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Cowdray House

by Lorna Still

Print of Cowdray House (from the engraving by James Basire), 1796

by Lorna Still, Volunteer at The Novium Museum

The picturesque ruins of Cowdray House in Midhurst have a fascinating history which involves the Civil War, the Gunpowder Plot and even a curse.

The house we see today was begun by Sir David Owen, who was probably the illegitimate son of Henry VII's grandfather. He pulled down the stronghold built on the site by the Bohun family, who were lords of the manor of Midhurst and Easebourne from the 1180s. The Bohuns had moved to this site from their castle on St Anne's Hill in around 1273. The name 'Cowdray' comes from the French 'la coudraie', meaning 'hazel-wood'. When the last male Bohun died in 1492, his eldest daughter married Sir David Owen, who became 'tenant for life' at Cowdray.

Although he had no legal right to do so, Sir David's son Henry sold the house to Sir William Fitzwilliam, Lord High Admiral of England and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. Fitzwilliam continued work on what became a fortified Tudor mansion and Henry VIII visited the house more than once. A fountain made by Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano was placed in the courtyard, probably for one of Henry's visits. It can now be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry gave the Easebourne Priory buildings to Fitzwilliam and the Battle Abbey buildings to his half-brother Anthony Browne. Legend has it that a dispossessed monk called down the curse of Heaven in fire and water on the family who owned the Abbey buildings. This curse will become important later.

Sir Anthony Browne inherited Cowdray when Fitzwilliam died fighting the Scots. Browne was sent to meet Anne of Cleves before King Henry, and declared he 'was never more dismayed in his life.'

Browne's son inherited Cowdray in 1548. He was a devout Roman Catholic but managed to stay in favour with Protestant monarchs Edward VI and Elizabeth I, who were both entertained at the house. However, it was the Roman Catholic Queen Mary who created him Viscount Montague in 1554.

When Viscount Montague died, he was succeeded by his grandson Anthony Maria Browne, who wrote a book of rules for the running of his household. He employed Guy Fawkes at the house and was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot as he failed to attend Parliament on 5th November 1605. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London for nearly a year and paid a heavy fine.

The third Viscount was lord of the manor during the Civil War. He was a staunch Royalist, but Parliamentary troops took over the house until the Restoration in 1660, and he suffered huge financial losses.

We now return to the curse in fire and water. The young eighth Viscount drowned in 1793 while attempting to shoot the falls of the river Rhine in a rowing boat at Laufenburg. He therefore never found out about the fire which gutted the house in the same year. While redecoration was being carried out ready for the Viscount's return and marriage, workmen kept a fire lit in their workshop at one end of the North Gallery. A fire started and spread rapidly, destroying many art treasures rendering the house uninhabitable.

The sister of the eighth Viscount inherited the property and she married William Stephen Poyntz in 1794. The keeper's lodge in Cowdray Park was enlarged so they could live there. Mrs Poyntz watched helplessly as her two sons drowned in a holiday boating accident in Bognor.

Eventually the estate was sold to the Earls of Egmont and the seventh Earl built a fine house where the lodge had been. The eighth Earl sold to engineer Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson who became the First Viscount Cowdray in 1917. He carried out a systematic preservation operation to save the original Cowdray House ruins from collapse.

The original Cowdray House (known locally now as the ruins), was re-opened to the public after restoration in 2007 and is now in the care of Cowdray Heritage Trust. Today you can visit the ruins, with its gatehouse, kitchen tower and great hall.