Gloucestershire

Chavenage House

The Chapel

Cromwell's Bedroom

T’was a miserable afternoon when my good lady and I visited Chavenage House near Tetbury. Torrential rain beat down from the heavens, accompanied by a gusting wind that sang mournfully through the conifers. We dashed from the car park to the main entrance, huddled beneath a hopelessly inadequate umbrella designed to accommodate one. An ominous rain-leaden sky making the grey Cotswold Stone walls look all the more sombre, sombre enough for Chavenage to have been selected for many a creepy movie: Dracula, The Ghost of Greville Lodge, BBC’s Bonekickers, and more recently BBC's Poldark. It's fair to say that Chavenage is frequently sort after by film and television researchers looking for that certain atmospheric something, which Chavenage has in bucket loads I may add.

I couldn’t help wondering as we approached the hefty timber front door, if we were about to be met (having tentatively knocked first of course) by a rather menacing looking butler, whom I’m sure would have enquired quite curtly as to our business therein before somewhat reluctantly allowing us passage into the cavernous entrance hall where we would hear the heavy timber door close behind us sealing our doom. Even the telephone number for Chavenage House begins ominously with 01666, that in itself has a certain satanic ring to it - no pun intended.

My unbridled imagination was soon quelled however, for we were welcomed at the door by a most jovial Caroline Lowsley-Williams, daughter of the current owner since 1958 - David Lowsley-Williams. We were shown into the grand hall where a roaring log fire burned welcomingly in an impressively large fireplace. Caroline was to be our historian and guide, and a very amusing one too as it turned out. Occasionally, as we embarked on our tour of the house, I found myself listening to a Sandy Toksvig sound-alike, such was the striking similarity of Caroline’s accent and wit.

A Brief History

Earliest records of the Chavenage estate date from around 1010, when it was under the ownership of Princess Goda - sister to Edward the Confessor.

The Chavenage estate had connections with an Augustine abbey from 1067, which stood several miles away in Horsley. During Anglo-Saxon times, Chavenage came under the jurisdiction of Horsley and would have been managed by the Augustine order.

A building of sorts had been erected at Chavenage from around the late 14th century. Parts of which are still evident in the current house. The building was most likely to have consisted of a Great Hall with kitchens at the north end and a one-up and one-down at the south end of the Hall.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries (1536 - 1541) the house and estate were granted to Thomas Seymour, who was to promptly marry Katherine Parr following King Henry VIII death. A hasty marriage by all accounts and one much frowned upon by those in the King's court who's suspicions were aroused as to Seymour's alacrity to be married. Was this nothing more than a cunning ruse to curry favour at court and in so doing increase his lust for power.

Seymour was to be executed in 1549 for his part in a plot against the Crown. The property was returned to the Crown and later granted anew to Sir Walter Denys of Dyrham in 1553. In 1564 Sir Walter’s son - Richard sold Chavenage to Edward Stephens of Eastington. It was Edward Stephens, who was responsible for the construction of the current house. He demolished much of the original medieval building and added two impressive wings in the Elizabethan ‘E’ style. The house was finished in 1576 and as a mark of his achievement, he carved the date, his name and that of his wife - Joan above the main entrance. On Edward’s death in 1587, the house and estate were passed to his son Richard; who on his death in 1599 passed the house to his wife - Anne before it was inherited by his eldest son - Nathaniel. Nathaniel Stephens was a Knight of the Shire in Parliament and according to Parliamentary History of The County of Gloucester, the fatal illness that befell him soon after his acquiescence in the death of King Charles I, gave rise to the legend of Chavenage.

The Legend of Chavenage

The Stephen’s curse has been told and written about many times over the centuries, even appearing as a poem by Rev. R.W. Huntley of Boxwell, in his compiled works entitled ‘Tales of the Cotswolds‘.

Nathaniel Stephens commanded a regiment of horse during the Civil War and was highly regarded by Oliver Cromwell, to whom he was related through the female side of his family.

Cromwell was keen to see the King executed to prevent any more uprising. So during the Christmas of 1648, he despatch Henry Ireton with instructions to curry Colonel Stephens support for regicide. Stephens was a mild mannered man and was not about to support the death of the King. However, Ireton persisted and it is said that they sat up all night debating, until eventually Ireton obtained Colonel Stephens reluctant acquiescence.

A few days after Ireton had left, Colonel Stephen’s daughter - Abigail, who had been passing the New Year elsewhere, returned to Chavenage horrified to learn of her father’s abhorrent indiscretions. Shocked that her father should agree to such a heinous collaboration and ultimately bringing the Stephens name into disrepute, she cursed him and all his successors in a fit of rage.

