Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk has just too much history. It’s bursting at the seams. From 1086 there has been a settlement in the parish of Oxborough (meaning fortified place with oxen), which adopted the shorten version of the name. The land belonged to one family for generations and the current house began life in 1482, the date recorded in history by Edward Bedingfield’s licence to crenellate – basically royal planning permission to fortify his home, which in the end wasn’t necessary and the house was never turned into a fortress. The moat and cross-slits in the gatehouse are not defensive and for show.
Before Bedingfield acquire the estate via marriage two families owned the land:
De Weyland (1247-1434), Thomas de Weyland was a swindler and stripped of his lands by Edward I.
Tuddenham, (1434-1462). Sir Thomas Tuddenham, a Lancastrian supporter was hung for treason by Edward IV. Dying without heir, he’d banished his wife to a nunnery for adultery, so the estate passed to his sister Margaret who married Edmund Bedingfield.
Sir Edmund Bedingfield moved to Oxburgh and chose to build his house in brick – something usually only done by kings. Sir Edmund wisely supported the Yorkist cause and the Yorkist badge of falcon and fetterlock appears throughout the house.
Sir Henry Bedingfield was a catholic and supporter of Mary I. When Lady Jane Grey made a claim for the throne in the name of protestants, Henry escorted Mary to Framlingham castle and remained a supporter even when Mary’s popularity waned.
During 1554 Bedingfield was constable of the Tower of London and one of his prisoners was Princess Elizabeth, Mary’s sister and heir to the throne. When she was released from the Tower, he took her to Woodstock and was tasked with keeping her safe from both Catholic threats and Protestant rebels. Henry received a promotion for his loyalty.
The next Sir Henry inherited Oxburgh at eight years old. The catholic family were heavily fined for their faith and the house suffered as a consequence. 277 trees were felled to supply timber for essential repairs to the house.
Things improved under Charles I, with whom he sided… but not for long. He’d picked the losing side. Imprisoned in the Tower for two years, the estate was ransacked and partially burnt down by Parlimentarians.
Charles II went some way to restore the family’s good fortune by rewarding the next Bedingfield, a half-brother of Henry, with a baronet. He didn’t however make financial restitution and the house was in such a poor shape, the baronet never lived there.
Sir Harry Bedingfield was the savour of Oxburgh. He made it habitable again, although he never rebuilt the burnt part. He improved the gardens using his wife’s dowry. Handy things wives when it comes to money, but laws meant a wife never own property in their own right once married – see below for the consequences of that.
Life for the catholic family took a downturn after James II was kicked off the throne. Protestant William and Mary introduced punitive laws for catholics: doubling of taxes and Sir Harry wasn’t permitted to travel five miles away from Oxburgh, his children weren’t allowed to be educated, so he packed them off to Flanders, and after 1700 it was illegal for catholics to buy or inherit land. (The house has a priest hole where a visiting priest could hide if the house was raided.)
Eldest son, Sir Henry, married a protestant and diluted the impact of the laws. Finally improvements could be made to the house with the parts destroyed in the civil war rebuilt in 1748.
Sir Richard Bedingfield, probably Henry’s brother, inherited the house and married Mary, who brought to the house the Marian Hangings – tapestries made by Bess of Hardwick and Mary Queen of Scots during her captivity over a century earlier. Mary Bedingfield died after giving birth to a boy, and inconsolable, Richard became a recluse. He demolished the great hall (a pity) in 1775 and removed the old kitchens for a ‘modern’ pavilion.
Following Richard’s death, the Bedingfields formed an allegiance with another catholic family, whom they intermarried with several times and in 1811, the family moved to Bath, then Ghent. The house was let in their absence.
Sadly, during this period, many of the estate’s buildings were demolished due to their poor state. The 6th Baronet, another Henry, married into a wealthy Norfolk family, the Paston, and adopted her name: Paston-Bedingfield. He wrote to his brother in 1830 giving his address as ‘the ruin’, before putting his wife’s dowry to good use. With an interest in chivalry, the couple revived the house in the Medieval style.
The 7th baronet married a pious women who wanted to be a nun but instead ended up marrying and losing her own inheritance – the baronet sold her property, a castle, to paint a ceiling and buy significant quantities of wallpaper. The baronet gave his sons money and off they went to seek their fortunes. The future 8th baronet went to Wyoming in 1885 and became a cowboy for a number of years (seriously, I’m not making this up), and rode with Wild Bill Hickok.
In 1904, Sir Henry (8th) married Sybil for love at the age of 42 having returned home a superb horseman. His much younger wife, Sybil saved the house from being demolished.
With rents unpaid and debts rising, the house was sold to an insurance company in 1950 which in turn proposed to sell off the property in lots. Only one person was interested and that was because they wanted the timber in the roof and those lovely bricks. The insurance company backed out of doing such a terrible thing and sold the house back to the surviving members of the family, who salvage some of the content, although much was sold at auction.
In 1952, the house was given to the National Trust.
One family, many Henrys, a few dowries and the determination of some owners has kept Oxburgh here – intact and looking beautiful.
“Beautifully written mystery weaves a spell around the house and the people connected to it.” Goodreads reviewer
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