is a country house
, a Grade I listed building
. The Tudor period
house is constructed of red brick and built around a central courtyard
. It is castellated
in parts. Following the Civil War
, half timbered gables
were added to replace the damaged parts of the building. Today, set in its topiary
gardens and green lawns
, it represents the perfect ideal of the English country house.
However, the story of the family who have lived there for over five hundred years is less than idyllic, and their history is perhaps more inextricably linked to the history of their house than that of any other family and mansion in England
. The house has prospered, declined and prospered again alongside the family; it has even been wounded in battle
alongside its owner.
The Compton family, who live today in this private house, are recorded as resident on the site as early as 1204. The family continued to live in the manor house here as knights and squires of the county until Sir Edmund Compton (who died circa 1493) decided circa 1481 to build a new family home.
Edmund Compton's House
Edmund Compton constructed the house of bricks
which have a glowing raspberry colour of striking intensity. Edmund's four-winged house around a central courtyard is recognisable by the thickness of the 4ft deep walls which form the core of the existing mansion
. This new fortified house was fully moated
, and parts of the moat form a pond in the garden today. There was also a second moat (probably dry) and second drawbridge
. However, fortifications were not the only consideration for the new mansion--dark brick diapering and decorative mouldings add variety to the façade. Over the entrance the Royal Arms of England are supported by the dragon and greyhound of Henry VII and Henry VIII. The architect or mason builder is unknown.
William Compton's House
Edmund died young and, as a consequence, his son William Compton became a ward
of the crown
, as was the custom. At the court of Henry VII
the eleven-year-old, orphaned William Compton became a page to the two-year-old Prince Henry, thus began a close friendship which continued after the prince succeeded as Henry VIII
. As a result of this lifelong friendship, Henry VIII gave William, who was also to become a military hero, many rewards, amongst them the ruinous Fulbroke Castle
. Numerous fittings at Fulbroke were brought to embellish Compton Wynyates, including the huge bay window
full of heraldic
glass, which looks into the courtyard
from the great hall; also from the castle came many of the mullioned
windows with vine
It was at this time (circa 1515) that the great entrance porch, chapel and many of the towers were built. In fact, this was the start of the many additions over the next ten years which were added to the house with no thought of symmetry, height or regularity. The house was simply extended wherever space within the confines of the moat permitted. The brick-fluted and twisted chimneys also date from this time and are one of the houses most famed features.
In 1574 Compton Wynyates enjoyed a huge stroke of good fortune; its owner Henry, Lord Compton, began work on one of Britain's finest houses, Castle Ashby. The Comptons continued to lavish money on this new mansion for the next century or so; as a consequence, Compton Wynyates has survived almost intact as the perfect Tudor mansion, spared the constant improvements of successive generations.
The Priest's Room
If any one room of the many panelled chambers in the house can be singled out for mention it has to be this fascinating room, high in attics of the tower, to the right in the photograph above. The room takes its name from the five consecration crosses crudely carved in the window sill. The small room can be reached by three separate staircases which all terminate there. Legend has it that an Italian priest
was hidden here and made his escape. This is surprising as the Comptons were close friends of all the Protestant
Tudor monarchs, and an Italian priest would have almost certainly been a Roman Catholic
; in fact the only Catholic Tudor Queen, Mary I
, was the only Tudor monarch the Comptons did not entertain. Why would the Comptons need to build such an elaborate priest hole
if they were devout Protestants? Would they have risked their royal friendships, wealth and position at court? A mystery unlikely ever to be solved.
The Comptons, as loyal and rich subjects of the crown, frequently played host to the reigning sovereign of their time. The frequency with which they entertained state visitors was a barometer of their wealth, and this was an era in which a one day visit from the monarch could, and frequently did, bankrupt the host.
King Henry VIII stayed many times at Compton Wynyates, and his bedroom window still retains the king's arms in stained glass combined with the arms of Aragon, the home country of his first Queen. Much later, in 1572 Elizabeth I stayed in the house; In 1617 James I spent a night at the house, he had been a frequent guest on previous occasions at Castle Ashby. In 1629 the King created Lord Compton, Earl of Northampton. Later in the century his successor, Charles I, stayed at the house. The ceiling of the royal bedroom is decorated with the monograms of all the monarchs who have slept here.
