Rufford Abbey: a House’s Changing Character

When Jonson crossed the threshold of Rufford Abbey, he was entering into the complicated world of no fewer than two countesses of Shrewsbury and the Welbeck Cavendishes (of whom more to come soon). His connection with this extended family and their households was to be a substantial help to him as he travelled through Nottinghamshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, and Northumberland.

Rufford Abbey, image thanks to English Heritage @EnglishHeritage

Rufford was a former Cistercian monastery, a substantial estate lying just within the north-eastern boundary of Sherwood Forest. It was a place renowned as a hotbed of recusancy – that is, lingering Catholicism. Its occupants until 1616 had been Gilbert and Mary Talbot, the 7th earl and countess of Shrewsbury. Gilbert had come to a relatively unhappy end for an earl, dying impoverished in 1616, and Lady Mary (a Cavendish by birth) in July 1618 was languishing in the Tower of London for the second time, for her refusal to divulge what she knew of her cousin Lady Arabella Stewart’s marriage and alleged pregnancy. She was eventually fined £20,000 for her obdurate silence. On the occasion of her first imprisonment in 1611, the rival local magnate Sir John Holles was sent to search Rufford, and he penned his disapproval of the trappings of catholicism that he found hidden, the ‘books, beads, crosses and pictures’ in the granges behind the abbey:

the house, a confused labyrinth, underneath all vaults; above, entries, closets, oratories, many stairs down and up, trap doors to issue forth and trap doors to lead into garrets, so as in my search I was never so puzzled in my life’… ‘trapdoors to conceal and issue forth such pernicious vermin as I sought for … I heard presently, these fellows [hidden papists] dislodged and all stuff that was either of weight or superstition conveyed away by coach and cart.

Rufford, he said, backed onto

a great woodland country fraught with many scattered granges and all of these inhabited with obstinate recusants, fled to that asylum from Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire etc, as in a covert, by many back and trap doors, so as, if the forest way may be called via regia, this woodland way is really via pontificia, and altogether environed with the Countess’s dependency.


Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewbury, in 1596

When Gilbert Talbot died, Mary Talbot’s replacement as countess was Jane, wife of Edward Talbot, the 8th earl of Shrewsbury, who had only lived for two years to enjoy his powerful title. As the eldest daughter and heiress of Cuthbert, 7th Baron Ogle of Northumberland, Jane was not as financially embarrassed as her predecessor. She was also the sister of Lady Katherine Cavendish, the recent widow of Sir Charles Cavendish who had so ably diverted much of Gilbert Talbot, the 7th earl’s possessions in his own direction. (Are you keeping up?) So they were a very interwoven bunch, the Shrewsbury estate being keenly contested by the husbands of Gilbert’s daughters, against Jane’s nephew, Sir William Cavendish of Welbeck, executor and beneficiary of Gilbert’s will. In 1618, in a separate case, Jane’s very ownership of Rufford was being contested by another impoverished Talbot lady, Grace, and it eventually descended after Jane’s death to the Savile family of Yorkshire.

In the meantime, and despite all the legal wrangling, Jane Shrewsbury ran the household at Rufford. She was not suspected of recusancy, and in her time the Abbey was known not for religious subterfuge or conspiracy but, instead, for its free hospitality. The poet and doctor Richard Andrews, a connection of the Cavendish family, praised her generous provision of ‘Almes’ in a poem of the 1620s, and the (very) minor writer William Sampson echoed this praise of the charity and hospitality, ‘which she at Rufford every day did show’. Jonson, a beneficiary of some of this liberal entertainment, was himself to write an epitaph for Jane (Underwood, 28) on her death in 1625:

A noble Countesse, grave,
In blood, in birth, by match, and by her seate;
Religious, wise, chast, loving, gratious, good,
And number Attributes vnto a flood.

She was interred in an impressive tomb in Westminster Abbey alongside her husband.

Rufford and its park also provided good hunting, Jonson being taken to hunt for gamebirds, and the countess frequently entertained King James on his hunting expeditions. One such was described by Sir Thomas Wentworth, later earl of Strafford in 1624…

I write you news from the Court at Rufford, when the loss of a stag and the hounds hunting foxes instead of deer put the king into a marvelous chafe … In the height whereof comes a clown galloping in, & staring full in his face: his blood (quoth he), Am I come forty miles to see a fellow? And presently in a great rage turns about his horse, and away he goes faster then he came. The oddness whereof caused his Majesty and all the company to burst out into a vehement laughter, and so the same for that time was happily dispersed.

You can visit Rufford today, now under the stewardship of English Heritage and Nottinghamshire County Council. From its walls and walks you can perhaps still get a sense of these contrasting moments in its history, and the personalities of the inhabitants who gave it its life.

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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