The mysterious history of Campden House
- Credit: Chipping Campden History Society
Christopher Smith delves into the mysterious history of Campden House and the man who built it
THE charred ruins of what was the country residence of one of England’s wealthiest men stand proud in a quiet corner of Chipping Campden.
Much is known about the man who built it, but despite its significance in the timeline of the picturesque Cotswold town, Campden House itself remains largely a mystery.
What historians do know is that it was built by Lord of the Manor Sir Baptist Hicks sometime between 1612 and 1615, and was burned down just 30 years later, by order of Prince Rupert during the English Civil War.
There are no formal plans or records, and only a handful of sketches, the earliest of which dates from around 100 years after it was destroyed – meaning that much of what is known about its brief existence is based on “assumptions”, admits the Chairman of the Chipping Campden History Society, Bob Montgomery.
“There is nothing that we can say accurately, ‘that is the house’, nothing exists,” says Bob.
“There are numerous versions of the same print or engraving. Now whether they have been all drawn from one another or whether one artist has taken a look at it and reproduced it from memory, we don’t know, because there are differences.
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“Because there is very little evidence so we have to make a lot of assumptions and surmises, and they’re not all going to be right.”
So, what is known about the man who built Campden House?
Sir Baptist Hicks was born in London in the mid-1500s to parents who had Gloucestershire connections.
His father, Robert, a silk mercer (dealer), died when Baptist was just six years old, and shortly after his mother, Julian, married Anthony Penne, a friend of her late husband.
Documents show Julian proved to be a formidable businesswoman in her own right, and continued to develop the mercer’s trade, with Baptist becoming involved after finishing his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Baptist’s step-father died in 1577 and his mother in 1597, at which point he took complete control of the family business. By then he had been made a Freeman of the Mercers’ Company and admitted to the Livery of the Mercers’ Company.
In 1584 he married Elizabeth May, the daughter of a goldsmith, and they had five children, two boys and three girls, but only their daughters, Juliana and Mary, survived in to adulthood.
As silk mercers the Hicks family were supplying cloth to nobility, and family connections led to Baptist being appointed mercer to Queen Elizabeth I. Baptist was already a wealthy man by the time she died and was succeeded by James I, and he retained his position as a mercer and even began lending money to the cash-strapped Scottish monarch.
Baptist was knighted by the King in 1603, and by 1607 was owed £24,000 by the Crown (£3million in today’s money). He also received lucrative commissions as an agent for the purchase and sale of Royal lands.
Such was his standing that in 1605 he was foreman of the jury that convicted Father Henry Garnet over his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.
Around 1607/08 he bought the Manor of Chipping Campden from Anthony Smythe, although not everyone welcomed him, due, in part, to his air of self-importance. It is thought that he built the Almshouses for the poor, and the Market Hall, both of which still stand, in an effort to curry favour with the locals.
That’s the man. What about his house?
Sometime in the next eight years Baptist built Campden House on land next to St James’ Church in Chipping Capmden. It was to be his country residence. At the same time he was building a home in Kensington, also named Campden House. Both were said to have been in a Jacobean style – and, interestingly, both were destroyed in mysterious circumstances by fire.
The house in Chipping Campden would have been luxurious and highly-fashionable. Research by the Chipping Campden History Society suggests that it would have been built over eight years to what was the latest architectural design of that time, with the highest quality stone.
The most contemporary drawing of the house was sketched in 1750, over 100 years after it was burned down, and shows two bay windows, a covered portico, tall chimneys, shaped gables and a great dome on the roof.
It is thought that it would also have had extensive garden, raised terraces and even a boating lake.
In three archaeological digs carried out by the Chipping Campden History Society, finds have included Venetian glass, German pottery, shards of patterned window glass, as well as lots of stone, plaster and nails – the latter suggesting that the home would have had decorative wood panelling throughout.
Mary Gray, a member of Chipping Campden History Society and co-author of a book about Campden House, says, “These are the things that have been able to let us get a feel for it all.
“While small in terms of its footprint, it would have been quite a significant property, with the banqueting houses, which still survive, and extensive gardens and even a canal/lake for recreation purposes.
“It was definitely a bijou property, but highly decorative.”
Baptist acquired land all over England and after being elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Hicks of Ilmington and Viscount Campden in 1628, he died in October, 1629, aged 78, in London, but is buried in a magnificent tomb in St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, alongside his wife, who died 14 years later.
His country residence was intended to be the home of his descendants for ever more, but it did not survive the Civil War, being set on fire by order of Prince Rupert following the withdrawal of the Royalist garrison, which had been based there, so it could not be captured by the Parliamentarians.
The diary entry of one of the Royalist soldiers reads: ‘The howse (which was so faire) burnt’.
It is said that in the light of the blaze, Prince Rupert’s men marched over Broadway Hill, headed for Evesham.
The Cotswold stone remains of the house have turned pink in colour, which indicates extreme heat from the fire. And it is thought that in the intervening years, other stone was pillaged, with similar coloured stone seen in some of the surviving buildings on High Street today, as well as what is the Court Barn Museum.
The banqueting houses remain intact, although it is not known why they were not set ablaze too. Both have been owned by the Landmark Trust since 1987, as is the land behind a grand gatehouse, and are rented out as holiday homes.
The site is closed off to the general public despite its historical interest, with open days taking place only once a year.
Interestingly, the other Campden House, in Kensington, was also destroyed by fire in 1862. The then owner was said to have been accused of doing so for insurance purposes.
For the record, Baptist’s eldest daughter, Juliana, married Lord Edward Noel, but after being widowed in 1643 she took up residence in the modified stables on nearby Calf Lane. The Court, as it is now known, is still occupied by members of the family, in the shadow of what should have been their ancestral home.
Mary added: “If it had remained it would have been wonderful.”
The Chipping Campden History Society’s latest book tells the story of Campden House. The Howse Which Was So Faire is co-authored by Mary Gray, Helen Kirkup, and Mary Fielding, and edited by Vanessa Rigg.
The book was the culmination of a £29,000, two-year National Lottery-funded project to delve into as far as they could into the little-known history of Campden House.
Mr Montgomery adds, “Part of the reason and justification for the book is to let people know a bit more about what they’re missing, because the grounds are closed off. They are open to the public for one or two days a year, and for such an historic town, we get masses of visitors, a lot of them coming into the information centre and say ‘Can we get in there?’ Sadly, no, they can’t.”