Exploring Britain: Cowdray Heritage Ruins

The history of one of the most important early Tudor houses in the UK is threaded through a Civil War, Henry VIII’s Reformation, and a devastating fire which all but destroyed the beautiful Cowdray House in 1793. This week I joined a tour around the ruins and ventured up the 70-odd spiral steps of the Kitchen Tower, the only part of the building still intact. Walking in the footsteps of history is always a slightly spooky experience and brings out the goosebumps.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”.

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca, 1938.
The main gate at Cowdray Ruins in West Sussex. The name ‘Cowdray’ comes from the French ‘la coudraie’, meaning ‘hazel-wood’.

At first sight of the atmospheric Cowdray ruins the opening line to Du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca, immediately springs to mind. Part of the house facade remains and through the empty windows are the charred ruins of once magnificent rooms. It is delightfully eerie, albeit a tragic scenario in which many priceless treasures were lost in a fire in September 1793. Later, it was a favourite place for the Victorians who liked to hold picnics and sceances amongst the hauntingly Gothic-style remains.

Tudor England

Portraits of Henry VIII and his six wives by artist-in-residence David Cranswick, Cert. R.A. PhD at the Cowdray tower studio.

During the period from 1485 – 1603 England underwent huge changes. Three generations of Tudor monarchs reigned over this time. Henry VII (r.1485–1509) celebrated victory against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and this ended the turbulent Wars of the Roses. His son, one of the most famous monarchs in history, Henry VIII, ushered in a sweeping Reformation of English Religion, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, following his marriage to second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry’s momentous decisions were to redefine English history for centuries. Henry’s daughter by Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558 to 1603), reigned for 45 years, no doubt due to her astute political judgement, a period generally considered one of the most glorious in English history. Known as the ‘Virgin Queen’ Elizabeth I was the last of five monarchs of the House of Tudor.

Both King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I are known to have visited the original Cowdray House more than once. Set within what is now the South Downs National Park, it is a glorious setting and you can image Henry VIII riding out to hunt with a splendid entourage. Or Elizabeth I arriving at Cowdray on the queen’s summer progress accompanied by a mile-long train of dozens of carriages and carts, and over a thousand horses as well as household members. A month-long visit by a monarch might bestow a sense of royal prestige but such a visit could easily bankrupt a family.

As with most English heritage houses Cowdray had numerous owners over the centuries who each made alterations and additions to the original mansion.This remains the case today for most heritage properties where each generation aims to leave their own distinctive mark for history. Cowdray was originally the home of the Bohuns, lords of the manor of Midhurst and Easebourne from the 1180s, who had moved to this site from their nearby castle on St Anne’s Hill in around 1273, where the groundwork of the castle is still visible today. When the last male of the Bohun family died, the daughter married Sir David Owen (probably the illegitimate son of Henry VII’s grandfather) who pulled down the Bohun family stronghold and rebuilt the quadrangular house in c. 1520’s.

St Ann’s Hill, Midhurst

I recently spent a morning of Forest Bathing amongst the ruins at St Ane’s Hill where you can still see the earthworks and ruined walls of a castle dating from the 12th century. Discover the Benefits of Forest Bathing more

Fire and devastation

In 1793 a catastrophic fire broke out in the house. It was believed to have been started accidentally by workmen redecorating the house for the forthcoming marriage of the young eighth Viscount. Sadly, he drowned that same year while attempting to shoot the falls of the river Rhine in a rowing boat at Laufenburg and never found out about the fire. The direction of the first can be easily traced as fuelled by a northerly wind it swept through the house from north to east leaving a large part of the back and front intact.

Since 1793 the building largely remained untouched. However, the 1st Viscount Cowdray commissioned a restoration project between 1909-1914 when St John Hope was asked to report on Cowdray, Easebourne Priory and St Anne’s Hill. The work is generally credited with having saved the Cowdray ruins from total collapse and ensured that the remaining features were untouched. They now provide a unique glimpse of important features of Tudor architecture which would otherwise have been lost.

L to R: View over the ruins from a window part way up the Tower; and Henry VIII’s coat of arms over a doorway at Cowdray ruins, one of only two surviving. The second can be seen at Hampton Court.

Kitchen Tower

Part way to the top of the Kitchen Tower there is a room used for events such as art workshops. It’s rather surreal, surrounded as you are by total ruins, to suddenly find yourself in a perfectly furnished studio. How the sturdy formal furniture and other objects were manhandled up the narrow spiral stairway and through the slim door is a mystery. This summer, David Cranswick Cert. R.A. PhD, is artist-in residence and the studio room provides a mini-exhibition of his glorious work, including stunning portraits of Henry VIII and his six wives.

As well as a good overview of the ruins themselves, from the top it’s possible to see St Anne’s Hill clearly and the surrounding South Downs countryside. From Cowdeat it’s possible to walk to the top of St Ann’s Hill to see the ruins of the Bohun’s original castle on the flat-topped summit.

L to R: Spiral steps leading to the top of the Kitchen Tower; view over the ruins of the Great Hall from the top of the tower.

Eventually the Cowdray estate was sold to the Earls of Egmont and the seventh Earl built a new fine house where the lodge had been. The eighth Earl sold to engineer Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson who became the First Viscount Cowdray in 1917. He carried out a systematic preservation operation to save the original Cowdray House ruins from collapse.

Cowdray today is in the care of the Cowdray Heritage Trust, an independent charity now responsible for managing the site. Cowdray Ruins is currently closed for general visits but check the website for access during special events and guided tours here. There is much written about Cowdray ruins and for a fuller history including a claimed curse upon the house visit the Novium Museum located in nearby Chichester. Cowdray Ruins. www.cowdray.co.uk

As always please check the www.gov.co.uk for the latest on domestic and international travel guidelines. It’s also a good idea to check individual web sites for the latest of opening times and safety requirements as these fluctuate depending upon government guidelines.

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