Sunday 6 January 2013

Avebury Manor

Avebury Manor (east view)

Avebury Manor (south view)

A Brief History
Avebury Manor dates from around the mid 16th century, a date confirmed by a dendrochronology analysis carried out by Wessex Archaeology. The team took samples from a lintel beam in the kitchen (the oldest part of the house) which showed a felling date of between 1555 - 1580.  However, the site the house occupies is considerably older and in all probability may have had monastic connections.

There have been few excavations of note but those that have been permitted by the National Trust, who own the property, have revealed several small finds which would indicate the site to have been occupied for at least a thousand years.

Earliest records of a building in the vicinity date from 1114, when King Henry I granted the estate to his chamberlain - William de Tancarville, who in that same year gifted it to the Benedictine French Abbey of St Georges de Boscherville, Rouen, Normandy. A priory house, probably made of timber (nothing remains) was established soon afterwards and may have stood close to where the current house is now situated. The priory was a small unit, just a few monks eking out a simple existence raising sheep and farming the land.

In 1378, England was at war with France which ultimately spelled expunction for the monks at Avebury. The last prior to leave Avebury was Stephen Fosse in 1379. Fosse was one of many monks expelled from England during that year. A succession of chaplains took charge of the priory until it finally passed into the hands of Fotheringhay College in 1411.

In 1547, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) the College exchanged the estate for other lands. The Crown took possession of the estate and granted ownership to Sir William Sharington, owner of Lacock Abbey. At some point the priory was demolished or possibly remodeled leaving a small lay house.

In 1551, William and Mary Dunch purchased the house and estate form Sharington who had been happily defrauding the Bristol Mint where he held the title of under treasurer. Sharington managed to avoid execution by calling in a few favours in high places. He didn't get off scot-free though, for he still faced a huge fine. To cover his costs he was forced to sell many of his assets, Avebury Manor being one of them. Recent evidence now points to the Dunches’ being largely responsible for building a new house between 1555 and 1580.

In the years that followed a successions of owners undertook several extensions and modifications which transformed the house into what we see today.

Sarsen and limestone were used primarily for most of the early building projects. It is likely, though not certain, that the sarsen stone would have come from the Avebury henge at a time when the stones were of little interest other than for building material. Failing that, they would have been quarried from the Marlborough Downs.

Over its 450 year history, Avebury Manor has commanded significant importance in the village, surrounded by high boundary walls and formal gateways. Although not the most prestigious of country houses, it still retains an air of opulence with its impressive gables, deep mullion windows, tall imposing chimneys and beautiful topiaried gardens.

The Ghosts of Avebury Manor

Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone
The staunch Royalist - Sir John Stawell, purchased Avebury Manor from William Dunch in 1640. Sir John played a significant role in the English Civil Wars, indeed, at his own expense, he raising five regiments in support of Charles I. Sir John’s allegiance to the crown was to prove his undoing, for during one of his many campaigns in the West Country he fell foul of the Parliamentarians at the siege of Exeter and was captured in 1646. Later that year he went to London with a copy of his terms of surrender issued by Sir Thomas Fairfax. He was instructed to swear on oath ‘not to bear arms against Parliament’. He refused, and in doing so was immediately committed to Ely House in Holborn on the advice that his possessions and estates were to be sequestered, including his beloved Avebury Manor.

On 13 August 1646 he was summoned to the Bar of the House Of Commons, where he declined to kneel and take the oath when ordered to do so by the Speaker. He was immediately committed to Newgate Prison on a charge of high treason. His trial at Somerset Assizes was repeated several times but on every occasion no proceedings followed. In July 1650 he was moved from Newgate to The Tower of London and on 17th December of that year he was brought to trial once more but the judges neither acquitted nor condemned him. He remained in the Tower of London for the next 11 years. In 1652 Avebury Manor was sold to George Long who in turn leased it to Sir Edward Baynton.

Sir John was to remain in the Tower until his release in 1660 on the Restoration of Charles II. His estates and possessions were reinstated in full. He returned to Avebury where he lived a short time until his death on 21st February 1662. He was buried with great pomp at Cothelstone on 23rd April. Some say he died a broken man, suffering from ill health and depression. It was rumoured that he took his own life in a moment of utter despair, although there is no evidence surviving to support this claim. I suppose it is not surprising that such rumours grew as to his state of mind, lord knows what conditions he must have had to endured during his imprisonment.

It would seem that Sir John is reluctant to leave his beloved Avebury Manor, for it is the aptly named Cavalier Bedroom, now the Withdrawing Room (renamed for the BBC project) where his ghost has been seen gazing out of the south window which overlooks the gardens. He has also been spotted standing quite motionless to the left of the fireplace. He is described as being solid in appearance, just like you or I and suited in the finery of a Cavalier of the time. A melancholy figure by all accounts, who, when encountered, appears to be weeping. Some say his arrival is often preceded by the fragrant smell of roses. During that period, rose water was often used as a eau de toilette to disguise body odour; personal hygiene was yet to establish itself. Sir John is said to have adored his garden and spent a lot of time strolling therein, which may also account for reports of his ghost being seen thereabouts.

