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 Cranemoor House on the edge of the old village.
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 found by the builders, not 1558. 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 refuted by the actual evidence.
So who built the original house?
The popular story that Queen Elizabeth granted the estate to Sir Francis Walsingham, who built the house, is probably an example of the post hoc fallacy and it is not supported by any evidence, nor by any modern authority.
Charles Keyser in the transcript of a talk given to the Berkshire Archaeological Society in April 1911 also says, in almost the same words as the Reading Mercury article of 1873, that one of the chief historical events connected with Englefield House is "the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Sir Francis Walsingham when the present long gallery was said to have been constructed to enable the Queen to alight at the second storey, from the high road, which then passed just at the back of the house". FG Brabant in his Little Guide to Berkshire, also published in 1911 and acknowledging Keyser as a source, also says that "It was given to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's famous minister, who 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”.
What the Newbury Field Club clearly didn't notice was that the Long Gallery does not give direct access to the principal bedrooms on the second storey/first floor: it actually connects to a third storey/second floor landing and a few smaller rooms that were used as doctors' offices and treatment rooms when the Long Gallery was used as a hospital ward in both World Wars. [Note: "floor" and "storey" are here being in the English manner, as distinct from that in the USA]. Nor did Keyser's "high road" run past the entrance to the Long Gallery but actually underneath the building and there there was no carriage access to the Long Gallery entrance at that time. The first indication of that is on the 1913 Ordnance Survey map so perhaps it was only constructed as part of the preparations for turning the Long Gallery into a hospital ward after 1909. Brabant lived in Oxford and seems to have been closely connected with the university so he may have had in the back of his mind the blocked-up doorway high in the wall of the stairway to the Great Hall of Christchurch College, this doorway having been made to allow Queen Elizabeth to access the Great Hall without going outside but subsequently left high and dry when the staircase was rebuilt.
In any case, if it is a "late Elizabethan" building Walsingham can't have been involved since from 1579 he is known to have been living at Barn Elms in Surrey - where he did entertain the Queen in 1585, 1588 and 1589. He was also struggling financially with a salary that did not cover his expenses and the burden of the debts left by his deceased son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney. 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.
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. The property at Englefield bought by Lord Norreys is considered by most authorities (including the Lysons) to have been not Englefield House but elsewhere on the estate and the Victoria County History cites primary evidence that says it was bought for £1,500 from Sir Thomas Sherley in 1597, referencing an official document of the time, and that it consisted of “a messuage, toft, dovecot, two gardens, two orchards, 44 acres of pasture and 4 acres of wood”. A list of Sherley’s properties dated 1596 has “Certeyne landes in Inglefield and Tydmarsh” which were to be sold and he was certainly in need of money at this time having been caught embezzling the funds he was sent as Treasurer-at-War in the Netherlands, which he used in property speculation. It is possible that he managed to offload the Englefield property just before being declared bankrupt and imprisoned in the Fleet later the same year, when his remaining property was seized by the Crown.
Norreys’s house was perhaps Cranemoor House, shown in Ballard’s map of 1762 in an enclosure then called Cranmoor Piddle close to Parker’s Corner that fits with the description in the Berkshire Archaeological Journal for 1889-91 as being “on the borders of the lake”.
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 anyway.
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.
© 2023 Richard J Smith