Sulgrave Manor

Sulgrave Manor is the ancestral home of our own George Washington. Before you all say, "I thought he was born in America", he was. Well, allow me to just tell the story as I can.

The Washington name originated from the manor of Wessington in the County Durham in the 12th century. Sir William Parr (the uncle of Catherine Parr who was Henry VIII’s only wife to outlive him) employed Lawrence Washington, who also had large interests in Northamptonshire. Lawrence left home about 1530 to work for Parr in Northampton. He married Elizabeth Gough, a rich widow, whose money helped him prosper as a wool merchant. Lawrence became Mayor of Northampton in 1532. He had acquired land in the county, and leased a house in the village of Sulgrave. Due to the dissolution of the monasteries, he was able to buy the manor of Sulgrave for the sum of around £325. Elizabeth died childless, conveniently leaving him all her husband's money, and he married Amy Tomson, another rich widow. They had four sons and seven daughters. Amy died at the birth of the eleventh child. For some reason, either Lawrence's great wealth or huge family, he built the house, some of which we were able to tour on Sunday.

Lawrence was a feisty old coot, born in 1500, began having children in his 40's, and lived to a ripe old age of 84! Lawrence's oldest son Robert lived in the house after that. In 1601, he transferred actual ownership to his son, Lawrence, who sold it to his cousin (Lawrence Makepeace -- his mother Mary was Robert's sister). It stayed in the Washington family until 1659.

In 1656, John Washington, great great grandson of the builder Lawrence Washington, emigrated to Virginia. The Civil War was waging in England. The Washington family was Royalist, so it is likely he went to Virginia to escape persecution. There, in 1732, his great-grandson, George Washington, was born.

The family had connections to other important families. Besides working for the Parr family, Lawrence (I) had a cousin who married into the Spencer family. Here's where we get that intertwining of families and places we visit... Cousin Katherine was a Kyston, who owned Hengrave Hall, a place we visited last spring. So basically, George Washington's great-great-great-great-great grandfather's cousin was somehow related to Princess Diana (I haven't seen that family tree, but it's probably her great to the 10th power something or other).

Also connected to this story is Princess Elizabeth (the first queen Elizabeth). When the daughter of Catharine of Aragon, Mary (Bloody Mary), was on the throne, she imprisoned her half sister, Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn) in Blenheim Palace (close to Sulgrave). It is said that the Washington children helped Princess Elizabeth escape. That story is told in the historical novel called, "Stars of Fortune", written by Cynthia Harnett, which has become required reading in the British schools. I just started reading it, but so far it seems like a good story.

Now about the house. Not much of the original building actually exists today, just one segment, two floors.

A bit of history... The last war between England and America was the war of 1812. That war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. After a century of peace between our two countries, folk on both sides of the pond wanted to celebrate our long-standing cooperation. The ruins of Sulgrave were discovered to be for sale and in very sorry shape. The money to buy the property was raised in England, with a few extra pounds to restore, but not enough. Some money was collected in America, and the house was opened in 1921. In 1924, the Society of the Colonial Dames of America, a group of ladies who descended from the men of the original thirteen colonies, gathered an endowment of $112,000 to care for the Manor for perpetuity. So, this building is truly a cooperative effort, celebrating our long-standing relationship!

When the house was purchased in 1914, it was truly crumbling down. All that was left of the original house was the Great Hall and the Great Chamber. There were also four 18th century rooms; a parlor, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. These six rooms were restored to look, as they would have at the time they were built. They are furnished with actual pieces from the period, but not actual Washington pieces.

The Great Hall has beamed ceilings and a stone floor. The fireplace is large enough to have a seat built inside, where they could sit on cold evenings to warm up. There is a painting of George Washington (by Gilbert Stuart) over the mantel, the most valued object in the house. In the centre of the hall is a table, or 'board'. It is called a board because the top is not connected to the legs, and could be removed to the floor for sleeping (hence the origin of the term 'board and breakfast'). A table (or board) set against a wall was called a 'sideboard'. A smaller table was used to store cups (hence 'cup board'). Eventually these cupboards were decorated and hung on the wall... The head of the house sat in the chair (everyone else sat on stools -- the mistress might have had a lesser chair, and guests may have been given a lesser chair) at the head of the table (hence the term "chairman of the board").

The other 16th century room is the Great Chamber. The vault ceiling is 27 feet high. There is a large fireplace. In the days of Lawrence Washington, this room would have been very dark, smoky and filled with children. The Great Chamber would have been the hub of domestic activity, where Amy would have done her sewing, kept her household books and met with her friends. The children would have been kept out of the main areas of the house, "until they could be guaranteed to behave accordingly.” In this room is a canopied four-poster bed from the Elizabethan period. There are other pieces in the room, including chests, a cradle and a 17th century tapestry. There is small museum next door, which has Washington artifacts and information.

The 18th century rooms show what the home would have been like for the Hodges family, who owned the house for nearly 200 years and added the wing which stands perpendicular to the original (give the house a L-shape). The Oak Parlor has oak paneling, a lacquered Grandfather clock, a Queen Anne settee with petit-point needlework (which would have been done by the lady of the house -- this one came from another house). There is also a spinet, the work of Thomas Hitchcock. Out of the 120 spinet he created that still exist, only 6 in the world, including the one here, are still in full working order.

The kitchen was interesting, I think the favorite room of the house for the kids. There was so much on display. The large fireplace contains 3 ovens; one was bricklined for bread, one under the main fire for heating plates or food, and a charcoal brazier for heating irons. There was a spit, which was turned by mechanical means, the spit had a wheel. There was another wheel near the ceiling. A chain with a weight went over the top wheel and down around the bottom wheel. The weight was pulled up and slowly moved down which turned the spit.

Imagine a small kitchen, about 15' x15' square, with three or more fires blazing, in mid summer...

Around the room were displays of kitchen pots and pans, utensils and examples of the food of the time.

We went upstairs in the new wing and were able to look into the two 18th century bedrooms. These rooms showed examples of clothes, shoes, and furniture. There was even an 18th century baby-walker.

The guide was interesting and gave us a real feel for what it would have been like. The gardens are beautiful, there is even an American flag flying near the house. It was well worth the trip.

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