Ightham Mote (pronounced item moat) is one of my favourite houses. When I lived in Kent, I used to live not far away and relished a visit. Now in the hands of the National Trust, its long history began centuries ago and involved many occupiers. A house’s history is the product of his occupants and Ightham boasts a long history of people. Here’s just a taste of a few of them.
Ightham is a Medieval manor house that began life some time in the middle of the 14th Century and the earliest recorded owner is the Cawne family. Leaving home to seek his fortune, Thomas Cawne set off with his friends in 1350 to France and by 1357 he was the captain of a fortress of Neuberg and made his mark. He most have done well to be noted in the long Hundred Years War and was knighted. With his commitments in France and a circle of friends in London, he travelled back and forth, through Kent, so he married a local girl and settled at Ightham Mote. After Sir Thomas died his son, Robert, inherited the house. Robert was sent to the Tower of London for trying to kill his wife by throwing her down a well. Fortunately for him, the King pardoned him, then he disappeared into obscurity. Not a great ending for the Cawne family.
The house retains most of its original structure and continues to look inward to its courtyard, unlike other houses which have been altered to look outward. Originally built with timber, it has been replaced with Kentish ragstone (a hard bluish limestone and common in Medieval buildings in the area). The original house was the Great Hall, chapel, crypt and two solars (family rooms) and surrounded on all sides by a square moat. Little of this building is visible as later additions of the 15th and 16th century refaced these walls.
How did it come to be expanded to 70 rooms?
Well, the next family up is the Haute. Nicholas Haute at the age of 16 was one of England’s wealthiest men, but he couldn’t touch his money until he turned 21 in 1379 and even then, his mother retained part of the inheritance until her death in 1391. In 1389 Nicholas married Alice Cawne, who inherited Ightham from Robert Cawne, the wife tossing husband. She died, and Nicholas married again to another wealthy landowner, and when he died, the house was left to his son William. William favoured a wife who brought in even more money, but when this wife died, he married into Royalty – Joan Woodville, the Queen’s aunt – and he was forced to disinherit the daughter from his first marriage, although she was spared the convent life. Son and heir, Richard Haute, the cousin of the queen, with his rising status, and all the money his family had, expanded the house adding receptions rooms and courtyards. Edward Haute inherited the house at the age of eleven in 1487. Not surprisingly given his youth, he lost all the money, ended up in debtors prison and the estate was confiscated.
The next family, the Selbys, held the house for 300 years. It stayed in the family just because some cousins had the wit to change their name to Selby in order to inherit. But by 1889 the Selbys ran out of money. The house was purchased by Thomas Colyer-Fergusson, and he and his wife raised six children. One son died during the battle of Ypres in 1917, and was award the Victorian Cross posthumous and his oldest son died during a bombing raid in 1940 on an army driving school in Tidworth.
By 1951 the cost of keeping up the house was too much. The contents of the house were sold at an auction that lasted three days and the house itself sold. It was nearly pulled down for the lead in its roof. Instead, three local men saved it by paying £5500 and in 1953 an American, Charles Henry Robinson, bought it, living only for a few weeks a year in the UK to avoid paying taxes. He made urgent repairs before passing the house onto the National Trust in 1965. His ashes are interred in the crypt.
The National Trust began a long process in 1989 of dismantling the house and rebuilding it based on its original construction methods. In the process they uncovered the ornamental features and structure of the house, the impact of weathering and age, and the destructive effect of the deathwatch beetle. The deathwatch beetle attracts its mate by tapping on the rafters of old buildings and consequently they are often associated with sleepness nights and the eerie ‘vigil’ they keep by watching over the dying. Shivers…
“Beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” Goodreads reviewer
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