RBH Home
  Maps & Travels
  Towns & Villages
  Castles & Houses
  Family History
  Odds & Ends
  Mail David

The Priory, Old Windsor, BerkshireThe Priory
Old Windsor, Berkshire

In 1700, the present Priory at Old Windsor was a small ten-roomed house. Tradition describes it as an inn and its situation, between the Thames and the then main road, and at the junction of the tracks leading from the village and Ley End, would make it suitable for this purpose. The Poor Rate returns for some years later, however, call it simply "Mrs. Lyford's house." It faced the river, and its front door, approached by a flight of steps, had a bow-window on either side. About 1730, Richard Bateman, a well-known connoisseur and collector, chanced to visit the spot, at once fell in love with the little property and, as the owner refused to sell, became the lessee. He also rented the old Kingsbury inclosure, now the Priory Park, and The Church Close, part of which forms the present Vicarage lawn. By 1741, at the latest, he had built The Hermitage to the north and converted a cow-shed to the south into The Garden House, subsequently Princess Elizabeth's Cottage. The old inn, which he called Grove House, its contents and grounds became one of the sights of the neighbourhood. In fact, visitors were said to come to Windsor to see "Bateman's and the Castle," not vice versa.

Exactly how long our friend had occupied Grove House we do not know, but he seems to have lost little time in turning it into a museum, filling it with the many treasures he had collected on his travels, and making great changes in the grounds. Planting and the laying out of estates was a fashionable hobby of the period. Bateman planted like his contemporaries. He adhered to the Chinese cult - indeed Walpole, who seems to have been greatly influenced by the older man during his Windsor stay of 1746, describes him as the English founder of the Sharawadgi taste - and before long pagodas, bridges, and temples appeared in the grounds, and the external aspect of the house itself assumed the studied irregularity which the devotees considered so important. But Dicky proved a faithless apostle, or perhaps, as Walpole said, it was essential for him to have been very wicked before becoming one of the elect. To the end of his days, Horace used to claim the honour of converting our friend from a Chinese to a Goth, and he had certainly been stopping at Old Windsor in 1758, for the poet, Gray, addressed a letter to him there. Whatever the facts of the case, "every pagoda took the veil" and Grove House became a mock-monastery. It was as a monastery that it gained its fame and it is to this phase of its existence that it owes its present name of The Priory. The old inn was not large enough for its new role as a museum and mock-monastery, or rather, to put the matter more accurately, could no longer accommodate Bateman's increasing collection of treasures. Many alterations and additions soon became necessary. Walpole’s draftsman, Richard Bentley, arrived from Twickenham to help, and most of the new creations were on Strawberry Hill lines of lath, plaster and stucco. Tiny towers, frail battlements and pointed windows metamorphosed the original house and two substantial buildings, the one an octagonal refectory and the other a block of kitchens and offices, appeared in the grounds to the west of it. Inn, refectory and offices were linked up by cloisters, and we learn from Mrs. Delany that the new ‘monastery’ had been completed by 1760 at the latest. We are not told with what ‘order’ it was associated, but probably with ‘The Monks of Runnymede’. Walpole wrote, in 1762, that he felt sure George Montagu would approve of "Mr. Bateman's," now that it had "changed its religion." Indeed, everybody seems to have been agreed as to the external beauty of the place. Mrs. Delany did not actually inspect the results of the conversion until October 1768 when she reported, "The outward appearance is venerable – arched porticoes and windows, Gothic towers and battlements, encompassed and shaded with large trees, the verdure fine, the river winding most beautifully; an island at a little distance, with many pretty circumstances that make the situation (when floods do not prevail) most delightful." The formal French or Dutch pleasure-ground was no longer in fashion and landscape gardening had become one of the glories of the century. Noble trees, winding streams, elegant avenues and charming vistas were the order of the day. Nature formed one great garden and must not be broken up by high walls or lofty hedges. Sunk fences served as boundaries and the eye was subtly led from the close-cropped turf near-by to the glorious panorama in the distance. Few spots could be more suitable than Grove House for landscape gardening and Bateman seems to have been adept at improving the natural advantages of the place. Church and Castle, river, woods and trees were ready to his hand, but many of the elms and the cedars, the limes, larches and chestnuts, which still surround the Priory, are of his planting. Like Walpole, he no doubt found the deliberation with which they grew extremely inconvenient to his natural impatience.

