"The Chronicles of a Country Parish" - A village appraisal of Sulgrave published in 1995

(Back to Chapter 1 Index)

The original part of the Manor House was begun about 1539 and completed by Lawrence Washington about 1560. It is a two-storeyed building of limestone.

Sulgrave Manor from the South East by Sir Reginald Blomfield R.A.

The walls, which are three feet thick, are of coursed rubble, quarried in the adjoining parish of Helmdon. The quoins and dressings are of Hornton stone, a finer quality native iron-bearing limestone. Eydon stone of a similar type is also much in evidence. The stone tiles of the roof are from the Northamptonshire quarries at Collyweston. The Tudor part of the house, which faces south, has a high pitched roof, red brick chimneys at one end set at an angle in the Elizabethan manner and a gabled porch. This porch was the last part to have been built by Lawrence and would have been the main entrance occupying the exact centre of the frontage. The entire portion west of the porch containing the original kitchen and domestic offices had disappeared by the early part of the 19th century. This wing probably extended another 50 feet beyond the present wing as the garden wall is built on a series of large foundation stones.


The east wing beyond the existing hall would have extended for another 70 feet over the rose garden. Foundation stones of considerable size have been found in direct line with the frontage at this distance away. Much of this wing was in a state of collapse by the year 1700 and thus was taken down. High in the exterior wall at the east end of the building a fireplace of Tudor pattern, with stone joints and massive oak lintel, can be seen. Not only the Queen Anne wing, built in 1700 to the north, but also the low wall on the south side of the rose garden, show evidence of having been constructed with squared ashlar stones of Tudor date. Worked in the wall are also numerous lichen-covered coping stones and ridge tiles from the vanished Tudor roofs.

The Manor House remained in this truncated form until 1929 when the missing section of the front, west of the porch, was rebuilt by Sir Reginal Blomfield. The reconstructed part of the Tudor building is faced with stone to harmonise with the ancient work it adjoins.


High on the front porch, Lawrence Washington placed the Royal Coat of Arms of Elizabeth I. In the spandrels of the moulded stone arch of the entrance, he carved his own Coat of Arms, with the millets and bars (stars and stripes) which had been borne by his ancestors since 1346.

Right hand spandrel of front porch showing
Washington Coat of Arms

It was borne by his descendant George Washington, and is widely believed to have inspired the national flag of America. The external angles or quoins of the porch are constructed of massive blocks of Hornton Stone. Their projection from the rougher stone of the walls is about 1.5 inches, this being infilled with stonecast. A small sundial with a beautiful little piece of 16th century wrought ironwork as a dial pointer can be seen to the right of the windown just below the arms of Elizabeth. Below this window can be seen a plaster panel in a raised moulded frame again showing the Washington Family Coat of Arms.

Here later a picture of the apex with the title: "Royal Arms of Elizabeth I and the insignia of the local wool guild in the gable apex"

In the apex of the gable is a quaint triangular ornament representing the heads of two sheep, a lop-eared sheep wearing a falling collar at bottom left, with a lamb adorned with an Elizabethan ruff on the right. Linking the two is a stylised representation of bales of wool. The triangle above represents the back of a sheep, having on each side two little birds that would have been pecking away at the ticks and insects crawling around in the wool. This wholly delightful device celebrates the basis of the wealth of the Washingtons - the wool trade.

Royal Arms of Elizabeth I and the insignia of the local wool guide in the gable apex.


There is a tradition well founded on a lot of circumstantial evidence that in 1554 Princess Elizabeth was hidden in Sulgrave Manor House. At the time when her sister 'Bloody Mary' was Queen of England, Elizabeth's life was under continual threat. She was indeed captured by Mary and held at Woodstock, 25 miles from Sulgrave. From there she escaped with the help of the Washington family, the Parr family, who came from Greens Norton, and the Hatton family, who came from Holdenby. Elizabeth was brought to Sulgrave and hidden in the secret chamber above the main entrance porch, while the soldiers of the Queen, under Sir Thomas Tresham, searched the Manor without finding her. It was said to be for that service that, in 1558, Lawrence Washington was allowed to put the Royal Coat of Arms of Queen Elizabeth on the front porch of his Manor House.

This story gains credence for in the early part of this century an old English ballad was found in the Northamptonshire Records Office. It runs thus:

Sister Mary! Sister Mary!
Here I sit in this dark niche,
While your henchman, Mr. Tresham,
Moles the land with subtle speech.

Thus 'tis said in Sulgrave Manor,
Once in papal Mary's reign,
Hid and sighted Ann Bullen's daughter,
When for her the Queen was fain.

Here I sit in gloom and tremor,
While he lurks and spies below,
Seeking for to do your pleasure,
Me in death's grim shrine to cow.