Some time later, following the Colonels' return from London where Charles I had been beheaded in January 1649, he was taken ill and retired to his bed which he never rose from again until his death a few months later. As the Colonel neared his final hour, relatives were summoned to his bedside to pay their last respects and, as it transpired, his dramatic passage into the next world.

On the Colonel’s death his body was wrapped in a death shroud, in preparation for its final journey, when suddenly a coach, drawn by four black horses was seen to draw up silently at the entrance. At that moment the Colonel’s ghost rose from the bed, glided out of the room, down the stairs and out through the main entrance. As it did so, the astonished on-lookers gazed in utter disbelief at the unfolding tableau before them. They watched transfixed from the bedroom window as the coach’s door silently swung open allowing the Colonel passage inside. Moving as silently as it had arrived, the coach pulled away but not before the dumbfounded on-lookers had caught sight of the driver; a headless man dressed in royal vestments and wearing the star and regalia of the Order of the Garter. The assembled company watched as the coach and four reached the gate to the grounds where it spectacularly burst into flames and disappeared. It is thought that the ghostly presence aboard the coach is that of King Charles I, come to collect the body of Colonel Nathaniel Stephens who swore an oath not be involved in the King’s death - an oath which he reneged.

Some say that should you be in the area of the tree-lined lane, you may just catch a glimpse of the spectral coach heading away from the house.

The legend of Chavenage, in which these strange events are recorded, concludes: ‘The story further maintains that to this very day, every Lord of Chavenage dying in the manor house takes his departure in this ominous conveyance.’ The current owner David Lowsley-Williams has expressed, rather jovially, that his exit from the house should he end his days therein, will be a more conventional passage - I’ll drink to that sir.

The White Lady

The ghost of a young woman dressed in white, has been seen between Beverstone and Chavenage. Her story, as is often the case with hauntings, is one of loves lost tragedy.

It was 1644, when troops under the command of Colonel Massey where give orders to attack the Royalist stronghold of Beverstone Castle some two miles from Chavenage (a Parliamentarian house). After two unsuccessful attempts to seize the castle, Massey grew suspicious when their attacks appeared to have been anticipated. It was soon discovered that the young ‘chatelaine’ of Chavenage was secretly signalling to her lover - Commander Ogglethrope at Beverstone Castle, by placing a candle in a tiny window on the ground floor to show him all was clear and that no attacks where planned from Chavenage that particular night, so it would be safe for him to leave his garrison.

On discovering her part in the deception, the chatelaine was immediately seized and held captive at Chavenage. A candle was then placed in the same window to trick Ogglethrope into thinking all was well. An ambush was set and as Ogglethrope approached Chavenage under the cloak of darkness he was set upon, beaten and captured. The order was given to attack Beverstone, for now the Commander was thought to be away for the night and would be secure. As the siege ensued Ogglethrope’s battered bloodied body was dragged and hung from the castle ramparts, a grisly trophy; gesture of victory.

When the battle was done and the castle seized, the young chatelaine was told of Ogglethorpe's fate. Grief stricken by her part in her his death, she took her own life.

There have been several sightings of the 'White Lady' between Beverstone and Chavenage, as desperately tries to warn Ogglethorpe not to approach Chavenage.

Cromwell’s Bedroom

Cromwell’s bedroom, I found to be a most claustrophobic experience. With its dark 1640’s coarse-weave wall tapestries, centuries old dark, heavy wooden furniture and wooden shutters at the windows all seemed to conspire to close the room down. There are no electric lights in Cromwell’s bedroom, so anyone choosing to stay in this room (not that there have been many takers) would have had to use candles. It is understandable, given the rooms sombre ambiance how some folk could feel ill at easy here.

It is a fact that Oliver Cromwell stayed at Chavenage and slept in this room at the end of the Civil Wars prior to the death of King Charles I. Even a copy of his portrait painted by Sir Peter Lely entitled ’Warts and All’ hangs ominously on the wall beside the bed. It was quite thought provoking to touch the tapestries (brightly coloured in those days) that Cromwell would most likely have touched and to see the actual bed where he must have laid his head. Even a copy of Charles I death warrant is in the room, along with a lock of his hair, both a stark reminder of Cromwell’s intolerance to any opposition.

Just exactly what haunts this room is unknown, for no one has ever reported seeing or hearing anything, but many have sensed something unpleasant and oppressive here, even malevolent. Over the years guests choosing to sleep in Cromwell's bedroom have woken in the dead of night in a cold sweat with a distinct feeling that they were not alone.

