Wight Life


From mediaeval Priory to Tudor House to Palladian Mansion

By Walter Roberts

Drawing of Appuldurcombe House

THE DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT can feel justifiably proud of what their workmen and officials have achieved at Appuldurcombe since they first appeared there in 1952 to tackle what seemed an impossible task.

They found a house that was derelict and abandoned as unsafe after more damage had been caused by a landmine. From its roof, lead and other materials had mysteriously disappeared while its park was a jungle. Serious proposals had been made to pull down the buildings, clear the site completely and build houses.

Fortunately, Appuldurcombe escaped the fate of Nash's castle at East Cowes but it took twelve years' hard labour for the men from the Ministry to restore the house, preserve the trees and so enable the general public to be admitted for the first time in 1964. The work on the site is being maintained under intelligent leadership, and in this last year 10,000 visitors, aided by an excellent official guide book, have found profitable pleasure in exploring its attractive park and interesting old buildings.

It can be said that Appuldurcombe began and ended its importance in Island history with monastic associations. During most of the Edwardian era, French monks resided there before their new home at Quarr was completed, and this illustration of the house in 1908 had Appuldurcombe Abbey aptly written upon the print. Some 800 years earlier, a Benedictine priory had been established on this site because all these fertile lands had been given by the Lords of the Island to a Norman abbey of Montsbourg and a prior and monks were sent over to look after this abbey's lands which extended over most of Godshill. Unfortunately, by the 14th century, our relations with the French had so deteriorated that Appuldurcombe Priory suffered the fate of other unpopular alien priories and was suppressed. That the monks were good farmers is indicated by a Return of 1294; among their livestock were carthorses and bulls, pigs valued at two shillings each, and 403 sheep which grazed on the Downs.

Although the families who leased the lands of the Priory, including the Frys, the Leighs and the first of the Worsleys, had no doubt adapted the old home of the monks for domestic use, it was not until the middle of the 16th century that the Tudor house also shown here was built by Richard Worsley. We believe he entertained Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell just before the latter's cruel death in 1540. This house is known to us because, when it was replaced by the present 18th century building, Sir Robert Worsley, who boasted that 'he left not one stone standing', left a sketch of the old gothic structure. Moreover, when Sir Richard died in 1565, an Inventory had been made of all the contents of Appuldurcombe, and the descriptions of the rooms and furniture were as thorough as any given in an estate agent's catalogue today. The house, consisting of a main building mostly taken up by a great hall and two projecting wings had six principal bedrooms, two of them bearing the names 'Paradise' and 'My Lady's Chamber.' From the illustration it can be seen that on the left of the picture was the great dining room and library, and on the right the chapel and the stables.

The Worsley family links with Appuldurcombe began when James Worsley, from Lancashire, a favourite of Henry VIII, came to the Island as Captain, and married the heiress of John Leigh. These links were to be maintained for three hundred years, and when the last of the family, Sir Richard Worsley, died in the year of Trafalgar, the Worsley tradition was maintained by the Earl of Yarborough, who had married Richard's niece and was founder and first Com- modore of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

The Island owes much to these remarkable men who lived in one or other of the two houses, and to Worsleys who lived in other parts of the Wight. Like the first Richard Worsley, they contributed much to defence; he, for example, helped to build Yarmouth Castle and what is now the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes; he also stemmed the French invaders in 1545. Four of the family were governors of the Island and some were members of parliament. Several were popular Island clergymen, and churches today, particularly Godshill, reflect the close association with Appuldurcombe. In fact a study of the Worsleys is not complete if their family tombs are not seen. Finally, the last three Worsleys, men of culture with wide archaeological interests, produced the material which led, in 1781, to Sir Richard's publication of the first `History of the Isle of Wight'. His must be the credit for this great gift to posterity. Country gentlemen entrusted him with the title deeds and engraved views of their Island homes and the appendices at the end of the book covering 162 pages are evidences of thorough research. The whole work is a weighty volume in more senses than one but it has been the bible of local historians for nearly 200 years.

Sir Richard also contributed much to the house and grounds of his ancestral home. His life was much affected by one of the most sensational divorce suits of the period. His beautiful wife had had 27 lovers! He failed to get the £20,000 damages he claimed and turned his back for some years on English society, travelling widely but bringing back richer treasures to Appuldurcombe, including valuable Italian paintings, than had ever been brought to Britain before. He turned the house, to which he had made considerable additions, into a veritable museum! Still Appuldurcombe does owe to him its park laid out by Capability Brown and the Freemantle Gate. Also the obelisk placed on Stenbury Down as a memorial to the Sir Robert Worsley who was really responsible for the house, the building of which we must now describe.

Sir Robert Worsley (1669 — 1747) was a wealthy landowner and, married to the daughter of Lord Weymouth of Longleat, he felt he had to replace the old Tudor house with something more palatial. From his correspondence and that of his wife we can understand all the frustrations experienced at the long delays in the building of the house and from it, too, we have a fair idea who the architect was. It was probably John James, for whom Lord Weymouth was a referee in 1711 and about whom Sir Robert wrote to his father-in-law: 'James was much pleased with the building (ie Appuldurcombe) as indeed I was also.' It is significant that this young man had close associations with Wren, and some other architects of distinction who had sympathy 'with the Baroque tendencies of the early 18th C'. All this is important when we examine the house that Robert built with so many unusual features.

These are the four oblong angle pavilions, each lower than the dominating central block; the four twin chimneys, each pair connected by an arch; the giant Corinthian pilasters; the insignificant pediment over the door compared with those over the pavilions. The round bull's eye window and the satyr mask above the door on the east facade, as well as the mouldings round the windows are also examples of the English Baroque.

The total cost of some 12 years' work appears to have been no more than £3,532 but most of the stone was quarried near by in the Undercliff; old stone and lead were re-used, and timber and tiles were cheap, 13,000 costing only £11 :13 :0d. It must be recalled, too, that significant additions to the house were left to others, particularly to Sir Richard and the Earl of Yarborough.

The Yarborough period was the Indian Summer of this grand old house with its park of beautiful trees and herd of deer. Unfortunately, some time after the Earl of Yarborough died, the Pelham family decided to move most of the Worsley treasures to their other home, Brocklesby Park in Lincolnshire, and Appuldurcombe, its house and vast estates, were brought under the auctioneer's hammer. For over twenty years the place was a school for young gentleman, and finally, as we have 'already noted, its last days of respectability were while the French monks made the house their temporary home, from 1901 to 1908.

Appuldurcombe, since taken over by the Ministry, has been fortunate not only in the enthusiastic interest shown by its workers on the site but also in the fact that its official guide book has been written by a distinguished university historian, Dr LOJ Boynton. His Island connections have inspired the research which is proving invaluable to the increasing number of people seeking to know the greatness that was once Appuldurcombe's, now that its glory has departed.

Drawing of Appuldurcombe House in 1909