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Stoke Pogis

HE old Manor House of Stoke Pogeis, or Pogis, is the scene of Gray's humorously descriptive poem, "The Long Story." The poem originated in the following incident:- Gray had previously written, but not published his exquisite "Elegy," suggested by the beautiful churchyard in which he was wont to ponder. It was, however, handed about in MS. and, among those who had the good taste to appreciate it, was Lady Cobham. She became desirous of making the author's acquaintance, and Lady Schaub and Miss Speed, who were staying at Stoke Pogis, determined to introduce themselves and her to the poet. They called on him at his aunt's dwelling near the churchyard, and not finding him at home, left their cards. Gray returned the visit, and flattered by the admiration which had caused it, gave a humorous description of the manor house in " The Long Story," which he sent to them. The mansion is thus described in it:-

"In Britian's isle, - no matter where,
An ancient pile of buildings stands,
The Huntingdons and Hattons there
Employed the power of fairy hands,
To raise the building's fretted heights,
Each panel in achievement clothing,
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passages that lead to nothing."

"Full oft within the spacious halls,
When he had fifty winters o'er him,
My grave Lord Keeper led the brawls,
The seal and maces danced before him;
His bushy beard, and shoe-strings green,
His high-crowned hat, and satin doublet,
Moved the stout heart of England's queen,
Though Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it."
Stoke Pogis

But this is decidedly poetical fiction. Elizabeth's dancing Lord Keeper, Sir Christopher Hatton, never "led the brawls," or any other dances at Stoke Pogis, for he was never there. The old manor house was not even finished till it was a possession of Henry, Earl of Huntingdon, who retained the property till his death, which occurred four years after that of the Lord Keeper, and on the death of Lord Huntingdon, Sir Edward Coke purchased the house and resided in it. Soon after, he married for his second wife, Lady Hatton, widow of Sir William Hatton, nephew and heir of Sir Christopher. This lady has a strange history. At the death of her first husband, she was young, very beautiful, and very rich. Her wooers were many, and amongst them were Bacon and Coke, two bitter enemies on other accounts. Coke had been appointed Attorney-General by the queen in spite of Essex's earnest endeavours to obtain the appointment for Bacon; and the latter hated his rival for it. Now they both wooed the beautiful Lady Hatton, and Essex pleaded Bacon's cause with the widow and her mother as earnestly as he had pleaded with Elizabeth for the Attorney-Generalship. Lady Hatton, however, chose Coke, as being of the higher rank, and she was married to him in a private house without banns or licence, at the very moment when the archbishop was prosecuting informal and irregular marriages.

In 1616 Coke by his unbending judical integrity lost the favour of James I., and with it the Chief Justiceship. In order to regain the king's favour and to obtain an equivalent for his lost office, Coke resolved to marry his daughter to Sir John Villiers, brother of the Duke of Buckingham, then supreme in James's affections..

But Lady Hatton determinedly refused to consent to this sale and bargain of her child, who was only sixteen, and had a great aversion to Sir John. At first the mother and daughter ran away and hid themselves at Oatlands; but Coke discovered their retreat, came armed with a warrant, and broke open all the doors till he confronted his enraged wife and trembling daughter. The matter was then brought before the Privy Council, and Coke and his wife had fierce quarrels at the Council Table, where she declaimed against him so bitterly, and with such wonderful gestures, that it was said' "Babbage the player could not have acted better."

The lady had previously (and often) been forbidden the court on account of her insolent treatment of Lady Compton, Buckingham's mother, but she retained full power over her own property, and that which she enjoyed in right of her first husband. When her husband fell into disgrace she left him, and avoided him. She unfurnished her Holborn House and took all the plate and movables from Stoke Pogis, leaving Coke to empty houses and the knowledge that he had alienated her and his daughter from him. However, in June, 1616, Sir Edward yielded at discretion. In an unpublished letter we read that "his cruel heart had been forced to yield to more than he ever meant, but upon this agreement he flatters himself that she will prove a very good wife."

The dismantled manor house at Stoke was refurnished, and again the proposal of Sir John Villiers came to the front. Apparently Lady Hatton offered no further opposition to it They had been talking over the matter one night at Stoke, and Coke was in great glee at the prospect of the alliance, but when he rose next morning his wife and daughter were gone. They had left Stoke at midnight, and no one knew where they were. At last, after some days of fruitless search, he discovered that they were in the house of a cousin of Lady Hatton, and without waiting for a warrant Sir Edward hastened thither, accompanied by a dozen strong men, took the house by assault, and having gained possession of his daughter, carried her to Stoke and locked her up in an upper chamber, keeping the key in his own pocket. Lady Hatton tried to recover her child also, by forcible means, but her husband (again in the king's favour) threw her into prison, and kept her there, and his daughter locked up, till both had given a legal assent to the marriage with Sir John. It took place at Hampton Court in the presence of the king, queen, and courtiers. Two years afterwards the favourite's cousin was raised to the peerage as Viscount Purbeck and Baron Villiers of Stoke Pogis.

The sequel of this enforced marriage was very sad. Lady Purbeck deserted her husband and lived with Sir Robert Howard; and her crime brought on her degradation, imprisonment, and early death.

Lady Hatton hated her husband, and openly wished him dead He died in 1634, in his eighty-fourth year, preserving his brilliant legal intellect to nearly the close of his life.

As soon as she was a widow, Lady Hatton returned to Stoke and lived in the old mansion occasionally, till her death. She has the character of being a perfect vixen, but the conduct of her husband offers a strong excuse for her, and her opposition to her daughter's marriage with John Villiers was greatly to be commended.

Queen Elizabeth visited Coke at Stoke Pogis in 1601, and in 1647 Charles I. was for some days confined in it by the Parliamentary army. Ten years afterwards Sir Robert Gayer received it as a bequest from his brother, and at the coronation of Charles II. was made a Knight of the Bath. He was devotedly loyal to the house of Stuart.

In Lipscomb's History of Bucks we are told that soon after William III. had ascended the throne, he visited the village of Stoke and expressed a wish to see the inside of the old manor house. It was mentioned to Sir Robert, who flew into a violent rage, declaring that William of Orange should never come under his roof. "He has already," he said, "got possession of another man's house. He is a usurper; tell him to go back again." Lady Gayer expostulated with him, and entreated him (even falling on her knees) to admit the king, who was actually waiting at the gate. But her entreaties were vain, Sir Robert only became more angry, vociferating, "An Englishman's house is his castle. I shall open and close my doors to whom I please; the king, I say, shall not come within these walls." And his Majesty had to depart without seeing the inside of the historical mansion, while the Stuart adherent exulted at his triumph. It was well for him that the sovereign thus repulsed was not a Tudor.

The old house was pulled down, save one wing, in 1789, by its then owner, Granville Penn, a descendant of the celebrated William Penn, the founder of Virginia.

Stoke Pogis Church

But Stoke Pogis is still a place to visit for the sake of its beautiful church and churchyard, associated for ever with the recollection of Gray's perfect poem.

The poet spent much of his early life with his mother and her sister at Stoke, and wrote here his "Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College," and his "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard." He died in 1771, and was buried by his own desire at Stoke, where his mother already rested, with his aunt. He sleeps beside them.

In 1799 Mr. Penn erected in a field adjoining the churchyard, a large stone sarcophagus, in honour of Gray. It stands on a square pedestal, with inscriptions on each side; and a bust of Gray, presented by the Earl of Carlisle to the school, stands in the upper schoolroom of Eton College.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004