Wednesday 18 April 2012

Hellens Manor - part II - mainly the history

Hellens Manor has a long and fascinating history, and seems to have links with virtually all the royal families since the very first stone was laid. Starting with the land being linked to King Harold, then passing through William the Conqueror (his land by right of conquest) to Walter de Lacy (d.1085), there was subsequently a link to the Magna Carta itself as John de Balun's family were Lords of the Manor from 1096 and witnessed the signing of that historical document.

The de Helyon family gave the Manor its name, and Walter (d. after 1357) is buried close by in St Bartholomew's church, where the huge and ancient yew - which was planted around 500 AD - would have been a substantial tree by the Medieval period. Also within the church is a beautiful effigy of Sir Roger Mortimer's daughter Blanche, who married Sir Peter Grandison. She had been taken off for restoration at the time of our visit. The Mortimer connection with Hellens dated from around 1275 when Sir Walter de Balun married Roger Mortimer's sister, Isolde and upon his death in 1292, she married Hugh Audley.

Roger Mortimer was the power behind the throne, unsurprisingly given that he was Queen Isabella's lover. It would appear that they were staying at Hellens when the Great Seal of England was delivered to them, after Edward II had fled to Monmouth. It is said that it was Mortimer who arranged for the brutal death of Edward II at Berkeley Castle.

Subsequent Audley marriages brought connections to royalty, as Hugh m. Margaret de Clare, granddaughter of Edward I. Connections with the Black Prince are also strong, as Sir James Audley was military adviser to him at the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).

A subsequent marriage introduced the name of Walwyn, in the early 15th C. and the family, finding the accommodation at Hellens "miserable" set about renovations using the new-fangled bricks (made from clay from an old pond behind the house). The courtyard where we entered the house was completed in 1451.

The Walwyn family was an influential one and held positions in the county as Sheriffs, MPs and of course, close to the royal court. They held their own Courts Baron in the first room we entered, which had a gallery above it where the accused men stood awaiting their fate (which was pretty well always a one-way trip to the gallows). The Walwyn family was bankrupted in the late 16th C and an entry in the Court Rolls of 1619 states: "Hellens ruinoso est." Hellens is ruined . . .

But subsequent marriages put right the wrongs and Fulke Walwyn's marriage to Margaret Pye resulted in much restoration and remodelling of the house, including the building of the Dove Cote in 1641 (above) incorporating the original gaol.

We were shown the holes made by musket-balls in the thick oak door leading into the house from the courtyard - the family were of course for King, in the Civil War. Inside the house, we walked across floors made uneven by use and settling of the wooden floorboards and were led from room to room, stepping up and stepping down, admiring the most amazing paintings and tapestries which were centuries old. In the Baron's Court room was a table with a stone top which had probably once been an altar stone, with Maltese crosses carved into each corner.

We passed along a long corridor and in the next room were shown an amazing 16th C carving of Griffins - or Welsh dragons! - set into one side of the staircase. Another detailed carving - probably originally a bedhead from the time of James I - now served as an overmantel over the fireplace. Incidentally, the fine panelling and staircase were made by Charle's I's carpenter, John Abel. Before we climbed the stairs we admired a portrait of Sir Nicholas Kemeys (d.1648) who saved Charles I's life at the battle of Edge Hill, but subsequently fell foul of Cromwell's forces after holding Chepstow Castle. After his beheading, portions of his body were handed to troops to wear in their bonnets, though it is not stated how long the poor troops were expected to wear this noxious offering.

The Music Room was beautifully panelled and had contrasting paintings of various actresses who had secondary careers as mistresses. There were also some black and white photographs of the Munthe family, who also married into the rich tapestry of Hellens history when Hilda Pennington-Mellor married Axel Munthe, the philanthropist and physician to the Queen of Sweden, early in the 20th C.

I wish I had paid more attention to the showcase on the landing as it contained many fascinating artifacts including the bezel diamond ring given to Sir Nicholas Kemeys by Charles I after he saved his life, silver spurs in memory of James Audley's rent to his uncle, the crown which Munthe brides wore on their wedding day, and an ivory and steel dressing-case that once belonged to Ann Boleyn.

The Cordoba room had amazing panels of beautifully-worked 18th C Cordoba leather, which was once carried round from house to house to beautify it, ending at Hellens. There were more portraits of members of the royal family from the time of James I and II. The Boleyn connection shows in a portrait of Philadelphia Carey, holding her great aunt Ann Boleyn's comb. A portrait of her father, Henry Carey, is nearby. This room overlooked the garden and you could see the big iron gates which had once been the entrance to the house when guests arrived by carriage.

Then on to such a sad room, Hetty Walwyn's bedroom - and subsequent prison. Just after Civil War times, Mehitabel Walwyn fell in love with and eloped with a totally unsuitable local boy called John Pierce - I think he was a stable boy at the house. Anyway, she was gone two years before returning, full of remorse, to her family home, the scales having fallen from her eyes as to the true meaning of loving the wrong man. Her parents, having been scandalized by her behaviour which had cast a slur on their family name, kept her captive ever after. There is a bell rope in her room which was her only means of summoning them in extremis. Scratched into the window glass was a melancholic remark: "It is a part of virtue to abstain from what we love if it should prove our bane." After 30 years Hetty took her own life, dieing aged 50 in 1728. I moved around the bed to look at her portrait - it shows a sad lonely woman - and became aware of a dire coldness which concentrated on my back - in what was already a cold house since there is no heating bar open fires "in season". I moved away, and the penetrating cold followed me, soaking down into my legs. I motioned to my friend Judy to look at the painting and she felt exactly the same. Hetty had never left.

The next room was Bloody Mary's room - decorated in a deep red, and with very grand bed-hangings and an important Tintoretto of the risen Christ, probably acquired in her honour, as was the religious icon over the fireplace containing a splinter of the true cross or a drop of Christ's blood or similar. I think all the work was in vain, as Mary never came to stay. This was also the room where the family priest was killed when the Roundheads sequestered the house, and the priest is said to disturb current guests with his panicked flight from door to door in the room, not knowing which he should take to avoid his assassins. Again, a room with an intense cold to one side of the bed (between the doors). HERE is a link about ghostly encounters at Hellens. I felt no awful atmosphere, just the intense cold which seeped into my back. Not nice but not as threatening as what we encountered at Breamore House once before . . .


  1. It sounds a fascinating place and absolutely steeped in history. I definitely must go there one day.

  2. Thank you for your Hellens posts. I shall have to revisit if only to take more photos. My camera did a naughty and lost all our pictures that day.