For the past few weeks, members of the Digital Building Heritage Group have been working on content for a new Visitor’s Centre at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire which is being opened by the Bradgate Park Trust on the 1st July 2016. The group has been producing visuals and a 3D digital model of Bradgate house as it existed around the year 1700 when it was at the height of its development and owned by Thomas Grey, 2nd Earl of Stamford PC (c. 1654 – 1720). Once a large complex of residential and estate buildings, the house now lies as an extensive set of picturesque ruins at the centre of a large and ancient deer park and together the ruins and the park are maintained as a public amenity by the Trust. Bradgate House was an important and early brick-built Tudor minor palace, rather larger just a manor house, and was most famously the childhood home of Lady Jane Grey, the so-called “Eight Day Queen.” It was built by Thomas Grey (1477-1530) 2nd Marquis of Dorset as the centrepiece of an expansionist battle for power and prestige by the Grey family amongst the English nobility at the court of King Henry VIII.
In particular it was intended in the early 15th century to rival the building projects of another Leicestershire land-owning family the Hastings, led by George Hastings (1488-1544) 1st Earl of Huntingdon. Both families undertook massive building programmes in a lethal, national dynastic rivalry to such an extent that they have been described as the Montagues and Capulets of Leicestershire. The Greys were based at Bradgate where they built Bradgate House and the Hastings were based in Ashby de La Zouch Castle which they substantially expanded but they also controlled the town of Leicester with their headquarters in the Newarke where De Montfort’s Trinity House now stands. At Bradgate new research is revealing how, in a race to impress and survive the Greys were adopting at a very early date the latest architectural ideas and technologies from the continent and were spending to the limit of their ability. Intriguingly it may be that the leading figures in shaping these building programmes were not Thomas Grey or George Hastings, but their wives Margaret Wotton, Marchioness of Dorset (1487–1541), Mistress of Bradgate House, wife of Thomas Grey and Anne Stafford (1483-1544), Countess of Huntingdon, wife of George Hastings, mistress of Ashby-de-la Zouch. These two formidable women would have controlled the day to-to-day management of their respective estates and like their husbands were familiar figures at the court of King Henry VIII. They were literate and well educated and they would have had a substantial influence on the design of their respective houses and access to the ideas about renaissance palace design circulating at court.
They were also bitter rivals and there are many fascinating stories arising from this dynastic conflict which spread across Leicestershire, England and beyond. The work that the Digital Building Heritage Group has been undertaking is helping to piece together not only the building of Bradgate House but also the historical and social context of the people who brought it into being, their motivations and ambitions, the means at their disposal and the problems they faced. This is allowing us to better interpret why Bradgate House was designed and built in the way it was, what influenced those who designed it and in turn what influence it may have had on later architecture. With the opening of the new Visitor’s Centre at Bradgate Park, we hope that members of the public will gain a better insight into how the picturesque ruins they see today were once an imposing complex of state-of-the-art, early English Renaissance buildings closely connected to political and court life in Tudor England.