"The inside of the old monastery," continued Mrs. Delany, "is not so easily described. It is, below stairs, divided into four very small rooms and a passage, all filled with an innumerable collection of china, japan and knick-knacks. The walls are embossed with undescribable oddities from all corners of the World. The chairs, the tables of all forms and sizes. His windows are glazed with as much variety as a glazier's sign, but he has picked up a vast quantity of pretty old painted glass." Some of this is still to be seen. He had purchased most of it in 1750 for five guineas from an Italian who brought it from Flanders. Walpole was so envious that he sent the man back to the Continent for more, and gave him thirty-six guineas for 450 pieces. The majority were circular, and depicted biblical subjects in black and yellow, small figures in black and white, birds and flowers in colours and Flemish armorial bearings. Horace called his coats the achievements of the Counts of Strawberry, while Bateman termed his the arms of the Barons who witnessed Magna Carta. The hall, or passage, contained a collection of foreign prints and of Chinese swords, lances and daggers. In it hung the inevitable lantern, filled presumably with some of the Flemish glass, and upon occasion casting a "dim religious light, a gloom as venerable as ever was since the days of Abelard."

A small library, furnished in the Chinese taste, adjoined the hall. Mirrors gave double reflections of the surroundings and Mrs. Delany described the room as being as ‘fribblish’ as its owner, saying that if it had the power of showing him his inside as well as his outside, it might read him a better lesson than all his books, and teach him his own insignificance. The contents of the parlour and drawing-room are set out at considerable length in Windsor and its Environs for 1768, which devotes six or seven pages to the house generally. The mirrors in the dressing-room, the remaining apartment on the ground floor, were so arranged as to "show the company on their heads". One corner formed a miniature chapel, beautifully carved and gilded, and elaborately furnished. It contained, amongst other treasures, a curious shrine, a piece of The True Cross, a bone of St. Patrick, the history of Our Saviour in ivory, several crucifixes of silver or gold and a figure of The Virgin in solid silver. The holy vessels were of pure gold exquisitely chased and all the figures, ornaments and utensils richly set with precious stones. Our critic compared the chapel to a peep-show. "It is so adorned," she continued, "so crowded, that it is almost impossible to distinguish one thing from another. I don't suppose he desires to be thought a Papist, and perhaps he would rather be thought a heathen. If he does not use it in good earnest, his making a joke of it is shocking." The writer of Les Delices de Windsore for 1771 remarked that many particulars had "the appearance of a tendency to the superstitious Tenets of Popery, were not the contrary evident by a regular profession of true religion." The narrow staircase leading to the upper floor still remains. The bedrooms, all "fitted up whimsically" and all filled with curiosities, included two ‘monk's chambers’, "dismal dark cells which would give one the vapours to inhabit". The other four, "two of them pretty enough and cheerful," were the Half-Mourning Room in which bed, furniture and everything else was in half-mourning, the Wrought Room, Mr. Bateman's Bed-Chamber and the Best Bed-Chamber.

As has already been mentioned, the new refectory, a single-storeyed octagonal building, lay considerably to the west of the original house. A ‘neat chandelier’ hung in the centre and portraits of Lord Bateman, Lord Ilchester, Lord Foley, Lord Holland and others decorated the walls. Alan Ramsay's ‘Lady Hervey’, Bateman's great friend, occupying the place of honour over the chimney-piece in its Grinling Gibbons frame. The west door opened into the garden and two others on the opposite side of the room led to the cloisters and so to the house proper and the kitchen block. The main cloister accommodated "a cargo of ancient chairs" and a collection of pictures, which included representations of Bishop Cadwgan and other alleged ‘Founders of the Monastery’. The chairs were objects of special envy with Walpole, and ultimately became his property. Bateman picked them up one by one in different farmhouses in Herefordshire for two, three, five or six shillings apiece. Most of them were triangular, but of various patterns, and turned in the most uncouth and whimsical forms. Walpole mentions them first in 1761 and used to ask his country friends to try to procure similar specimens, saying that he would grudge no expense for either purchase or carriage.

Not far from the refectory, on the present Vicarage lawn, stood a tiny mausoleum in which was the ancient tomb of Cadwgan, Bishop of Bangor from 1215 to 1236. This, Bateman had, by an act of sacrilege only too common in his day, removed from the Abbey of Dore in Herefordshire and re-erected at Grove House. Upon the altar lay a mitre, a crozier and a copy of the bishop's work, The Looking-Glass for Christians. Other contents of the mausoleum were a fine human skeleton and the pitcher, in which, as the guide informed visitors, Rachel gave water to Jacob. Nearer the church was an erection called Brian's Cave, ornamented with pictures and sculptures representing incidents in the life of Brian Boru (926-1014), an ancient iron figure of the hero himself occupying a recess in the back wall. One of the many inscriptions read, "The most renowned Brian Boroimhe governed the Isle in Peace. Through his Reign the Irish were a brave wealthy People, and War and Discord ceased." Another recorded the fact that "The Institutes of Brian Boroimhe, so wholesome for the Support of Virtue, were kept with so much Reverence and Regard, that a young Lady of consummate Beauty, adorned with Jewels and a Ring of Gold, travelled alone on Foot from North to South, and no Attempt was made upon her Honour or to divest her of the Cloaths she wore." In the case of a third memorial, situated as near the churchyard as possible, the remains of the dear departed one were enclosed in a marble coffin, which was surmounted by her effigy, supported by four pillars, and inscribed with the following epitaph, "The female, who within this Tomb is laid, Departed hence, nor Widow, Wife, nor Maid. Titles she boasted not, nor ancient Kin, But Health and Beauty, and her Name was Pinne. Obscure, she lived an easy, cheerful Life, Refused no Friendship, and provoked no Strife; With those she liked not, now and then too loud, And e'en with those she did, too often proud. No Christian she, Mahometan, or Jew, But to the God of Epicurus true, She never bore a Pain she could avoid, And every Pleasure she could seize enjoyed. By no Law, Rule, or Principle e'er swayed, But what her Appetite or Passion made, She drank when thirsty, ate when Hunger moved, Rested when weary, and when tender loved. She to no Tyrant owned herself a Slave, But to her Friend her willing Service gave; And though four Legs this Female had, 'tis true, I know of few so good that have but two." Dicky thought so much of the spaniel he commemorated in this way, that he made formal application for her burial in Old Windsor Churchyard.

