Tuesday, May 19, 2015

History of an English Manor House – Ettington Park

by Lynn Kristine Thorsen

If you’ve seen the original movie “The Haunting”, you’ll immediately recognize this structure.

It’s a perplexing gothic blend of towers, chimneys, and odd additions that don’t line up with the other floors. It’s Ettington Park, with a history as curious and interesting as the building itself. The estate is six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon and has a close association with Shakespeare. But more on that later. This was the estate of the Shirley family, one of Warwickshire’s oldest families which can be traced back over 1,000 years to the Domesday book and beyond.

Going further back in time, archaeological evidence indicates that the site has been inhabited for at least 2,000 year, placing it back in the time of the Romans. There have been Roman coins and pottery unearthed on the site, enough to support the possibility that the one of the early structures could have been a Roman villa.

As an example of what went on within 10 km of Ettington Park, archeologists have located 388 archaeological and historical sites including:

• 113 roman sites
• 21 anglo-saxon sites
• 37 iron age sites
• 33 bronze age sites
• 116 medieval sites,
• 10 mesolithic sites
• 15 neolithic sites

So, a lot of activity. The great Roman road, the Fosse Way, passes very nearby in the village of Halford. I made my own possibly Roman discovery when I was at Ettington Park wandering around looking at the ground. I often do this and am often times rewarded. Here are photos of what I found:

But back to Ettington Park. The name was originally spelled Eatendon and then later Eatington, coming from the old Anglo-Saxon words, “Ea” meaning water, and “Don” meaning meadow. The name then gives us an apt description of the site as a meadow near a river.

According to the Domesday Book, at the time of the Norman invasion the manor of Lower Eatendon consisted of a church, a mill, 1,700 acres of land and a village all adjacent to a manor house. The manor was held by the Sewallis, a Saxon Thane of Henry de Feriers, who was his Norman overlord. The Shirley families are descended from the Sewallis, their earliest recorded ancestor.

The church that is mentioned in the Domesday record was founded by Sewallis. It was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century in the Norman style, incorporating the earlier Saxon church. The rebuilt church was dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket.

The antiquarian, Sir Thomas Shirley who lived during the reign of Charles I , wrote: "Close by the church is a very ancient mansion house built by an ancestor of this family so long ago that the memorie, by the revolution of so many ages, is utterly lost and forgotten; for the ancient form and structure of the house is a witness beyond all exception of its pristine antiquity, it being covered with so unknown a covering that none can tell with what it was made, plainly sheweth that it was built in so ancient times, that stuff whereof the texture was made is many ages since, not only worn out of the kingdom, but also the very knowledge that ever any such thing was within this realm".

The House was mentioned in 1287 when the Rolls of Parliament show that Sir James Shirley petitioned Edward I for restitution of the "Manor of Eatingdon" unjustly detained from him by Ralph Shirley, his son, and again in 1294 when Ralph Shirley represented the City of Warwick as the first Knight of the Shire, in Parliament. He and his wife are commemorated in the old church at Ettington where their effigies are still to be seen.

The manor house has gone through many restorations, alterations, and extensions over the years. The original manor house was demolished in 1641 and replaced by a smaller house build from the remnants of the first. Serious extensions started in the 18th century and around this time, the village was moved to a new site two miles away at Upper Ettington. The mill was demolished, and the original church, dating back to 1198 was torn down leaving only the tower, the walls of the nave, and the south chapel that contained the family mausoleum. A new church was built in Upper Ettington.

In 1820, the Entrance Hall was Gothicized, a new story was added, new chimneys, and a Gothic stained-glass window was installed. The window had been removed from a redundant chapel near Chipping Campden. Continued renovations involved taking down the external walls and rebuilding around the interior of the old house. The roofline was raised; more chimneys were added as well as contrasting round and square turrets. Much of this work was under the design of the architect John Prichard and produced one of the finest examples of the French and Italian Gothic style that was promoted by John Ruskin. The striking visual impact of the contrasting layers of yellow limestone and iron stone is unforgettable.

