On at least seven occasions during the 17th century, reigning English Kings have visited Little Saxham. They came to the Hall to visit their friends, the Crofts, where they enjoyed masquerades, and to quote Samuel Pepys, 'much drinking'.
Little Saxham Hall stood for 260 years between 1513 and 1773. So what happened during the years that the Hall existed? What sort of place was it? Who lived there?
There is remarkably little written about Little Saxham Hall. No painting or etching is known to exist, so you cannot see how it looked. Amazingly though, bearing in mind it was built nearly 500 years ago, we do know what materials went into its construction. But on the other hand, we have no idea why it was pulled down in 1773.
We do have the Parish Registers, compiled towards the end of the 19th century. A lot of historical data is included, although some of this is inaccurate. The current Chairman of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Dr Malcolm Airs, Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, wrote a paper in 1978 comparing the design of five East Anglian country houses, of which Little Saxham Hall was one. More recently he wrote a book entitled The Tudor and Jacobean Country House - a Building History, which mentions Little Saxham Hall a number of times.
If we cast our minds back 500 years to the start of the 16th century, Henry VII had been on the throne for nearly 15 years.
Little Saxham was, as it is now, a sleepy hamlet within walking distance of Bury St Edmunds. It had a fine church, dating back four hundred years to Norman times. It had a number of cottages and two or three fine houses, that formerly had been manor houses.
But what was on the site of what was soon to become Little Saxham Hall? We know there had been in earlier times, three small manors in Little Saxham, known as Geddings, Larges and Graces, all presumably named after their owners. Graces, possibly because we know it abutted the Heath (that's the area immediately south of the present railway line), might be where Honeyhill Farm is now. Geddings may have been where the former Rectory was, currently in the garden of Smallwood House.
It looks as if Larges, despite comments to the opposite in the Parish Registers, was on the site where the Hall was to be built. Evidence points almost certainly to this being the site of the manor of Larges - together with an existing moat. The reference is from the original building contracts held in the British Library. In 1505, the very first entry states 'paid to John Megir for stubbyng and levelyng of the ground within the mote of the manor of Largs.'
It continues with references to 'stubbing (removing tree-stumps) of the duffhows and stubbing of a garden plot leyng by the same'. So clearly, this must have been the existing site of the manor of Larges. It appears that there was already a moat here, together with a dovehouse and garden.
THE BUILDING OF THE HALL
At this site, in 1505, arrived Thomas Lucas. We can trace nine generations of Lucas' right back to the late 12th century and they had been West Suffolkers through and through. They had filled the posts of aldermen and bailiff of St Edmundsbury at various times in the 13th and 14th centuries. The first we know about was just plain 'Lucas' - they didn't have family names then. He held lands in Westley in 1180.
'Our' Thomas was born about 1470. At the end of the 15th century it is known that he held the position of Secretary, one of the household of Jasper, Duke of Bedford. Jasper was the uncle of Henry VII. Thomas rose to become a privy councillor and in 1504 he had been appointed Solicitor-General to the King. This was the number two legal post in the country, his superior being the Attorney-General. The Duke of Bedford bestowed upon him a number of manors and he certainly acquired several others himself. Dunham Hall in Westley was one of the manors bestowed to him.
During the 15th century, the three manors in Little Saxham had gradually come into single ownership. By 1490 the inheritance had passed to Roger Darcy. In 1505 Roger sold the three manors of Little Saxham, together with some land in Risby, to Thomas Lucas, for the princely sum of £240(!) Thomas immediately set about building a Hall that was to be a splendid example of its time. It took some eight years to complete, but it was to be a massive construction. The hall at nearby West Stow is now known as West Stow Stud, and only the Gatehouse remains, attached to a later building. That was the style in which Little Saxham Hall was built, although John Gage, in his History of Thingoe Hundred, written in 1838, refers to the hall at West Stow as being 'inferior to Little Saxham'.
This picture, or etching, is labelled 'Saxham Hall' showing how easy it is to get history wrong. It is in fact the gatehouse of West Stow Hall. The confusion probably lies in the fact that the Crofts Family, who purchased Little Saxham from the Lucas Family after Thomas' death, also owned West Stow Hall.
Let's get back to the building of the Hall. Thomas Lucas himself was in charge of the construction. He kept meticulous accounts, which can be viewed in full in the British Library, if you can read his handwriting. Excerpts from these accounts are contained in Gage's history and from that we can get a good impression of how the Hall was constructed.
