Posted in Country House, Decorative Arts, Fashion History, History, Literature, Theatre History

The Wriothesleys of Titchfield

Titchfield Abbey, Titchfield, Hampshire.

Titchfield Abbey, Titchfield, Hampshire was founded in 1231 by Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester.  The abbey was home to Premonstratensian canons, known as ‘White Canons’ due to the colour of their habits. St Norbet founded the Premonstratensian Order in 1121 and the Order follow rules ascribed to St Augustine.  The canons would have attended eight services each day as well as Mass in the monastic church. The abbey continued to exist, relatively peacefully, until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monastries (1536-1541) which resulted in a dramatic change of use and ownership. The Abbey was transformed into a grand mansion called Place House and became the country seat of the powerful Tudor and Jacobean family, The Wriothesleys.  Below are short biographies for some of the key Wriothesleys.

Titchfield Abbey – View from the back.

John Wriothesley (formerly Writhe) – Died 1504

Son of William Writhe.  John was an English officer of arms and Garter King of Arms. John thought the name of Writhe not grand enough for a family on the rise, he settled on Wriothesley instead. Other members of his family adopted the name change.

Sir Thomas Wriothesley (formerly Writhe) – Died 1534

Son of John Wriothesley. Sir Thomas was a Wiltshire herald. His wife Jane had ten children during their decade long marriage. Jane died in 1510. Sir Thomas organised the funeral of Henry VII, the coronation of Henry VIII, the Westminster tournament of 1511 and attended Anne Boleyn‘s coronation in 1533. In 1529 he gave evidence at the divorce proceedings of Katherine of Aragon. Sir Thomas also appears in the Hampton Court painting, ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ (c.1545).  He was a talented artist and an aggressive self-promoter.

William Wriothesley (formerly Writhe) – Died in 1513

Son of John Wriothesley and a York herald, an officer of arms at the College of Arms. He married Agnes Drayton.

Charles Wriothesley (1508-62)

Son of Sir Thomas Wriothesley. A Windsor Herald. He lived at Garter House, a mansion built by Sir Thomas in Barbican St, Cripplegate Ward, London.  At sixteen he was appointed Rouge Croix Pursuivant with an annual salary of £10.  He studied law at Cambridge. In 1529 he became a gentleman of Gray’s Inn.

Thomas Wriothesley (1505-1550) – 1st Earl of Southampton

Eldest son of William Wriothesley. Thomas had two sisters, Elizabeth (b. 1507) and Anne (b. 1508). Anne married Thomas Knight of Hook in Hampshire. He had a younger brother, Edward (b. 1509) whose godfathers included 3rd Duke of Buckingham and 5th Earl of Northumberland. Thomas studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge but didn’t finish his degree.  He was a handsome gentleman and a courtier of Henry VIII (1491-1547). His ambition knew no limits, in the 1530’s he became Cromwell‘s private secretary, Chief Clerk of the Signet and a top-ranking civil servant. He was a great patron of arts and literature. His wife was Jane Cheney of Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire. They had three sons and five daughters. As a reward for his support to the King during the Reformation and turbulent break from Rome, Thomas was granted: Quarr Abbey – Isle of Wight (1537); eleven manors and 5,000 acres at Titchfield Abbey (1537) and Beaulieu Abbey (1538).  He also brought Micheldever Manor from the King in 1544. Between 1544 and 1546 he acquired thirty-five ex-monastic manors and five southern counties.  On 1st January 1544, Thomas became Baron Titchfield and Lord Chancellor.  When his son Henry was baptized on 24th April 1545, Henry VIII was appointed one of the godparents.  Thomas retained a large retinue and in 1545 he had one hundred and forty in his livery including Yeoman dressed in velvet and wearing gold chains. Thomas had now become probably one of the greatest noblemen in Hampshire.

However, following the King’s death, Thomas found himself in a vulnerable position.  He was outspoken, arrogant, ruthless and faced criticism for his occasional abuses of authority which led to a brief spell in prison and a hefty fine. When young Edward VI was crowned in 1547 Thomas held the Sword of State, then had it taken away from him for misconduct. Although, Thomas was later reinstated onto the Royal Council.  Whilst serving as a member of the Royal Council, he became 1st Earl of Southampton. Thomas suffered from consumption and died at Lincoln House on 30th July, 1550.  He was buried at St. Andrew’s Church, Holburnand his body later returned to Titchfield.

