In Hampshire, in the south of England, north of the Isle of Wight and Southampton, is the town of Winchester. From Winchester – the former capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex – travel a short distance north east and you will find the Worthies. Abbots, Kings, Headbourne and Martyrs. Each of these four villages bears the name ‘Worthy’, which comes from the Old English ‘worthig’ meaning ‘enclosure’.
The four villages are all within the parish of Kings Worthy, which is the largest of them. As for Abbots Worthy, it is nestled between woods and fields, and divided from Kings Worthy by the A33 road.
To the south is the River Itchen, where a water mill used to grind wheat into flour.
Hyde Abbey, just outside Winchester, was conceived by Alfred the Great, who wanted to improve the education of noblemen. He summoned a monk called Grimbald to Winchester, and in the last year of his reign purchased the land where this abbey would one day stand. His son Edward took up the project on becoming king, and the abbey was finally founded in 901. Once it was consecrated in 903, Abbots Worthy was a very small part of the lands that it would receive from the king.
By 1066, it was a bustling village with 15 households, of whom just two were free. There was a huge amount of meadowland – 215 acres – and the mill that I previously mentioned. Tax-wise, it was worth quite a lot compared with other settlements.
Augustine de Augustinis, Henry VIII’s doctor
So things continued all the way up to… you guessed it… the dissolution of the monasteries. Henry VIII granted the village and all its lands to Augustine de Augustinis, a Venetian doctor who came to England in the 1520s.
His English life began in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who would be his patron for eight years. Augustine’s role extended beyond medicine into diplomacy, and he played an important role in the marriage agreement between Princess Mary of England and Prince Francis, son of Francis I of France. It was no fault of Augustine’s that it didn’t last and was broken off after three years.
The doctor remained loyal to Wolsey all the way to the end, in November 1630. The Cardinal had fallen out of favour with Henry VIII because of matters around his divorce with Catherine of Aragon. The king removed him from many of his high positions, though he was allowed to stay Archbishop of York.
As the pair made their way to Cawood, in Yorkshire, Wolsey was growing quite unwell. It was while they were staying at the manor that Henry’s wrath overflowed, and sent both the Duke of Northumberland and his Privy Councillor Walter Walshe the future owner of Abberley to arrest Wolsey and Augustine.
They were quickly separated, and Augustine was accused of treason. As with any other accused of this crime, he was tied to his horse and rushed off to the Tower of London. As for Wolsey, without his physician he received no treatment for his sickness, and died just days later.
After one night in the Tower, Augustine was taken to the Duke of Norfolk’s townhouse. The Duke was Wolsey’s enemy, and more importantly Anne Boleyn’s uncle. He was one of those who had worked to get Catherine out of the way, so Henry could marry Anne. Augustine knew that his time with Wolsey was over, and switched his loyalties immediately.
The Duke helped Augustine out, and the doctor was soon at the court of Emperor Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, as an ambassador for England. The Venetian’s language skills would have been a great help in this role. He spent a lot of time in personal contact with the emperor as he travelled around Europe, and gained a lot of information and gossip for his masters back home. Gradually his allegiance changed over from Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell, the future architect of the English reformation.
Eventually Augustine returned to England, and he helped assist in Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine and marriage to Anne. He also took up medicine again, becoming one of the king’s personal physicians. He would have close contact with England’s other top doctors, and contribute towards a book of medical recipes.
By 1538 he was married to a woman called Agnes, and they had at least four children together.
Henry was growing old and sick, and Augustine knew that once the king died he would be vulnerable to enemies he had made in court, including the Seymour family and the Duke of Norfolk. He got the Earl of Southampton to issue him a passport that would allow him safe passage back to Venice, and left England in 1546.
As for Abbots Worthy, this little village was among the lands that Augustine handed over to his passport-getter, Lord Chancellor Wriothsley (‘ris-ley’). It would become part of the lands of the Earls of Southampton for a little over a century.
In total there were four Earls of Southampton, and the last was Thomas, born in 1607. I’m going to leave the detail for right now, but be sure we’ll find out more about them later.
Thomas was married on three occasions. His first wife was Rachel de Massue, a Huguenot. Huguenots were French reformed (Calvinist) Protestants who faced persecution in their home country due to their beliefs. Rachel and Thomas had two daughters: Elizabeth and Rachel, and they would be his eventual heirs. Rachel de Massue died in 1640.
