Spirits & Earls of Salisbury
Bisham Abbey as it is now called is the home of the National Sports Council. It is a fabulous hall house of various periods of the past. The basis of the house is the hall itself which, along with the old butler’s room, scullery and servant’s hall, is of 13th century date. It was built about 1260 as a preceptory for the Knights Templars who then owned the manor. They had a separate chapel, whereabouts now unknown. Their order was suppressed in 1307, when King Edward II took over the manor rights, granting them to various relatives. In 1310 it was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce, along with her step-daughter Princess Marjorie and sister-in-law, Lady Christine of Carrick. They had been captured on the Isle of Rathlin during the Scottish Wars of Succession, and were placed in the charge of the King’s Yeoman, John Bentley, for two years, until removed to Windsor.
Eventually in 1335, the manor came into the hands of William, 3rd Baron Montacute. He was one of the chief supporters of King Edward II and had been instrumental in the arrest of his murderer, the Queen’s lover, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. In 1337 Montacute was rewarded with the Earldom of Salisbury and in the same year he founded a Priory for Austin canons next to his home at Bisham (It only became an Abbey two years before its final dissolution). Bisham was an ideal location for a large scale building project like this, as much of the village was then employed in the stone industry. Quarry Woods still reminds us that this was the site of the quarry that produced much of the stone that built Windsor Castle. The eerie wood was later the inspiration for Kenneth Grahame's 'Wild Wood' where Mr. Badger lived in the 'Wind in the Willows'. Graham wrote his famous book at nearby Cookham Dean.
The foundation stone of Bisham Priory was laid by King Edward III himself, and the brass plaque placed upon it to record the event can still be seen (reused) at Denchworth. The Priory held relics of Saints Cosmas and Damian, but never made it as a pilgrimage centre and, despite the patronage of the Salisburys, remained a relatively poor monastery. It was given the manor rights, though not the house. In about 1340, Salisbury had a great chamber with a small cloistral arcade built on the side of the Templar’s Hall. He died four years later from wounds received while jousting at Windsor and was the first of a long line of Earls to be buried in his foundation in the parish. Jousting at Windsor was unlucky for the 2nd Earl too, for he killed his own son at such 'sport' in 1379. The Earl was Lord (or King as he was sometimes styled) of the Isles of Man & White and in his will left 500 marks for the completion of the Priory Church. He also made arrangements for monuments to be erected to himself, his son and his parents. His nephew, the 3rd Earl was a chief supporter of King Richard II and was beheaded by a mob in Salisbury during an attempt to restore the monarch to his throne. Buried in Cirencester Abbey, his widow later gained permission to have his body removed to Bisham. The 4th Earl was the most skilful English soldier to fight in the Hundred Years War with France. He was killed at the Siege of Orleans (1428) by a cannon ball which struck him in the face while he was surveying the town from an open window. His body was brought back to England and buried “with much pomp” at Bisham.
The Earl’s only child, Alice, brought the Earldom to her husband, Richard Neville, a son of the Earl of Westmorland. Though Bisham Manor had been the main home of the Montacute Earls, Neville inherited vast Yorkshire estates from his mother in 1440, and his northern offices kept him much of the time at Middleham Castle. Bisham was his Southern residence though, when not at Court in London and staying at “The Harbour” in Dowgate. The Bull at Bisham was named after his family symbol. Built for the village mason who put up the church, it has been a pub for about six hundred and fifty years, with visits from Templars, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Within, there is a superb stained glass window showing the head of a large black bull surrounded by crests of the Lords of the Manor.
Though he had connections on both sides during the Wars of the Roses, Richard fought, alongside his son and namesake, for his brother-in-law, the Duke of York. He was captured at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 and taken to Pontefract Castle where he was murdered by the bastard son of the Duke of Exeter. His will left instructions for him to be buried among his wife’s ancestors in Bisham Priory, and three years later his eldest son, the great Warwick the Kingmaker, was able to convey him their along with the latter’s brother. They were buried in great state in the presence of many of the peers of the realm including Prince George, the Duke of Clarence.
Warwick was now Earl of Salisbury. He had already gained the Earldom of Warwick at the death of wife’s niece in 1449, and thus outranked his own father. Kingmaker was a justifiable nickname given him, for it was his power which decided whether Henry VI or Edward IV was to take the thrown. He mostly lived at Warwick Castle. However, after the Battle of Barnet (1471) his dead body was stripped and exposed for public view at St. Paul’s Cathedral before being buried at Bisham, which was also, traditionally, his birthplace. His impoverished widow, mother-in-law of King Richard III, lived on into the reign of King Henry VII, who gave her a couple of manors in Devon. She or her daughter may have erected a monument to the unlucky Earl. His grandaughter, Princess Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, eventually managed to regain the house at Bisham and appears to have spent quite a bit of time there.
The Priory was dissolved in 1536, but the unpredictable King immediately founded a Benedictine Abbey to replace it the following year. This did not last the year out, and all the monastic buildings were demolished in 1538. In dry weather, a rectangular and a round building used to be seen beneath the grass, now the tennis courts, at Bisham. These may have been part of the abbot’s house, which was kept as a Royal lodging for a short while. After the Countess’s execution the manor was given to Anne of Cleves who swapped it with Sir Philip Hoby for Westhorpe in Suffolk.
It was Sir Philip and his brother, Thomas, who erected the rest of the house, or “Abbey”, including the wondrous tower. He was the English ambassador to France, and through his wife, Lady Elizabeth, had connections with some of the most influential people at court. Queen Elizabeth I was kept in their care at Bisham for several years during her sister’s reign. She used to drink from the holy well named after her and planted a mulberry tree, still standing in the grounds. Lady Elizabeth Hoby is said to have been a singularly stern individual. Being highly educated, she took to tutoring her own children. One son, however, was such a disappointment to her that she could not help but lose her temper with him. One day she beat him to death! Her repentant ghost is often seen around the Abbey, ceaselessly washing her blood-stained hands.
Lady Elizabeth’s monument in the southern Hoby chapel of Bisham church must be one of the largest and most spectacular of any in a building of this size. She organised both her memorial and funeral down to every last detail, even writing to the College of Arms to confirm her heraldic rights and privileges. Alongside recline (beneath one of the earliest monuments in the country of this type - probably commissioned in France) her husband and brother-in-law with Hobby (hawk) crests playing on the family name, and a swan (the Carey family crest) covered monument to her daughter-in-law, Margaret Carey Hoby. This lady was Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin and she was visited at the Abbey by her royal relative. The early 17th century heraldic windows trace the Hoby family history, though you could be forgiven for thinking it depicted Montacute lozenges (they are Hoby weaving shuttles). The Vansittart-Neales who took over the Abbey in more recent years, are remembered by a sad monument to their heir, an Eton boy who died aged fourteen in 1904. He is represented along with his dog, Norman, sculpted from life. He was one of several young Vansittarts who died in tragic circumstances, giving rise to talk of a curse on the family (or the house). The northern Williams chapel features a Tudor monument brought from Anglesey for Owen Williams of Temple House (built on the site of the Templar mills) who died in 1832. The church sits in a wonderful spot, right on the riverbank.
The monuments of the Salisburys are said to have been removed to the hall of the manor at the dissolution, but they couldn’t have stayed there long. Only one has survived (see below). The following were buried at Bisham Priory:
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