Page 5, 6th May 1988

6th May 1988
Page 5
Page 5, 6th May 1988 — Stowaways at Spetchley Park

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Locations: London, Worcester, Bath, Brussels


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Stowaways at Spetchley Park

SPETCHLEY Park, three miles East of Worcester, is on three counts unusual among England's "recusant" country houses.

The Spetchley branch of the Berkeleys had no continuous history of recusancy from the time of Elizabeth I, their Catholicism, by conversion while in exile in the Spanish Netherlands, going back to the 1650s. The house is not, as at Harvington Hall, a traditionally recusant mansion of gables and priestholes beneath attic floor, but is a handsome "Regency" rebuild of the Greek Revival period of country house architecture.

Within its fabric, moreover, it includes a public chapel, with its own entrance from outside, which serves the family and a few local massgoers.

The manor of Spetchley once belonged to the cathedral monastery of Worcester, and was later held by various other families. In James l's reign Rowland Berkeley, a rich clothier and banker of Worcester, brought the manor as a country residence; his splendid canopied monument in the parish church indicated his prosperity. He was descended from the original line of the Berkeleys, so that the Spetchley Berkeleys have in their arms a chevron argent, not the chevron ermines of the family's junior branches.

As the Berkeleys of Berkeley Castle have now died out this Spetchley branch now owns both Spetchley and Berkeley Castle, so that Major John Berkeley and his wife divide their time between the two houses.

Rowland Berkeley died in 1611, and Spetchley went to his younger son Robert who achieved distinction as a justice of the King's Bench. His son Thomas was, like his father, staunchly royalist in the Civil War. The old house was damaged at the time of the battle of Worcester in 1651.

Cromwell's victory made things difficult for the Berkeleys. The Judge remained at Spetchley, in a house contrived out of the stables, till his death in 1656.

But his eldest son was born in 1650, fled to the Continent after the battle of Worcester. He was, for a time, in Brussels, and it seems that it was there that he became a Catholic, being disinherited by his Protestant father.

He died in 1693, but as his Anglican son Robert died childless it was his Catholic younger son who carried on the line of the Catholic Berkeleys of Spetchley. Mass was said elsewhere in the parish, in a separate house.

In the eighteenth century the Berkeleys intermarried with various Catholic families and sent several novices to English religious houses on the Continent. With some alterations they still lived in this house fashioned out of the stables. But soon after 1800, when this house must have been in poor condition, the time came for the building of a new mansion.

The builder of the new house at Spetchley was Robert Berkeley. His architect, who practised in London, was John Tasker who had, in the 1780s, designed the well known chapel at Lulworth. Work started in 1811.

The house is rectangular, with a servants' wing at the back, and with a two-storeyed bow window in the middle of its southern side. At its western end the house has fine four-columned Ionic portico, and there are Ionic pilasters along its southern side.

The exterior is largely faced with Bath stone, but the back, with a more recent Venetian window lighting the grand staircase, is largely of brick.

As befits a large Regency mansion the downstairs rooms are dignified and lofty, with some typical fireplaces in black or white marble. The best interior features, at each end of the corridor from the central doorway to the hall at the bottom of the grand staircase, comes with two fine pairs of Ionic columns made of dark red scagliola, or artificial stone.

Corinthian pillars screen the landing at the top of the grand staircase. The furniture and other contents of the house are some of them earlier than the Regency period, and must have come from the Spetchley Berkeleys' earlier home.

They include an interesting heraldic plaque of the Habingtons of Hindlip, another recusant family in Worcestershire who intermarried with the Berkeleys.

Most of the mansion at Spetchley is closed to the public. But at its eastern end, an integral part of the house and of the same internal height as the groundfloor rooms, the chapel has always, like the somewhat earlier one at Wardour, been a place of public Catholic worship.

By 1811 there were no legal restraints on the public celebration of Mass, so this chapel, with a gallery at its liturgical West end, can be entered direct from outside. Ionic columns flank its altar.

The chapel is dedicated to St John the Baptist, but has a coloured window depicting St Walburga, like St Etheldreda a princess of Belgium, founded an abbey, and died there in 779. Like St Etheldreda she is shown as a canonised abbess, with the coronet of a princess on her head.

The grounds at Spetchley, with a shallow lake, assorted wildfowl, and a Roman Doric garden temple, are open to the public, with a spacious expanse of turf leading from the house to the lake and beyond it, a fine display of daffodils in the spring, and a richly varied collection of summer flowers.

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