Friday, 27 October 2017

Debunking the Curse of the Cravens

Curses. They’re rather fun in fiction. As someone who has written a book featuring a cursed pearl, I’m the first to admit that I like the Gothic, spooky element of a curse story, especially as the nights draw in towards Halloween and the ghosts start to gather.

However, I have a different attitude towards real-life family curses. They make me feel pretty uncomfortable because these are real people the curses refer to, not fictional ones. Someone might get hurt. And really… Can they possibly stand up to the light of historical enquiry?

One of the biggest, spookiest and most notorious family curse stories that pops up every so often (I
was reading about it again only yesterday) is the so-called curse of the Craven family of Ashdown Park. When it comes to family curses this has all the classic elements; a heartless nobleman who gets a maidservant (or gypsy girl, depending on which version you read) pregnant, casts her out and is cursed for his cruelty. The curse itself is blood-curdling in its threat: That no son and heir to the title shall outlive his mother.  And it comes true, striking down each generation of the family with death and destruction.

Except in one generation this doesn’t happen. Or maybe in two. Or three… Well, you can see where I’m going with this.  Can we talk the incidence of illness in any given historical era? Or the dangers of war? Perhaps not, because that would spoil the story... Well, I’m going to do it anyway because I'm a spoilsport.

What is the truth behind this apparent curse that no son of the Craven family would outlive his mother? Well, first it’s a bit vague, isn’t it?  The Craven family has produced a great many sons across all branches of the family over the years and plenty of them have outlived their mothers. So for convenience sake the curse has been interpreted as “no heir to the title shall outlive his mother” which is a lot easier to check. And if you do check, you’ll find that there is no historical basis for the story of the curse. Not one reference. The first mention of it is in The News of the World in the 1980s.

Never mind. Let’s look at the actual detail behind this claim because it could be true anyway.

If we start with William, First Earl of Craven, who was supposed to have been the philandering
nobleman who brought this on the family, he was born in 1608 and died in 1697. His mother Elizabeth died in 1624, so he outlived her by quite a long chalk.

William was succeeded as 2nd Lord Craven by the grandson of a cousin. This William was born in 1688 and died in 1711. His mother, Margaret also died in 1711, but in April to William’s October. Foiled again.

William the 3rd Baron and Fulwar the 4th Baron were brothers. They died in 1739 and 1764 respectively. Their mother Elizabeth died in 1704 before both of her sons.

William the 5th Baron died in 1769. There is no record of when his mother died.

William 6th Baron died in 1791. His mother Mary also died in 1791. William predeceased her by 2 months. At last we’re getting somewhere!

William, 7th Baron and 1st Earl of the 2nd Creation was born in 1770 and died in 1825. His mother, the “beautiful Lady Craven” was alive and causing scandal until three years later!

William 2nd Earl was born in 1809 and died in 1866. His mother, the actress Louisa Brunton, had died in 1860. Oops! After only 2 generations the curse fails again.

The second Earl’s heir was Viscount Uffington who was born in 1838. He pre-deceased his father, never mind his mother, a not uncommon occurrence. It was his brother George who went on to inherit the Craven Earldom. Both sons were outlived by their mother Emily who died in 1901.

And it’s here that the story of the curse really kicks off because it is the case that in the subsequent four generations the Dowager Countesses of Craven have outlived the son and heir. Which all goes to prove…  Not very much in my opinion, especially as the 5th Earl was badly wounded in the First World War which affected his health throughout the rest of his life. However there are others who are more open to the idea than I am and I’m sure they will carry on telling the tale of the wicked earl, the pregnant maid/gypsy and the subsequent curse that has wreaked havoc for ten generations. As for me, I’ll just keep looking for some historical evidence to back up the tale and in the meantime wish the Earl of Craven (and his mother) a long and happy life untroubled by these stories.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The apples of Wyken Manor

Aficionados of Ashdown House and William Craven will already know that he was a man of wide-ranging interests. I had not previously realised, however, that one of them was horticulture. Last week I discovered that when he came back from the Netherlands after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 William Craven brought with him the seeds of an apple which he planted at Wyken Manor near Coventry. This grew to be the Wyken Pippin apple tree. On Thursday, wandering in the orchard at Stanton Park near Swindon, I found a Wyken Pippin tree and learned of its history. Apparently the fruit is creamy white, moderately firm, juicy, sweet and aromatic, which sounds delicious. At Stanton you can pick the pippin and other heritage apples, which is a rather lovely idea!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Seas of Blue

The first bluebells are starting to come out in the Ashdown woods. In a week, or perhaps two, there will be a carpet of blue beneath the trees, mingling with the yellow primroses and the white of the wild wood anemones.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Spring in the Wood

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade." Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.

Ashdown, the fairytale house, is waking from its winter sleep. It is spring in the woods, with snowdrops and primroses, and soon the house will be open again too.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

We Are Open!

Today Ashdown House opens for the 2015 season! Opening hours are 2pm - 5pm every Wednesday and Saturday. The house is open by timed tour only at 2.15,3.15 and 4.15pm.

Here are a few of the highlights of a visit to this most unusual of NT properties (and yes we may be biased but we think it is fabulous!):

The Landscape. The Sarsen Field is the first thing you see on the left of the drive as you approach the car park. This is open to everyone to walk in and is a fascinating are of Special Scientific Interest where the huge, ancient sarsen stones lie amongst the grass as they have done for thousands of years. Legend says they are an army turned to stone by the magician Merlin.