Thomas’s second wife was Elizabeth Leigh, daughter of the Earl of Chichester. When the Earl died, his title also passed to Thomas. Elizabeth and Thomas had one daughter, Elizabeth.
Thomas’s third and final wife was Lady Frances Seymour. They would not have any children together, but she would outlive him and go on to marry again.
Now it’s young Rachel whom we need to follow to continue the history of Abbots Worthy. Rachel and her first husband had a child in 1655, but it died very shortly after birth. The couple sadly had no more children, and in 1667 her husband died. This was the same year that her father Thomas Wriothsley would die. I can imagine that year must have been very hard for her.
William Russell, the anti-Catholic plotter
In 1669 Rachel married William Russell. William and Rachel had four children, of whom the youngest was a son, Wriothsley Russell. And since Rachel was the only one of Thomas Wriothsley’s daughters to have a son, she would form the link for the inheritance of Abbots Worthy.
William Russell was born in the 1630s, and at the start of the Civil War his father had been a Parliamentarian, but later switched sides to the Royalists. Shortly after, he retired to Westminster and stayed out of things until King Charles II was restored in 1660.
And since there was a new king, it was time for a new parliament to be called. The law said that only the monarch could do this, so for the last 20 years there hadn’t been a General Election. That period was known as the ‘long parliament’. Personally if I overthrew the monarchy and started a republic, that would be the first law to go.
William was elected MP for Tavistock that year, but he stayed quiet in parliament until 1674, a few years after his marriage with Rachel.
Following the Civil War, there were two particular groups of influence: Charles’s inner advisers – the Cabal – and their opponents the Country Party. They weren’t a ‘Party’ in the modern political sense, just a group of like-minded people who banded together informally. The Country Party were extremely concerned with Charles’s pro-Catholic, pro-French stance, and William shared their passion.
He soon became involved with the plot to get William of Orange on the English and Scottish thrones, and held secret communications with the Dutch ruler. In parliament he tried to get James removed from the line of succession, enforce protections against having a Catholic monarch, and prevent Catholics from becoming MPs. His vociferous anti-Catholic stance is particularly demonstrated in the following extract from a speech in parliament:
If we do not do something relating to the succession, we must resolve when we have a prince of the popish religion to be Papists or burn, and I will do neither. … I have abbey lands, but I protest before God and man I could not be more against Popery than I am, had I none. I despise such a ridiculous and nonsensical religion. … In the last Parliament I moved something of this nature, which was not a House to do great things; but I hope this House will neither be bribed, corrupted, cajoled nor feasted.
Please don’t think of William Russell as a bad guy. Remember that his wife Rachel was a Huguenot’s daughter. It was a genuine and realistic fear that a Catholic monarch could do the same in Britain that had been done in France. One example of this is in 1572 on St Bartholomew’s day when the French royal family stirred up anti-Protestant feeling and thousands of Huguenots were murdered.
The Catholic dislike of Protestantism as a heretical belief was reciprocated. English Protestants were terrified of the possibility that the English church could return to something they considered so evil. And there was no concept that the two beliefs could coexist. If they had any idea what Britain would be like today in regards to religious toleration, they would have been utterly horrified.
In 1683, William’s desire to get William of Orange on the throne moved out of parliament and into back room plotting. As far as we know, he was not directly involved in any of the plots to remove King Charles and his brother James, but one of them was orchestrated by a group he spent time with at Rye House, Hertfordshire.
The Rye House Plot involved the ambush of Charles and James on their way back from the races, a route that happened to go very close to Rye House. But the plot was discovered. While some of the conspirators fled to Holland, William refused to leave. In June he was sent to the Tower of London awaiting trial, just as Augustine de Augustinis had been 150 years before.
The penalty for treason was almost certainly death. William knew his fate. His trial began fairly, however, and the Lord Chief Justice was moving for an acquittal. William was even able to have his wife at his side for his defence.
And then Charles stepped in. He had changed from the merciful king of his early reign, and now took a hard line against treachery. Determined to get his way, he dismissed the judge. Rachel and other friends tried to plead for mercy, and even the King of France Louis XIV thought the sentence should be reduced. James would have gone along with it, but Charles was king.
“If I do not take his life he will shortly take mine.”