The ruins of the former Titchfield Abbey, showing Chapter House and Library.

Henry Wriothesley (1545-1581) – 2nd Earl of Southampton

Henry was the son of the 1st Earl, Thomas.  Henry inherited an annual land income from his father of £1,466 13s 4d, making him an extremely wealthy man and attractive marriage prospect.  He was only five when his father died and he spent the rest of his formative years living with his mother being privately educated at home.  He was brought-up a Catholic and married Mary Browne on 19th February, 1566. The marriage meant that Henry had now become part of one of the leading Catholic families in Sussex. Henry and Mary had one son, Henry and two daughters, Jane (d.1573) and Mary (1567-1607).  His family entertained both Edward VI and Elizabeth I at Titchfield, the estate by this time had developed into an extremely large and lavish household.  Henry’s annual income from lands in the 1560’s had risen to nearly £3,000.

Henry was not without his critics and had inherited his family trait for arrogance and playing dangerous power games at Court.  He was arrested on 18th June, 1570 for consorting with the Spanish ambassador, Guerau de Espés del Valle (1524–1572). Henry remained in the Tower of London until 1st May, 1573. However, he was soon back in favour again and on 12th July, 1574 he became JP for Hampshire.

He died on 4th October 1581 in Itchel in the parish of Crondall, Hampshire, he was thirty-six.  He was later buried on 30th November, 1581 at his beloved Titchfield.  Henry ensured that his funeral was a lavish affair which cost him £138.  He also left monies enough for a £1,000 alabaster monument of himself and his parents.  This monument is known as ‘The Titchfield Monument’.

Henry Wriothesley (1573-1624) – 3rd Earl of Southampton

Born at Cowdray House, nr Midhurst, Sussex on 6th October, 1573. His parents had a very stormy marriage and at the age of eight his father, the 2nd Earl died.  Henry harboured a lifelong distrust of women, not helped by having to spend most of his childhood estranged from his mother.  He did turn to men for affection and generally enjoyed their company more than that of women.

Henry was sent to one of the top schools for noblemen at Cecil House, Strand, London. The school was Lord Burghley’s educational jewel and turned out some of the country’s brightest young aristocrats. At the age of twelve Henry went to St. John’s College, Cambridge and at sixteen he graduated with his MA and was immediately admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law.  Henry became a courtier and passionate patron of the arts.  His distrust of women and marriage in general, came to a head when he refused to marry Lady Elizabeth Vere, Lord Burghley’s granddaughter.  Tudor law dictated that a refusal to marry a lady of his ward’s choosing would result in having to pay a huge fine to the ward.  His determination not to marry Lady Elizabeth was so strong that he opted to pay the fine which he did so on 21st October 1594. He paid Lord Burghley the sum of £5,000.  This made a large hole in Henry’s income.

Henry was charismatic, attractive albeit with a feminine manner, he had auburn hair, blue eyes and his voice had a soft tone.  His dress style was flamboyant and his favourite fabric was white silk which he would teamed with a doublet, purple garters and large feathers in his hat.

Eventually, Henry knew that he would not be able to avoid marriage forever if the Wriothesley line was to continue.  He took a huge risk and married Elizabeth Vernon, one of Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) Maids of Honour.  He did not seek the Queen’s permission first and as a result fell spectacularly out of favour with her.  This was a dangerous position for any Tudor nobleman to find himself in, particularly one who had already lost a large chunk of their fortune. The consequences of failing to curry favour with the Queen meant that he was never accepted back at court.

Henry’s bad luck continued when he found himself caught-up in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601, causing him to lose his estates and very nearly his own head.  For a general overview on this important Tudor event, CLICK HERE.  For his part in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion, Henry was arrested, sent to the Tower, accused of Treason and sentenced to death.  His earldom was taken away and the 2nd Earl of Essex beheaded on 25th February, 1601.  When James I came to the throne on 24th March, 1603, he set Henry free the following month.