But, dear sister, hark the whisper
That comes gladly to my soul,
Bidding me be high of courage,
For I shall escape your goal.

Yes, escape and reign, while sadly
You lie rotting in the grave -
Rotting, sister, rotting, rotting
In our father's England, brave.

Not to-day, nor yet tomorrow -
Sister, call you not to mind
How we once drew straws for fortune,
And the straws to me were kind?

Twice and thrice we drew, you mocking,
And the lot fell aye to me,
Still you mock and scorn, dear sister,
But I bide my destiny.

To my heart it whispers, whispers -
Now, e'en now in this dark hole!
Saying, 'Keep thy heart up stoutly,
Thou shalt play a queenly role.'

Thou shalt reign and men shall worship,
Thou shalt make the Country great;
'England, England', so it whispers -
'Neath thy sway shall go its gate.

Lift itself, up! up! to splendour,
Till the nations look aghast!'
Now I sit in this dark chamber
But I'll win the fight at last.'

Elizabeth could well have visited Sulgrave in 1564, the year of Lawrence's wife Amee's death as she was in Northampton that year and the Church seems to bear witness to this royal visit. Lawrence Washington built the Tudor South Porch and above the entrance can be seen the initials E.R. and the date 1564. Sadly the church records covering that period were lost when the original vicarage burnt down in the early eighteenth century. Thus all is enticing conjecture!

Cynthia Harnett, famous for her historical novel 'The Woolpack', was so intrigued by this whole story that she used it as the basic theme of her novel 'The Stars of Fortune'. This is entirely based on Sulgrave Manor and on the Washington family's involvement in the hiding of Princess Elizabeth.


The north wing of the house, running at right angles to the original Tudor part, was built in 1700 in the Queen Anne style by John Hodges, whose family had taken over the Manor in 1673. The roof is of a lower pitch and it stretches for some 50 feet. It has two well-designed chimney stacks in the traditional Northamptonshire style of solid stone, each with a projecting base and moulded cornice, unifying two separate shafts. The east front has few features of interest. The lattice windows of the oak panelled parlour look out to the west over the stone courtyard.

The last occupant of the Manor, Mr Frank Cave and his family,
in the 18th century parlour

The stone roof on this side is pierced by picturesque gabled dormers. Opening on to the courtyard are three doorways surrounded by typical 18th century moulded stone architraves. One leads to the kitchen, one is the present main entrance, the third is in the wall of the Tudor hall on the south side of the courtyard. This would give access to the hall. It still has its original oak frame and massive oak door.


The third side of the courtyard is formed by the gabled end of an early 18th century barn, formerly the brewhouse. It has as the apex stone of its gable at either end a hexagonal Tudor finial. The early finials, as well as the Tudor 'kneelers' - the stone corbels at the bases of the gable coping - were made for a roof of steeper pitch than that of the brewhouse barn. The are actually of the same pitch (52 degrees) as the existing Tudor portion of the Manor house and clearly came from some part of it which has disappeared.

On the western gable of the barn is an 18th century weather-vane of wrought iron, its upright rod decorated with a spiral twist, the arrow points adorned with two volutes and the top terminating in a fleur-de-lys. It was rescued from an ancient barn in Middleton Cheney and set up here in 1927.

Built into the walls and stone staircase of the barn are a number of interesting pieces of carved stonework from former Tudor buildings. Others have been retrieved and are on display including a square stone with a quatrefoil opening sunk within a circle and the top of a small window with a trefoil head, both dating from the early 16th century. They are unglazed and were probably fixed high up in the gable ends of two ancient barns for the purpose of lighting and ventilation. Similar such pieces can be seen in old barns belonging to Threeways and Dial House.

The largest fragment is in date the latest and consists of half the head of a chimney piece with a spandrel, decorated with lozenge shaped ornaments. It comes from about 1600 and is the most substantial evidence we possess of the architectural work carried out by Lawrence Washington's son and successor, Robert Washington. He no doubt had to extend the house to accommodate his fifteen sons and daughters!


After the death of Robert in 1619, his nephew, Lawrence Makepeace, took on the Manor. He had already purchased the Elington Manor in Sulgrave from the Lesson family in 1607. Thus after a period of 500 years the Manors were again unified. Robert was succeeded by his son, Abel, and in 1659, when his cousins John and Lawrence were settling in Virginia, he sold Sulgrave to Edward Plant of Kelmarsh. In 1673 Edward Plant sold it to Rev. Moses Hodges of Over Norton. Descendants of this gentleman held the Manor up until 1840. Moses himself enjoyed the estate for only three years before dying and leaving it to his son, John Hodges, in 1676. After Lawrence Washington himself, John Hodges was to be the most important person in the history of Sulgrave.

