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.
Oxburgh-Hall-full
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

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Forget-me-nots and the Erpingham Gate

Sir Thomas Erpingham was a fifteenth-century English nobleman who distinguished himself when in charge of the King’s bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. As an important and significant Norwich figure he made substantial donations to the city’s religious institutions. Charitable donations during the medieval period were more than just duty, they allowed an individual to display their status, but, more importantly, financially supporting the church purchased a speedy journey through purgatory and up to heaven. A wealthy knight like Thomas Erpingham made a very significant earthly and heavenly mark when he provided the funds for the building of a new gatehouse at the entrance to Norwich Cathedral.

The gatehouse was built between 1420 and 1435 and has a single arch supported on each side by semi-hexagonal buttresses. The arch is divided into two decorative schemes, the inner order is the twelve apostles (probably) set in a series of niches, and the outer is a series of twelve female saints. The carved foliage, used as a visual linking device running up the arch, has been weathered over the centuries, but you can still see that it is oak leaves and acorns. The buttresses are covered with shields and devices of the families of Erpingham, Clopton, and Walton (those of Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wives), but I couldn’t pick out the forget-me-not design which apparently also makes up part of the Erpingham heraldic achievement.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the forget-me-not sculptural detail so I’ve had a good hunt round the Internet. One of my past Art History lecturers, now retired, has spent six years accompanied by his photographer wife, surveying the public sculpture of Norfolk and I’ve studied her excellent, up-close and detailed photographs and I’ve found the forget-me-nots. It is a single flower motif carved above a shield, above a falcon rising on the outer front columns of the buttresses – second panels up in this early nineteenth-century etching by Cotman – still a bit difficult to see though not as eroded as now.

erpingham gate cotman
Etching of the Erpingham Gate by John Sell Cotman, 1818. 10″ x 8″

Below is a ring from MagpieHouse showing a contemporary version of the single, more architectural form, of the forget-me-not motif. When you are looking at weathered architecture it certainly helps to know the basic design shapes you are looking for, but it is only when the scaffolding goes up for repairs that accurate recording and high quality photographs can be achieved.

The fifteenth-century forget-me-not sculpted motif is in the middle of the upper niche in this photograph on the right.

forget me not
The simple five petalled flower of the forget-me-not.