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Woburn Abbey

T
HE Abbey of Woburn was founded towards the middle of the twelth century by Hugh de Bolebec, A.D. 1145, for monks of the Cistercian order. It was valued at the dissolution of the monasteries at 430 14s. 11 d. gross income, or 391 18s. 8d. clear yearly value.

The last Abbot of Woburn refused to accept the spiritual supremacy of Henry VIII. over the Church, and being concerned in Roger Aske's rising against the king, was hanged before his own monastery. The tree on which he suffered is still standing, and is carefully preserved.

The king granted the monastery to John Russell, first Earl of Bedford, and founder of the fortunes of the great ducal family.

John Russell was constable of Corfe Castle, 1221; from him descended James of Berwick, a manor in the county of Dorset, about a mile from the sea-coast. His eldest son, John Russell, was born at Kingston-Russell in the same county, where the elder part of the family had lived since the Conquest. This young gentleman was gifted with unusual talents, and at an early age was sent by his father to travel; the elder Russell evidently agreeing with Shakspeare that "home-keeping youth have ever homely wits." Mr Russell returned, in 1506, an accomplished gentleman and a wonderful linguist.

Shortly after his return to the old manor near the sea, a terrible storm arose, and on the next morning, January 11, 1506, three foreign vessels appeared off the coast, making their way to Weymouth. They were part of a convoy escorting Philip, Archduke of Austria, who had just married Joanna, 1 daughter of Ferdinand and Isabelle, King and Queen of Castile and Arragon, and was on his way to Spain, when, being separated with two other ships from the convoy, they were forced to take refuge in Weymouth Harbour. Sir Thomas Trenchard, the Governor of Weymouth, conducted the duke to his own castle, and sent messengers to apprise Henry VII. of his arrival. Joanna was sister to Catherine of Arragon. The governor, whilst waiting the king's reply, remembered that his young cousin and neighbour, Mr. Russell, knew many languages, and sent to him, beseeching him to come to him as interpreter, and also to converse with the Austrian archduke on topics connected with his own country, in which Mr. Russell had lately travelled. Mr. Russell complied with his kinsman's request, and the archduke was so delighted with his conversation and the readiness with which he spoke several European languages, that when invited by King Henry to proceed to Windsor, he begged Mr. Russell to accompany him. Of course his request was granted, and the archduke strongly recommended him to the king. Henry was struck by Mr. Russell's manner and conversation, and perhaps his personal appearance was also a letter of introduction, for he was handsome and attractive.

Henry appointed him a gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Three years afterwards Henry VIII succeeded his father, and at once perceived Mr. Russell's abilities. He employed the young man in diplomatic missions and in trusts of great confidence, and took him with him in his French wars. He became a favourite of the monarch's, was installed into the Order of the Garter, and raised to the peerage as Baron Russell of Chenies. In the next year, after his elevation to the Lords, when the monasteries were dissolved (1540), he received from the king a grant of the Abbey of Tavistock and its extensive possessions. His offices and honours were many. He was Controller of the King's Household, a Privy Councillor, Lord Warden of the Stannaries in Devon and Cornwall, President of those counties and of Somerset and Dorset, Lord Privy Seal, Lord Admiral of England and Ireland, and Captain General of the Vanguard of the Army. On his deathbed Henry appointed Lord Russell one of the counsellors to his son Edward VI. He (Lord Russell) continued in favour during the young king's reign; he was created Earl of Bedford, and the rich Abbey of Woburn was bestowed on him.

It is even more remarkable that he was not cast aside by Queen Mary, but was sent by her with other noblemen to escort Philip II. to England. It is quite possible that it was his power of speaking Spanish that influenced the queen in her choice, and made her not too curious a; to the religious opinions of the great linguist. This was his last public act; but under each sovereign he kept his integrity, and there is nothing recorded of servility in his conduct to these imperious Tudors. He died in 1555, and was buried at Chenies, his wife's inheritance. In the little parish church of Chenies is a magnificent mortuary chapel of the Bedford family.

In 1572 Queen Elizabeth visited Francis, second Earl of Bedford, at Woburn. In 1642 the little adjoining town of Woburn was partly burnt by the Royalists; in 1645 Charles I. passed one night in the abbey. In November there was a skirmish between the Royalists and the townspeople, in which many houses were destroyed. Then the Parliamentarians occupied the town.

Woburn Abbey

Part of the ancient abbey remains, and has been converted into the present magnificent ducal mansion, which retains the name. The abbey is a quadrangle presenting four fronts, each of above zoo feet in length The west or principal front is of the ionic order, with a rustic basement. It is situated in a grand and beautiful park; there are, we were told, nearly eight miles of evergreens for drives and walks at all seasons, and the drive through the park from Ampthill to Woburn is remarkably picturesque, with rolling land here and there, water, trees, and great spaces of green turf. We were particularly struck when we last drove through it, by the quantities of golden broom flowers in great patches; the flowers that gave their name to the mighty Plantagenets, the planta genista.

There are many fine historical portraits in the abbey; those of Queen Mary and Elizabeth; a picture of Mary and her husband, Philip of Spain; Lady Jane Seymour, Henry VIII.'s third queen, Anne of Denmark, James I.'s queen, Sir Philip Sidney, General Monk, Cecil Lord Burghley, William Lord Russell, beheaded in 1683, and his heroic wife, Lady Rachel, who bore herself so bravely through his trial, but when he was gone, and her grief could not pain him, wept herself blind. At the abbey is preserved, in gold letters, Lord William's speech to the sheriffs, with the paper delivered by him to them at the place of execution, the middle of Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the dining-room at Woburn is a fine collection of portraits by Vandyke; in the breakfast room a series of views of Venice by Canaletti. In the sculpture gallery is the antique Lanti vase, brought to England by Lord Cawdor, and in the gallery is also a very old marble sarcophagus, brought from Ephesus, on the four sides of which are sculptured scenes from Homer, and the post-Homeric traditions of Andromache and Astyanax.

There is a sad story about one of the sweetest and loveliest of the Lady Russells. Francis Lord Russell of that time had married Lady Anne Car, the daughter of the Earl and Countess of Somerset, who had by their agents poisoned Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower. Of course this terrible story had been carefully kept from her, and she was herself one of the most angelic, excellent young ladies that ever lived. But one day going to the library to find a book to amuse an idle hour, she took down a pamphlet, and, seeing her father's name in it, read it. It was the trial for the murder. She was found lying insensible on the floor with the pamphlet beside her. It is said that she never recovered the shock - but that is apocryphal; still, it must have made an impression on her mind, never to be effaced.

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1. This lady was afterwards the mother of Charles V. emperor of Germany. She was deranged, and on the death of her husband went quite mad, and refused to let him be buried.


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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004