Some examples (from 1505):
"Paid to John Trovy for hewing of 33 loads of timber at Hunden Park at 11d the load - 31/8d"
"Paid to a sawyer of Barrow for 8 days work breaking part of the said timber - 5/0d"
"Paid to John Megir of Wickhambrook, for casting of my moat, and for digging the foundation of my building - £10"
"Paid to John Cowper of St Osyths in part payment for making of lime at Saxham - 3/4d"
"Paid to Stephen in part payment for making of the foundation of my drawbridge to be brought 7 feet high - 6/8d"
"Paid to Robert Beston of Bury, in part payment for glazing at Saxham - 6/8d"
"Paid to Loveday and Stephen Gaithorn for raising my floor two bricks thickness - 13/4d"
"Paid to a plumber of Lidgate for casting of lead - 5/8d"
Bearing in mind that in those days there were no roads worth speaking of - only tracks for horse and cart - much of the materials used in building the Hall had to come from far away. There are records of 32 tons of gypsum plaster being brought in from Lincolnshire, having been shipped across the Wash from Boston to King's Lynn, and taken up the River Ouse as far as Brandon, from where it would have been carted the rest of the way. Glass was shipped across to London from Normandy and transported up to Suffolk.
One William Burden, a freemason contracted for constructing the great bay windows in the hall and hewing stone for an arch in the bridge, was not only paid for his work but for his 'comings and goings from Cambridge.' In those days the Cambridge traffic and along the A14 was not quite so bad, but it must have taken the best part of a day to travel there and back.
Loveday, the carpenter, was paid to travel on numerous occasions during 1507 to Horham Hall at Thaxted, in Essex, to see the building work that was then proceeding. It seems that a number of ideas were borrowed or shared between the various builders. Indeed, it states early on in the accounts that the work was to be 'after and according to the patron of an house of Sir John Cutte in his manor at Thaxted'. That was Horham Hall. In 1509 the glazier was sent to 'Mr Cutte' before starting work on the chapel window.
Although probably the most important single source, Horham was not the only house which provided inspiration for specific architectural features at Little Saxham. In 1505, soon after building commenced, the principal carpenter was sent to London to study the house of a wealthy merchant and the following year a bricklayer working on the drawbridge was sent to see a bridge in Essex. In 1508 the smith and two masons travelled over 50 miles to Stapleford Tawney in Essex to see a 'window of stone'.
From the contracts contained in the accounts it seems likely that the craftsmen were issued with the dimensions and general form of each part of the building, but were left with a generous freedom to interpret the details of their construction and decoration as they saw fit. The most detail supplied is in such statements as 'to be made finely and workmanly'. No other indication of the form and appearance of the decorative elements survives in the written record and it may be doubted whether it was ever considered necessary. This was the preserve of the ingenious craftsman, as it had been throughout the Middle Ages.
Such a haphazard method of design could only work, however, if the work was properly supervised and given overall direction. Such work fell to one Richard Hook, who could in today's terms be referred to as the Clerk of Works. He directed the building work over the eight years that it took to complete the Hall.
Gage provides a dramatic description of the completed edifice:
"It was one of those picturesque, brick, embattled manor-houses, with towers, irregular gables, finials, and clusters of ornamental chimney..the style of which prevails in an inferior degree in the neighbouring Hall of Westow. It was moated, fenced with deep ditches, and approached by a causeway, having a drawbridge across the moat, and a tower gate-house. There was an outer and an inner court, with bay windows to the hall and parlour embattled, a fumerel rising in the centre of the hall roof; and the tower staircase, as well as the gate-house, was crowned with vanes."
The moats constructed around the Hall were unusual. Deep and wide on two sides, the third side was narrower and less deep, as it still is today. The Hall itself was not entirely moated, just a notch on the fourth side delineating the 'square' of the Hall. So certainly the moats were only for decoration and drainage, not for protection. The moats continue along a further three-sided area, enclosing what was probably the orchard for the Hall. This is possibly the site of the manor of Larges, mentioned earlier. One of these three sides is, and was then, a pond, and it is here that the 'Saxon entrenchments' mentioned earlier probably were.
