Prior Engagement

Yesterday, I visited Hawkesyard, a place known to previous generations by a variety of names including Le Hawkeserd in Hondesacre, Armitage Park, Spode House and Hawkesyard Priory. The first house known to have existed here was a moated manor owned by the Rugeley Family, who appear to have had a variety of spellings for their own name. According to an article in the Lichfield Mercury on February 3rd 1950,  a document describing the funeral of Richard Rugeley, who, ‘…departed this mortal and transitory life on Saturday night, the 5th July 1623 at his house at Hawkesyard’, was signed by Symn Ruggeley, Thirkell Rugeley, Henry Rugley and Thomas Rugsley.

Information on the early days of Hawkesyard is sketchy but it’s thought the original hall, pulled down in 1665, was much closer to the River Trent, about half a mile to the west of Armitage Church. Nothing is thought to remain and nothing much more is known about Hawkesyard until 1760, when the estate was renamed ‘Armitage Park’ by Nathaniel Lister, who built a gothic style mansion on the sandstone hill above the site of the original hall. Beneath Lister’s new house was a plaque recording that, ‘These cellars were cut out of the rock by Richard Benton and Sons, anno Domini 1760, for Nathaniel Lister, Esq.’ Perhaps it’s still there?

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

From the 1840s, Hawkesyard was home to Mary Spode and her son Josiah, the fourth generation of the Stoke on Trent pottery dynasty, and the first not to work in the family business. Mary died in 1860, and Josiah’s wife Helen died eight years later. Both are buried at St John the Baptist in Armitage, the Anglican parish church where Josiah was the organ player and warden. Despite these strong links to St John’s, Josiah Spode converted to Catholicism in 1885, along with his niece Helen Gulson, who lived with him at Hawkesyard. On his death in 1893, Spode requested that Helen should continue to live at Hawkesyard until her death, after which the estate should be passed to the English Dominican Order of Friars. However, Helen decided to move out of the hall and into a cottage on the estate, allowing work on the new Priory and Church to begin almost immediately. Some say that this decision was inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing to Helen in the grounds of the estate, and that the altar of the new Priory Church of St Thomas Aquinas was supposedly erected over the site of this apparition.

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by JAson Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jaosn Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

The Dominicans left Hawkesyard in 1988, but their benefactors and some of their brethren remain. Josiah Spode and Helen Gulson are interred in a small chapel within the Priory Church, and outside in the gardens, are the simple concrete crosses marking the graves of monks.

Monks' Cemetery, Hawkesyard

Monks’ Cemetery, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

As beautiful as the church is, it’s the gardens at Hawkesyard with their subterranean features, which have captured my imagination. They appear to have had the same effect on this reporter from the Lichfield Mercury, who visited in the Summer of 1935, and wrote the following description:

Down weather-worn and feet-worn steps, through charming little rockery glades, rich with lichens, ferns and its more wild brother – bracken- time and nature has made this wonderful spot more beautiful in its wildness. Some pathways lead down through fine old arches, gloriously hewn or erected deep into the bowels of the earth, or so it appeared; while others lead gradually upwards through narrow passages. Opening into a small glade we suddenly came across the entrance to the well-known underground passage which, descending steeply, rises just as abruptly in another part of the rockery, far remote from each other. Today this passage is awesome in appearance, the ground underfoot being feet deep with decaying leaves, and only the most venturesome pass out of the light of day into its unknown blackness. It was a curious and certainly thrilling experience to traverse this maze of paths. Another similar grotto housed a large shelter, carved in stone and the actual rock; a sort of summerhouse with a double archway entrance. In another we discovered some beautiful carving in white stone of three saintly figures, obviously beautifully carved, but decaying and rotting with age. We could not discover their identity or purpose, although they surmounted what could easily have been a small natural altar, secluded in the quiet of this wonderful grotto.