The fame of his abode attracted John Wesley, who wrote, on 29th November 1771, "We went to Mr. Bateman's house, the oddest I ever saw with my eyes. Everything breathes antiquity; scarce a bedstead is to be seen that is not a hundred and fifty years old, and every thing is quite out of the common way; he scorns to have anything like his neighbours. For six hours, I suppose these elegant oddities would much delight a curious man; but after six months they would probably give him no more pleasure than a collection of feathers." The gatherer of these strange treasures had but little longer to enjoy them, for he breathed his last on 1st March 1773, when his nephew, and former ward, John, Viscount Bateman, entered into possession.

Dicky's collections at Grove House and Argyle Street had not remained undisturbed for long. What Lord Bateman found no use for, he sold. The first auction took place at Christie's on 3rd May 1774 and the six following days, Sunday excepted. It included most of the London and a few of the Old Windsor articles. Horace Walpole complained that "little was disposed of which was worth house-room, and yet the whole was pulled to pieces." Grove House continued to be a show-place, though not for long. "The improved lease of that much admired Villa, complete with offices, extensive pleasure-grounds, pinery, greenhouses, aviaries, etc., of Richard Bateman, Esq., deceased, most agreeably situate on the banks of the River Thames, at Old Windsor, Berkshire" was advertised for sale by auction in three lots, on Monday, 17 July 1775. The notice proceeded, ungrammatically enough, "The house is greatly improved, and richly decorated, a delightful walk surrounding 14 acres of rich meadowland, in a plantation of flowering shrubs and evergreens, laid out with great taste, adorned with temples and other erections, and surrounded with beautiful prospects."

The dispersal of the contents took another six days and Walpole, when writing about it to Lady Ossory, said, "I dined at Muswell Hill, and next day the (Topham) Beauclerks, Miss Lloyd, and I went to Old Windsor to see poor Mr. Bateman's auction. It was a melancholy sight to me in more lights than one. I have passed many pleasing days there with him and Lady Hervey, and felt additional pain by reflection on my child, Strawberry. All pulled to pieces, and sold by the person he loved and left it to. So was poor Lady Hervey treated! I bought her picture there, left for sale. Indeed Lord Bateman made amends, for he left his own and his house's portraits there too for sale, with a lot of shalots, four acres of beans, and a parcel of human bones. I purchased a cargo of ancient chairs, and they at least have found a resting-place in their old age." We learn from The Gentleman's Magazine for February, 1805, that even Bishop Cadwgan's tomb was sold. The three cart-loads of chairs, that Walpole had coveted so much fifteen years before, went to the Great Cloister at Strawberry Hill, where they remained until the inevitable end after his own death.

Lord Cholmondeley, who is said to have ruined half London with his faro-tables at Brooks's, bought the lease of Grove House in 1775, the Dowager Lady Onslow succeeding him eight years later. By 1812, when Princess Elizabeth became the purchaser, many of Bateman's more flimsy creations were gone to rack and ruin. The Princess had, in her girlhood, expressed a wish to act as housekeeper to the aged Walpole and, at Old Windsor, she did much for his friend's former abode. The Garden House, which she bought in 1808, was, however, her favourite, and several prints record the appearance it assumed under her care, some of them showing distinct traces of the original cow-shed. The cottage vanished in 1873, to make way for the present Friary, built by Francis Ricardo. Both the Princess and Lady Onslow, who lived to be ninety-four, were considerable benefactors of the Old Windsor schools. The Hermitage became the home of the Isherwoods, when they left the Manor Cottage. It and the Priory (Grove House) still retain most of Bateman's more substantial work. His cloister leading from the old inn to the refectory has been replaced in brick, with a new front and additional rooms on the south side.

Edited from T.E. Harwood's "Windsor Old & New" (1929).

The Priory is a private residence. It was last offered for sale by Savills in 2007.

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2007. All Rights Reserved.