A Lived in Historic House
Wrapped in romance, intrigue and great charm, the Cheshire domain of Gawsworth has been held by only five families since Norman times. Today it is the home of Elizabeth Richards, and her sons Rupert and Jonathan.
On a tour of this ancient Tudor manor house you will see fine paintings, furniture, sculpture and stained glass. The grounds are no less impressive, with a rookery, tilting ground and Elizabethan pleasure garden.
It has been said that to see Cheshire, you must see Gawsworth, and there can be no doubt of the important role that this beautiful black and white Hall, built in 1480, has played in Britain’s history over the last five centuries.
The Dark Lady
Here lived Mary Fitton, the beautiful Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth I, whose family spent vast sums in the hope of procuring a visit from the Monarch.
It was not to be, despite work starting on a garden to rival those at Holdenby and Chipping Campden. Complete with mile-long Tudor wall, a series of five lakes and wonderful avenues of Lime trees, renowned Cheshire archealogist Rick Turner suggests it would have cost some £10 million in today’s terms. Instead, the younger daughter of Sir Edward and Lady Alice Fitton was threatened with the Tower, and sent home in disgrace after becoming pregnant by the Earl of Pembroke.
After Mary’s fall from grace, the Fitton finances never recovered and at the end of the English Civil War, a legal battle began between Sir Charles Gerard (the 1st Earl of Macclesfield) and Alexander Fitton over the Gawsworth estates.
This was eventually settled in 1663, but events came to a head again in 1701 with the death of Fitton Gerard (the 3rd Earl of Macclesfield) who left no male heirs. The estate was left to a niece, Lady Mohun, and contested by another niece, the Duchess of Hamilton. The dispute culminated in one of the most famous duels in English history, when in 1712 Lord Mohun and the Duke of Hamilton met in Hyde Park and both were killed. Their deaths re-invigorated the campaign against dueling and Queen Anne made her displeasure clear, condemning the practice at the opening of parliament the following year.
The Pleasure Garden
Leaving the Hall by the North door, a flight of stone steps from the garden leads up to the ancient rookery and onto the Tilting Ground, which formed part of a vast Elizabethan pleasure garden.
Built by Sir Edward Fitton in the late 1590s, it consisted of a wilderness garden, with long graveled walk (now called the bowshot) giving views over the Cheshire plain towards the Welsh hills. In this formal 20-acre paddock there is also evidence of a maze, extensive brick revettment, and excavation in the low central section has revealed that it was sealed with red clay.
Old maps show a system of sluices and the ability to flood the garden to make a shallow ornamental lake. Sir Edward may well have intended to emulate the water entertainments used at Elvetham and Kenilworth to impress the Queen.
Theatre has long thrived at the Hall, with the existing garden performances beginning in 1969. Many years earlier Britain’s last professional jester, Samuel ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, was dancing master of the house.
Still celebrated locally for his love of the demon drink, Maggoty was one of the founders of Justerini and Brooks, makers of J&B Rare Whisky, and well known for writing and starring in the successful Horlothrumbo play, that had an extended run in London’s Haymarket theatre. Just before his death, eccentric to the last, he fired an arrow from the church spire, demanding to be buried where it landed. The grave can still be seen today, a third of a mile north of the Hall in the Spinney known as Maggoty’s Wood.
Before the existing Hall was built in 1480, there was a Norman house where the rookery is now located. It is thought to have been a wooden, stockaded building, situated in the middle of what was then Macclesfield forest.
The Fitton family chapel also pre-dates the Tudor Hall, being first mentioned by name in the charter of 1365, when a license was granted for ‘the administration of a domestic chapel within the house of John Fitton of Gawsworth’. As the diocese of Chester had yet to be created, this duty was performed by the Bishop of Lichfield. The present building is thought to be the third or possibly fourth chapel to serve the Hall, and dates in part from the extensive remodeling, and reduction in size of the house, that took place in 1701. With its beautiful paneled roof, altar rails and stained glass, it is still used by the Richards family today.
England’s Thousand Best Houses
“Those despairing the fate of the English country house, need look no further than Gawsworth. Since the Richards family acquired it in 1962, a family home has blossomed into weddings, concerts, live theatre and opera… Like most black and white houses Gawsworth is heavily restored. The first owners were the Fitton family, knights in the Wars of the Roses and ancestors of Mary Fitton, briefly maid of honour to Elizabeth I and mistress of the Earl of Pembroke. Her father laid out gardens and built a tilting ground in the hope of a royal visit that never came.”