The lost gardens of Holywell House, St Albans
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Home to one of the most powerful couples in Stuart England, St Albans’ Holywell House and its beautiful gardens have long vanished. Its story is one of romance, intrigue and fall from grace
Forget the noise of traffic on one of the main roads into St Albans. Instead, imagine a nightingale singing from the branches of an exotic fruit tree. A little further off - the sound of running water from rills and pools where the river Ver has been diverted into water gardens.
Three and a half centuries ago, Holywell House and its gardens, situated where the modern A road (Holywell Hill) runs downhill towards Westminster Lodge Leisure Centre, was the much-loved country home of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, and royal favourite of Queen Anne. It was a retreat, away from the court intrigues and power-battles dramatised in the Oscar and Bafta-winning film, The Favourite - shot in nearby Hatfield House.
Her young cousin, Abigail Hill, who supplanted Sarah in the Queen's affections - and in her bedchamber, according to the film - was first employed by her cousin at Holywell House in St Albans. And it was here that Sarah wrote some of the desperate letters to the queen trying to mend their relationship after her fall from favour and the waning of the Marlboroughs' political power.
Sarah, who is played in the film by Rachel Weisz, was born in St Albans in 1660, the daughter of a local landowner, John Jennings, or Jenyns, of Sandridge and Holywell House. When she was only 13, she went to the court of James II to become a maid of honour to his queen, Mary of Modena. It was here that she became close friends with the young Princess Anne. At court, she also met the soldier and commander, John Churchill - a handsome and dashing military hero, 10 years older than herself. Their families disapproved of the match. But when Sarah became the heir, along with her sister, to her family's Hertfordshire estate, the couple married in secret, making the news public only when she became pregnant.
And a family needed a family home. For those who had to weather the ups and downs of politics at the Stuart court, St Albans was a very handy retreat - not in London but not too far off either. However the mansion house where Sarah was born had become embarrassingly dilapidated over the years, so the fashionable and powerful young couple set about a major rebuilding programme. Their new house was probably designed by William Talman who went on to become the eminent society designer of English country houses, including Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
The first problem was the front door, which pretty much opened right on to the busy public thoroughfare of Holywell Hill. The couple certainly weren't prepared to put up with carts trundling past their doorstep all day. Their solution? Move the main road. It was diverted in an arc away from the house along what is now Grove Road, probably to the great irritation of the carters and coachmen. Stables and outbuildings were built in the space created between the old route and the new one to give the house a little more privacy.
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But although the Marlboroughs, who were ancestors of both Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, went on to build the vast, grand Blenheim Palace, Holywell House was quite a modest estate. According to the historian Dr Frances Harris, 'The result wasn't a very large or elaborate house. Neither the site nor the Churchills' means at that time would have allowed for that, and Sarah at least preferred plainness in design - and speaking'.
Sarah herself wrote at one point that, 'painters, poets and builders have very high flights but they must be kept down.'
All the same, Holywell House was built on a rather grander scale than the 19th century red-brick terraces and modern townhouses that occupy the land today. The lowest floor had a summer parlour opening directly on to the garden, with kitchens and offices behind. Upstairs was the main floor with a drawing room, dining room, two main bedchambers and dressing rooms, with more bedchambers in the attic storey above.
There was a stone cloister, where Sarah would sit with visitors, out of the sun, on hot days. The gardens sound especially magnificent. The duke, when he wasn't on military campaigns, made them his special project - sometimes irritating Sarah, who got fed up with all the disruption.
There were large orchards. Peaches were grown, along with pears, nectarines and grapes. A glasshouse and underground furnaces provided heat to grow out-of-season vegetables and fruits as exotic as pomegranates and figs. There was a kitchen garden, a dovecot, a bowling green, a summer house and parterres.
Absorbed within the grounds was also what was reputed to be the ancient holy well of St Alban which gave the area its name. On his way to be martyred, goes the legend, St Alban craved water, and a spring miraculously burst from the earth. The nuns at nearby Sopwell Nunnery used to 'sop' their bread in the holy water. The well still exists - though under the weeds and ferns, there's not much sign of any holy water today.
Most dramatically, the Churchills had water diverted from the river Ver to create a canal and a series of water gardens and fishponds at the bottom of the hill to provide trout and other fish for the table.
Sarah was in her early 40s when she discovered the existence of her first cousin, Abigail Hill, whose branch of the family had fallen on hard times. She gave her a job in the household, as Sarah herself wrote: 'I took her to St Albans, where she lived with me and my Children, and I treated her with as great Kindness as if she had been my Sister.'
She then found her cousin a job at court, where the problems really began, as the queen soon preferred Abigail to her old friend and political advisor.
After Abigail's rise, and Sarah's fall from favour, the duke and duchess drifted around the courts of Europe, but did eventually come back to England. After the duke died, Sarah still visited St Albans during her long widowhood. But at the age of 75, she wrote rather sadly to her granddaughter, 'This place is convenient and suits well enough with my Inclination, who never was fond of magnificent things, yet 'tis so dismal… to be here alone in a Place that makes me reflect upon many Scenes of happiness, none of which can ever return, that I cannot bear to stay.'
After Sarah's death, Holywell House was used occasionally by the family, who brought guests to enjoy the gardens. Giacomo Casanova gave a detailed description of his visit in 1763 - he was particularly impressed by the water gardens.
But by the early 1800s, Holywell House had become increasingly redundant. The Spencer family, who had inherited the estates, had no use for it. Repeated efforts to find a buyer came to nothing, even after the price was dropped. And in 1837, the house was demolished and the estate broken up.
The road was returned to the original, straight route it takes today - presumably to the delight of those carters and coachmen. And the Ver, just a trickle compared to the river Sarah Churchill would have known, now carries on its way without diversion into water gardens.
Only a plaque on a wall along Belmont Hill gives any clue to where royalty and the most powerful politicians of the age were once entertained in Sarah's 'clean, sweet house and garden.'
While her much-loved home is long gone, a visit to St Albans can yield insights into Sarah Churchill. She is featured in the Portrait of St Albans exhibit as well as an interactive display at St Albans Museum + Gallery and you can still see the Marlborough Almshouses she built in the city, on Hatfield Road.
The revered holy well of St Alban, said to cure ailments and once in the grounds of the Marlboroughs' estate, has been preserved in what is now the less-than-inspiring site of a housing estate, off Belmont Hill. On the hill is a blue plaque - all that remains to tell passers-by of the vanished estate that stood nearby.
Sarah Churchill's letters are housed at the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies in Hertford.