Saturday 24 October 2015

Forde Abbey, Dorset ...

Forde Abbey, Dorset

This is undoubtedly one of the prettiest houses in England. It's grand, but not in a draughty, haughty, pretentious way. No, on the contrary, this is a place with a cosy congeniality that invites you to linger longer. And the gardens ... well, don't get me started on the gardens unless you've got a good long time to listen whilst I tell you how much I liked them ... .

I often find with historic houses that there's one strand, one story-line from their past that speaks more loudly and more eloquently than the others. Now in the case of Forde Abbey there are many to choose from. This is, after all, a property that's got 8 centuries of history to boast about. But for me, the defining tale is that of Edmund Prideaux, who lived here once upon a time in the 17th century.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

Edmund Prideaux inherited the property from his father, also called Edmund Prideaux in 1659. Edmund (senior), 1st Baronet of Forde, had been a strong Parliamentarian during the English Civil War. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and is believed to have maintained a sizeable conventicle here in the cellars at Forde. In the 17th Century Presbyterians and other non-Conformists, who were strongly opposed to the primacy of the Anglican Church, chose to meet together to worship privately in conventicles rather than attend their parish churches. And at different points over the 16th and 17th centuries the authorities became intolerant of the practice: legislation was passed outlawing the conventicles and fining people for attending them and for failing to attend their parish church.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

Edmund (Snr) was an eminent lawyer, practising as a King's Counsel, who served as Cromwell's Solicitor General. However he didn't want any part in the trial of Charles I, and retired from office rather than get involved in regicide. His stock must have been very high with Cromwell as, notwithstanding his squeamishness over the late King's demise, Cromwell still appointed him Attorney General in 1649, an office he held until his death. On 13th August, 1658 Cromwell made him a Baronet for the mainteyning of 30 foot soldieres in his highnesses army in Ireland. Unfortunately for the Prideaux family Oliver Cromwell died three weeks' later and the political landscape changed dramatically.

Cromwell was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard. Richard, however, lacked his father's acumen and wasn't able to hold things together. As a result the Protectorate was abolished and the monarchy was restored under King Charles II, who was crowned on Saint George's Day 1661. The Baronetcy of Forde, which had been created by Cromwell, was abolished by the King, and never restored.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

Given his father's high profile in Cromwell's regime, Edmund (junior) lived under something of a cloud and was never to hold any position of prominence after the Restoration. He also practised as a barrister, and was regarded as one of the most educated men in the realm. His tutor, Bishop Tillotson, was later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Contemporaries referred to him as a walking encyclopaedia. 

Forde Abbey, Dorset

In 1685 Charles II died without a legitimate heir, and was succeeded by his brother James. Married to the devoutly Catholic Mary of Modena, the Protestant aristocracy of England had long been suspicious of James. They suspected him of being pro-French, pro-Catholic and of having his mind set on becoming an absolute monarch after his succession.  Edmund Prideaux, like his father before him, was also a committed Presbyterian who felt deeply that England shouldn't be allowed to drift back into the arms of Rome. Deprived by his father's reputation of any chance to advance in either the Court of Charles II, or later that of James II, the evidence would seem to indicate that he had more than a passing sympathy with those who opposed James.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

At this time there was a growing movement to oust James and replace him with the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II, born to his mistress, Lucy Walter, when Charles was in exile. Edmund Prideaux must have been sympathetic to Monmouth's cause. He received the Duke as a guest in the later months of 1680. A splendid supper was prepared here at Forde and the Duke was given a bed for the night.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

In 1681 Edmund Prideaux was elected as an MP for the city of Taunton, but the authorities must have remained suspicious of him.  On  16th July, 1683 Forde was searched for arms. Two muskets, a brass blunderbuss and four cases of pistols were found and removed.

The Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis on 11th June, 1685 and was proclaimed the rightful King of England by his followers. Prideaux remained safely out of harm's way at Forde, but shortly afterwards he received a visit in the night from a group of 8 men, led by Thomas Dare from Taunton, seeking aid. They were given horses and arms and it was reported that one of their number, Malachi Mallock, drank the health of the Duke of Monmouth.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

Monmouth had hoped to recruit an army from the Non-Conformists of the South West, amongst whom he was popular. However these troops were no match for the regular army and the uprising was put down decisively at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6th July, 1685. Then began the King's retribution. An Act of Attainder, passed by Parliament, had condemned Monmouth to a traitor's death, so, without any need for a trial, he was taken back to London and executed at the Tower on 15th July, 1685. His associates in the South West were then tried in the Bloody Assizes led by the notorious Hanging Judge, George Jeffreys.

Forde Abbey, Dorset

Malachi Mallock, had by this stage been arrested, and was brought before Jeffreys sitting at an Assize Court in Dorchester on 10th September, 1685. Jeffreys found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging with a direction that the sentence be carried out in Bridport two days later on 12th September. Desperately Mallock tried to bargain for his life: he had evidence, he claimed, that would implicate Edmund Prideaux in the rebellion. The authorities, long suspicious of of Prideaux were prepared to do a deal.

Prideaux had been arrested back in June 1685 on the back of reports of the fateful hospitality he had offered to the Duke of Monmouth five years earlier. With the addition of Mallock's evidence to the case against him, he was re-arrested and taken to the Tower.

Down pipe with lead reservoir presumably installed by Prideaux's son-in-law, Francis Gwyn,
who served as Secretary at War to Queen Anne
Realpolitic seems to have overtaken George Jeffreys at this point, and he was able to bend his fine judicial sensibilities sufficiently to extort a huge bribe of £15,000 from Prideaux in exchange for a pardon. No doubt traumatised by the body count from the Bloody Assizes, Prideaux coughed up the money and limped back to Forde. He lived a very quiet and inconspicuous country life until James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In the Court of William III Prideaux and his son-in-law, Francis Gwyn tried unsuccessfully to recover his fortune from Hanging Judge Jeffreys. Jeffreys had, by all accounts, used the money to buy some fine estates for himself up in Leicestershire.

If you'd like to come and see Forde Abbey for yourself you can find its website here: Forde Abbey. It's a privately owned property that you have to trek along narrow country roads to find. There wasn't a road sign anywhere until we arrived at the gates, which I found disconcerting. I kept worrying that I'd put the wrong postcode in the sat-nav. Dogs are allowed in the grounds, but not in the house. Photography is allowed in the grounds, but not in the house except for the cloister area, which is now a beautiful conservatory with amazing potted trees and huge ammonites. The tea room in the undercroft, is open to well-behaved pooches and their owners, and serves very acceptable food.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

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