The incredible story behind one of Essex’s finest homes

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Published:
2:55 PM October 31, 2022



Updated:
12:31 7 November 2022

When it was sold a few years ago, Savills described Rivenhall Place as “one of the finest houses in Essex”. With its rich history, beautiful proportions and beautiful grounds, it’s easy to see why. Rivenhall Place is Grade II listed and set in 70 acres of parkland designed by the famous landscape designer of his day, Sir Humphrey Repton.

Eustace III of Boulogne, who was born in 1050 and fought in the Crusades, bequeathed Rivenhall Place to his daughter, Matilda, who later married Stephen, King of England. The couple were the second richest in England, except for the ruling king and queen (Stephen ascended the throne ten years after their marriage). Matilda played a big part in running their estates in Kent and Boulogne. She brought vast lands into their marriage, which enabled her husband to secure a major trade route between England and France.


The house has been beautifully renovated, while retaining its historic charm
– Credit: Justin Paget Photography

From the 13th century the Scales family were keepers of Rivenhall Place, until the seventh Lord Scales, Thomas, a military commander, was murdered by boatmen and left on the shore at Southwark as he attempted to hold London for King Henry VI. During the famous Wars of the Roses, he fought for the Lancaster side. For this – as well as his immense wealth – Scales was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2. He also played a leading role in the fight against Joan of Arc in the 15th century.

Scales had two children, a boy who sadly died in infancy and a girl, Elizabeth, who married Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. Rivers was the brother of the wife of the ruling King Edward IV. After the king’s death, Rivers, like his predecessor Scales, also met a difficult end, and his death warrant was signed by the next king, Richard III, amid another power struggle.

The house then passed to the Gates family who owned it until 1553 when Sir John Gates was executed. Sir John was an English courtier, soldier and politician. He was beheaded for his involvement in the attempt to install the Protestant Lady Jane Gray on the throne and was executed for high treason under Mary I.

It is said that Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII, spent the night before their wedding at Rivenhall. To quote Savills, “Some wooden panels in the house, decorated with tulips, lend even more credence to this story since, although she was a German princess, she dressed in the ornate Dutch fashion popular in Germany at the time. ‘era.”


land at Rivenhall Place

The house sits on 70 acres of land designed by Sir Humphrey Repton
– Credit: Justin Paget Photography

Queen Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII, then gave Rivenhall to Susan, widow of Thomas Tonge, who was her lady-in-waiting and great friend. It is believed that she was a sly and greedy operator and skilled in obtaining gifts for Queen Mary, who then used to come to her! Since Susan had no children, the house then passed to her nephew George White of Hutton.

In 1590, the house was sold to Ralph Wiseman, a Catholic whose family lived there until 1692. The estate was then purchased by Thomas Western. Western was a wealthy man – an iron smelter who provided timber for King Charles II’s navy. He also married well, which, one can only imagine, helped to strengthen the bank balance.

Western’s great friend Reverend William Cole, the antique dealer, used to come and stay. Cole was quite an eccentric character and suffered from gout. This could be due to her appreciation for the finer things in life! Reverend Cole kept a collection of animals including horses, a pony, a dog called Busy, a cat and a pony. I wonder if he brought his menagerie with him when he went to stay at Rivenhall? Their friendship is immortalized in an 18th century painting by Hogarth.

Sadly, Thomas’ son Charles died in his twenties when a terrible accident happened in his horse-drawn carriage. The horse ran away and Charles jumped to death, leaving his son, a child of just four, as heir and future Lord Western. That child, Charles Callis, became a Liberal politician and MP for Maldon.

Lord Western sat in the House of Commons for 42 years and when elected he was made Baron Western in 1833. During this time Western made reforms for prisoners and protected the domestic price of corn against foreign competition. He also bred the Essex Pig, which was sold domestically and abroad as “Lord Western’s Essex Pig”.


Rivenhall Place near Witham, Essex

Rivenhall Place has seen its fair share of royalty and nobility within its walls
– Credit: Justin Paget Photography

Lord Western preferred to live at Felix Hall in Kelvedon, which for a parliamentarian made sense as it was closer to the station. Felix Hall mansion burned down in the last century and the ruins were sold about ten years ago. Rivenhall was leased to Sir John Page Wood, whose son, Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, also lived there. The house was occupied by soldiers during the two world wars.

As for the building itself, Rivenhall was originally a Tudor house consisting of two wings, which, like many others, was built and extended in the Georgian style. This can be seen especially in the east and south elevation. However, there are still glimpses of the Tudor era – take for example the octagonal chimneys, as well as the mullioned windows and woodwork inside the house.

Although the main staircase is more modern (it was built for Lord Western and was mentioned in Pesvner’s book The buildings of England in 1700), the service staircase is much older. The central post of the service staircase is part of a ship’s mast that extends from the top to the bottom of the house, nothing less. This, in my mind, completes Rivenhall Place as the ultimate Tudor dream.

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