In a week when the National Trust and Harlequin Mills & Boon announced that a historical romance was being published to commemorate 400 years of Ham House (left), I thought it would be nice to put forward Ashdown House's own romantic credentials. Indeed there can be few historic houses in the country that could rival Ashdown as far as scandal, love and sex are concerned. After all, it was home to the outrageous Elizabeth Berkeley, the beautiful 18th century Lady Craven, whom Horace Walpole called "infinitamente indiscreet." Lady Craven took lovers with the same flair that her husband took mistresses (sauce for the goose...), finally left Lord Craven to travel extensively through Europe and to more exotic climes, and set herself up as "sister" to the Margrave of Ansbach. It is said that Lady Craven received the news of her husband's death on the Friday, went into her widow's weeds on the Saturday and by the Sunday was wearing white satin and many diamonds, in which outfit she married the Margrave. The happy couple returned to England, purchased a villa on the banks of the Thames and, supremely indifferent to the disapproval of high society, held glamorous parties and entertained lavishly.
Evidently Lady Craven's eldest son had inherited something of his mother's unconventional ways, for he was the first lover of the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson, who lived with him at Ashdown House for some time. I don't think Harriette was much taken with either the house or the country. Or with William, for that matter. I have talked about William, Harriette and Jane Austen (there's a menage a trois for you!) in a previous blog post so will say no more here about the Regency rakehell Earl of Craven other than to note that he went on to marry an actress.
But of course the Ashdown love story to end all love stories has to be the tale of the First Earl of Craven and Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. Indeed it is said that Ashdown was built "for the love of a woman who never lived to see it." Craven first met Elizabeth, daughter of King James I, when he was a soldier fighting in the 30 Years War in Europe and she was the was the stunningly pretty, charming and charismatic wife of Frederick, the Elector Palatine. Elizabeth attracted to her service a whole cadre of knights who worshipped her in the courtly traditions of medieval love; they included her cousin Christian of Anhalt, who used to carry her glove as a token when he rode into battle. There is a record of the Christmas celebrations at Heidelberg during the early years of Elizabeth's marriage when a host of infatuated young gentlemen threw themselves at Elizabeth's feet and pledged their swords to her service. Her husband Frederick was apparently not amused.
Craven's devotion to Elizabeth lasted for over 40 years, during which her fortunes were on the slide. Frederick's acceptance of the throne of Bohemia in 1619 provoked the Holy Roman Emperor into a response that saw the Protestant forces defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Elizabeth and Frederick were forced into exile and Elizabeth lived for 40 years in The Hague before the restoration of her nephew King Charles II finally saw her return to England. Her son Charles Louis eventually reclaimed his ancestral Palatine lands but Frederick had died in exile and Elizabeth, pawning her jewellery and her furniture to make ends meet, was increasingly reliant on both the moral and financial support of courtiers such as William Craven. One letter from her to him reports: "We have no money... and today if none be found we shall have neither bread nor meat nor candles..." Craven was clearly a man who could take a hint; he provided vast sums of money to support Elizabeth's household through her exile.
Opinion is divided over the relationship Elizabeth had with Craven. There are those who say that they were secretly married and there are even suggestions that one of the generous payments that Craven made to Charles I during the English Civil War (£50 000) had as a condition that he be permitted to marry Elizabeth, a twist worthy of a historical romance. In the 18th century the marriage of William and Elizabeth was spoken of openly within the Craven family but there appears to be no evidence to support it. Confusingly, at one point it was rumoured that Craven wanted to marry Elizabeth's eldest daughter, the Princess Elizabeth Palatine, the greatest beauty of the age. Elizabeth senior was twelve years older than William Craven, her daughter considerably younger.
In his youth a match had been put forward between William Craven and Lady Mary Cavendish but it came to nothing and she bemoaned the fact that he seemed to prefer soldiering to paying court to her! After this there is no record of Craven showing an interest in any woman other than Elizabeth. This is striking for a man who was not only one of the ten richest landowners in seventeenth century England but also had a title and estates to pass on to subsequent generations. Also striking is the fact that William Craven remained at Elizabeth's court in The Hague during the period of the English Civil War rather than return to fight for her brother Charles I despite being an experienced soldier, a staunch supporter of the Stuart cause and a financial benefactor to Charles. One might deduce from this that William's love for Elizabeth was stronger than his support for the Stuart cause in England and indeed stronger than his concern over the fate of his own estates - an interesting debate.
So was William's love for Elizabeth courtly or rather less rarefied? Was it requited or unrequited? Were they secretly married? The nature of Elizabeth's correspondence with Craven is irreproachably formal, though there might have been some fun in writing in formal terms to a secret lover. Against the match is also Elizabeth's sense of her own consequence; when all was said and done she was a queen and the daughter of a king. Craven was the son of a self-made man who had made a fortune in the cloth trade, bought himself a knighthood and invested in land. The match would have been beyond unequal.
What we do know is that on Elizabeth's return to England in 1661 it was William Craven who put his house in London at her disposal and he also began work on two houses on his Berkshire estates, Hamstead Marshall, which was to mirror Elizabeth's palace in Heidelberg, and Ashdown House, a tiny white palace for a queen. Elizabeth died before either of these projects were completed. A secret marriage between the two of them may be in dispute. What is not in dispute is the devotion William Craven showed to Elizabeth of Bohemia for over 40 years.