Audley End House, Essex

Audley End House is predominately an early 17th century country mansion, which was once a palace in all but name. Formerly a Benedictine monastery (Walden Abbey), granted to Sir Thomas Audley in 1538 by Henry VIII, which was converted to a domestic house for him, known as Audley Inn. This dwelling was later demolished by his grandson, Thomas Howard (the first Earl of Suffolk), and a much grander mansion was built, primarily for entertaining King James I. A strange combination of the ornate, slightly austere and pretentious, Audley End House is now only one third of its original size. The layout reflects the processional route of the King and Queen, each having their own suite of rooms. It is reputed that Thomas Howard told King James he had spent some £200,000 on creating this grand house, and it may be that the King had unwittingly contributed. In 1619, Thomas and his wife were found guilty of embezzlement and sent to the Tower of London. However, a huge fine secured their release but Howard died in disgrace at Audley End House in 1626.

Over the next century, Audley End House was gradually demolished until it was reduced to the size we see today. In 1762 Sir John Griffin arranged for Robert Adam to design new reception rooms on the ground floor, which he did in the style of the 18th century with a formal grandeur. The Great Drawing Room proved problematic as it had to be the grandest room for receiving guests but it possessed a very low ceiling, and this was considered most undesirable at that time. Robert Adam solved the problem to a large extent by making the furniture unusually small, and lowering the chair rail. His design of the Little Drawing Room for the Ladies was totally bizarre, based on the style of ancient Rome, and Lady Griffin had difficulty moving between the columns when dressed in her evening gown.

The Great Hall is of particular interest, with a wooden Jacobean screen and an unusual stone screen at one end of the Hall with open-arched doorways that lead to stairs on either side of the Hall, and a central corridor. Look out here for the 16th Century Flemish carving, a personal favourite of mine. Four of the upstairs rooms were created as reception rooms by Richard, 3rd Lord Braybrooke, replacing the former rooms downstairs. By the 19th century the emphasis was now very much more on comfort and informality than it had previously been. Some rooms have been personalised with the collections of individual members of the family. Of particular interest to children might be, for example, the collection of stuffed birds and animals in the Lower Gallery, which was once the site of the original abbey cloister. Also at one end of the Great Hall are two large cases of shells and fossils, collected by the 4th Lord Braybrooke. Lady Braybrooke's Sitting Room, meanwhile, is full of memorabilia - the usual clutter of a late Victorian sitting room. There is a quaint, Gothic Chapel, which is beautifully decorated and quite atmospheric, and some attractive grounds to explore.

Audley End House was renowned as one of the finest Jacobean houses in England and, still today, there is much to enjoy in the various architectural features, as well as the fascinating and varied collections contained in the house.


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