In 1995, after a particularly dry spell, the lines of many of the walls of the house could be seen. Even doorways were evident. It had been planned to get an aerial photograph done, but that night it rained hard, and most of the parch-marks, as they are called, disappeared.
At the time a partial survey was undertaken, which is reproduced here. Unfortunately there wasn't time to record all the markings that were clearly visible in September 1995, but this plan should give you an idea of the overall size of the property.
Whilst building for himself, Lucas didn't forget also to build for the Almighty. He added a chantry chapel to Little Saxham Church, dedicating it to Our Lady and St John the Evangelist. Under the archway between this chapel and the chancel of the church he built a tomb for himself but he was not buried there. The archway has been filled in, but it can still be seen on either side, obstructed within the chapel by the huge Crofts' monument.
We don't know much about Thomas Lucas as a person. He was on pretty poor terms with Cardinal Wolsey and got himself sent to the Tower for a short period in June 1516 'for speaking scandalous words of the Lord Cardinal'. Each of the windows of the new hall was stained in the Solicitor-General's motto, 'Change truth for maisterie (mastery)', which seems a bit strong, even by today's terms, for a lawyer.
He died in July 1531. In his will, he left various bits of manor land to John, one of his two remaining sons (the eldest, Jasper, had died before his father) and the Hall to his grandson Thomas, who was still a minor at the time.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE CROFTS
John and Thomas Lucas joined in selling their respective shares to John Crofts, who had built West Stow Hall some 10 years earlier on the site of earlier manors and had lived there since then. Thomas went to live at Horsecroft Hall at Horringer.
John Crofts was born in 1490 and had married in 1517. He was knighted at the coronation of Queen Mary in 1553. He was an acquirer of manors. During his lifetime there were many manors to be acquired, for abbeys were being dissolved and the church was being shorn. The Abbey at Bury St Edmunds was dissolved in 1539; parts of Bury Abbey were dredged from the moat some fifteen years ago. Clearly they were not part of the original construction of the Hall, as that was completed some 25 years before Bury Abbey was dissolved, but during some probable extensions or improvements, the Abbey was plundered and examples of its materials are to be found all around this area.
John Crofts died in January 1558 and was buried at West Stow, which had remained the Crofts' hunting lodge ever since the move to Little Saxham in 1531.
His son Edmund, born 1520, was his son and heir. At the age of 17 he had married Elizabeth Kitson, or Kytson, who was the daughter of Sir Thomas, the builder of Hengrave Hall (1524 - 1540). He only survived his father by three weeks.
Thomas was born in 1538 and had 12 children by his wife Susan. He became Sheriff of Suffolk in 1595 and outlived his wife by 8 years, dying in 1612.
Sir John Crofts came to Little Saxham on the death of his father in 1612. He was 49 at the time and had lived in Bedfordshire for most of his married life. He had been knighted in Dublin in 1599, presumably for active service in Ireland. He lived at Little Saxham until his death in March 1628. He was to entertain royalty on a number of occasions during his 16 years at the Hall.
Sir John had several visits from James I, the recorded ones being in February 1620, December 1621 and February 1622. The King's wife had died in 1619 and he was, perhaps, somewhat lonely.
The first of these visits is recorded in a letter from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton and says, '(The King) passes the time merrily at Newmarket, and the running masque reigns all over the country where there be fit subjects to entertain it; as lately they have been at Sir John Crofts' near Bury.'
A similar letter written in December 1621 says that 'the King has been entertained with a masque by Sir John Crofts and his daughters, and they visited him at Newmarket'. Two months later the same writer says, '(The King) is to go a-shroving to Sir John Crofts. That Lady and her daughter Cecilia have been much at Newmarket of late'.
The following month the King himself was reported as saying that he was the king of the most lying nation in the world, for they had reported that he was now married to Sir John Crofts' daughter. There were certainly rumours of an affair between him and Cecilia, though he was 56 in 1622 and she was only in her early twenties. Cecilia was 'a very gay young lady, prominent in the masquerades'.
Sir John's third son, also John, was born in 1598. He wrote a poem entitled, 'To the King, at his entrance to Saxham'. Presumably, therefore, it was written before he was aged 18, which means that the King probably came to Little Saxham before 1616, as well as the three recorded visits. The poem can be viewed in full at this page.
The poem commenced,
"Ere you pass this threshold, stay,
And give your creature leave to pay
Those Pious rites, which unto you,
As to our household gods, are due.
46 lines long, it continues, at line 23:
"We shall want nothing but good fare,
To show your welcome and our care;
Such rarities, that come from far,
From poor men's houses banished are?
Yet we'll express in homely cheer
How glad we are to see you here."
THE CIVIL WAR
We move on to Sir John's eldest son Sir Henry. He had been knighted at Whitehall in 1611, at the tender age of 21. He had married Elizabeth a year earlier. She died in 1642 and it is her revealing bust that you can see today in the Lucas chapel in Little Saxham Church. Sir Henry lived through troubled times, through the Civil War and the Commonwealth. He had sat in Parliament before the troubles began (MP for Eye in 1624) and again, 36 years later, when the monarchy was restored in 1660 (as MP for Bury St Edmunds).
Henry had been closely connected with the courts of the first two Stuart kings, and he must have suffered during the troubles, though up here in deepest Suffolk he may have been able to keep his head down low. He did not have to forfeit his property, although the records show that he did have to pay a sum of money to Parliament too fund the war against King Charles. He seems to have been a 'moderate' loyalist, else he would have lost his house, his land and all his money - if not his head.
He died in March 1667 at the fair age of 77 and was buried at Little Saxham. In the seven years between the Restoration and his death, the company at Little Saxham was 'young and giddy'. His son William was described once as 'that mad fellow Crofts' and Henry may have moved away from the main residence in 1662 to allow William to have his fun. These years saw their share of problems, with the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is perhaps typical of the aristocracy to go over the top at such times!
William Crofts is the most high-profile person ever to have lived at the Hall. He had been born in 1611. He was in a fair amount of trouble from an early age, getting into fights and even a dual or two. In 1644, with the Civil War raging, we see him in Paris and again in 1649, after Charles I's execution.
By now, Charles (later to become Charles II) was in exile and William was sent by him to Poland and Lithuania on embassy duties. The main purpose of his and others' forays abroad was to raise money for the would-be king's cause and Crofts was certainly successful, raising considerably more money than the cost of sending him there. Upon his return from Poland in 1652 he was made a gentleman of Charles' bedchamber, (a doubtful-sounding privilege!). From then he lived in a house near Paris and in 1658 received his long-talked-of peerage. It was drawn in Brussels on 18 May 1658, making him Baron Crofts, of Saxham.
After one of Charles' attempts to gain power in 1651, he had escaped to France from England, having hidden in the now famous oak tree at Boscobel in Shropshire to avoid detection after defeat at the battle of Worcester.
Charles had many lovers, the first of which was Lucy Walter. She had met Charles in 1648 in Holland - she was in exile too - and conceived a child by Charles the following April. This was James, later to become Duke of Monmouth.
James lived with his mother in Holland until shortly before she died in 1658. James, aged 9, was then put in the charge of Baron Crofts, taking his surname, and living in Paris until July 1662, when the Baron and he returned from exile. By then James was just 13. A year earlier, plans had been put in motion for James to be married to Lady Anne Scott, Countess of Buccleuch. She was the wealthiest heiress in Britain, with an estate of £10,000 a year. At that time, Anne was only 10.
The marriage took place in April 1663, in the King's Chamber in Whitehall, when James was 14 years and 11 days old. Anne was just 12. James had been made Duke of Monmouth two months earlier. "This being James' marriage day", Charles wrote to his sister, the Duchess of Orleans, "I am going to sup with them where we intend to dance, and see them abed together"(!)
The marriage was 'de convenance', an arranged marriage, of course, and Monmouth was quite a 'man-about-town'. He was always in trouble, sometimes so serious that the King had to intervene to save him from the course of his actions.
Later, Monmouth was to fight his uncle James for the right to rule the country, only to be executed for his efforts in 1685.
William had been married twice before, neither very successfully. His second wife died in 1662. In 1664 in married Elizabeth Spencer, of Althorp. Her father was Baron William Spencer, who of course is a distant relative of the current Earl, the brother of the late Princess Diana.
THE SECOND ROYAL VISITOR
Charles visited Baron Crofts at Saxham at least four times, in March 1666, October 1668, April 1670 and October 1676. The main purpose of his visits appears to be to have a good time!
On the second occasion Lord Arlington wrote to his secretary, "I could not speak to the king at Saxham, nor until today, by reason of the uncertainty of his motions(!)"