Shakespeare and Ettington Park

In 1541, Sir Francis Shirley leased Ettington Manor to the Underhill family for a term of 100 years. It was from these same Underhills that William Shakespeare purchased the Great House in New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare was a friend of the family and well known at Ettington. He may have hunted there with the Underhills and would have been well aware of the Shirley family history, including their connections with the Battles of Shrewsbury and Agincourt which Shakespeare wrote about in two of his plays. There is also a somewhat more obscure connection. In the south transcript of the chapel, there is an epitaph to Anthony Underhill who died in 1587 which some ascribe to Shakespeare. It reads:

As dreams doe slide, as bubbles rise and fall;
As flowers doe fade and flourish in an houer;
As smoke doth rise, and vapours vanish all
Beyond the witt or reach of human power;
As somer’s heat doth parch the withered grasse,
Such is our stay, soe lyfe of man doth passe.

The Underhills were also linked to the Sir Francis Bacon families through the Chapel of St. Thomas a Becket at Ettington. Members of the two families are interred closely together there. One tablet on the tower has a long description of Thomas Underhill (1521-1603) and his wife Elizabeth who lived together 65 years, had 20 children, and died a few months of each other. Next to this is a memorial for the Bacon family. Members of the Bacon family were well established in Warwickshire at that time.

The Strange and Unusual

In August 1859, the workmen, under the direction of John Prichard, were dismantling the outer wall overlooking the garden when they made an unusual discovery. They found a live toad in a cavity within the wall. There was no access from the outside, or anyway that air could penetrate through to the cavity. It was concluded that the toad could only have gained access during the previous work that took place in 1740. They could only suppose that the toad had gone into a state of suspended animation for 119 years. The workmen kept the toad, which refused all food and survived for another three months. The incident was commemorated by carving a stone toad which was placed in the new outer wall close to the spot where the original toad was found.

In 1935, Ettington Park became a nursing home, and during the Second World War it was a prisoner of war camp. After a multi-million pound restoration program, Ettington Park opened as a luxury hotel. The Automobile Association has named Ettington Park the most Haunted Hotel in Britain!

There are numerous priest holes at Ettington Park, and over fifteen documented ghosts that are frequently heard and seen by visitors. The priest holes suggest that the Underhills continued to practice the Catholic religion well after the establishment of the Church of England.

I had a nice tea and walked the grounds. I found Ettington Park to be charming, historically fascinating, and, yes, a bit unusual.

“The History of Ettington Park and the Shirley Family” – pamphlet offered by Hand Picked Hotels Heritage Calling, a Historic England Blog
“Lower Eatington : its manor house and church”, by Evelyn Philip Shirley
“Unearthing Underhills” blog by Isaac Kremer
“The Shirley Family Association” website


Lynn’s first collection of short fiction entitled The Friends of Emily Martine will be released this summer under the new title, Fever Dreams. Her second collection, Mischief will be published at the same time. She is currently at work on a historical novel that takes place during Tutor England. She publishes under the name Lynn Kristine Thorsen.

Facebook: Lynn Thorsen Jensen


  1. I've stayed there a few times and I never knew any of this! I shall look at the place with new eyes next time.

  2. Thank you so much. I loved the toad part of this story. I could not believe it lived so long.

  3. This was such an interesting history. I would love to go there. I'm fascinated by places that are rumored to be haunted, although I have yet to stay at a "haunted" hotel. The episode of the toad is just amazing!

  4. This is the most amazing blog. The presentation sets a high bar for bloggers. The research, information, photo support is done with such expertise. I have decided to reblog one post a week, something that I enjoy, an this particular post is a great example why people should follow this blog. This coming Saturday I look forward to letting others know about this great blog. Thank you....again.

    1. Stepheny, you've made my day. Again. Thank you.

      Lynn did a fabulous job. Great information and photographs. Thanks Lynn!

  5. Thanks to all for your comments. I so enjoyed the research and writing about this fascinating manor. And visiting it in person, of course! Best to all. Lynn

  6. Wow ive just stayed there in room 44 and didnt know any of this. My 6 year old had me exploring all nooks and cranny's. I'd love to go back but probably wouldn't sleep as well x


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