FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A house too great for a king?

Posted in England, Saffron Walden by folkestonejack on May 9, 2015

Audley End was one of the greatest houses of the Jacobean age. Indeed, it was so great that King James I remarked that the house was too great for a King but might suit a Lord Treasurer. As you have probably already guessed, the owner at the time, Thomas Howard, had been appointed to this very post in 1614…

The surviving sections of Audley End House

The west front

Today you can see only a small part of the magnificent house that astounded visitors at its height, but even the sections that survived the 18th century demolitions are quite stunning to behold. How much more incredible it must have been in its heyday, complete with the long gone outer courtyard, east wing and gateway. No wonder visitors reckoned that it was exceeded only by Windsor Castle and Hampton Court in extravagance.

It might have been too great for a king in 1614, but the royal property portfolio was looking decidely unhealthy as the Commonwealth came to an end. Audley End appealed to Charles II as a ready made royal palace, particularly with its proximity to the Newmarket races. Charles purchased the property from the family in 1668, though after the royal lodgings at Newmarket were restored he seldom returned. It remained a crown property until 1701 when it was returned to the family by William III.

The expense of maintaining such a lavish house took its toll on the finances of all its owners and by the early 1700s much of the house was in a poor state of repair. The obvious solution was to downsize and over the next fifty years the family set about this transformation, demolishing the north and south ranges of the outer court and reducing the house to the inner courtyard. Subsequent owners reduced the scale of the property further still.

Audley End House and Gardens

Audley End House and Gardens

We made our visit on a relatively quiet overcast saturday, taking the train from Liverpool Street station (approx 1 hour) and walking from Audley End station (approx 25 minutes) on a route with remarkably few signposts for pedestrians. Our timings working out pretty well, giving us sufficient time to wander around the parterre and get a good view of the east front. It was a good time to visit with a wonderful display of tulips.

The house opened at 12pm and we followed the circuit round, marvelling at the interior for around an hour and a half. Highlights included the ornate great hall, saloon and chapel which are impossible to do justice to in any written description. Some remarkable portraits are on display amongst the rooms, including those of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Henry Ireton (printed guides are available to help you identify the many historical figures).

An unexpected delight came from the coal gallery, constructed in the 1760s, which linked the north and south wings. It allowed hot water to be distributed more efficiently, avoiding the need for the servants to take it up and down the same stairs that the family used. Amazingly the supplies of coal were hoisted up on a winch through one of the windows!

Interestingly, an English Heritage strategy document found that men engaged with the technological innovations of the coal gallery more than the sumptuous furnishings to be found elsewhere in the house. Personally, I found both sides to the house fascinating.

After leaving the house we made sure to explore the delightful grounds, whilst a cricket match was starting on the green (albeit interrupted periodically by bursts of rain). Among the more unusual sights is a pill box located at the far edge of the green, near the Adams Bridge. The house itself has a strong connection with the Second World War as the HQ for the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive. A memorial on the approach to the house remembers the 108 Polish SOE volunteers who trained at Audley End and lost their lives in the fight for freedom.

I didn’t really know anything much about Audley End before my visit. Now I wonder how I could ever have overlooked such a significant property in England’s history!