When the house was occupied by the military during the Second World War, an army chaplain and his wife were billeted here for a time. The chaplain had occasion to leave Chavenage for a day or two on business leaving his wife in the house with David Lowsley-William’s aunt. The morning after the chaplain had departed, the aunt came down to breakfast to discover a hastily scribble note from the chaplain’s wife. In it she had written she could no longer take the ghostly atmosphere of that room and was leaving Chavenage immediately to walk the seven miles to Kemble station - she never returned.

The frequency of reports from guests caused David Lowsley-Williams grandmother to arrange for the bedroom and adjoining bedroom to be exorcised. Church of England and Roman Catholic priests jointly blessed the bedrooms. After the exorcism, the malevolent atmosphere seemed to have dispersed. However, the presence in that room has not cleared completely. During the filming of the BBC television drama The House of Eliot in the early 1990s, one of the actors playing a scene in Cromwell’s bedroom suddenly went as white as a sheet, threw back the bedclothes and said, ‘I’m sorry. I must get out and have a cup of coffee. I feel terrible and I can’t remember any of my lines.’

During another shoot (not connected) a young electrician had a terrifying experience in Cromwell’s bedroom. Generators had been setup outside immediately below the bedroom window. They were feeding an assortment of cables through the window and into the house. During a coffee break, the electrician was asked to do some modifications to the cabling in Crowmwell’s bedroom. Once there he knelt down and began work. Within minutes he felt a pressure in the centre of his back almost as if he were being ‘pushed to the floor‘. He tried to rise but as he did so, so the pressure intensified to such a degree that he became pinned to the floor unable to move for what seemed like a lifetime. Then, as suddenly as the assult began it ceased and he was released. An ashen faced young man appeared outside vowing never to return to the house - he left Chavenage shortly after.

With walls lined with dark patterned tapestries of great age, and heavy wooden furniture dark with the grime and polish of centuries, not to mention the wooden shutters that blank out much of the outside light even in the middle of the day, the appearance of Cromwell’s bedroom alone could well unsettle guests., as it still does to this day.

Princess Marie Louise

Until her death in 1956, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, who was one of Queen Victoria ’s granddaughters, was a regular visitor to Chavenage and in her memoirs ‘My Memories of Six Reigns’, she described a feeling of foreboding when passing the door to Cromwell’s haunted bedroom.

She writes: ‘To reach the staircase leading downstairs, I had to cross the landing outside Cromwell’s rooms. I am not a timid or nervous person by nature, but I am not ashamed to confess that I was honestly frightened to cross that landing – an odd feeling of something uncanny and horrid seemed to bar my way. Then I thought how I might protect myself and be rid of this terror. I made the Sign of the Cross, and after that I was no more frightened, and could run down the stairs happy and cheerful and free from that terrible feeling of oppression and evil‘.

A another encounter by the Princess but this time in another bedroom, one she always occupied when she visited Chavenage. She was sitting alone when the bedroom door slowly opened and remained so for several seconds before slowly closing again. Thinking there was someone there the Princess opened the door and stepped out onto the landing, where to her surprise she found herself alone. On a subsequent visit, she happen to mention quite casually to her hostess about the episode with her bedroom door and was surprised to learn that other visitors had had the same experience.

As they engaged in conversation about Chavenage’s ghostly history, the Princess recounted a story told to her by her maid - now deceased, who had begged her not to mention anything of the event for fear of upsetting the other guests. The maid had been sewing in an adjoining bedroom, where she had full view of the Princess who was resting before dinner. All at once she saw a woman in ’a grey old-world dress’ walk past her and into the Princess’s bedroom, where she bent over her for a moment before quietly withdrawing then fading away to nothing. The Princess was totally unaware of her visitor but her maid made particular reference to apparition's beautiful hands and the lace ruffles at her wrists. Suddenly the hostess said "Oh that must be the Grey Lady - she has not been seen for some time."

It was speculated that the‘Grey Lady’ might have been the sister of Colonel Nathaniel Stephens, the owner of Chavenage at the time of the execution of King Charles I, whilst others favour she may be his daughter - Abigail. These were troubled times for the country and for Chavenage, so it comes as little surprise that the Grey Lady should still be seeking eternal rest centuries after her death.

Haunted Bedrooms

David Lowsley-Williams son used to sleep in the room that his father now uses as a dressing-room. His parents would often discover him on the floor entangled in his bedclothes. It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he explained that he always felt safer when sleeping in that room if he had the bedclothes pulled right over him. This was because of the feelings that he often experienced of not being alone. It was later discovered that others who had slept in that bedroom had had similar feelings. Before David Lowsley-Williams inherited Chavenage from his uncle, the room had been used to accommodate guests, a fair number of whom would emerge in the morning complaining of not having slept well. They had been disturbed, they said, by an awful dream in which a man was leaning over their bed. In every case the description they gave of their nocturnal visitor was uncannily similar. He had long greasy black hair, a Mexican moustache and heavy gold epaulettes on his shoulders.

