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Gawsworth Halls & Rectory, Cheshire, England

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Gawsworth Halls & Rectory, Cheshire, England

In their Buildings of England: Cheshire, Pevsner and Hubbard evoke the timeless setting of one of the county’s most enchanting villages in a few well-chosen words: ‘There is nothing in Cheshire to compare with the loveliness of Gawsworth: three great houses and a distinguished church set around a descending string of pools, all within an enigmatic large-scale formal landscape.’

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The four buildings mentioned— Gawsworth Old Hall, Gawsworth New Hall, the village church of St James and The Old Rectory—were once the heart of a great east Cheshire estate that had its heyday in Tudor times. Their 500 years of shared history— a delicious mix of scandal, intrigue, violence and eccentricity

Only five families have owned the Gawsworth estate since Norman times. For several hundred years from the late 1300s, the manor was the seat of the Fittons, Earls of Macclesfield, three of whom were High Sheriffs of Cheshire between 1531 and 1632. They built the present, black-and-white, half-timbered Gawsworth Old Hall to replace an earlier medieval house in about 1480.

Both The Old Rectory and the church of St James pre-date the hall, the rectory dating from about 1470, and the oldest part of the church (described by Pevsner as ‘pretty, but odd’) from 1430.

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The Old Rectory’s spectacular double-height Great Hall.

In the late 1500s, the well-connected Sir Edward Fitton spent a fortune creating a spectacular Elizabethan garden at the Old Hall, complete with a mile-long Tudor walk, a series of five lakes and wonderful avenues of lime trees, in the hope of securing a royal visit that never happened. Instead, the family’s honour was sullied when, in 1600, Sir Edward’s wilful younger daughter, Mary, a maid of honour to Elizabeth I, had an affair with William Herbert, heir to the Earl of Pembroke, and, by January 1601, was pregnant by him.

By then, Herbert had inherited the earldom and, although he acknowledged paternity of his son, who died shortly after birth, he refused to marry Mary and she was packed off back to the country in disgrace. Banished from the family home, she went to live at The Old Rectory, from where she embarked on a series of affairs that scandalised Cheshire Society, eventually marrying twice and producing a number of children by her various amours.

Rightly or wrongly, Mary’s colourful reputation identified her as the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the eyes of many scholars, although, centuries later, the debate is still ongoing.

The Fitton family fortunes never quite recovered after that and, event- ually, the family also ran out of heirs. By the late 1800s, Gawsworth was owned by the Stanhopes, Earls of Harrington, whose name is immortalised in the quaint Harrington Arms village pub, a short walk from The Old Rectory, which was sold away in recent years by the present owners of Gawsworth Old Hall.

Cited in its English Heritage listing as ‘one of the best preserved medium-sized houses of the period in Cheshire, particularly valuable for the survival of the open hall’, the inch-by-inch renovation of The Old Rectory represents a real tour de force on the part of its current owners. Not only have they executed a daunting three-year restoration programme that complements major conservation work done in 1724 by the then rector William Hall, as well as that of Norman Shaw in 1873, but they have seamlessly integrated such modern essentials as a light-filled farmhouse kitchen and luxurious, stylish bathrooms. All within the restrictions imposed by the former rectory’s Grade I listing. The showstopper is the spectacular, double-height Great Hall, a glorious room with magnificent timbers and a grand fireplace. To the left of the hall is a beautifully panelled library with carved ceiling timbers; to the right, Norman Shaw’s elegant drawing room, with its Adam-style fireplace and wide leaded window. It took two years to strip every beam in the house of its black Victorian coating to reveal the magnificent original timbers beneath.

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Old Rectory Bedroom

Not surprisingly, the most captivating rooms are those to be found in the oldest part of the house, such as Mary Fitton’s bedroom and the original 1470 red bedroom, all of which have been decked out in carefully sourced period furniture—most is available for purchase by separate negotiation. But for all its architectural importance, The Old Rectory is no living museum, but a delightfully quirky family house in an idyllic private setting, with a manageable 6,845sq ft of living space, including six reception rooms, seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and a guest wing.

Read more at Country Life

Gawsworth Hall began as a Norman manor, though that early house was replaced in 1485 by a half-timbered hall built around a courtyard. Part of the courtyard was later pulled down, leaving the house as an odd U-shape. The medieval hall may have been protected by a moat, but no trace of the moat remains.

The mound that once held the Norman house now boasts only the tiny chapel, built in 1369 and still in use, though it has been much remodeled, with Arts and Crafts stained glass by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.

The present house retains the Tudor half-timbering so often encountered in Cheshire houses, but the Elizabethan core has been heavily altered over the years. Part of the original Great Hall now survives as a drawing room, and in the library is a bookcase designed by AWN Pugin, architect of the Palace of Westminster. There are several secret priest's hiding holes upstairs, inserted during the 16th century, when Catholic priests were hunted down, and those who harboured them faced stiff penalties. The house was the home of the Fitton family, whose fortunes sunk when Mary Fitton was exiled from the court of Elizabeth I for her love affair with the Earl of Pembroke. The Virgin Queen seems to have been more upset that Mary became pregnant by the Earl, rather than they had an illicit affair. Mary Fitton has been proposed as the most likely candidate for Shakespeare's Dark Lady, immortalised in a series of sonnets by the Bard of Avon. It is possible that Shakespeare was one of Mary's lovers, and his sonnets were a way of getting a measure of revenge for her duplicity. A portrait of Mary as a child hangs on the wall amid later portraits by Constable and Gainsborough

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In 1712 an ongoing conflict over ownership of the Gawsworth estates between the Gerard and Fitton families culminated in a famous duel between Lord Mohun and the Earl of Hamilton. The duel, held in Hyde Park, London, resulted in the death of both men. One later owner of the Hall was Samuel 'Maggoty' Johnson, a dancing-master and dramatist who was known as the last professional jester in the country.

Outside the house are remnants of the Elizabethan pleasure grounds which once extended to 30 acres. Included in those grounds are the remains of the Tudor tilting ground, built by Mary Fitton's father in the hopes of a royal visit. The queen never did visit Gawsworth, but the gardens and titlyard remain.

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In July and August the hall hosts regular outdoor theatre events, in fact, so popular have the events at Gawsworth become that it has been dubbed 'the Glyndebourne of the north'. A short stroll from the Hall is the wonderful parish church of St James, decorated with grotesque carvings and housing the tomb of Mary Flitton. Almost beside the Hall is Gawsworth New Hall, a Georgian house begun by the Lord Mohun 1707.