In 1700 he united the double Manor, which Lawrence Makepeace had created, with the Culworth Manor by purchasing it from Lord Crewe's trustees. Thus Sulgrave was complete again. He held the completely unified Manor until he died in 1724. he was responsible for most of the major rebuilding which took place and in 1720 with his wife Mary had a school built and endowed so that ten poor boys of the village could be educated.

John Hodges' Charity School, Church and Village in 1894

In 1656, three years before the Makepeaces disposed of the house, John Washington, grandson of Lawrence who sold it to them, and son of the Rev. Lawrence Washington, emigrated to Virginia.

He was to start the line that three generations later produced George, the first President of the United States of America. He most probably took this course of action as a result of the treatment meted out to his father during and after the English Civil War. The Washingtons had been strong royalists fighting besides Charles I at the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Bristol and the Siege of Worcester. After Charles' execution and the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell, John could see no future in a Puritan-dominated England, and decided to emigrate. Within three years, his younger brother, Lawrence, joined him, as did their sister Martha in 1677.


The descendants of Moses and John Hodges remained owners, but not invariably occupiers of the house, until 1840. It had already become dilapidated by the end of the 18th century. Before its sale to Henry Hely-Hutchison, it had been described as a common farmhouse. From him it passed to Arthur Reynell-Pack and on his death in 1860 to his son, also Arthur, who retained ownership until 1914. During these years it was variously rented out to local farming families, to members of the owners' family and for a period remained empty.

Sulgrave Manor from the South-East in 1898



The house was purchased by the Anglo-American Peace Committee in 1914 to celebrate a century of peace between Britain and the United States. £12,000 had been raised by public subscription. The 1914-18 war halted any work. A further £8,500 was raised after the war, enough to cover the cost of restoration and refurbishment, which was entrusted to Sir Reginald Blomfield and Mr. H. Clifford-Smith.

The Sulgrave Manor Board became responsible for maintenance and administration and the house was formally opened to the public on 21st June, 1921.

21st June 1921. Official opening of Sulgrave Manor. Procession from the Church to the Manor,
led by former United States President Taft, passes the Old Bakehouse in Manor Road.

21st June 1921. Official opening of Sulgrave Manor. Former United States President Taft
(on the right), accompanied by Ambassador Harvey, leaving the Manor House by
the restored south porch.

21st June 1921. Official opening of Sulgrave Manor. Unveiling of the bust of
George Washington.

In 1924, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America endowed the house and still play the major role in its funding. Thus the Manor was bought by British subscription, restored and refurbished by joint British and American effort and endowed by American subscription. It stands as a permanent reminder of the special relationship between two great English-speaking nations.




Sulgrave Manor as it looks today, 1991

Since the Manor House was opened in 1921 nearly three quarters of a million visitors have been to enjoy the charms and beauty of the house and its setting. Even in the 1920s and 30s between seven and ten thousand pilgrims came each year to Sulgrave. Many, of course, were Americans making their way through the Northamptonshire countryside to visit their first President's ancestral home, by motor car or railway. A regular service was run on the Great Central Line from Marylebone Station stopping at 'Helmdon for Sulgrave'. From there visitors would be brought the last two miles to the Manor by pony and trap. Later, motor cars and open-topped charabancs would be plying for custom outside the station! It must be remembered that Sulgrave Manor was one of the first houses to be opened to the public and for many wealthy Americans it was almost a duty to visit Sulgrave as part of the their visit to England. At this time well over half the visitors were Americans.

Various traditions have now become part of the Sulgrave calendar as a result of the Manor's international status. Each year on the nearest Sunday to George Washington's birthday a special service is held in the church.

Every two years Dames' Day is held at the Manor when a large party of the National Society of the Colonial Dames is entertained. Again a special service is held in the church, the Dames are then taken round the Manor and dined in marquees set within the grounds. Various special anniversaries to do with George Washington, the opening of Sulgrave Manor or indeed aspect of Anglo-American history have been celebrated at Sulgrave.

Recently many more special events and activities have been organised at Sulgrave Manor. These are designed to encourage more visitors and to enhance their stay. Period re-enactments, living history events, art and craft festivals and fairs and a regular series of chamber music concerts have all enriched the life of Sulgrave and attracted many more people, particularly school children, to visit the Manor. The local History Society meets regularly in the Great hall and has been responsible for the presentation of an historical pageant as well as the setting up of a very fine local history museum in the old Brewhouse.

A scene in the Manor's kitchen during a Living History Event

Thus over the last few years Sulgrave Manor has once again become a particular feature of the life of Sulgrave. The House not just being a magnet for Americans now also attracts many British and regular local visitors and involves many residents in its activities. This has brought about considerable interest in all aspects of Sulgrave history and now 20,000 visitors a year enjoy coming to Sulgrave Manor and its splendid gardens.