Who built Englefield House?
The east front with the courtyard and porte cochere, undeniably built for Richard Fellowes Benyon in 1855.
At the right the former Bradfield Road disappears through the archway under the Long Gallery.
Englefield House was certainly rebuilt four times: first by an unknown hand (possibly James Wyatt) in Powlett Wrighte's time in the 18th century, then first by Sir John Soane and subsequently by Thomas Hopper for Richard Benyon de Beauvoir early in the 19th century. Finally it was given its current look by Richard Armstrong for Richard Fellowes Benyon after 1855. As to who built the original structure and when, there is a good deal of confusion.
The ownership of a manor did not, of course, necessarily mean that the lord of the manor lived there: for Alwin, the holder of the estates in 1066, Englefield was secondary to the main estate at Kingsbury. In 1779 Nathan Wrighte rented the house to Lady Clive and his successor, Richard Benyon in 1789, remained initially at his own house at Gidea. The Englefields certainly had a home in the village for which they were named, but that was probably elsewhere on the estate.
The architectural historian Gervase Jackson-Stops in an article for Country Life magazine in 1981 describes Englefield as "…a typical late-Elizabethan E-plan house…”, meaning that to refer to the main south portion of the house, suggesting that the Long Gallery was built earlier, in 1558, that date being found by builders "...repairing the long gallery after the fire of 1838". There is no information about a fire in 1838 but the interior of the Long Gallery was burnt out by fire in 1886 (not the whole house as sometimes claimed). It was rebuilt the following year, and now has the dates 1587 and 1887 over the door, the former said to be the date it was originally built. Elizabeth reigned for 45 years, from 1558 to 1603, so "late-Elizabethan" would suggest somewhere after 1580. Based on the architecture, Pevsner dates the building to a fairly narrow window of 1590 to 1600. Jackson-Stops agrees with a date of "around 1600", meaning that to be the new house rebuilt from an existing Tudor one.
There are many accounts the ownership of Englefield after 1559 and the building of Englefield House but virtually all of them are so historically confused as to be easily refutable by the actual evidence. One account, published in the Reading Mercury of 13 September 1873 even says that Englefield was given to the Marquis of Winchester after Basing House was destroyed in 1645 and the estate passed to Sir Francis Walsingham (who died in 1590!).
So who built the original house?
Local legend, no doubt drawing on the Lysons in their Magna Britannia (1813) and F G Brabant (1911), says the manor was granted by Queen Elizabeth to Walsingham. Brabant goes further, saying that Walsingham “…sumptuously entertained her here, building a long gallery to the house from the hillside above it, by which the Queen might mount to the first floor without ascending a step”, although the Lysons, like most later sources except Brabant, are clear that it was Norreys who entertained the Queen and not at Englefield House, and in 1601 at that. From 1579 Walsingham was living at Barnes and struggling financially with a salary that did not cover his expenses and the burden of his debts and those left by his deceased son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney, so it is very unlikely that he would have had the money to build the House. Walsingham died in 1590 so he certainly couldn't have been responsible for building a house dating from 1590-1600, or for entertaining the Queen in 1601, and no modern authority now considers it likely that he ever was at Englefield. Brabant’s further assertions about the Queen mounting to the first floor without ascending a step are clearly nonsense as it leads not into the first floor but the second floor at the very top of the House and unlikely accommodation for a Queen. [Note: first floor and second floor here being in the English manner, equivalent to second floor and third floor in US English]
Furthermore, while Ballard’s plan of 1762 shows the Long Gallery over the Bradfield Road and a long straight avenue from it up to a circular feature the Deer Park, there is no access road by which a carriage might reach the Long Gallery. In fact the land where the modern roadway runs belonged then to the Church and was part of the land on which the Rectory stood until Richard Benyon exchanged it for the later site as part of the enclosure process culminating in 1829. The road to Wimbleton's ran south of the church in 1762, through what later became the stables, and although diverted to run on its present course before 1844 there is still no road shown to the Long Gallery then or in 1883. There is a road in 1913 so perhaps it was only constructed as part of the preparations for turning the Long Gallery in a hospital ward after 1909.
The other locally attributed candidate is Lord Norreys, who is Jackson-Stops's choice, though he supposes the Long Gallery to be an earlier building by Sir Francis Englefield. Norreys did at least have property at Englefield, bought, so another story goes, from the Earl of Essex in 1597 and given to his son Sir Edward, in 1599 and where Sir Edward entertained Queen Elizabeth in 1601. However, all reputable sources sources, including the Dictionary of National Biography and the House of Commons, assert that this house was not Englefield House but was a farmhouse or manor house built on the site of an old Rectory. This may have been Cranemoor (or Cranmoor) House, the location of which is shown in Ballard’s map of 1762. Though we must take the description in the Berkshire Archaeological Journal for 1889-91 of it being “on the borders of the lake” to mean the lake as it was at the time of writing for there almost certainly was no lake as such in 1597 and when one was created it did not reach this extent until the 1830s or 40s, by which time the house had gone. This part has now been filled-in again. Mary Sharp in her 1892 history of Ufton Court supposes Norreys's house to have been "...the old manor house, purchased some time ago by Mr Benyon de Beauvoir, and presented to the living as a rectory...". This was the house that stood where Rectory Cottage now is and remained as the Rectory until 1870 when the new one was built. In either case it isn't Englefield House.
The estate was granted to the trustees of the Earl of Essex, one of Elizabeth’s favourites, in 1589, though he later fell from favour with the Queen and was executed in 1601 at which time the manor returned to the Queen and then passed to King James I on her death. Essex’s tenure of the estate therefore certainly falls within the late-Elizabethan period and coincides exactly with Pevsner’s dating of Englefield House It also coincides exactly with the height of Essex’s ascendency as a favourite of the Queen, a privy councillor, and spymaster in succession to his father-in-law. As we can’t see the beam with the date on it is not possible to be certain but a 300-year-old carving of 1589 might easily be misread as 1587 and the exact 300-year interval does seem a little too convenient. In any case, confidence in any date is not increased by the obvious errors in the dates made by Jackson-Stops and others.
Accepting that Englefield House is indeed Elizabethan then we have a fairly wide window of 1558-1603. Unfortunately, that period is precisely when the ownership of the estate was disputed. If “late Elizabethan” is accepted then we have a narrower window of about 1580-1603, not much different from that suggested by Pevsner and consistent with a date for the Long Gallery of about 1587/89.
From either dating it certainly can’t have been built by the Englefields as Sir Francis left in 1559 and never returned. Sir Francis passed the manor to his nephew Francis in 1575, although when he left his lands had been seized and held for the use of the Queen. After it was seized, Elizabeth made no permanent grant of the estate until 1589, though in 1585 she leased the manor house (that probably either Cranemoor House or the one that later became the rectory) and certain lands for 40 years to Foster and Fytton. There then followed a lengthy court case and it was not until 1589 that the manor was granted to the trustees for the Earl of Essex. Neither was it Norreys, for he stated himself that it was “old Englefield’s building” that he enlarged, which can't have been Englefield House and his ownership is concurrent with that of Essex.
For the whole of the period when Englefield House is supposed to have been built the tenure of the manor was very uncertain indeed. The only settled ownership between 1589 and 1603 is that of Essex between 1589 and 1601. Pevsner draws no conclusion but the only candidate for his dating of the last decade of the 16th century is Essex.
© 2019 Richard J Smith