Jane Austen’s family history at Stoneleigh Abbey

The Elizabethan Wing and Medieval Cellars

Today I will tell the story of Jane Austen’s family who lived at Stoneleigh Abbey for generations before her visit.

The family history is there on the walls in the Abbey along with portraits of Jane Austen’s family line. The first of Jane’s Austen’s relatives to own Stoneleigh and live there was Thomas Leigh.

Stoneleigh Abbey had been purchased by a wealthy merchant, Sir Rowland Hill, after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1561. Thomas was Rowland Hill’s overseas agent. Thomas had been sent to London to make his fortune and apprenticed to Rowland by his father. Thomas was very successful. In his career he was Master of the Mercers’ Company, elected alderman, sheriff and finally Lord Mayor of London in 1558.

Sir Thomas Leigh – the first Leigh at Stoneleigh Abbey

Queen Mary died just days after Thomas Leigh was appointed Lord Mayor and so he had the honour of proceeding before Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation procession. Is it any wonder then that Jane Austen was so fiercely royalist. Thomas was then rewarded with a Knighthood.

Thomas was obviously shrewd and he married the niece of Sir Rowland Hill who owned Stoneleigh knowing she was her uncle’s appointed heir not only for Stoneleigh but for other estates too. However they made Stoneleigh their primary home and built a beautiful Elizabethan mansion from the ruins of the old Abbey. When Thomas and his wife Alice’s second son inherited he then added the Jacobean wing which had a horseshoe shaped staircase to the entrance and balcony which Jane Austen commented on in letters when she visited there in 1806. When she walked about Stoneleigh she would have been remembering that it was all built by her family’s ancestors. And the portraits of her great, great, great, great, great, grandparents in the hall would have awaited her.

Jacobean Entrance to Stoneleigh Abbey

Stoneleigh’s next revamp was undertaken by Lord Edward Leigh, who again married well, or rather married money. He inherited Stoneleigh in 1710 and then did the gentlemanly thing and went off for his grand tour. When he returned he had a desire to build his own Italian Palace. The Baroque West Wing. I am sure Jane’s mother most have spoken frequently of this grand family home which belonged to their relations. It must have been dream like for them to finally have the chance to see it and so unexpectedly too.

Stoneleigh Abbey West Wing

The next Lord Leigh inherited the property at the age of seven and he made his mark on Stoneleigh too decorating the walls and ceilings of Baroque West Wing with beautiful rococo plasterwork. Unfortunately the young Lord who lived at Stoneleigh with his sister turned quite mad. She must have despaired for him. For several years the records show fees paid to specialists in the Bedlam mental hospital and finally at the age of 32 he was declared insane by an Inquisition of Insanity. His uncle Lord Craven and his older sister Mary Leigh took over the management of Stoneleigh Abbey. Edward died in 1786 leaving the estate to his sister for the length of her life.

The Entrance Hall Stoneleigh Abbey

Mary never married but as her parents had died when she was just thirteen she’d grown up in London and she lived her life in the style of good ton as one of the wealthy landed elite of Britain. She attended the London seasons staying in Grove House in Kensington and spent her family’s fortune on dressing in the latest fashion and buying jewels. She did not only desire to keep herself in fashion either but her male servants too, who had four changes of livery and wore a claret or scarlet coat with lace trim.

Receipts from her accounts show that she spent money on music lessons, sheet music and she played cards and attended the races, the Opera and one of the fashionable pleasure gardens, Ranelagh. They also imply she entertained others at ‘at homes’ when she invited friends to tea and to gossip. In the fashionable day these were only brief social visits. However although she remained single she cannot have kept friends at a distance nor lived very much alone, her records show she frequently travelled with others and held house parties. In her will she left many gifts to those who were popular in high-society at the time – she also remembered her own family. Mary bequeathed ‘brilliant rings’ and small bequests to Cassandra (Jane Austen’s mother not her sister) and her two daughters.

