Silent witness to the English Civil Wars and the Industrial Revolution . . .

High above the gorge of the River Severn in the Shropshire countryside, and close to Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale lies Benthall Hall, an intriguing Tudor manor house dating from 1535, and home to Edward and Sally Benthall.  It has been in the Benthall family for more than 500 years – and saw some of the excesses of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, as well as the birth of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 18th century. It lies about 20 miles as the crow flies to the west of Moseley Old Hall. But whereas the latter was originally a typical Elizabethan half-timbered building, Benthall Hall is constructed from stone.

Since the house is still occupied by the family from time-to-time, only certain rooms are open to the public. Photography is permitted only in the ground floor rooms. Nevertheless, Benthall Hall has a certain charm – and still retains a ‘lived-in’ feeling. The main entrance is rather modest, but opens into a grand hall, with three rooms off to the sides. Two of these are beautifully paneled and the over-mantles are exquisitely carved. In one room, on the east side of the main hall, paint has been removed from the paneling to reveal the underlying wood in all its glory. One the opposite side of the building the paneling is still painted, and matches in with the plaster ceiling. It’s been suggested that the family decided to paint over the paneling after it was damaged during various skirmishes in the Civil Wars.

There is a small collection of beautiful Caughley porcelain which was manufactured in Broseley near Benthall Hall between 1775 and 1799. The gardens are quite small – the ubiquitous ha-ha, a wilderness area, cottage garden, and terraced plantings close to the house. A small church in the grounds is not currently open to the public, but now belongs to the National Trust and, after refurbishment, will become the reception center.

 

History is more than skin deep . . .

In  south Staffordshire, at the end of a very narrow lane, and nestling just under the M54, is an unprepossessing brick farmhouse.

 

Yet it was witness to a remarkable period of English history. Let me take you back more than 360 years to 8 September 1651.

It’s almost three years since Charles I was executed. The Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians, are firmly in control of the reins of government. Yet there is still widespread opposition to the Commonwealth of England, ruled as a republic, and Charles II (although not crowned for another decade) has just attempted to defeat Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester (just a few miles south of where I live) a few days before, chiefly with the support of Scottish troops. Instead, heavily outnumbered, Charles was defeated, and had to flee for his life. On that dark morning three days later he finally arrived at this Elizabethan farmhouse, Moseley Old Hall, with a small group of retainers.

Built in 1600  by Thomas Whitgreave (and in fact occupied by the Whitgreave family until 1925), it was one of his Catholic and Royalist descendants who gave sanctuary to Charles over the course of a couple of nights, even as parliamentary troops were scouring the countryside in their bid to capture the king. At one point they arrived at Moseley but were convinced by Thomas Whitgreave that he had nothing to hide; the six foot plus king was hiding upstairs in a secret priest-hole, just four feet square and a couple of feet or so deep – hardly a comfortable place for someone of Charles’ stature. In fact it was so uncomfortable that Charles chose to sleep fully-clothed in a four poster bed that is still there in the ‘King’s bedroom’ at Moseley Old Hall. Charles did manage to escape to France, and although in disguise, his height and swarthy complexion almost gave him away on a couple of occasions.

In 1651, Moseley Old Hall would have looked very different than it does today. It started life as a typical half-timbered Elizabethan building – looking rather like Little Moreton Hall that we visited last September. However, in the nineteenth century the outer skin of the half-timbered structure was removed, and replaced with the bricks – a veneer almost – that we see today. Once inside however, the house is pure seventeenth century, and many parts of the house have not changed in centuries.

Moseley Old Hall as it would have looked as a typical Elizabethan half-timbered building.

Moseley Old Hall is not a large property, but it has some real treasures. Many pieces of furniture are original to the property as are several of the altar ornaments in the attic chapel. Normally, Steph and I choose not to take a guided tour, preferring to wander around at our own pace. But because we could see that the hall might become quite congested, we did opt to take the tour, just fourteen of us in our tour. And it was worth every minute.

‘Mistress Whitgreave’ describing the features of an upstairs parlor.

On the ground floor the brew-house retains many of its original features, including a chute from the attic down which grain would have been dropped in preparation for brewing. There is an open kitchen and dining room, and a parlor with several original paintings.

The main feature on the first floor is the King’s bedroom and priest-hole. In the attic there is a Catholic chapel, which could only become an openly acknowledged feature once Catholics were permitted in 1791 to practise their religion under strictly prescribed conditions.

The gardens are not large, but there is an exquisite knot garden on the south side of the building. Alongside is a small orchard (with a lonely peacock wandering about). recently the National Trust has acquired a small piece of woodland to the west of the property and this has also been opened to visitors.

Moseley Old Hall was full of surprises – not what I had expected at all. Its royal connections certainly make it worthy of preservation as one of the National Trust’s properties. Had Charles been captured who knows what the dynastic consequences might have been. Another case of ‘What if?’