Eighty years later, there are no saints to be found in this wild part of Hawkesyard. Time and nature have now ravaged its beauty but have not diminished its curiosity. Several theories exist as to who carved these grottos and tunnels out of the rock and why, but as an investigation into the overgrown site in the mid 1990s concluded, ‘the function of all the above is not clear’. Any ideas?

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

 

Sources

Photos by Jason Kirkham

http://www.hawkesyardestate.com

Hawkesyard, Armitage, Staffordshire: A Documentary and Field Assessment. Chris Welch

Staffordshire Parks and Gardens Register Review (1993-96). Parts I and II. Staffordshire County Council

http://www.armitagewithhandsacre.co.uk

http://www.staffordshiregardensandparks.org/images/Newsletter/Issue40

Lichfield Mercury Archive

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5 thoughts on “Prior Engagement

  1. Mansions and Country Seats of Staffordshire and Warwickshire (c 1899)…

    “When the grounds were first enclosed and formed into a private estate is uncertain. The probabilities are that William the Conqueror apportioned it to one of his followers, who erected the old mansion which formerly stood on the lower ground, on the left hand side of the canal and high road. That it was formerly the residence of a family named Hawkesyard has been proved by documentary evidence, while it is equally clear that it passed from this family to the Rugeleys…”

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  2. More info from the above book.

    “…No vestige remains of the old Hall…an old writer describes it, “in one of those low, flat and swampy situations that are scarcely viewed without horror at the present day.” It was probably due to these unhealthy conditions that it was finally suffered to fall into decay, and a new mansion erected upon the higher ground….towards the close of its existence it is said to have been inhabited by a peasant, and finally afforded shelter for the wild fox which found a home amongst its scattered foundations…”

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  3. Hawkesyard Old Hall, Lichfield Mercury 3 Feb 1950…

    Last week a small field in a little-frequented part of Armitage was being ploughed by tractor much deeper than ever before; this has given us fresh knowledge on that ancient manor. But first we must go back about 20 years, when the field was being ploughed up for the first time (by horse plough) when the plough glided over heavy sandstone which seemed to indicate the foundations of a large building, the situation of which fitted in with the description of the old Hawkesyard Hall! At that time part of the field proved to be too wet for arable cultivation and was seeded down again, but when the crop grew, a rectangle was clearly traceable in the place where the plough had previously struck heavy stones below the surface. Now, however, the deep plough has thrown up the actual stones in many places and the width of the foundations of the Hall four feet thick—and readily accessible, as well as the remains of two small buildings and the line of a surrounding wall outside the moated area.

    The extra depth of the plough has thrown up light-coloured sub-soil, except where the moat existed, so that now the position and width of the moat may easily be seen.

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  4. Thanks for those extracts, very interesting. There are different theories as to the sunken gardens at Armitage. Some believe it originated as a quarry, that was then developed into a fernery, and there is also the rumour that it was dug out to give work to local unemployed miners (this one seems to crop up in other places too). Or it could, as you say, just have been built to show off!

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  5. This is very interesting, and somewhere I have not visited (or at least I don’t think)..I must do sometime. the Victorians liked grottos, maybe that was the purpose of the digging, though I wonder if it was stone for the Cathdedral renovations,???? as it was about that time and Spode was a supporter, as in 1860 (according to the Bells cathedral series of books…Lichfield The Cathedral and See page 71) it states that “The Organ was presented by Mr Spode of Hawkesyard Park near Lichfield, in 1860, and it was first used at the reopening in 1861”. It would seem , according to the Bells book, that it needed repair in 1884 and was enlarged, and dedicated at the same time as the restored west front “in the presence of a vast concorse of people on May 29th 1884” They later built an engine house to power it and dug up 3 cannon balls and the remains of a shell (explosive?) near the North door ( I think theses are the ones kicking around in the Cathedral). The May 29th 1884 date may give you a lead to research the Lichfield Mercury for Mr Spode.

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