The British Monarchy has some wonderful royal palaces and houses, but there are many more great houses around the country that have once been ‘Royal’. Audley End in Essex is one such house. Now run by English Heritage, it has a fascinating history, having been visited or owned by six different monarchs. As a result of so many owners, royal and otherwise, it is a real mix of different architectural styles.
Audley End was originally Walden Abbey, a Benedictine priory founded in about 1139. The land sits around the River Cam and was on the original London to Cambridge road. When Henry VIII broke with Rome, all religious houses in England were dissolved – Walden Abbey surrendered on 22nd March 1538. Five days later, Henry granted it to Sir Thomas Audley, and created him Baron Audley of Walden in November of that year. Audley was a lawyer and had been speaker of the House of Commons when England broke with Rome. As Lord Chancellor, he confirmed Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, presided at Anne Boleyn’s trial, and passed the death sentence on Sir Thomas More. He was granted Walden Abbey as a reward for his loyalty to Henry, and Audley set about turning the monastic buildings into a house. Audley End was born.
The house descended via Audley’s daughter to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was eventually executed by Elizabeth I for conspiring with Mary, Queen of Scots. His second son, also Thomas, was left the task of rescuing the family’s reputation and after commanding a ship in the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, he was created Baron Howard of Walden and a knight of the garter. Elizabeth I visited Audley End twice while the estate was still held by the Duke of Norfolk, in 1571 and 1578. She liked to make ‘progresses’ around the country, to see and be seen by her people but also in the hope that those of her subjects who were rich and had grand houses would be financially injured by having to accommodate her and her court! In this way, no one subject could be richer or therefore more powerful than her.
James I also visited Audley End twice, both times in 1614. Immediately on acceding to the English crown in 1603, he had made Baron Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, and appointed him Lord Chamberlain of the household. In 1614, Suffolk became Lord Treasurer, and on James I’s visit to Audley End, the King remarked that the house was too great for a king but might suit a Lord Treasurer! Two years later, Suffolk was found guilty of embezzlement but escaped with his life and a heavy fine and he retired in disgrace to Audley End.
Suffolk had rebuilt Audley End during his time in royal favour, and the house ended up being the greatest of this period in English history. He created a large symmetrical house with identical state apartments for the King and Queen, linked by a long gallery and enhanced by an elaborate court, lodgings and outer courtyard. By the time he fell out of favour, his vision for Audley End was complete. But his extravagance was to ruin the family. When the 3rd Earl inherited Audley End in 1640, he was forced to sell other property to pay his family’s debts and a question mark hung over the great house itself.
Amazingly, it was the Commonwealth that saved Audley End. Because Oliver Cromwell had destroyed so many royal houses, when Charles II was restored to the throne, he needed palaces and bought Audley End in 1666. The Earls of Suffolk became keepers of the new palace and retained their private apartments, while Charles used the palace when he visited the races at nearby Newmarket. But as he began to replace royal palaces, he used Audley End less and less, and it was not visited much by his successors, James II and William III & Mary II. Eventually, in 1701, William decided to sell up, and the house was returned to the Earls of Suffolk on condition that they discharge the outstanding mortgage.
The 6th to 10th Earls demolished much of the grand house, turning it into something much smaller and more modern. When the 10th Earl died childless and intestate in 1745, the Audley End estate was divided up among the Howard family. Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth, bought the house and park and added it to her own share of the estate. She remodelled the house, but the changes were carried out in the Jacobean style, to fit in as much as possible with the principal style of the house. Lady Portsmouth’s chosen heir, Sir John Griffin Griffin, inherited Audley End in 1762, and he made changes of a practical nature, so that the house would be more suitable for his family. He also brightened up the interiors which were apparently rather dull! But Sir John’s biggest change for Audley End was to its grounds. He employed the renowned landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (so nicknamed because his favourite phrase was that his clients’ gardens had ‘great capability’ for improvement) to remodel the park. Brown began to alter the gardens while Robert Adam was employed to alter the house and design most of the garden buildings.
When Sir John was created Baron Howard de Walden in 1784, he created a new state apartment at Audley End and he and Lady Howard continued to improve the house and estate. Lord Howard was created 1st Baron Braybrooke in 1788, and when he died in 1797, the title and estate passed to the 2nd Baron, a widower with seven children. He considered the house to now be in perfect condition and made only very small changes. They also hosted the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Princess Mary and Princess Sophia for a visit of few days. When the house once more passed to the next generation, this time to the 3rd Baron and his wife, the new owners made extensive alterations. It is their version of Audley End that you can see today. The 3rd Baron researched the history of the house, realising its importance in the history of English architecture. In 1836, he published his History of Audley End and Saffron Walden and his main changes to the house were to restore its original Jacobean character.
The 4th Baron was particularly keen on natural sciences and he made large collections of stuffed animals and birds, as well as shells and fossils. These are all displayed today in glass cabinets along the walls of the long galleries.
The 5th Baron’s wife added Georgian furniture (then fashionable again) to the principal rooms and the 6th Baron only owned the house for 2 years until his death in 1904. The 7th Baron for a time lived elsewhere and let out Audley End to Lord Howard de Walden until 1912 when it once again became the home of the Braybrookes.
In 1941, on the death of the 7th Baron Braybrooke, Audley End was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and the furniture was all stacked in the state rooms. The house became the headquarters of the Polish Section of the Special Operations Executive and was used for training by soldiers about to parachute into German-occupied Poland. There is a memorial to these brave men and women in the grounds.
Before the end of the war, the 9th Baron (his brother, the 8th Baron, had died in 1943) had decided that Audley End was too big to be a family home, and in 1948, the house and gardens were purchased for the nation, with the furnishings and pictures left on loan by the family. The house has since been slowly restored, with recent works focussing on the servants quarters.
Audley End is a fascinating house. Walking through it, so many periods of English architectural history can be seen, from the prevailing Jacobean style, right up to the Victorian decorated rooms of Lady Braybrooke. The gardens are part informal, natural ‘Capability’ Brown and part formal, with the Parterre recreated at the back of the house. There is a working kitchen garden and stable yard, as well as a modern but hidden away children’s play area and tea rooms. Audley End has been a monastery, a house too grand for a King, a royal palace, a family home and a secret wartime training camp. But sometimes, with its river, lakes and temples it is also just a beautiful place to wander around on a sunny day.
photo credit: Sou’wester via photopin cc photo credit: Andreas-photography via photopin cc