‘The gale sweeps through its fretwork and oft sings the owl his anthem where the silenced quire lie with their hallelujahs quenched like fire.’
Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto XIII, 1823
Thomas Cromwell was determined to prevent a monastic revival and ordered the destruction of the ritually important buildings at the core of the complexes. Hence, there are few sites in the country where the medieval inhabitants could still recognise much of their former home. Newstead in Nottinghamshire and Lacock in Wiltshire are two such locations.
Many of the spaces in which the Augustinian canons of Newstead and the Cistercian nuns of Lacock performed their daily routines are relatively unchanged though both churches have gone. The first secular owners of the monasteries did their duty and demolished the churches but much of the domestic ranges survive. They share other similarities. Their origins are connected to Henry II – Newstead was founded by the man himself in 1170 as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas Becket and Lacock in 1229 by Ela, the widow of Henry’s illegitimate son, William Longespée. They both had makeovers in the gothic revival. Also, they are associated with nineteenth century celebrities - one in the arts, one in the sciences. Newstead was the ancestral home of the romantic poet Lord Byron and photographic pioneer William Fox Talbot’s family owned Lacock.
Contrasting Cloisters. Top: Lacock Abbey. First secular owner William Sharington superimposed his living accommodation on the first floor hence Lacock’s cloister retains its beautiful fifteenth century tracery and vaulting plus the attendant chapter house, warming room, etc. This photograph was taken in 1844 by then proprietor and photography pioneer William Fox Talbot. It is possibly the first photograph of a medieval cloister. Bottom: Newstead Abbey. The claustral ranges also largely survive. As at Lacock the galleries above were added by the first secular owner in the mid-sixteenth century. In the background of this view from 1773 is the rear of the church façade demonstrating how it fronted part of the domestic range as well as the church. In 1814, desperate for funds, the poet Lord Byron initiated a search in the cloister garden for buried treasure but only found bone-filled coffins.
Newstead Priory near Nottingham (elevated since the dissolution to Newstead Abbey) retains its Cloister walk, Chapter House, Warming Room and Undercrofts. The principal rooms on the first floor still correspond to their forebears albeit re-clothed, the Prior’s Hall became the Great Hall and the Refectory became the Drawing Room. John Byron, Constable of Nottingham Castle acquired the priory after its dissolution in 1539 and took down most of the church except for its spectacular west front. Possibly he wanted to preserve this feature as a suitable embellishment to his new home. Aesthetics aside though there was a practical reason for maintaining the façade. Normally the west front of a church would cover the nave and its flanking aisles. At Newstead, however, there was no south aisle, so this section of the façade covered the north west corner of the adjacent conventual buildings comprising the prior’s lodgings with cloister behind. Hence, demolition of the entire church front would have ruined part of John Byron’s mansion and so he chose to keep it instead providing us today with (according to Pevsner) ‘an exceptionally perfect example of a thirteenth century church front’.
Above: Three views showing the evolution of the West Range at Newstead. At the top is Samuel Buck’s engraving of 1720, the earliest known representation. A large chimney stack dominates the external face of the great hall. Access is via a grand staircase through a porch at first floor level. The blank arcading in the southern section of the church façade is pierced by large late gothic style windows presumably lighting the former prior’s rooms at the north end of the west range. In Peter Tilleman’s view of 1730 (centre) the chimney stack has been replaced by a window identical to that adjacent to it in Buck’s view. The cloister fountain has been mounted on a new plinth and relocated to form the centrepiece of the front courtyard. Thomas Wildman began restoration in 1818 under architect John Shaw and its Shaw’s vision that we see today (bottom). He removed the external staircase and introduced a third identical window lighting the Great Hall. A new entrance was formed in the cellar underneath. The blank arcading in the church façade has been reintroduced. In addition, a Norman style tower has been added as a counterpoint to the church and the front extended to meet it. A bay window abuts this tower lighting a new internal staircase.
William Sharington bought the Cistercian nunnery at Lacock in 1540. He adapted the first floor of the claustral buildings for his own accommodation leaving the ground floor untouched. Hence, the beautiful fifteenth century cloister and attendant buildings (Chapter House, Warming Room, etc.) remain much as the last nuns would have known them. Sharington was a high-ranking courtier achieving the status of ‘Groom of the Chamber’ to Henry VIII. Under Edward VI however he was caught embezzling funds whilst Master of Bristol Mint and also became embroiled in a plot to overthrow the government. He avoided execution but paid a massive fine.
Sharington’s alterations remained pretty much untouched for around two hundred years. By the mid-eighteenth century though the organic jumble of medieval buildings forming the west front of the house jarred with the classical style pre-eminent at the time. The proprietor in the mid-eighteenth century John Ivory Talbot was clearly unhappy about that arrangement writing ‘the main Entrance into the House thro' this Room, is at present, Horrid! in at a window and up sixteen ugly steps!’