High on the hill to the east is the weathercock. If you fancy a climb up onto the Downs this gives a
wonderful panoramic view of the park and the surrounding countryside.

The woodland dates back to when this was a medieval hunting ground and the deer still live here.
Landscaped in the 17th century, the woods are full of walks and glades where you can picnic and play and catch sight of the wildlife. The badgers have been digging up the area around the grand avenue for almost 1000 years! There are also hidden geocaches, a tree trail and our Pixie Path. In the fields behind the wood the Balleroy ponies graze.

To the west of the park lies Alfred's Castle, an Iron Age encampment. Smaller than Uffington and Liddington forts it nevertheless commands a wonderful view and at one time controlled the track south from the Ridgeway. Anglo Saxon weapons have been found here; legend states it was the place where King Alfred rallied his army before the Battle of Ashdown in 871 AD.

The house. A stunning 17th century hunting lodge, Ashdown is
well worth a view for the  architecture alone. Of the interior, only the hall, grand staircase and roof terrace of the house are open to visitors because the rooms are privately let. However the wonderful
guided tour weaves the story of Ashdown and its owners over the three hundred and fifty years since it was built. From Queens and cavaliers to Victorian servants, the characters come alive!

We hope to see you soon!

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Antiquities of Ashbury

One of the things I love about print on demand is that antiquarian books that previously you could only access by visiting the British Library are now available to own at a modest price. So it is that I am now the proud owner of Henry Miller’s book: “Some Account of the Parish of Ashbury in Berkshire etc” written in 1877. Henry Miller was a vicar and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. His book is short, a mere 17 pages, but it is fascinating on the history and folklore of the area and as a window into how the village was seen in the Victorian era. For example he bemoans the use of Sarsen stone and chalk in building because so many cottages are as a result dilapidated and “worthless rubble.” How times have changed!

Miller traces the history of the parish from 400 years before the Norman Conquest when it was first
mentioned as the boundary of the lands of Kinewulf, King of the West Saxons who ruled from AD 688 to 757. It was disputed land between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia for two centuries, the site of battles and encampments along the Ridgeway. He explores the legends and tales about Wayland’s Smithy, including the suggestion that it is the burial site of King Bagseek of the Danes, killed at the Battle of Ashdown. However Miller does not seem very interested in the rival theories over where the name of Wayland’s Smithy came from, or the old (even in his time) arguments about whether the name Ashdown is specific to this area or covered the whole area of the Downs.

He writes:

“To enliven a dull subject I may add that at a distance of about two miles below the hill… among a clump of trees, there is a large stone partly embedded in the ground…Weyland Smith hurled it from his forge at his familiar imp when he was attempting to run off. From the tears the imp is supposed to have shed, the spot is appropriately called “snivelling corner.” Snivelling Corner still features on the OS maps today and I have always wondered about the derivation of the name!

On the subject of Ashdown Park, Miller exercises some poetic licence as to which member of the Craven family bought it, when and why, and also gives some fanciful tales about the family. He does however fix the date for the building of the Victorian extensions to 1850, which was within thirty years of when he was writing. He also gives a tantalising glimpse into life in that country house: “In the modern billiard-room is a large picture representing one of the great coursing meetings held on the downs near the house.” This is the original picture by Stephen Pearce or which there is a copy at the top of the stairs. It was commissioned by a committee of coursers and presented to the Second Earl of Craven in 1862.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Illustrious History of the Craven Mixture

Of all the unusual connections to Ashdown House, the Craven tobacco mixture and the Craven A cigarette must surely be one of the strangest and most intriguing.

In its day the Craven Mixture, produced by the Carreras Tabacco Company, was world famous. The antecedents of the Carreras Tobacco Company business stem back into the eighteenth century (their products and advertising materials consistently bore the legend 'Established 1788'), and forebears of the family were Spanish apothecaries. The founder of the business was a Spanish nobleman, Don José Carreras Ferrer, who served with distinction in the Peninsular War and later established himself in London. He was a pioneer of cigar development and his son Don José Joaquin specialised in blending both tobacco and snuff.

As a supplier of tobacco to high society, Don José had many fashionable and distinguished customers, including George Grimston Craven, the 3rd Earl. George would frequent the Carreras store in Regent Street along with the rest of the rich and the fashionable. In 1860 Don José created the Craven Mixture especially for him. The blend spread in popularity throughout the world. It is no surprise that the Victorian wing additions to Ashdown House included a smoking room. This fits perfectly with the image of the 3rd Earl and his friends retiring after dinner to smoke their Craven Mixture!

The concept of the smoking room was quite a specific Victorian idea. Amongst other purposes, it was intended to restrict the smell of smoke to one room of the house since the smoke was considered to ruin the furnishings. Smoking rooms were frequently decorated in velvet - velvet drapes, velvet upholstery even velvet smoking jackets - as it was thought to absorb the smell. Smoking rooms also contributed to gender segregations since they were seen very much male preserves whilst the ladies spent the after dinner period in the drawing room. It would be interesting to know how the smoking room at Ashdown was decorated but whilst we have photographs of the drawing room none of the interior of the wings appear to exist.

Some of Don José's other tobacco brands also became world famous, including Guards' Mixture and

Hankey's Mixture. Over one thousand brands of cigar could be bought from Carreras, together with snuffs, cigarettes, pipes and all the usual requisites of the trade. After World War I Carreras developed the first machine made, cork tipped cigarettes and named them Craven A, a brand that also became a huge success and is still sold around the world today. When the renovations to the house took place in 2012 quite a few packets of Craven A were discovered, left by builders who had worked on the house in the past century.