Oxburgh Hall – Part 1, A Legacy in Brick

Oxburgh-Hall-full-viewOxburgh Hall is a moated manor house in the depths of rural Norfolk. It has been ‘owned’ by the National Trust since it was donated by the Bedingfeld family in 1952. The donation of this interesting building to the National Trust has allowed it to be saved and maintained for the nation. In that quaint, slightly snobbish English way, the terms of the donation also allows for two generations of the Bedingfeld family to reside in half of the property. Apparently, maintaining the continuity of the family’s presence is . . . . . no, not sure what it is, but that’s the deal.

moated manor house Oxburgh Hall
View of the east front of Oxburgh Hall. Left tower was gutted by fire in the Civil War and later substantially remodelled by Victorian architect J C Buckler around 1860.

The well-maintained manor house we see today is mostly a Victorian interpretation of medieval Gothic. The only substantially originally medieval part is the magnificent gatehouse that comprises both the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, and a noteworthy Priest’s Hole.

In 1482, with royal permission for crenellations (originally a licence to construct a fortified property), Sir Edmund Bedingfeld oversaw the building of a brick manor house including a crenellated gatehouse. This combination of gatehouse and moat gives Oxburgh Hall an overall impression of a fortified building, but during the late-fifteenth century moats and gatehouses were more about the conspicuous display of wealth and status than defending the family against bombardments.

As with any site that has been occupied by a substantial building for over 500 years there have been many changes, additions and improvements as different architectural ideas, together with the family’s fortunes, waxed and waned over the centuries. As was traditionally the custom for any notable medieval house, Oxburgh Hall once had a Great Hall, but, unfortunately that was pulled down by the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld, in 1775.

moated manor house
View from south-west corner of Oxburgh Hall showing gap between the corner towers (the right of the photo) where the Great Hall, kitchen and store rooms used to be before they were demolished in 1775.

It is difficult to make more than a cursory summary of the broader, social circumstances of the many different lives lived over the centuries at Oxburgh Hall without making a detailed, in depth study of the historical record.  As usual we only get the faintest hint of the many hands that built, maintained, worked and served at Oxburgh Hall. Of the Bedingfeld family we learn more. They remained a Catholic family after the English Reformation and as such fell from royal favour, but 100 years later found themselves back enjoying comfortable times with the Restoration and the arrival of King Charles II to the English throne.

Oddly, the National Trust’s guide to Oxburgh Hall has a somewhat one-sided, almost hagiographic approach when discussing the role of the family as though by simply being born a Bedingfeld one had achieved something of note. Their medieval beginnings featuring the acquisition of land and status is a familiar story of fighting, scheming and beneficial marriage alliances. And, apart from being Royalists during the Civil War, the Bedingfeld’s main claim to fame is that they have remained resolutely Roman Catholic. From the heritage point of view, rather disappointingly, we don’t find any of them were renowned patrons of the arts or great collectors or even sponsors of some of Norfolk’s distinguished artists such as John Crome or John Sell Cotman.

Oxburgh Hall west front tudor chimneys
The west front of Oxburgh Hall. J C Buckler’s 1830’s Victorian Gothic interpretation of a Tudor moated manor house. The architect changed windows adding new brick mullions and also created bay, dormer and oriel windows to the facade. Finally, topping the roofline with decorated, Tudor style chimneys.
A fine example of how the Victorians romanticised the past.

Furthermore the only truly exceptional art works of national interest at Oxburgh Hall – the Oxburgh Hangings – were brought to the hall by Mary Browne of Cowdray Park on her marriage to Sir Richard Bedingfeld in 1761. These captivating Elizabethan needlework pieces consist of many embroidered panels sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick (full post on the Oxburgh Hangings).

However, if you are interested in experiencing the cool, lofty space of The King’s Room within the gatehouse, or undergoing confinement in a priest’s hole, or simply the pleasure of wandering through a ‘time capsule’ Victorian library, then Oxburgh Hall is worth a visit.Romance-of-a-moat

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

22 thoughts on “Oxburgh Hall – Part 1, A Legacy in Brick”

  1. This reminds me of Ingatestone Hall, in Essex, where the BBC filmed their Bleak House. It’s the crinkly brickwork that does it. I had to go looking for where they filmed, but it turns out that that is a 16th-century Tudor manor house though so if you say yours is 1830s then it does look a good copy of style to me.

    And does it not seem more “real”, and a living thing rather than a dead museum, to have the family still living there?

    1. At first glance Ingatestone Hall looks very similar to Oxburgh Hall as the basics of Oxburgh Hall were essentially Tudor too, but it’s just that Oxburgh Hall suffered far more wear and tear over the Civil War and Enlightenment periods. I suppose it was in such a state that it was logical during the 19th century to give most of it a mock Tudor/Gothic Revival overhaul. I went to school just outside Chelmsford and vividly remember our primary class trip to Ingatestone Hall. We were doing the Tudors and I remember the ‘Petre’ name. I was struck by the interiors particularly the wood panelling and oil paintings everywhere you looked. It was such a contrast to our family home which was a Scandinavian style bungalow with floor to ceiling glass windows and bare white walls throughout.