3rd Earl of Southampton and The Virginia Company

Henry was an active member of the Virginia Company’s governing council.  The Mayflower sailed to the Northern Colony to find religious freedom in 1620.  On 3rd November, in the same year, a patent was granted for the Incorporation of a Council to manage the affairs of the Plantation of the Second Colony of New England and Henry was one of the original Council members. In Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’ The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s Patron (1922) she discusses, in detail, Henry’s involved with the Virginia Council and Company in the chapter, ‘Virginia Britannica’.  Stopes lists the provisions provided by Henry for the Colony’s survival:

A note of the shipping, men and provisions sent and provided for Virginia by the Earl of Southampton and the Company and other private adventurers in 1621 included 24 ships with 500 mariners; experts to teach men how to utilise the produce of the Plantations; French vine-dressers to cultivate vines and mulberries, to make wine; others to teach them how to make glass for themselves and beads for the savages; fur-traders, metallurgists, builders; with plans for a church, a college, and a house of entertainment for newcomers. (Stopes, 1928, p.440-1)

The Virginia Company was dissolved on 15th June, 1624. It was not financially successful but social projects associated with it where.

View from the Porter’s Lodge window, showing the Tudor brick fireplaces and square windows from both storeys. The timber floors have long since gone.
Tudor brickwork in the gatehouse.

3rd Earl of Southampton and William Shakespeare

The life of the 3rd Earl of Southampton has been well-documented, this is partly due to his brief patronage of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  There is a great deal of scholastic debate about the extent of the relationship both Shakespeare and Wriothesley. Some have argued it was purely a creative partnership and others that there was a physical relationship between the two of them as well.  There have been suggestions that several of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at Titchfield in a playhouse created on the second storey of the gatehouse complex.

View toward Porter’s Lodge from ground floor of gatehouse building.

One particular performance that is often cited is the one that may have taken place at Titchfield on the afternoon of 2nd September, 1591, an early staging of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The 3rd Earl is supposed to have played the role of Berowne.  However, G. P. V. Akrigg points-out, in Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (1968) that:

..there is no evidence of a play or actors at Titchfield……If the present writer must add his own guess as to where and when Shakespeare and Southampton first met, he would suggest a backstage meeting in a London playhouse sometime in 1591-92.  The person who first presented Shakespeare to the Earl may have been Sir George Carew, whose marriage in 1580 to a Clopton heiress had made him a great man around Stratford. (p. 193)

Suggestions have also been made that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets contain hidden references to Wriothesley, particularly in relation to his reluctance to marry. Although we do know that following the Earl’s release from the Tower on 10th April, 1603, James I’s encouraged Shakespeare to write a sonnet (no. 107), especially for the Earl, to congratulate him on his release:

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,

Can yet the lease of my true love control,

Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,

And the sad augurs mock their own presage.

Incertainties now crown themselves assured,

And peace proclaims olives of endless age.

Now with the drops of this most balmy time

My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,

Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme

While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.

And thou in this o’er dull and speechless tribes.

And though in this shalt find thy monument,

When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Akrigg also suggests (pp. 255-6) that character of the young Count of Rousillon, in All’s Well that Ends Well (1603-4), may well have been based on the Earl’s in his earlier years.  Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are dedicated to the 3rd Earl.

Thomas Wriothesley (1608-1667) – 4th Earl of Southampton

Thomas was the only surviving son of the 3rd Earl.  Thomas liked to gamble and found himself in debt after losing a bet at Newmarket racecourse.  In order to pay back the debt, he went into the timber business and traded from his Titchfield estate. Thomas was a royalist and supporter of Charles I.  He entertained Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria at Titchfield in 1625.

When Charles I fled for his life in 1647 he stayed at Titchfield en-route to the Isle of Wight. After Charles I’s execution, Thomas retired to Titchfield and in 1655 found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London but was released later on that year. With the Restoration of Charles II, on 27th Mary 1660, Thomas was appointed to the privy council and became a Knight of the Garter.  Thomas died in London at Southampton House and was buried at Titchfield on 18th June, 1667.