William Russell was sentenced to death. On 21 July 1683 he was executed.
In February 1689 William of Orange became King William III of England. One of his first acts was to exonerate William Russell of his crimes. William and Rachel’s descendants through Wriothsley Russell would continue to hold Abbots Worthy for the next century or so.
George Shaw-Lefevre, Liberal MP
In 1801 the Baring family bought land at Abbots Worthy, and in 1836 Thomas Baring constructed Abbots Worthy House. It was a large manor-style house, with land stretching all the way to the river. It would act as a rectory (that is, a house for a church official such as a priest).
Thomas did not build the house out of selfless philanthropic desire. His brother was to be the first resident. Rev. Charles Baring was just starting out his church career as a priest at Kings Worthy. He was married to his first cousin, Mary Sealy, and they had at least two children including Thomas Baring, who would later become a Conservative MP.
Tragically Mary died in 1840. In 1846, he married again to Caroline Kemp. They would have three children together, and it’s possible some of them were born by the time he left Kings Worthy in 1847.
Charles took up a new role at All Souls’ church, Marylebone. Later, he would become Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol.
Abbots Worthy House did not remain a rectory forever. By 1885 there were non-religious residents, and in 1896 the owner was George Shaw-Lefevre, whose long career as a member of parliament for the Liberal Party had recently finished.
At Abbots Leigh we learned about the Great Reform Act of 1832 as the Whigs committed to (a limited form of) democracy as their central cause. But the newly-enfranchised voters were not interested in being represented by members of the upper classes. Soon a new political grouping formed between two parliamentary groups – the Whigs and the Radicals – its members bonded together thanks to their similar ideas about social reform and personal liberty. They informally called themselves ‘Liberals’.
Meanwhile the Conservatives had become the government. Whigs and other liberal-leaning MPs were in opposition. The Conservative leader and Prime Minister was Robert Peel. However, Robert Peel was somewhat at odds with a lot of his party’s members over the issue of import tariffs.
The Corn Laws enforced these tariffs on imported grain, which gave British producers favourable market prices. And a lot of those who benefited from high tariffs and closed markets were the landed gentry and aristocracy, who were quite often Conservatives. This also meant that when British harvests fell short of need it was incredibly expensive to bring grain in from overseas to meet demand.
Since it benefited them, Conservatives generally supported these tariffs (this is called ‘protectionism’), but the Liberals opposed them. Instead they supported free trade, giving equal market access to foreign and local suppliers. This would have the effect of lowering the prices of goods, which was supported by the poorer members of society and manufacturers whose factories could hire cheaper labour if they didn’t have to pay so much for goods. Robert Peel, however, was a Conservative free trader.
Peel raised a bill in parliament to repeal the Corn Laws, knowing that although his own party would generally oppose it, he would get it through thanks to the opposition. This took place in 1846. But the protectionist Conservatives turned on their leader.
A separate government bill relating to Ireland was going through parliament at the same time, and this was not supported by the opposition. Protectionists, Whigs and Radicals all voted against it. Robert Peel had got his free trade bill through, but lost the support of his own party. He was forced to resign.
The free trade Conservatives (or ‘Peelites’) split from their party and joined together with the Whigs and the Radicals to form a Whig-led coalition government. Eventually in 1859 these three groups officially merged to become the Liberal Party. That year George Shaw-Lefevre tried and failed to become a Liberal MP for Winchester.
He had to wait until 1863 for another chance, and became MP for Reading. He would stay MP there for over twenty years, until 1885. He held a number of roles as Parliamentary Secretaries for different ministries, and at Christmas 1880 would become a member of the Privy Council. This meant he would regularly attend advisory meetings with Queen Victoria.
In 1884, he finally made it into the central government decision-making body, the Cabinet, having been appointed by the Prime Minister William Gladstone. Just as today, the Cabinet would meet together regularly to discuss the issues of the day, and decide what new bills should be raised in parliament.
George’s specific role was Postmaster-General. Along with maintaining the postal system, he also had exclusive rights over maintaining the electric telegraph.
He didn’t last long in his role. In the 1885 general election he lost his seat, but returned to parliament in a by-election in 1886 for Bradford Central, where he continued until 1895 thanks to Liberal strength in the city.