      I see the Petre family still own and reside at Ingatestone Hall and as such choose to make their home a business as well. I don’t think any residence is more or less ‘real’ if a family are living there. Surely it depends on how the owners or as with Oxburgh Hall, the National Trust, decide to present the open-to-the-public rooms. Interiors in grand or famous houses are as much a considered visual presentation as any other art form. Having said that, the Boudoir at Oxburgh Hall has a couple of museum-style glass cases displaying wallpapers squeezed in, and, of course, the Oxburgh Hangings are in large, humidity controlled units in a room that gets absolutely no daylight. I think the fact that the family still live in the other half of the hall which is all private makes no difference one way or another to the experience of the paying public. I’m not sure the National Trust would take Oxburgh Hall today if it was being donated unless it came with a substantial endowment.

      1. Ah, so you’ve been to Ingatestone Hall? I had to look it up as I imagined it was hidden away. You may enjoy (even more) the BBC’s 2005 version of Bleak House then.

        You may also enjoy the Alan Bennett play People which explores all the aspects of the National Trust taking on a property and some of the absurdities.

      2. Ah thanks for the info. I do remember watching that really brilliant adaptation of ‘Bleak House’ and know it’s worthy of further viewings. The Alan Bennett play is new to me and I like the sound of it – will see if I can get hold of a version. Ta!

      3. I think it’s only been done once, by the National Theatre, with Francis de la Tour as the woman owning the house. I saw it as part of the NT Live thing, broadcast live to cinemas, in the days when I could still afford it before they whopped the prices up to keep the riffraff out. They do repeat stuff, and it’s obviously been recorded, so even though we all suspect they’ll one day release them on DVD we don’t know when that day will be.

      4. Oh that’s disappointing – wasn’t there a TV version? I must admit I was stunned by the prices our local cinema charges for ‘live’ broadcasts. Can’t properly get my head round the idea of them as the actors are performing for an audience and not a camera. And their make-up is for the stage too. Think I’m too much of a film purist to appreciate them although my sister says the NT ones are very good.

      5. They are very good, trust me. It is for the audience, but with many cameras, and lots of practice. It’s like the university fees that they announced that the price would not affect the audience so every cinema could put their prices “up to” £15. This immediately meant that all local prices were all £15. This meant I stopped going.

    1. Yes, the route through the interior for visitors is well considered. There is a very tight, stone staircase in the gatehouse which leads you up to the rooftop and provides great views across the Norfolk countryside. Will be posting a few pics from the roof at some point!

  2. I’ve never seen a moated manor house – thanks! All interesting information but I laughed when you mentioned ‘as though simply being born a Bedingfeld one had achieved something of note’ 😄.

    1. Ah yes, sometimes I just can’t keep my 21st-century sensibilities in check! Not sure how you view ‘heritage’ in Canada, but I don’t think people and families equal heritage simply by birth. It’s not as though these families have made marriage choices for genetic outcomes as if they were breeding dogs or horses. Give me a Bach, Darwin or Einstein any day over a royal etc.

      1. No our ‘class’ issues have more to do with the super rich but that’s a whole other problem. I was very interested in your reply to Margaret in which you shared your great, great grandmother’s history. Just knowing about family that far back is amazing.

      2. We know a little about our family as my mother lived with her granny for a while as a child and loved the stories she was told about the ‘big’ house. Unlike me, my mother had a great recall of her early childhood and wrote some of it in a words and pictures book for her own grandchildren.

  3. I loved Oxburgh Hall when we visited last year, and whatever the terms of the National Trust now having guardianship of it, at least this very atmospheric building still exists. I remember part of our visit there was taken up with discovering how very many fine buildings, specifically in Norfolk, had simply been torn down in the post-war period, as an answer to crippling death duties and equally crippling maintenance and restoration expenses. A great deal was lost during that period, and I suppose it’s astonishing just how much has also been saved. A lovely photo essay – thank you!

  4. You’ve probably guessed that I attempted to find out more about the National Trust and it’s relationship with Oxburgh Hall after my visit. Whilst I totally appreciate that in the past the NT has saved many stately homes and grand residences, I think it’s pleasing that a more diverse range of properties and landscapes are now being supported such as the Birmingham Back to Backs. I think Oxburgh Hall was worth saving as there aren’t that many moated properties dating from the Tudor period still standing.
    The ‘big house’ used to be the centre of a whole way of life. My great, great grandmother was a lady’s maid and her husband was the butler, but we no longer live like that. I’m not sure how many also-ran country houses, particularly those thrown up in the 18th century, warrant public investment. During the 20th century some families/owners managed their properties, finances and business opportunities better than others, Longleat and Woburn Abbey spring to mind. It’s a difficult balancing act conserving the past whilst living in the here and now, and, simultaneously preparing for future change.

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