During the Second World War. Mr Lowsley-Williams’s aunt took to sleeping in the room which had formerly been used by Colonel Nathaniel Stephens, Almost immediately she felt as if her bed was being nudged in the dead of night, as though someone had walked into it. This persisted to the extent that she decided to move her bed to another part of the room. On doing so it was discovered that the bed had been placed against an old priest hole. After the bed had been moved the nudging ceased.

Although David Lowsley-Williams is careful not to claim to have seen, or indeed experienced, anything ghostly himself, there have been unexplained events at Chavenage when he has been present. On one occasion he was sitting in the main hall reading the paper with his dogs lying in front of the fire. Suddenly the dogs started growling and sat bolt upright, looking intently at the front door. David watched as their heads slowly move together following the progress of some unseen visitor as it crossed from the front door and passed through the hall. "I suppose it could have been a rat under the floorboards," David thought. Based on the other sights and sounds at Chavenage however, it could well have been something else that troubled his dogs keen senses.

The Chapel Monk

The 18th century chapel, which stands adjacent to the house was built originally as a folly. The oldest part of the chapel houses a fluted Norman font, which was discovered elsewhere on the estate and reinstated in the chapel.

Chavenage House, as mentioned earlier, had medieval monastic links. Augustinian monks from Tours in France settled in the area following the Norman Conquest and by the end of the 11th century, a community of English monks had been established here. Parts of the present-day house (which was radically rebuilt in the 16th century) date from the medieval period. When all monastic holdings were acquired by the crown following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the monks were expelled. But after four centuries of residency, their legacy was less easily swept away. If sightings over the years are to be believed, at least one monk refuses to leave Chavenage altogether.

The following accounts of the ‘Chapel Monk’ were given to me by Caroline Lowsley-Williams from a book entitled ‘Stately Homes’ which makes reference to Chavenage and was written following an interview with her father - David.

David Lowsley-Williams, who delights in sharing the stories of his family’s home with visitors, is a lucid and engaging raconteur (as is his daughter - Caroline) of unexplained sightings at Chavenage that people have passed on to him over the years. The story of the monk who’s ghost is most often seen in the chapel, especially by recuperating RAF pilots after the Battle of Britain, is retold in the book ‘Stately Homes’:

'In 1945, just before the diocese took on a certain amount of responsibility for the chapel,’ he will tell you, ‘we had to find our own padre to take services. For a long time it was fairly easy, because there were so many RAF stations around and their chaplains were more than willing to come and do it. We had one of these young RAF padres taking a service and I heard him ask my uncle at dinner on the Saturday night (he’d come for the weekend) whether there was a monastery close by‘.

‘And my uncle said‘, “No – not now.”

‘Then this young padre said‘, “Well, that’s very strange. Just before dinner I went into the chapel to say some prayers and all the time I was seated in one of the pews, there was a monk knelt at the altar rail. I wanted to go up and tap him on the shoulder and ask him where he’d come from. But he seemed to be so engrossed in his prayers that I didn’t like to disturb him. So, I tiptoed out of the door and left him to his praying.

The chapel is not the only place at Chavenage where the monk has been seen. In an interview he gave in October 2006, David Lowsley-Williams spoke of another sighting made by a visitor to the house.

‘Outside on the path, a very down-to-earth Australian was taking his dog for a walk when he passed a monk going towards the chapel. The monk gave a sort of bow before carrying on. The visiting Australian thought that anything to do with ghosts was a load of codswallop – but later when he was told of the ghostly monk, he admitted that now he was not so sure‘.

Visitors continue to see the spectral monk to this day, mostly in the grounds leading up to the chapel door. I must say, whilst alone inside on such a miserable day with the wind and rain beating at the door, it is quite easy to see how such a tale could be conceived. This cold little chamber is a pretty eerie place let me tell you.

A Warm Welcome Awaits You

Although it was a ghastly day weather-wise that is, it didn’t spoil what was an informative and amusing day in the surroundings of a genuinely wonderful example of Elizabethan architecture, complimented by its quaint chapel-folly. Once across the threshold and into the grand main hall with its huge log fire, one can’t help but feel that Chavenage has a welcoming lived in feel about. It is still very much a family home and it shows. You are encouraged to sit anywhere without the worry of a thistle in your bottom, like so many National Trust properties I could mention.

Chavenage House is a wonderful venue for weddings, corporate events, tours and of course ghosts.

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