The Liberal party began to split over the issue of Ireland. Should the Irish remain ruled by Westminster, or be allowed their own parliament? George supported home rule, but others preferred Westminster rule. The latter formed their own party – the Liberal Unionists. In 1895 George was opposed by one of these Liberal Unionists, and lost.
From 1895 to 1905 the Liberal Unionists and the Conservatives formed a coalition government, and eventually in 1912 merged to form what is still today the Conservative and Unionist Party. This is why the Conservative party of the present has a mixture of views between social liberalism and social conservatism, although they are generally economically liberal across the board.
Now George moved into Abbots Worthy House, but he retained his political interests and in 1897 became a member of London County Council.
In 1899 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. This means that he was considered to have made a substantial contribution to scientific or mathematical knowledge. This may be due to his presidency of the Royal Statistical Society – which promotes statistics for the common good.
One of his main causes was opposition to proportional representation, which he argued against in a number of pamphlets in the late 1800s. Having been made a Baron in 1906, he entered the House of Lords and continued to make his case against the change in electoral system. When I was writing this article I was surprised at how long the debate on PR has been going.
George’s wife was Lady Constance Moreton. They married in 1874, and lived a long life together though sadly without children. He died at Abbots Worthy in 1928, aged an impressive 97 years old, and is buried at St Mary’s Church, Kings Worthy. Lady Constance died a year later.
The Bland family, recent residents
More recently, Abbots Worthy House has been home to the Bland family. Christopher Bland married Jennifer May in the 1980s, and moved into the house where she already lived with her four children. These came from her previous marriage to the eighth Earl of Strafford. Christopher and Jennifer had a son together, Archie. A number of the five children have achieved some level of success in recent decades as did Christopher himself.
During his life Christopher Bland was chairman of various public sector boards including NHS hospitals, the BBC board of governors, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the private sector he was a chairman of the BT group, and was director of ITN and GMTV. Sadly he died in January of this year.
His son Archie, who was born in Abbots Worthy, is a successful print journalist and former deputy editor of the Independent newspaper. In 2014 he moved to work for the Guardian. Semi-notably, he won the last-ever episode of BBC television programme The Weakest Link in 2012.
Archie’s half-sister and fellow Abbots Worthy-resident Georgia Byng is a successful children’s author. Her most popular work is a series of books about a girl called Molly Moon who learns how to hypnotise people.
The family’s success doesn’t stop there. Jamie Byng is another child of the Earl of Strafford and Jennifer May. After graduating from Edinburgh University he got a job at Canongate Publishing in the city. Canongate was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1994 and he arranged a buyout. One of his first major successes was the publication of the Pocket Canons – books of the Bible published individually with introductions by figures such as the Dalai Lama. They also published The Life of Pi, and are the UK publisher for Barack Obama’s autobiographies.
Abbots Worthy House was put on the market for £2 million back in 2015, and that was despite its rather dilapidated state. Whoever bought it would need to put in a lot of work to make it liveable again.
Soon we’ll be done with all the places starting with “Abbot”. Our final one has slipped to the end of the list because it’s spelled with two ‘t’s instead of one. So join me next time just a few miles north-west, still in Hampshire, for the village of Abbotts Ann.
- ‘Parishes: Kings Worthy’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 4, ed. William Page (London, 1911), pp. 430-433. British History Online
- ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: New Minster, or the Abbey of Hyde’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 2, ed. H Arthur Doubleday and William Page (London, 1903), pp. 116-122. British History Online
- History, The Worthys Parish Council, 2012
- Place: [Abbots] Worthy, Open Domesday
- DOCTOR AUGUSTINE, PHYSICIAN TOCARDINAL WOLSEY AND KING HENRY VIII, EA Hammond, Ph.D., Department of History, University of Florida, Gainesville 32611, U.S.A.
- RUSSELL, Hon. William (1639-83), of Southampton House, Bloomsbury, Mdx. and Stratton, Hants. Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983 Available from Boydell and Brewer. History of Parliament Online
- A Strong Supporting Cast: The Shaw Lefevres 1789-1936, FMG Wilson, Bloomsbury Publishing, 19 Nov 2015
- Abbots Worthy House, Hampshire Garden Trust
- The £2m fixer-upper: 19th-century country house with eight bedrooms, 11 acres and a tennis court goes on sale – but you’ll need to spend hundreds of thousands getting it in shape, The Daily Mail, 27 November 2015