Some people think that the formidable angel in the plaster over-mantel above the fireplace in the State Drawing Room in Boston Manor House, Middlesex is a dead-ringer for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The fireplace dates from 1623 and the plaster over-mantel was inspired by an engraving by Abraham de Bruyn of 1584. The central oval medallion depicts the biblical story of Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Issac and being stopped by an angel (the Mrs Thatcher look-a-like). The inscription below reads ‘In the Mount of the Lord it shal be seene’. The story goes that God was testing Abraham’s faith by instructing him to kill his only son. According to legend God stopped Abraham in the act at the last minute and instead instructed him to kill a sheep.
Maybe seeing the Mrs T lookalike image was an omen because it seemed to me during my recent visit to Boston Manor House and Brentford that this area of Middlesex was significant to the lives of some difficult and rebellious characters throughout history. In this post I thought I’d focus on a couple of these characters at a pivotal point in English history. To do this we need to go back in time to the early days of the English Civil War in November 1642.
Incredible as it may seem at that time Brentford was something of a war zone with the Royalist forces advancing through Brentford towards the Parliamentarians who were encamped in London. During the height of the Civil War, a surprise cavalry charge in the area against the Parliamentarian forces was led by a charismatic German soldier called Prince Rupert the nephew of King Charles I of England. Rupert was known for his youthful arrogance which alienated many of the King’s senior advisers, particularly as Rupert was exempted from taking orders from anyone but King Charles himself.
On the morning of 12 November, taking advantage of a thick mist, Prince Rupert advanced with four regiments of horses along the Great West Road towards Brentford, Middlesex. His forces attacked the small Roundhead garrison who defended the town in hand to hand combat. Many Roundheads were driven down to the river and drowned. The battle continued throughout the day, with a retreat of survivors made possible, upon the arrival of Colonel John Hampden’s regiment from Uxbridge, Middlesex.
After the capture of the town Prince Rupert ordered that it should be destroyed. Boats and nets of fishermen were burned, goods stolen, homes pillaged and residents turned out. The delay caused by the Royalist destruction of the town gave the Earl of Essex the opportunity to gather the Parliamentary troops and, in a pivotal point in the fighting, the Royalist army went into retreat after a stand-off at nearby Turnham Green the following day. In blocking the Royalist army’s way to London, the Parliamentarians gained an important strategic victory as the standoff forced Rupert’s forces to retreat to Oxford (the King’s capital) for secure winter quarters.
The mellow side of Rupert’s character was shown through his love for his dog called ‘Boy’. The white poodle was thought to have been given to him during his time in prison in the thirty year war. It was believed by some Roundheads that ‘Boy’ had possession of supernatural powers as a ‘dog-witch’.
It is rumoured that Charles I had watched part of the Battle of Brentford in 1642 from the roof of Boston Manor House.
Charles the First was certainly a controversial figure himself. He was reserved (he had a residual stammer), self-righteous and had a high concept of royal authority, believing in the divine right of kings. He was a good linguist and considered to be a man of refined tastes. He spent a lot on the arts, inviting the artists Van Dyck and Rubens to work in England, and buying a great collection of paintings by Raphael and Titian, his expenditure on his court, his picture collection as well as a number of overseas conflicts greatly increased the crown’s debts.
Charles married Roman Catholic French princess Henrietta Maria in 1625. Parliament were concerned about the marriage because they did not want to see a return to Catholicism and they believed that a Catholic Queen would raise their children to the Catholic faith.
Charles’s ideology was opposed by those who believed that there should be a limit to Royal authority and that the people and their representatives – Parliament – should have a say in how the nation was governed.
In an act that marked the beginning of the English Civil War, on 22 August 1642 in Nottingham, Charles raised the Royal Standard calling for loyal subjects to support him.
In common with Prince Rupert, King Charles the First was also a dog lover and before his execution for high treason in Whitehall in 1649, one of his last wishes to be granted was to go for a last walk with his pet dog in St James’ Park.
Prior to the days of unrest of the Civil War, the Manor of Boston was inherited by Lady Mary Read in 1621 who was married to Sir Edward Spencer of Althorp, Northamptonshire – an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales (and her second husband). Boston Manor House was believed to have been completed in a hurry by local builders in 1623 to be ready for the marriage of Sir Edward and Lady Mary (problems with the walls and foundations have long bedevilled the house). Mary Read’s initials and the date 1623 can be seen on the ceiling and at the top of a drainpipe overlooking the back lawn of the house.
When Charles I watched the Battle of Brentford from the roof of Boston Manor House he may have warmed himself against the chill of the November evening in front of a roaring fire at the spectacular fireplace showing the story of Abraham and Issac? To be a fly on the wall and hear the conversations between him and Sir Edward and Lady Mary (who if the rumours are true must have been sympathetic to the Royalist cause) would have been fascinating.
Boston Manor was home to the Clitherow family from 1670 to 1924. It’s thought that the Clitherow moto ‘Loyal yet Free’ was painted above the fireplace in the state drawing room at around 1670. The Clitherow family had a long association with Middlesex being magistrates at both the Middlesex and Brentford sessions. James Clitherow (1766-1841) was also a Colonel of the Royal Westminster Middlesex Militia and Chairman of the Committee instrumental in setting up Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum in Hanwell.
Although much of the contents of the old house were sold at auction in the 1920s, you can still view much of the original features including some very rare locally made wallpaper which was fashionable in the 18th century. The wallpaper would have been hand blocked in sections, not in a roll as it is nowadays. Each section included 5 different colours which would have to have been applied separately. The wallpaper would have likely been extremely expensive in those days.
The Drawing Room ceiling is a highlight of any visit to Boston Manor. Dating from 1623 it is divided into panels showing figures illustrating the senses (Light, Taste, Touch, Hearing and Smell) and the elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire), Peace and Plenty, War and Peace, and Faith Hope and Charity. The elements are from designs by the painter Marc Gheeraeharts. The idea of the ceiling was that an uplifting day could be spent reading and meditating of the meaning of the design.
Whilst very few people are going to have the luxury of appreciating the ceiling for a whole day, a couple of hours discovering Boston Manor House is time well spent. It’s open every Saturday and Sunday until 29 October 2017. Not only is it FREE of charge to go in but there’s even a guided tour at 2:30pm.
Location: Boston Manor Road, Brentford, Middlesex, TW8 9JX.
Tel: 0208 568 2818
Train – Boston Manor (Piccadilly Line) 200 yards from the house, Brentford Station
Bus – E3 , E8, 195