Posts Tagged ‘Sanchia of Provence’

Images from Ashridge

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

A pilgrimage to Ashridge (a contribution by Dr Michael Ray)

I spend as much time as I can working on a life of Edmund, earl of Cornwall, so it seemed appropriate to make a pilgrimage to see where he was born and where he died.  Ten days ago I was able to explore Berkhamsted castle where, at Christmas 1249, Edmund was born to Sanchia of Provence, the wife of Richard, earl of Cornwall and king of the Romans.  When he was born, he was not expected to succeed his father but the murder of his half-brother, Henry of Almain, by the Montforts at Viterbo, left him as the heir to the earldom.  He became earl in 1272 on Richard’s death.

A man of considerable piety and a generous patron of religious houses, Edmund took the unusual step of introducing the Order of the Bonhommes to England and building a College for them a few miles north of Berkhamsted at Ashridge starting in 1283.  The Bonhommes followed a rule which was similar to that of the Augustinian Canons but they wore a monastic habit.   He endowed his foundation with a portion of the Holy Blood relic which he had acquired from Germany when he was a boy.  Edmund was a friend of Thomas de Cantilupe who became Bishop of Hereford and was to be canonised in 1320.  When Thomas died in Orvieto his body was brought back to England but, whilst his body was buried at Hereford Cathedral, his heart was enshrined at Ashridge. It was to Ashridge that Edward I retired for some time on the death of Eleanor of Castile in 1290 and a parliament was held there.   When Edmund himself died at Ashridge in 1300 his viscera and heart were interred there, although his body joined those of his parents at Hailes Abbey.

On Edmund’s death, his lands passed to Edward I, his cousin and nearest heir.  The royal family maintained an interest in the College with the Black Prince becoming a generous patron. At the Dissolution, the College buildings were retained although the conventual church was demolished.  It was whilst she was at Ashridge, that the future Elizabeth I was arrested on suspicion of treason by her sister, Mary I.  After Elizabeth’s death, her Chancellor, Sir Thomas Egerton, bought the property.  His son, John, became the first Earl of Bridgewater.  In 1803, on the death of the immensely rich but childless, Duke of Bridgewater, one of John’s descendants succeeded as the seventh Earl of Bridgewater.  By 1806 he had swept away the last of the Edmund of Cornwall’s buildings to replace them with the grand building designed by James Wyatt with additions by other members of his architectural dynasty.  In 1796, Wyatt had designed the wonder of the age, the vast Fonthill Abbey, in the gothic style for William Beckford.   The Abbey tower collapsed for the final time in 1825, so Ashridge today gives one a taste of what a marvelous building, Fonthill must have been.  This summer some preliminary archaeological work has been carried out at Ashridge to see if the original church can be located.

I was very lucky to be shown around by Mick Thompson, the Gardens and Archives Manager.  The building has gone through a number of institutional uses since the Earls Brownlow, who inherited it from the Bridgewaters, sold it off in the mid 1920s.  It is now a prestigious Management Centre granting its own degrees.  I saw the chapel, several of the ornate ground floor rooms but it was the grand central staircase which was a real knock out.  It is so vast that it rises above the rest of the building like a keep.  It is adorned with large Malta stone statues sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott of people associated with the old College; these include Edmund, Richard and Sanchia as well as Thomas de Cantilupe.  Drawings of the statues and the buildings can be seen in H.J.Todd’s, The History of the Bonhommes at Ashridge (1823).  Todd was the Earl’s chaplain.  Mick Thompson produced a copy of the book presented to the College by Anthony Blunt!  The building is well worth a visit and is open to the public in August.  The gardens and parkland were created by Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton and Jeffrey Wyattville, and are  splendid.  An added attraction is the surrounding Ashridge Park now owned by the National Trust.

Images from the Central Staircase at Ashridge: