It was a pleasure to be invited by Dr Richard Thomas of the University of Leicester’s (UoL) School of Archaeology and Ancient History to their site at Bradgate House in Leicestershire this week to have a preliminary look at the evidence for buildings emerging from his team’s excavations there. UoL have embarked on the first of five season’s planned archaeological exploration in Bradgate Park and Bradgate House to investigate a range of sites and features ranging from the Palaeolithic to the Early Modern. Of particular interest to the Digital Building Heritage Group is the possibility that Dr Thomas and his team could turn up new evidence for now lost buildings which appear in several historic documents associated with Bradgate House and which have links to events in its history. An example is a building recorded by Leonard Knyff and Jan Kip, two Dutch draftsmen and engravers who in 1707 published in London their “Britannia Illustrata: Or Views of Several of the Queens Palaces, as Also of the Principal seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain, Curiously Engraven on 80 Copper Plates.” The volume is among the most important English topographical publications of the 18th century and shows a number of now lost or much altered great houses as they were at the beginning of the eighteenth century, often using the then recently developed method of the aerial perspective.
One of these engravings is of Bradgate House (see above) and in addition to the easily recognisable main house itself it clearly shows a very large additional building of two and half stories behind it. This mystery building is of a considerable size, possibly even bigger than the main hall itself. Looking at the fenestration and storey heights it could be up to fifty meters long and appears to have a central aedicule or entrance porch. It appears to be south east of the main house but its exact distance from it is unclear. Whether it is north or south of the road which runs past Bradgate House cannot be determined from the drawing but there appear to be smaller, possibly single storied, pitched roof buildings between it and wall of the garden or orchard to the north of it. There are a number of possible candidate buildings available from the historical record, one of the most interesting is a large stable block that was reported to have been built in advance of the visit of King William III In 1696 and was designed to accommodate 100 horses. Andrew Bloxham in “A Description of Bradgate Park and the Adjacent County” (1829) notes that these stables “…were erected in the short space of nineteen days … [and] … are built in a very massive and substantial manner; they serve at the present time as shelter for the deer in the winter, and during the summer months, when numerous parties visit the place, as receptacles for their horses“.
On first inspection one might look at the building in Knyff and Kip’s engraving and quickly assume that it does not look like a stable building, it looks far too elaborate, more like the central façade of a great house of the period. But this would be to misunderstand the role of stables and their architecture in the social status of the aristocracy of the period. Horses were an ultimate status symbol of power and prestige, the nobility would celebrate their wealth by ownership and their expertise in horsemanship by creating lavish accommodation for their household’s horses. Excellent examples of this exist not least by the Smythsons, a famous family of early English architects. John Smysthon (d. 1634), son of Robert Smythson (1535 – 1614), designed a riding school in 1622 and new stables in 1625 at Wellbeck Abbey, about sixty miles north of Bradgate and a few years later at nearby Bolsover Castle William Cavendish (Duke of Newcastle) had John’s eldest son, Huntingdon Smythson (d. 1648), design and build an elaborate range of stable buildings in the 1630’s including an indoor riding school and farriers to accommodate, train and show off his horses. The stable building for Wellbeck Abbey is not dissimilar in size and overall form (2–2½ storeys and a central entrance) to the building shown in Knyff and Kip’s engraving, although as one would expect after 70 years of architectural development in England the ornamental enrichment is somewhat different.
A tradition of elaborate and large stable buildings was therefore well established in England at least seventy years before William III’s visit to Bradgate House in 1696 and it is conceivable that the same motivations exhibited by Cavendish at Bolsover and Wellbeck drove Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford (c. 1654 – 1720) to invest very heavily in an impressive status building like a stables and other alterations to his house to impress King William III in order to gain political favour. King William III had made him a Privy Counsellor in 1694 when he ascended the English throne and then made Grey Lord Lieutenant of Devon in 1696 – the year of his visit to Bradgate. Later in 1697 Grey became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1697 and King William appointed him President of the Board of Trade in 1699, a highly lucrative position. So there is clear circumstantial evidence for Thomas Grey’s wish to curry favour from King William and a demonstration of his erudition and wealth through architectural patronage would have been one method of doing so.
Apart from the Knyff and Kip engraving there is as far as we know to date only one other pictorial representation of Bradgate House before it was finally abandoned and fell into ruin and that is a 1746 estate map drawn by Nicholas Kiddiar. Amongst other structures on the estate it shows a small two-story building occupying a very roughly level site immediately between the south side of Bradgate House and the road, roughly where the mystery building in the Knyff and Kip engraving appears to be. The function of this building remains unknown, it could be stables, or another possibility is that the building shown in Kiddiar’s map is a kennels, which are noted in 1790 by Nicholas Throsby in his “Supplementary Volume to the Leicestershire Views, containing a Series of Excursions to the Villages and Places of Note in that County.” Clearly there was something on this site, possibly a sequence of buildings and it is in fact one of the sites in Bradgate Park which Dr Thomas and his colleagues are digging (see images below). During our visit we looked closely at what was emerging on this site. There is evidence for paved / cobbled surfaces, well-formed drainage channels on the south of the structure, masonry and lath and plaster walls and large amounts of demolition rubble including lime plaster and mortar (see below) and Swithland slate roof tiles (see above) and a stirrup. All of this is consistent with stables buildings but does not exclude other possible building types. It is hoped that as excavations progress, the size, extent and possible layout of the structure will become clearer so that we can see whether or not it bears any relationship to the clues in the documentary evidence. We remain open to the possibility that if the great stables building of 1696 do exist, they may be elsewhere, perhaps further to the south on the other side of the road and the river.