The diarist Samuel Pepys was present since he recalls a few days later when "..the King was drunk at Saxam" and refers to "the night that my lord Arlington come thither, and would not give him audience or could not; which is true, for it was the night that I was there and saw the king go up to his chamber and was told the king had been drinking."
Then in April 1670: "on the 16th the king was entertained at Lord Crofts', from whence he will go to Lord Arlington's (at Euston), and then he will pass his time in other parts till his return to Newmarket to see a race on the 27th, after which he will return to Whitehall."
The 16th April was a Saturday, since the following day Charles, probably somewhat the worse for wear, was treated to a lengthy and rather boring sermon at Little Saxham Church. The sermon was given by George Seignior, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. It is rumoured that Charles nodded off during the sermon and subsequently had to ask for it to be printed, so that he could have the chance of reading it. It was printed on quarto, and ran to 33 closely printed pages.
In October 1676, in the fourth of Charles' recorded visits here, Richard Gipps of Little Horringer Hall was knighted at Saxham.
So we have, between James I and Charles II, some seven recorded instances of royal visits by reigning monarchs to Little Saxham Hall. That's eight if you count the time when young Master John wrote his poem. One can only assume that there were others, which are unrecorded. Did the Duke of Monmouth ever visit Little Saxham? Did he come with his father to one of the rowdy drunken evenings there? It is believed that he was present at Christmas 1665, when Lord Arlington of Euston was also there. "We passed Christmas merrily", Arlington wrote.
THE LAST OF THE CROFTS
William died in 1677 at the age of 66, having no children by either of his two marriages. The monument in the chapel is of him and his second wife, Elizabeth. Little Saxham Hall passed to his first cousin, also William, but a Major. Masquerades, duels and royal visits were over and just three more generations of Crofts owned Little Saxham Hall before their name was extinguished there. Major William died in 1695.
William's eldest son Anthony married Elizabeth Gipps of Little Horringer Hall at Saxham in 1684. He died in 1725 and was buried here. Elizabeth died in 1753.
William, Anthony and Elizabeth's only child, was born in 1711 and died in 1770. He married in 1737 but probably did not live at the Hall then. We know that one Francis Fauquier, who was later to become Lieutenant-Governor of Virginia, rented the hall in about 1730. Possibly, it was then unoccupied for some 30 years or so, although when Elizabeth died in 1753 she was buried at Little Saxham. But it is unlikely that she lived on her own for 28 years in the Hall.
William's eldest child was Richard. He lived at West Harling, in Norfolk. It was he who gave instructions for the Hall to be demolished in 1773. Why he pulled it down is not known. It had probably fallen into disrepair, having been unoccupied for some time. Over 100 years had passed since its hey-day.
The land around the Hall, right down to the Linnet, remained with the Crofts family until 1789, when it was sold for just over £16,000. Charles, Marquis Cornwallis, the purchaser, exchanged it for West Stow in 1795 with Robert Rushbrooke.
Rushbrooke's purchase of Little Saxham was part of a plan to secure the old hall at Rushbrooke, which had probably belonged to his ancestors. Lord Bristol had come into ownership of Rushbrooke Hall and in 1808 it was agreed to exchange Saxham for Rushbrooke. From that time on, Bristol owned much of Little Saxham.
The rest is history, as they say. Crofts Place, as it is now known, on the other side of the moat, was the Dairy Farm for the Ickworth Estate around the turn of the last century.
So what is left of the magnificent structure? The foundations of what may have been the tower gatehouse are still in evidence, as is part of the wall at the edge of the moat. Whilst we can't be certain that the present bridge was part of the original construction, if it led through to a central courtyard from the stables outside the moat, then it probably was original. It has however been substantially re-built within the past 30 years. There used to be a tunnel by the side of the bridge, leading some 20 feet or so under the field into what appeared to be cellars. That was filled in about 20 years ago. There are also remains of a second bridge, similar to the one mentioned above, on the western arm of the moat, but now hidden from view under silt and water.Out in the field can be seen some of the stonework that remains at surface level and, as mentioned earlier, plenty of evidence when the weather has been dry of the lines of the walls.
The above was the text of a talk given by Mr Bob Jones, on the site of the Hall, on 21 June 2000, as part of the village's Millennium celebrations.