“The domestic annals of this unobtrusive manor form a rude outline of the history of England.” — Frederic Harrison Annals of an Old Manor-house, Sutton Place, Guildford
Sutton Place in Surrey was originally the site of King Edward the Confessor’s hunting lodge and for centuries St. Edward’s Well could be seen in the manor’s green. The lodge itself was suitable for housing a nobleman and at least six serfs as domestic staff. The manor’s land totaled 400 acres, supporting sixteen tenants who tilled part of it, the rest being a meadow for grazing and woodland for 25 pigs. Located between London and the important market town of Guildford, it was given to a Norman favorite of the Conqueror.
Throughout the medieval period, the estate changed hands many times, coming into the possession of families whose fortunes rose or fell with the times. It was a fate not unlike that of other properties, except that Sutton Place was foundering, strangely diminishing in value. By the time of King John, the estate’s tillable acreage had been reduced to a third of what it had been, the lodge wasting away to a mere “tenement,” the livestock consisting of only 17 cocks and hens.
Stranger still, the manor remained beguilingly attractive.
In the medieval period, the Bassett family had gone to great efforts to attach Sutton Place to their neighboring property, but lack of heirs caused them to lose it. After reversion to the Crown, the manor was given to Hugh Despenser, father of the wretched favorite of Edward II. He was succeeded at Sutton Place by one hardly more prosperous, for Roger Mortimer had made the “She-Wolf of France” his mistress and her son his enemy. However her destiny ran, whether through the hands of one widow, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent, or another, Margaret Beaufort, the not-so-fair mother of kings, Sutton Place always found her way back to the Crown–whether by attainder, death in battle or beheading.
“Thus shall your wives, and thus your children fall;
On all the line a sudden vengeance waits,
And frequent hearses shall besiege your gates.
There passengers shall stand, and pointing say,
(While the long fun’rals blacken all the way)” **
Later writers have speculated Sutton Place is cursed.
On May 17, 1521, one of the last Plantagenets, the Duke of Buckingham, was beheaded like his father and grandfather before him. For his part in the duke’s downfall, Richard Weston sought and received Sutton Place, along with permission to enclose 600 acres of surrounding land, 50 acres of wood and 400 acres of heath. By the time the old lodge had fallen into ruin, the manor not even worth a shilling. But now the Tudor rose was in the ascendant, and Sir Richard, after the manner of his mentor Wolsey and Hampton Court, set about building a new palace out of terra cotta from Flanders, with all the comforts of a Renaissance home:
“[Sutton Place} remains the unique work of some unknown ‘Master of 1525,’ as one of the landmarks of history of English architecture. It is so far modern that it has all the symmetry of a Palladian design, whilst it has no single classical feature such as occur at every point of a building of Renascence times. The work as a whole is truly Gothic, but Gothic treated with the eye for ornament of an Italian of the age of Raffaelle. The profuse ornamentation is of the most delicate kind, never obtruding itself, and in singular contrast with the course and florid decoration by which the Elizabethan and Jacobean builders sought to obtain effects of shadow and contrast.” Frederic Harrison, Annals of an Old Manor-house, Sutton Place, Guildford
Sir Richard had a son, Francis, a “spoiled minion and reckless gambler” of Henry VIII’s court. The young man had been created a Knight of the Bath and accompanied the new queen Anne Boleyn through the “silent” crowd to her coronation. Suddenly, all in one month, the scion was charged with treason, preceding the doomed queen to the block on that fateful day of May 17th, the anniversary of Buckingham’s beheading.
Like Hampton Court, it seemed Sutton Place must return to her master, the Crown.
Nevertheless, Sir Richard kept his honors and his home, breaking the pattern that had characterized Sutton Place’s destiny for so long. Indeed, the Westons were doubly honored with two visits from Elizabeth Tudor later that century. Their house, however, mysteriously caught fire in the queen’s wake, one wing destroyed just as she had departed.
Sutton Place was rebuilt later, to outlast the Tudors and future dynasties, but was never to return to the Crown.
“A heap of dust alone remains of thee; ‘Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be!” **
** poetry quoted from Alexander Pope’s Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady (1717), said to have been inspired by the Weston family at Sutton Place