Thomas married three times.  His first wife was a French Huguenot, Rachel de Massue (1603-1640). They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Rachel.  Elizabeth married Edward Noel and Rachel married William Russell.  Upon the Earl’s death all of his property passed to both his daughters. Following their deaths all property passed to Rachel and William’s son, the 2nd Duke of Bedford. Titchfield was sold in 1779 to the family of Delme and in 1781 it was largely demolished.  During the First World War the estate was brought by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the ruins transferred to the HM Office of Works.  The site is now managed by English Heritage.  There is no admission charge to visit the site but do check the opening hours before setting off.  For more information about the property, including a really good audio tour that you can download for free, CLICK HERE.

The Transformation of Titchfield Abbey into Place House –

The Wriothesleys’ Family Seat

Titchfield Abbey was transformed into a mansion, called Place House/Titchfield Palace, by the 1st Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley. The 1st Earl wasted no time in transforming the Abbey into a grand, Tudor mansion befitting a gentleman of his position.  The cost of the extensive renovations was approximately £200 and the work carried-out at lightening speed. The master-mason on the project was Thomas Bartewe who resided in Winchester.  Thomas had an impressive CV that included Calshot and Hurst Castles.  The west end Nave of the church was transformed into a large gatehouse, the Cloisters became a courtyard, the Refectory a Great Hall and the Chapter House turned into a private chapel.

It is still possible today to see some of the original Tudor fireplaces, chimneys, brickwork and square windows particularly in the gatehouse buildings. The gatehouse was constructed by demolishing the central (fourth) bay of the nave and a second storey added, all in the fashionable mock-Medieval architectural style.  In the ground floor chambers of the gatehouse it is still possible to see windows which have small slits, single and crossed.  These would have been used by archers or hand-gunners should the need have arisen to defend the mansion from attack.

During a survey carried out at Titchfield in 1737, the second storey of the gatehouse buildings to the right of the main porter’s lodge (the Tudor windows of which still exist) was described as a ‘Playhouse Room’.  It is possible that in this space theatrical masques and performances may have taken place. However, as already stated no concrete evidence has emerged to confirm that some of these performances were of plays written by William Shakespeare.

In G. P. V Akrigg’s Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (1968) a description is given of the mansion at Titchfield. The description is based on a report written by Sir Thomas Fleming, the Queen’s Solicitor-General, following a visit made to by to Titchfield while the 3rd Earl was imprisoned in the Tower for his part in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion:

[Sir Thomas Fleming] with his clerks he trooped about the great mansion, through the entrance gate flanked by its four lofty towers and into the Fountain Court that lay beyond, up the handsome stairs that on the opposite side led up to the hall beyond, and so on to all the other parts of the great mansion: the gallery, the great dining-room, the little dining-room, the ladies’ gallery, the music gallery, the earl’s apartments, and those of his countess.  On they went into the Kitchen Court and all the multiple offices that lay around it, the servants’ hall, the still room, the kitchen, the wet larder and the dry larder, the small beer cellar and the strong beer cellar, and the arched wine cellar, everywhere from the Jericho Porch to the Audit Room.  As they went, they took inventory:

In the great chamber:

One large Turkey carpett

One large foote Turkey carpett

Twoe chaires of crimson velvet

vi high stools of crimson

In the Longe Gallery:

old mappes.

(Arkrigg, 1968, p. 131)

The Medieval Tiles

At Titchfield today, it is possible to see one of the finest collections of medieval floor tiles in Southern England. One of the reasons why these splendid tiles, originally laid in the Cloisters, have survived is due to their having been covered over to create the floor of the Courtyard, during the Tudor renovations.  The tiles were discovered in excavations undertaken in 1923. Nowadays, in order to protect them from frost, they are covered over in the winter months with sand.

The tiles date from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century and were likely to have been manufactured locally. The tiles were made by pressing a wooden stamp into wet clay and then white, liquid, clay was poured into the indent.  The excess liquid would have been scraped off to form the design. The tiles were then coated with a lead glaze and fired in a kiln. The design range is varied from floral, geometric, birds, beast to heraldic motifs.

Double-headed eagle tile.

The double-headed eagle is possibly the coat of arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-72), Henry III’s brother.

Twin towers tile.

The twin towers tile, could possibly represent Eleanor of Castile (1241-90), the first wife of Edward I.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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