An anecdote from the time of the civil war is that the Cromwellian commander of the house took such a liking to the gilded bed of state, slept in by so many monarchs, that he sequestered it for himself. After the restoration of the monarchy, the 3rd Earl recovered the bed, and it too was restored to its rightful place. The sad footnote is that when the family fell upon hard times in 1744, this historic bed was sold for £10 and has never since been traced.
The Civil War at Compton Wynyates
Spencer, 2nd Earl of Northampton
, a Godson
of Elizabeth I
, was a close friend of Charles I
, so it is hardly surprising that the Comptons were strong Royalists
during the civil war
. At the battle of Edgehill
six miles from the house, Spencer and three of his sons fought for the King; the three sons were all knighted for their valour on the battlefield.
The 2nd Earl was killed at the Battle of Hopton Heath in 1643 fighting for his cause in the same battle his son and successor, James 3rd Earl of Northampton, was wounded.
Following the death of the 2nd Earl, his family was vulnerable. On June 12, 1644, Compton Wynyates was besieged by the Cromwellians, and it fell two days later. The Parliamentarians were recorded as having taken 120 prisoners, £5000 (an astronomical sum), 60 horses, 400 sheep, 160 head of cattle, 18 loads of plunder (this would have been the furnishings of the mansion), and six earthen pots of coins recovered from the moat. The house and the adjacent church still bear the scars of the cannon today.
There is a legend that the widow of the 2nd Earl remained hidden in the attics of the vast house tending to Royalist wounded, undetected by the Cromwellians, until their escape was possible. Bearing in mind the house is a warren of small staircases, passages and almost concealed rooms (as described above one tower room has no less than three staircases hidden behind its panelling), this story could well have been possible.
During the night of January 29, 1645, the Comptons made an abortive attempt to recapture their home, however, after four hours fighting they were repelled. The Compton family fled into exile abroad and did not return until the restoration of the monarchy.
Following the restoration
of the monarchy, the Comptons too were restored to their estates
. As Compton Wynyates was now the minor family house, it tended to be the country home of the heir
. Minor alterations were made but usually in sympathy to its Tudor origins. The 5th Earl of Northampton circa 1730 added a wing between two towers on the east side of the house in the classical
style, which was not in keeping at all. By this time though, the family fortunes were running low and, as a result, Compton Wynyates began to suffer neglect. In 1768 the Comptons found themselves in such penury
that the entire contents of the house were sold, never to be recovered. The then Lord Northampton, living at Castle Ashby, ordered Compton Wynyates to be demolished. Fortunately, the family's land-agent
ignored the order and merely had the windows bricked up (to avoid the window tax
). And so the house was forgotten.
In 1835, the 2nd Marquess of Northampton
(the family had been elevated from Earls in 1812) visited Compton Wynyates for the first time and found the house in a ruinous state; he made some minor renovations to prevent complete dereliction. He also employed the architect Sir Digby Wyatt
the out-of-keeping east front and create a new staircase in the house. This work was such a success that the east front today is almost indistinguishable from the earlier facades of the house.
It was the 4th Marquess who had the house fully restored and presented it to his son, the future 5th Marquess, on his marriage in 1884. The 5th Marquess and Marchioness were the first people to reside in the house since 1770. It was this couple who laid out the topiary gardens and made the mansion the comfortable house it is today.
Compton Wynyates Today
The house today remains essentially the mansion that Edmund Compton and his son William completed within a thirty year period during the reigns
of the first two Tudor monarchs.
The 6th Marquess of Northampton (1885-1978) cared greatly for the house and spent a few months each year at Compton Wynyates. It was he who installed the electricity and water supplies; however, his principal home always remained Castle Ashby. For a short time the panelled rooms of Compton Wynyates were open to the public: the chapel overlooked by the chapel drawing room, the King's bedroom, the heavily panelled drawing and dining rooms with their moulded plaster ceilings, and works of art, such as the crucifixion by Matteo Balducci, were on limited public display.
On the succession of Spencer, 7th Marquess of Northampton, it was decided that in order for the family to survive the 20th century, Castle Ashby would have to be heavily commercialised. This was achieved and the Marquess and his family returned to make Compton Wynyates their sole country house.
In 1977, Compton Wynyates served as filming location for Disney's Candleshoe, starring Helen Hayes, Jodie Foster and David Niven.
- Colour photograph of Compton Wynyates:
- Details of Castle Ashby: