A Visit to Stoneleigh Abbey

The Abbey stands in one of the most beautiful and luxuriant parts of the county, between Kenilworth and Leamington; the Avon winding through its pleasure grounds and deer park. In the medieval part of the building there is an ancient gate- house, upon which is still to be seen a stone escutcheon bearing the arms of Henry II., the founder of the Abbey.
In the days of the Stuarts the Leighs were ardent Royalists. It was in Stoneleigh Abbey that King Charles I. found a resting-place in 1642. "The King was on his way to set up his standard at Nottingham and had marched to Coventry; but finding the gates shut against him, and that no summons could prevail with the mayor and magistrates to open them, he went the same night to Sir Thomas Leigh's house at Stoneleigh, and there his majesty met with a warm and loyal welcome and right plenteous and hospitable entertainment from his devoted subject Sir Thomas." Was Sir Walter Scott, we wonder, thinking of this same Sir Thomas Leigh when he described the character of his fine old cavalier, Sir Harry Lee, of Woodstock? In her book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins relates the following fascinating history of Jane Austen's own   connection with this great house. During the interlude in which the Austen ladies quit Bath (with such happy feelings of escape) and the time that they joined their Son and Brother, Francis Austen, in Southampton, "Mrs Austen decided to visit her relations in Gloucestershire, taking Jane and Cassandra with her. She was proud of her descent from the young branch of the Leigh family, which had owned Adlestrop Park since the Reformation. Most of the house built by her great grandfather had been pulled down in the 1750s and replaced by a Gothic structure whose exquisite south-west front was the admiration of the county. It was occupied by her cousin, James Henry Leigh, whose wife Julia was the daughter of Lord Saye and Sele. Mrs Austen seems to have regarded the couple as above her touch; however, at the rectory alongside lived her widower cousin, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, and his sister Elizabeth. It was to these that she now repaired. Jane and Cassandra had visited Adlestrop twelve years earlier; Jane was fond of Elizabeth Leigh, who was Cassandra's godmother; but her feeling for the Rev. Thomas Leigh was less certain. In his younger days, he had been in the habit of calling at Steventon on his way to London and had usually given the Austen boys a little present of money when he left. Jane had not come in for these attentions but she had always heard of Mr Leigh spoken of in the family as a good and kind person. This was probably how she had thought of him until her attitude was clouded by the situation which met them on their arrival at Adlestrop. The Rev. Thomas Leigh had recently heard some amazing news. On 1 July 1806 the last representative of the elder branch of the Leigh family, the Honourable Mary Leigh, had died at the ancestral home of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. In her will she had stipulated that the mansion and its huge estate should revert to the Adlestrop Leighs-- to the Rev. Thomas Leigh for his life, and then to James Leigh-Perrot (Mrs Austen's brother) for his life, and finally to James Henry Leigh of Adlestrop Park. The first two were childless old men. Nobody supposed that they would show much interest inthe legacy or that the forty-year-old James Henry Leigh would be long in succeeding. Indeed the Leigh family lawyer imagined that the two older legeatees would relinquish their claims at once for suitable financial compensation. The Rev. Thomas Leigh, however, had other ideas. He was evidently tired of being regarded as the poor relation and was determined to enjoy a few years of consequence. He had already paid one visit to Stoneleigh but had been obliged to return to London to establish his claim with the lawyers. He was now so keen to secure possession that as soon as Mrs Austen and her daughters arrived at Aldestrop he set out for Warwickshire, taking them with him. The visit to Stoneleigh had its own rewards, as Jane was to make good use of it in her fiction. The ladies were astonished at the sheer size of the mansion, as well as the sudden contrast between the older portions and the new Palladian range. The Rev. Thomas Leigh introduced a strict regimenf prayers, morning and evening, in the private chapel, which was draped in black on account of the previous owner. This was Jane's first experience in a private chapel, although she had probably heard about the famous on at The Vyne from Tom Chute. At Stoneleigh, visitors normally entered the chapel from the first floor of the house, by a door leading into the gallery and left it by descending into the nave where another door led straight into the garden. This layout provided Jane with a model for the chapel she was to describe at Sotherton Court and hence with the setting for a crucial episode in Mansfield Park." Constance Hill, follows suit with this additional anecdote from her work, Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends   : "The visit of Miss Jane Austen and her mother to Stoneleigh Abbey is chronicled in the following amusing letter, written by Mrs. Austen to a daughter-in-law, the greater part of which has fortunately been preserved: STONELEIGH ABBEY, August 13, 1806. MY DEAR MARY, - The very day after I wrote you my last letter, Mr. Hill wrote his intention of being at Adlestrop with Mrs. Hill on Monday, the 4th, and his wish that Mr. Leigh and family should return with him to Stoneleigh the following day, as there was much business for the executors awaiting them at the Abbey, and he was hurried for time. All this accordingly took place, and here we found ourselves on Tuesday (that is yesterday se'nnight) eating fish, venison, and all manner of good things, in a large and noble parlour, hung round with family portraits. The house is larger than I could have supposed. We cannot find our way about it - I mean the best part; as to the offices, which were the Abbey, Mr. Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up direction posts at the angles. I had expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had pictured to myself long avenues, dark rookeries, and dismal yew trees, but here are no such dismal things. The Avon runs near the   house, amidst green meadows, bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks. At nine in the morning we say our prayers in a handsome chapel, of which the pulpit, &c. &c., is now hung with black.     At nine in the morning we say our prayers in a handsome chapel, of which the pulpit, &c. &c., is now hung with black. Then follows breakfast, consisting of chocolate, coffee, and tea, plum cake, pound cake, hot rolls, cold rolls, bread and butter, and dry toast for me. The house steward, a fine, large, respectable-looking man, orders all these matters. Mr. Leigh and Mr. Hill are busy a great part of the morning. We walk a good deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun, even in the middle of an August day. I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden, where the quantity of small fruit exceeds anything you can form an idea of. This large family, with the assistance of a great many blackbirds and thrushes, cannot prevent it from rotting on the trees. The gardens contain four acres and [Page 165] a half. The ponds supply excellent fish, the park excellent venison; there is great quantity of rabbits, pigeons, and all sorts of poultry. There is a delightful dairy, where is made butter, good Warwickshire cheese and cream ditto. One manservant is called the baker, and does nothing but brew and bake. The number of casks in the strong-beer cellar is beyond imagination; those in the small-beer cellar bear no proportion, though, by the bye, the small beer might be called ale without misnomer. This is an odd sort of letter. I write just as things come into my head, a bit now and a bit then. Now I wish to give you some idea of the inside of this vast house - first premising that there are forty-five windows in front, which is quite straight, with a flat roof, fifteen in a row. You go up a considerable flight of steps to the door, for some of the offices are underground, and enter a large hall. On the right hand is the dining-room and within that the breakfast-room, where we generally sit; and reason good, 'tis the only room besides the chapel, which looks towards the view. On the left hand of the hall is the best drawing-room and within a smaller one. These rooms are rather gloomy with brown wainscot and dark crimson furniture, so we never use them except to walk through to the old picture gallery. Behind the smaller drawing-room is the state-bedchamber - an alarming apartment, with its high, dark crimson velvet bed, just fit for an heroine. The old gallery opens into it. Behind the hall and parlours there is a passage all across the house, three staircases and two small sitting-rooms. There are twenty-six bedchambers in the new part of the house and a great many, some very good ones, in the old. There is also another gallery, fitted up with modern prints on a buff paper, and a large billiard-room. Every part of the house and offices is kept so clean, that were you to cut your finger I do not think you could find a cobweb to wrap it up in. I need not have written this long letter, for I have a presentiment that if these good people live until next year you will see it all with your own eyes. Our visit has been a most pleasant one. We all seem in good humour, disposed to be pleased and endeavouring to be agreeable, and I hope we succeed. Poor Lady Saye and Sele, to be sure, is rather tormenting, though sometimes amusing, and affords Jane many a good laugh, but she fatigues me sadly on the whole. To-morrow we depart. We have seen the remains of Kenilworth, which afforded us much entertainment, and I expect still more from the sight of Warwick Castle, which we are going to see to-day. The Hills are gone, and my cousin, George Cook, is come. A Mr. Holt Leigh was here yesterday and gave us all franks. He is member for, and lives at, Wigan in Lancashire, and is a great friend of young Mr. Leigh's, and I believe a distant cousin. He is a single man on the wrong side of forty, chatty and well-bred and has a large estate. There are so many legacies to pay and so many demands that I do not think Mr. Leigh will find that he has more money than he knows what to do with this year, whatever he may do next. The funeral expenses, proving the will, and putting the servants in both houses in mourning must come to a considerable sum; there were eighteen men servants." The Lady Saye and Sele alluded to was a cousin of the Austens, her mother having been a Leigh. It is the same Lady Saye and Sele whom Fanny Burney met "at a rout" in 1782, and of whom she gives an amusing account in her "Diaries. This lady seems to have been a sort of "Mrs. Leo Hunter." On being introduced to the author of Evelina, she exclaimed, "I am very happy to see you; I have longed to see you a great while; I have read your performance, and I am quite delighted with it! I think it's the most elegant novel I ever read in my life . . . . I must introduce you," continued her ladyship, "to my sister (Lady Hawke), she'll be quite delighted to see you. She has written a novel herself, so you are sister authoresses. A most elegant thing it is I assure you. It's called the 'Mausoleum of Julia!' . . . Lord Hawke himself says it's all poetry . . . . My sister intends to print her 'Mausoleum' just for her own friends and acquaintances." What ecstasies would Lady Saye and Sele have experienced could she have foreseen the future renown of the young cousin with whom she was walking and talking at Stoneleigh Abbey!" Visit Stoneleigh Abbey.org for more information about the house and the special Jane Austen tours they provide. Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape to the world of Jane Austen.

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