Two views of the West Front at Lacock Abbey. Top: Thomas Dingley’s sketch of 1684 is the earliest known representation of the Abbey and shows the cluster of buildings that so irritated John Ivory Talbot. In the centre is the original Great Hall with its long, mullioned windows. To the right the Abbess’ Lodging. Thomas Dingley toured extensively making copious and eclectic notes and sketches mainly of epitaphs from local churches but strayed into other subjects. His hand-writtten descriptions and drawings were compiled into the ‘History in Marble’ volumes published by the Camden Society in 1868. Bottom: similar view following Sanderson Miller’s drastic 1750s renovation of the Great Hall. To the north, the kitchen remains largely unchanged. To the south the Abbess’ Lodging is now a Palladian Dining Room. Some details were salvaged from the original façade such as the floral decoration above the main door and elements of stained glass.
In 1753 Talbot engaged amateur architect Sanderson Miller to remodel the west front centred around an enlarged Great Hall to be approached by a grand staircase. He wanted a façade with the elegant simplicity of the neo-classic which harmonised with the late medieval house behind. Miller had a pitch in both camps - he had designed classical buildings and mock medieval castles. What emerged was a pioneering example of the Gothic Revival, a style that was to dominate the following century. Miller produced a classically proportioned building but with gothic clothing even re-using elements from the original hall. Talbot obsessed about achieving symmetry sacrificing a fireplace in the adjacent kitchen so that he could have a central doorway on the north side of the hall to match that leading to the dining room on the south side. He paid homage to Ela with her statue placed prominently in a niche on the east wall of the hall. In 1756 the completion of Miller’s conversion was celebrated with a ‘Grand Sacrifice to Bacchus’.
When the poet Byron took residence in his hereditary home at Newstead in 1808 the house was in a parlous state and most of the contents had been sold off. He declared that ‘Newstead and I stand and fall together’ but did nothing to buck the trend towards ruination. This desolation however provided much inspiration for his poetry particularly ‘Don Juan’. Byron’s only extant addition to Newstead is the monument to his dog ‘Boatswain’ with its noble epitaph. He placed it near the high altar where holy relics would have been located three hundred years earlier.
Three views of Newstead today. Top: Former Prior’s Hall now Great Hall on the first floor of the western range, its scale demonstrating the ambition of monastic heads even at relatively poor houses. Legend has it that the poet Byron used the room for shooting practice, boxing and fencing. All the furnishings today belong to the house’s nineteenth century post-Byron restoration. Centre: Former Chapter House now converted to a chapel. The delicately carved thirteenth century capitals are contemporary with the church’s west front. The wall paintings were added in the late nineteenth century based on medieval fragments. Bottom: The fountain returned to its medieval location in the centre of the cloister. Pevsner reckoned that the upper half is early sixteenth century and hence introduced by the monks, whilst the plinth is dated 1720.
In 1818 Byron sold Newstead to school friend Thomas Wildman who lavished his sugar fortune on its restoration. The Gothic Revival was in full swing and so Wildman’s treatment was in keeping with the medieval fabric. Byron’s dog Boatswain at least made it into an Abbey. Byron wanted to join him in the vault at Newstead but the new owners refused. His fame should have meant burial in Westminster Abbey but his infamy precluded interment there as well. It was one hundred and forty-five years before a memorial tablet was placed in Poet’s Corner. Byron lies in the family vault at Hucknall five miles south of Newstead.
At Lacock, shy polymath William Henry Fox Talbot exasperated at his artistic shortcomings was working on a mechanical means to capture the ‘fairy pictures, creations of a moment’ that could be viewed through a camera obscura. Experimenting with various chemical solutions he succeeded in causing ‘natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper’. Though there are others vying for earliest photograph, his 1835 negative featuring one of the new oriels on the south front at Lacock is reckoned to be the oldest extant.
Today Newstead is run by Nottingham Corporation and the house can be visited at weekends. Lacock and the adjacent unspoilt village are owned by the National Trust.
Lacock Abbey, two views of the South Front. Top: Engraving by the Buck Brothers 1732. The south front is formed mainly by the north wall of the lost church, its western extremity marked by the buttress. The six arches are traces of the church’s stone vault. At the south east corner is Sharington’s tower a classic Tudor addition from 1550. Contemporary with similar octagonal towers at the vast royal palace of Nonsuch it was not intended for defence but as an entertainment space. The belvedere room at the top was furnished with a stone table carved featuring renaissance symbols by John Chapman who had trained in the royal workshops and undertook similar work at nearby Longleat House. Bottom: South Front today showing the oriel windows added 1828-30. Constructed during the height of the Gothic Revival, no attempt was made to achieve symmetry. William Henry Fox Talbot was to immortalise the central oriel in his 1835 photograph.
Postive image of an Oriel Window at Lacock taken from the world’s oldest extant negative