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Staunton Harold


HE finest structure of modern architecture in Leicestershire is the mansion of Staunton Harold. It is of Palladian style; large, light, and graceful - the most cheerful and elegant of homes, and gazing on it we should say that it is the very last kind of place likely to be associated with a tragedy; yet a sad one occurred here during the eighteenth century.

But we must leave the story for a moment while we describe this splendid dwelling.

It is situated on level ground close to the borders of Derbyshire, and about three miles north of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. The house has a fine wood at the back of it; there is a good deal of heath in the neighbourhood, and the scenery round it is charming.

In the centre of the south-east or grand front there is a pediment supported by Ionic pillars that are upheld by Doric ones. This centre is of stone, and the pediment is surmounted by three figures from the antique; there are other good casts from the same, especially a colossal lion over the south-west front.

The north-east front was designed by Inigo Jones, and is preserved nearly unchanged; it contains the library.

The entrance hall is 40 feet by 38 feet, and is 16 feet high; on the right is a grand staircase. There are sixty handsome and spacious apartments, among which is the drawingroom, a remarkably elegant room, the dining-room and the library, which is 72 feet long, 18 feet wide and 16 high. It is rich in choice and valuable books, and has some good family portraits in it. The family pedigree is kept here, and when unrolled, covers more than half of the length of the room. Here also is an exquisitely carved old ivory bugle horn, supposed to be the work of Benvenuto Cellini.

There are some very valuable pictures. In the hall is a Crucifixion said to be by Michael Angelo; a Vandyck, Lely, etc. In the other rooms are paintings by Carracci and Lely; in the library is a Last Judgment, by Rubens, a magnificent picture, and a portrait of Shakspeare, the artist unknown. In the drawing-room is a Venus and Cupids, by Correggio; six court ladies of Charles lI.'s reign, given by that king himself to Robert, Earl Ferrers; landscapes by Berghem, etc., etc.

The park is very picturesque, and a fine sheet of water, or lake, extends through the greater part of it; there is a pond covering seven acres at the end near the house, which is called 'I he Church Pool. The lake is half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, and is well stocked with fish, especially carp; while wild fowl frequent the lake and pool.

The Ferrers are of a very old family. Sewallis, of Etingdon, who resided at Nether - Etingdon, in Warwickshire, was their ancestor. He dwelt in the home of many preceding generations of his family, in the reign of Edward the Confessor. After the Conquest, the Lordship of Etingdon was given by the Conqueror to Henry, Earl of Ferrers, of Normandy; bat Sewallis held it under him, and his posterity have ever since possessed it. The descent was in the male line, but the name Sewallis became Shirley; one of these knights, Sir Ralph, greatly distinguished himself at Agincourt and in the French wars. His son married Margaret, daughter and heiress of John de Staunton, of Staunton Harold, and thus this fine property came into the family. Sir Robert Shirley succeeded to the baronies of Chartley and Ferrers, and was created Viscount Tamworth and Earl Ferrers by Queen Anne.

Laurence, the fourth earl, a man of very great abilities, and possessed of everything to make happiness, became the victim of his own terrible and unrestrained temper. Horace Walpole, his contemporary, has told the tale, and we will give extracts from his vivid account of it and its ending.

"His (Lord Ferrers') wife, a very pretty woman, was sister of Sir William Meredith."

He treated this lady very ill, "always carrying pistols to bed and threatening to kill her before morning, beating her, and so jealous without provocation, that she got separated from him by Act of Parliament, which appointed receivers of his estate to secure her allowance. This he could not bear. However, he named his steward for one, but afterwards finding out that this Johnson had paid her fifty pounds without his knowledge, and suspecting him to be of the confederacy against him, he determined, when he failed of opportunities of murdering his wife, to kill the steward. .. . Having shot the steward at three in the afternoon, he persecuted him till one in the morning, threatening again to murder him; attempting to tear off his bandages, and terrifying him till in that misery he was glad to obtain leave to be removed to his own house; and when the earl heard the poor creature was dead, he said he gloried in having killed him. You cannot conceive the shock this evidence gave the court - many of the Lords were standing to look at him - at once they turned from him in detestation.... The very night he received sentence he played at picquet with the warders, and would play for money, and would have continued to play every evening, but they refused.

"On the last morning he dressed himself in his wedding clothes, and said he thought this at least as good an occasion for putting them on as that for which they were first made. He wore them to Tyburn. This marked the strong impression on his mind. His mother wrote to his wife in a weak angry style, telling her to intercede for him as her duty, and to swear to his madness. Put this was not so easy; in all her cause before the Lords she had persisted that he was not mad."

He was condemned to death, and no interest used for him could succeed in getting his sentence commuted, or the mode of execution changed.

Walpole gives us an account of his last moments, that are interesting as a picture of the state of manners at that time.

"He (Lord Ferrers) left the Tower," he tells us, "at nine, amidst crowds, thousands. First went a string of constables; then one of the sheriffs in his chariot and six, the horses dressed with ribbons; next, Lord Ferrers in his own landau and six, his coachman crying all the way; guards on each side; the other sheriff's carriage followed empty, with a mourning coach and six, a hearse, and the Horse Guards Observe that the empty chariot was that of the other sheriff, who was in the coach with the prisoner, and who was Vaillant, the French bookseller in the Strand. How will you decipher all these strange circumstances to Florentines? A bookseller in robes and in mourning sitting as a magistrate by the side of the earl; and in the evening everybody going to Vaillant's shop to hear the particulars. I wrote to him, as he serves me, for the account; but he intends to print it, and I will send it to you with some other things and the trial. Lord Ferrers at first talked on indifferent matters, and observing the prodigious concourse of people (the blind was drawn up on his side) he said, "But they never saw a lord hanged, and perhaps will never see another."

One of the dragoons was thrown by his horse's leg entangling in the hind wheel; Lord Ferrers expressed much concern, and said, "I hope there will be no death today but mine "; and was pleased when Vaillant told him the man was not hurt. Vaillant made excuses to him on his office. "On the contrary," said the earl, "I am much obliged to you. I feared the disagreeableness of the duty might make you depute your under-sheriff. As you are so good as to execute it yourself, I am persuaded the dreadful apparatus will be conducted with more expedition."

The chaplain of the Tower then talked seriously to the prisoner of the necessity of repentance and the need of some expression of contrition. The famous Lady Huntingdon had been much with him in prison, and had done all she could for the unhappy man; but he would not speak on the subject of religion, though he acknowledged to the chaplain that he believed there was a God. The chaplain then told him that even decency required "that some prayer should be offered on the scaffold, and asked his leave to repeat at least the Lord's Prayer;" then Lord Ferrers replied, "I always thought it a good prayer: you may use it if you please."

As they drew nigh (the scaffold) he said, "I perceive we are almost arrived; it is time to do what little more I have to do." And he gave Vaillant his watch, and five guineas to the chaplain; he reserved the same sum for the executioner.

"He showed no kind of fear," says Walpole. "He said little, kneeled for a moment to the prayer, and said, 'Lord have mercy upon me, and forgive me my errors.'"

Thus died this singular man, bravely "and without ostentation."

We doubt if, in the present day, he would have been thought sane; it is a sad story, but it showed, as Walpole says, "the manners of the country" (at that time) "and the justice of so great and curious a nation."

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004