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

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So More about Jane Austen’s visit to Stoneleigh Abbey and how it influenced her characters

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When Jane Austen arrived at Stoneliegh with her mother and Cousins Rev. Thomas Leigh and his sister Elizabeth Leigh she must have been full of awe and excitement. They had travelled 30 miles in a rush to reach Stoneleigh as soon as possible to deter any challenge to the estate Rev. Thomas Leigh had inherited and Jane knew her cousin Thomas well so she must have been caught up in his emotion.

When they arrived and faced such a lavish statement of wealth,

Stoneleigh Abbey

Jane’s eyes must have been wide and her heart thumping. Remember she had come from an apartment in the narrow cobbled Trim St, in Bath.

Trim Street in Bath

The area about the house looked very different then. There was a narrow path and lawn and then a farm directly before its entrance as the walled gardens were still in front of the Elizabethan manor behind the silver baroque wing and the river Avon ran further away from the house. Yet a wilderness walk stretched off towards the river.

Jane’s mother wrote of it

I expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had figured to myself long avenues dark rookeries and dismal yew trees, but here are no such melancholy things.

The Avon runs near the house amidst green meadows bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.’

In comparison to the rectories Jane had grown up in and Thomas had lived in during his career Stoneleigh must have seemed a place of pure dreams. When they stepped down from the carriage and Thomas dismounted from his horse you might imagine her hand shaking with the excitement of it. Jane knew her family history and we know she cared about history. She had written about it in her childhood after all. Now she finally faced the house where her ancestors had resided – and her dear cousin was to own it. We know what they experienced on their arrival because both Jane and her mother wrote letters about it including their thoughts and feelings.

The staircase Jane Austen entered via on her arrival

The Steward greeted them at the front stairs and led them into the hall where Thomas apologised because he had to disappear and get the papers signed to claim his inheritance. He told them then to ask the servants for anything they needed and said they may wonder where they wished. Can you imagine how that must have felt in comparison to the dingy distressing life they’d left behind in Bath. For months Jane and her mother had endured poverty and emotional pain counting pennies and eating poorly and now they were faced with the antithesis.

Jane must have been gazing at it all and taking it in and as a writer I am certain she must have been looking about and thinking what wonderful inspiration for books capturing every detail and

The Entrance Hall Stoneleigh Abbey

wondering how it might influence scenes and plots. And she was to have character inspiration almost immediately when Lady Saye & Sele arrived from Broughton Castle near Banbury (another place I’ve visited which is still owned by Lord and Lady Saye & Sele) with her daughter and son-in-law to claim the inheritance in Rev. Thomas Leigh’s stead.

Lady Saye & Sele’s son-in-law was another of Jane’s cousins and that Lady was a domineering pushy aristocrat who thought the money and the property should come to her far more prestigious and deserving family than to a mere Reverend. But Thomas had been selected to inherit from all the cousins of the deceased Mary Leigh as he was the eldest. He refused to concede to Lady Saye & Sele’s arguments.

Now which character do you think may have been if not inspired at least remodelled on Jane’s experiences and observations that day? Of course Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps even Rev. Collins’s excitement over the qualities of Rosings were drawn from her own cousin’s first views of Stoneleigh.

The beginning of the wilderness on the left of the West Wing

In Pride and Prejudice when Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives to warn Jane off Darcy she says ‘Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side of the lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it.’  The wilderness at Stoneleigh was on the right side of the West Wing which faced a lawn strectching towards the river and we know during Jane’s stay both Jane and her mother enjoyed frequent walks through it. Jane’s mother says in a letter, ‘We walk a great deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun even in the middle of an August day.Perhaps Lady Saye & Sele commented on it during her visit.

If you doubt Jane’s inspiration in Lady Saye & Sele Jane’s mother gives us an insight into Jane’s personality and their thoughts on their aristocratic companion.

Poor Lady Saye & Sele to be sure is rather tormenting, tho’ sometimes amusing, and affords Jane many a good laugh—but she fatigues me sadly on the whole.’

More stories of Stoneleigh next week.

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

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