Every time we had driven past Haddon Hall, I had the feeling we needed to go there. The feeling bugged me a bit, as stately homes have not really been part of our research. We tend to be drawn to the landscape and sites things five thousand years old, rather than five hundred, so I could not see why we should need to visit the place.
But, what with the upcoming Silent Eye annual workshop, The Jewel in the Claw, being set in Elizabethan times and the odd connections with the local gentry that our Riddles weekend had highlighted, we finally decided to let curiosity get the better of us and found ourselves walking up the carriage drive, the morning after Riddles of the Night.
There has been a Hall here for a thousand years… that bit of information already made the visit more intriguing, as it ties it in with the age of ‘our’ old churches. Most of what is now visible is medieval and Tudor, with additions and alterations spanning the time between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. It is classed as one of the finest medieval country houses in England and everywhere you loo, from the topiary in the gardens, to the leadwork of the plumbing and the carvings in the stone, the Boar and the Peacock, heraldic symbols of the Vernon and Manners families, can be seen.
It is certainly impressive, yet, in spite of the parapets and grandeur, even from the bridge over the river Wye, it has a homely ‘feel’ somehow. Unlike many such houses, it has retained a sense of integrity in its architecture, with none of the twiddly bits, porticoes and fashionable facelifts that have marred others of its ilk.
The manor of Haddon was listed in the Domesday Book of 1087 as belonging to William Peverell, thought to be an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror. A manor, in those days, was not a house, but a tract of land with rights for the local lord to establish a court. In 1153, the land was forfeited to the Crown and 1194, a licence was granted for the land to be enclosed by a wall.
The manor passed to the Avenell family and in 1170 it became the property of Sir Richard de Vernon when he married Alice Avenell. The prominent Vernon family built most of the current Hall, apart from the earlier chapel and tower and the much later Long Gallery.
A romantic legend of the Hall dates to 1563. The beautiful Dorothy, daughter of Sir George Vernon, was in love with John Manners, the second son of the Earl of Rutland. Sir George forbade the courtship, either because the eligibility of a second son was not thought sufficient, or because the Vernons were Catholic, while the Manners’ were Protestant. During a ball at Haddon hall, Dorothy slipped away and met Manners on the footbridge where he was waiting with a horse. The two eloped and were married, in defiance of her father.
We do not know what happened next, whether the two were forgiven readily or grudgingly for their elopement, but we do know that two years later, when Sir George passed away, Haddon Hall passed to the couple. In 1641, their grandson, also named John, inherited the title of Earl of Rutland. His son, their great-grandson, was made the first Duke of Rutland in 1703 and took up residence in the ducal estates of Belvoir Castle, leaving Haddon almost uninhabited…and largely untouched, thus preserving it in its unaltered state.
It was the ninth Duke of Rutland, also called John Manners, who, in the early part of the twentieth century, recognised the historical value of the building and spent his life restoring and preserving it for future generations. Today it is the home of Lord Edward Manners, brother of the eleventh Duke, and his family and while much of the Hall is obviously kept as public rooms, with private rooms for the family, there are places where the two quite obviously overlap and a showpiece becomes a home.
The Hall has a sense of familiarity about it. Perhaps in part because it typifies an era of British history studied by generations of schoolchildren, perhaps because it has been used as a setting for so many well-known films, like The Princess Bride, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth and the Narnian film The Silver Chair. But there is more to it than that… in spite of the grandeur, you can tell the place is loved.
So much for the history. We were lucky enough to see the Hall decked with greenery and trees for Christmas with a lute player and a singer remembering carols of old. Being early on a December morning, we were also lucky enough to have the amazing little chapel to ourselves for a while. And one by one, little clues began to fall into place as to why we had needed to visit…