Visitors have, on occasion been overcome by feelings of intense sadness in this room, some even unable to cross its threshold. Only recently whilst I was working in the house, a young man in his early twenties came down the exit stairs ashen faced, visibly shaken and tears in his eyes. He asked if there were somewhere outside where he might sit. I showed him into the garden where I found a bench seat for him and left him alone with his thoughts not wishing to pry. I promptly returned to the exit where I met his parents who were looking for him. I enquired as to what the problem was and they told me that in one of the rooms he had suddenly been overcome by sadness and needed to leave. I asked which room they had been in and was not surprised at the answer. I explained the stories associated with that room to his parents and reassured them that their son was not the first and no doubt wont be the last to experience such feelings of utter misery and dread in that room.

The Tudor Bedchamber
The 'Tudor Bedchamber' is another room which has been renamed for the BBC project, though this room would undoubtedly have served as a bedchamber at some point. It forms part of the east extension, built between 1580-1600. One of the guides recently told me of a frightening experience he had whilst working in this room several years ago. A group of visitors had just entered the room, when all of a sudden one of the party, a woman, was overcome by something only she could sense.

“Her eyes rolled up till just the whites were showing then she started to shake but worse was her voice which was deep and guttural, I couldn’t’ understand what she was saying. It only lasted for a few seconds then she came out of this ‘trance’ I suppose you’d call it. She was lead out of the room by friends. I was told that she was a medium and she had obviously had a reaction to something in the room.”

Another of the guides will not work this room, she too claims to be sensitive to whatever may be present here and firmly believes that this particular entity is malevolent. As for me, well I love this room, it is always my first choice when I occasionally help out as a room guide for the National Trust. It has three large mullion windows which face east, south and west and as a consequence the room is bathed in sunlight all day long, surely an environment which is hardly conducive of such a malevolent presence.

The White Lady by Christine Bozier

The house and gardens are reputedly haunted by a beautiful young woman dressed in white. ‘The White Lady‘ is arguably the most active of the house's ghosts. Her story is one of tragedy, as are many ghost stories. Although her identity is uncertain, it is believed she may well have been a ward of Sir John Stawell. Sir John ran a strict house, especially with regard to protecting the young lady’s integrity and virtues.

In defiance of Sir John's house rules, she met and fell in love with a hansom young man who worked on the estate. Sir John got wind of her deceitfulness and immediately put a stop to their secret rendezvous. She was to have none of it and continued to meet covertly with her young suitor.

Their brief romance was to be cut short, for the young man received orders to join ranks and participate in the Civil Wars. As each day passed she would pray for his safe homecoming, for they had decided to elope together at soon as he returned. Then came the news that she had been dreading. She received notification that her lover had been killed in active duty. With a broken heart and little to live for, she took her life by jumping from a second floor window breaking her neck in the fall.

Her ghost is said to follow visitors around the gardens where she will randomly select a gentleman (preferably with a beard it would seem) and tap him sharply on the shoulder. It is believed this ‘tap on the shoulder’ signifies her attempt to identify whether the recipient of her advances is that of her lover. The startled gentleman who has been “selected,” would turn round to find no one behind him, confirmation one would assume, that the poor girl had got it wrong again. She is most often encountered at the south gate close to the pet cemetery.

Another National Trust guide told me of an experience he had during a film shoot for the Trust whilst in the gardens. He described his encounter as suddenly being “gripped by the shoulders and pulled back.” He spun round to see who was there but to his surprise discovered there was nobody near him.

The White Lady has also been seen by guides and visitors descending the main stairway inside the house. She is dressed in a flowing floor length white gown and described by all who have seen her as 'stunningly beautiful'.

The Ghostly Cat
If you should venture into the Stables Museum adjacent to the house, you will find amongst its exhibits, many of which have been discovered at Avebury henge, a rather grisly mummified cat. Now then, said cat was apparently discovered some years back whilst work was being carried out on one of the house's external walls. It is said that during medieval times, if you were to wall up a cat (preferably dead) then even in death the animal would prevent rodent infestation. How times have changed, thankfully. On occasion, when staff have been locking up for the day, some claim to have heard the unmistakable sound of a cat crying as if locked in somewhere upstairs. When they have gone to investigate, nothing is ever found.

The Monk
With the Manor's monastic roots, it is not surprising to learn that there have been numerous sightings of a phantom hooded monk. The identity of the monk is unknown but there may be a clue as to why he continues to haunt the house. It is well documented that in 1249 several of Avebury’s monks were being held at Marlborough assizes on suspicion of murder. Could the unfortunate victim of this heinous crime be said monk?

His ghost has been seen in the kitchen, the small parlour, the east garden and the churchyard of St. James which stands adjacent to the house. One of the earliest documented encounters of the monk was during the ownership of the house by William Dunch in 1557. The story goes, that one evening while the maid was busy organizing the dining room for the evening meal, she was briefly interrupted by Dunch who called to her from the kitchen. They spoke briefly in the kitchen regarding some matter or another, after which the maid returned to the dining room stopping just short of the threshold, for standing at the dining room table was a 'tall imposing hooded figure'. The maid looked over her shoulder towards the kitchen where she enquired of Dunch, “sir! - do we have guests for dinner?” “No!” came the reply from Dunch, at that, the maid looked back into the dinning room to find the intruder had disappeared.

Several times a shadowy figure has been seen crossing the passage that connects the kitchen to west garden door, a door long since bricked up. He has also been spotted standing motionless in the east garden.

St. James Church

One of the more recent sightings of the monk occurred one evening as the previous curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum was locking up for the night. As he turned from the door he noticed a hooded figure standing motionless amongst the gravestones in the adjacent church of St. James. Thinking it to be a young local lad who had been up to mischief on several occasions near to the house gates and in the churchyard, the curator decided to confront him. As he drew closer to the churchyard gate, the figure started towards him. Startled and a little concerned at this sudden advance, the curator backed away from the gate, at which point the figure began to fade until nothing was left except a fine amorphous mist which slowly dissipated.

Sightings of a mysterious female figure in the churchyard have been reported many times. Could these sightings be linked to the discovery of a female skeleton found in the churchyard in the mid 1950s. Her remains were exposed whilst a fresh grave was being prepared. She was identified as being in her early twenties and surrounded by shards of late Norman pottery. The skeleton was lying east to west within the churchyard boundary and it appeared to represent a Christian burial of the Norman period.  Maybe by disturbing the grave has triggered her ghostly presence. 

The Little Boy in the Churchyard
Another ghost which has been witnessed several times in the churchyard is that of a little boy dressed in Victorian garb. One recent story is both charming and has an unexpected, if not coincidental outcome.

The story goes that a local woman and her two year old daughter had just popped down to Avebury village to post some letters. On returning home, they decided to take a shortcut through the churchyard. It was midmorning on a clear day in March as they passed through the lychgate and into the churchyard. Starting down the pathway toward the church, her daughter suddenly pointed animatedly from her pushchair toward the church door. Her mother stopped and looked in the direction her daughter was pointing.  There she saw a little boy of about eight years old hopping up and down on one of the table tombs by the church entrance. She later described him as 'solid in appearance and dressed in a short brown jacket with matching knickerbockers cropped at the knees where they met with white stockings. He wore a brown cap, from which poked out a tousled mass of mousy brown curly hair that framed the cutest of rosy-cheeks'. Intrigued by his appearance and thinking he was part of some local play or the like, they started to approach him. He paid them no heed as they covered the short distance between them, absorbed in his game of tomb-hopping and quite oblivious to their presence. They were little more than a few yards away from him when suddenly he looked up in mid-hop, smiled, then abruptly vanished.

The unexpected outcome to this story is that soon after her encounter with the little boy she fell pregnant, which was a surprise to her and her husband, as she was judged infertile after the birth of her daughter due to ovarian cysts. She still lives locally and has a lovely little boy who she adores. Coincidence, or something a little stranger I wonder.

I have a personal fondness for Avebury Manor, it is a wonderfully atmospheric building with a wealth of history. I still await my first ghostly encounter mind but I have a feeling it wont be too long in coming, sure hope so.

1 comment:

Willow said...

An ‘Anonymous’ contributor left a comment on my sister blog The 'Ghosts of Avebury Manor' (see sidebar for link) which I would like to share with you.

I am so happy to have found your blog. I visited Avebury Manor for the first time on 31st July 1984, and while visiting I believe I encountered the spirit of Sir John Stawell of Cothelstone. Until this evening I did not know his name. A friend and I were with a group of people touring the manor. I was left behind alone for a bit while upstairs in a lovely room with carved wooden walls with a window overlooking the gardens [I believe -- this is all from memory] I turned to walk towards the door to catch up with the group and suddenly a very courteous gentleman in full Cavalier garb approached me, and YES he smelled of roses, but I thought the scent came from the garden. He was a solid as myself, and he said to me "Milady, do you like the gardens?" I replied that I "thought they were beautiful, but there was a sadness about them, as well." He bowed to me and said that I "was losing my party..." or something to that effect and escorted me to the door. I thanked him for his courtesy, and quickly caught up with my group. For all the world I thought he was a RenFaire kind of actor hired to add spice to the tours. When we got downstairs to the large hall, I think it might have been a dining hall or something, I asked the caretakers, or perhaps even the owners for all I know, who the actor upstairs was, because his character and costume were spot on for the time. They kind of looked at me strange and said that they had NO actors in the Manor. My friend who was travelling with me got freaked out and wanted to go. So we went out to the gardens and looked up at the window of the room I had been in, and there the man was again, standing looking out at us. My friend was really freaking out, or excited, I cannot say which, and when the man suddenly vanished in thin air she wanted to leave the grounds immediately. For the rest of our time in Wiltshire she was afraid his spirit would follow us. I was not, because he was a Gentleman, and I knew he was tied to the Manor. Now I know who he was, and that others have encountered him, as well. He is the nicest ghost I have every met, and since then I have met quite a few. Thank You for this page and the information that has helped me put a name to my Cavalier Ghost.