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The Ill-Fated House of Cowdray

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     About a mile from the pretty town of Midhurst, a few miles to the north of the West Sussex downs, in the midst of a fair, though very level park, stands the roofless ruin of a once noble and almost princely residence, Cow dray House, for two centuries the home of the Brownes, Viscounts Montague. This house was destroyed by fire a century ago, its youthful owner, the last male of the race, being almost at the same time drowned in the Rhine at the falls of Laufenburg. It was then remembered how that Sir Anthony Browne, the founder of the fortunes of the family, being a friend and courtier of the king, obtained a grant of Battle Abbey, in the east of Sussex, and how that, as he sat banqueting in the Abbey Hall, one of the dispossessed brotherhood approached him, and foretold the ruin of his house in words that have become famous as the I curse of Cowdray.' But I am anticipating; let me commence at the beginning.
     In the far-off days of the Normans, then, Cowdray appears to have belonged to the wealthy and knightly family of the De Bohuns, who built for themselves a castle on a spot near that on which now stands the ruin abovementioned. It was probably in the reign of Edward III. that the De Bohuns rebuilt their dwelling on the lower ground, where, two centuries later, it was replaced by the large and magnificent edifice which forms the subject of
this paper. During these two centuries the estate had more than once changed hands, and in the early part of the sixteenth century it was owned by Sir William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, by whom the building of ' the great house of Cowdray' was commenced, and at whose death, in 1543, it passed to his half brother, Sir Anthony Browne, who may be regarded as the founder of the fortune-or the misfortunes-of the lords of Cowdray. Sir Anthony was Master of the Horse and Chief. Standard Bearer of England in the time of Henry VIII. He it was who married Anne of Cleves as the king's proxy, and who later on married, on his own account, and as his second wife, the Lady Elizabeth Fitzgerald, daughter of Gerald, ninth Earl of Kildare, and better known as the I Fair Geraldine.
     It was to this Sir Anthony Browne that Battle Abbey and other broad lands and noble: buildings were granted at the 'Dissolution.' It is to him that county is indebted for the destruction of the glorious church which the Conqueror built at Battle to commemorate his victory over the Saxons; and it was to him that fell the delicate task of apprising his royal master of his approaching end. Within three months of the surrender of Battle Abbey, Sir Anthony Browne took up his residence within its walls, and soon set to work in altering or demolishing various parts of the structure.
     There is more than one account given of the I curse of fire and water' which was pronounced directly on him and his descendants, and to which we have alluded above; but the more generally received tradition is that when Sir Anthony was holding his first great feast, or house-warming,' in the Abbots' Hall at Battle, a monk made his way through the crowd of guests, and, striding up to the dais on which Sir Anthony sat, cursed him to his face. He foretold the doom that would befall the posterity of Sir Anthony, and prophesied that the curse would cleave to his family until it should cease to exist. He concluded with the words, 'By fire and water thy line shall come to an end, and it shall perish out of the land.'
     Henry completed the long list of honors and favors which he conferred upon Sir Anthony Browne by making him executor of his will and guardian to Edward VI. and Princess Elizabeth. Nor was Sir Anthony's son and successor less prominent in public affairs; but his fidelity to the Catholic faith was held by some to condone the crime of his father. He vas created Viscount Montague by Queen Mary on the occasion of her marriage; but, as may be expected, on account of his religion, he was omitted by Elizabeth from the list of her Privy Councilors.
He was, however, held in high esteem by the queen, who appointed him one of the commissioners for the trial of Mary Stuart, a compliment, by the way, which to so devoted a Catholic must have appeared somewhat doubtful. Shortly before the death of Lord Montague, which happened in 1592, Elizabeth honored him with a visit at Cowdray.
     His grandson, the second Viscount Montague, inherited all the pride of his ancestors, and his Book of Household Rules, compiled when he was only four-and-twenty years of age, is described by Horace Walpole as a 'ridiculous piece of mimicry of royal grandeur.' He was surrounded at Cowdray by no less than thirty-six different ranks of servants, and through the extravagance of his living in his later years he was greatly impoverished. He had, too, become implicated in the 'Gunpowder Plot,' for which he was thrown into the Tower; and from this time the fortunes of his family slowly but surely diminished. The third lord still further impoverished himself in the royal cause during the civil wars. His estates were sequestrated by the Parliamentarians; his 'plate, treasure, and other goods' were seized and sold, and Cowdray was converted into a barrack for the Roundheads. The result of all these troubles was the sale of one of Lord Montague's estates to Evelyn the diarist, and the I disparking' of several of his parks.
     Cowdray House, however, remained in the possession of the family till its destruction, and the fulfillment of the 'curse' in 1793. The fourth Viscount Montague became perhaps as deeply embarrassed as his father had been, and, in his anxiety to make money, demolished the great kitchen of Battle Abbey in order to sell the materials. The sixth viscount sold Battle outright, and his son spent some of the proceeds in modernizing the house and grounds of Cowdray. But in the end poverty again asserted itself, and the seventh Lord Montague had to spend his declining days as an exile at Brussels. In 1793 his son, the eighth viscount, when but four-and-twenty years of age, went to Germany with the brother of Sir Francis Burden, and both were drowned while attempting to 'shoot' the falls of the Rhine at Laufenburg. As if to heighten the tragedy, it is stated that Lord Montague had scarcely left his hotel for Laufenburg when a letter arrived announcing the destruction of Cowdray House by fire, which had been caused through the carelessness of a workman. The ruin of the family was now complete. What was left of the estates passed to Lord Montague's sister, Earl Spencer's grandmother. The viscountcy of Montague devolved upon a descendant of the brother of the second lord. He was a monk, but obtained the Papal dispensation to marry and continue the line. However, he left no children, and at his death in 1797 the male line of the Brownes of Cowdray became extinct.
     The ruins of Cowdray have long since lost to a great extent the appearance of a building destroyed by fire, having become clothed with ivy and lichens. With the house perished many priceless relics that had been deposited there, among them being the sword of William the Conqueror, his richly embroidered coronation robe, and that Roll of Battle Abbey, upon the genuineness of which doubts have sometimes been cast.
   Cowdray House in fact was a perfect treasure house, full of rare and curious things. Its most interesting feature, if we may judge from the description of the building in the recently published history of Cowdray by Mrs. Charles Saville
Roundell, was an apartment called the Buck Hall ; this hall was paved with white marble and panelled in cedar, with an open-timbered roof, in the centre of which was an open louvre, ornamented on the outside by nine gilded vanes.
     Around the hall were arranged eleven bucks carved in oak, the size of life. After the fire no
efforts appear to have been made to save anything from the wreck, and the present appearance of Cowdray is thus pathetically described by Mrs. Roundell in her work before referred to. Above the great gateway the face of the clock still remains, with its hands still pointing to the hour at which it stopped; by the door is the old bell and the original staple which held the doors of the gateway. The kitchen still contains the enormous dripping-pan, five feet
long and four feet wide, and the great meat-screen and meat-block. Among these relics of old Cowdray are lying a fine mirror frame, a chandelier, and Lady Montague's harp, on which is still to be read the name of its maker, "H. Naderman, Paris;" sad but mute memorials of what was doubtless once a happy and splendid home, though now tenanted only by bats and owls.1

1 See the British Archaeological Association's Journal, vol i.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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