Yarmouth’s Elizabethan House has witnessed more than 400 years of history, from alleged plotting of a king’s death to the return of a Norfolk hero.

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Anything to do with Elizabeth I?

The house was built in about 1596, during the last years of Elizabeths reign. Yarmouth had already been a port for more than 500 years, and was among the busiest and wealthiest places in the country. Benjamin Cooper (or Cowper) was the man who had the property built on land previously owned by the nearby Franciscan Greyfriars monastery. Yarmouth was a crowded place; surrounded on three sides by strong defensive walls and on the fourth side by the sea, only South Quay and Market Place gave any space for the wealthy to build spacious houses. Those not so well off were crammed into narrow streets known as Rows, where disease spread rapidly in crowded conditions. Mr Cooper was more fortunate. Were not sure what he did, but he was MP for the town for many years so was most likely a merchant involved in maritime trade. Yarmouth had grown rich on herring, cloth and timber, and the opening of a new harbour extended links with the Low Countries.

The house looks more Victorian than Elizabethan.

It was built in several stages, Cooper added more rooms as he went along. Part of it was built over an existing Row, a narrow public passage which was later closed off. The plaster ceiling and carved woodwork illustrate he had money to spend on decoration. But the house has been much altered, and Cooper would not have recognised it had he returned in the Georgian or Victorian eras. It was once much larger, and may have been modelled on such great country houses as Felbrigg Hall, near Cromer. In 1635 it was sold to merchant John Carter, a leading supporter of Parliament, commander of the towns trained band (or militia) and a great friend of Oliver Cromwell. With Yarmouth supporting Parliament against the king in civil wars of the 1640s it became a Puritan stronghold. Carters son later married Cromwells granddaughter, so it was natural the future Lord Protector should visit. The scene was set for the birth of a legend. In late 1648, it is said Carter hosted Cromwell, Yarmouth MP Miles Corbet and army leaders in an upstairs room. From 4pm to 11pm they argued in secret over dinner about what to do with King Charles I, who was their prisoner. The story goes that a boy overheard them deciding the king must die, and that nothing should stand in their way. Sure enough, Charles was executed the following January.

Is this story true?

It seems plausible but may be a tale that has grown in the telling. Certainly, by 1773, the room was known as the Conspiracy Room. A Mr Hewling Luson wrote in a letter that the Carter family preserved the legend and he had been shown the chamber as a boy. Its a good yarn and the current museum makes good use of it, with models representing the principal players and Civil War helmets and armour to try on. There was a sting in the tale; Miles Corbet, the only Norfolk man to sign the kings death warrant, was later hunted down and executed. John Carter was not implicated, and died in 1667. The house changed hands several times after that. It was later divided into four separate houses by John Davall. In 1800, Admiral Horatio Nelson made his triumphant return from Mediterranean victories to his native Norfolk, docking at South Quay to a tumultuous welcome not far from the house. Around this time the Palmer family took over the property. John Danby Palmer rebuilt the front of the house in white brick casing, while son Charles lovingly maintained it, and kept it from falling into disrepair at a time when neighbouring properties were suffering. Yarmouth was in economic decline by the late 1800s, and many of the wealthy moved out of town. In 1870, the Aldreds moved in, and ran their estate agency and auctioneering business from the front rooms. Mary Aldred bequeathed the house to the National Trust in 1943, since when it has become, briefly, council offices and then a museum.

And today?

It is popular with school groups. Roleplaying actors in period costume provide an entertaining and educational handson visit for the children. Life both above and below stairs over the past 400 years has been re-created. So we see a reconstruction of the Coopers 1590s dining room, complete with period furniture, carpets on the walls and rush matting on the floor which was popular at the time. The kitchen and scullery have been re-created in Victorian style, with cast-iron cooking range, costumes and everyday implements of the time. Also in Victorian style is the toy room upstairs. It is full of toys from the past, many of them replicas that can be used by visitors. There is a 19th century dolls house and a bizarre squirrels tea party, made up of stuffed animals sitting in a genteel manner at the table. Apparently it reflects a Victorian fad for humanising animals perhaps a little macabre for modern tastes. An 1890s parlour full of contemporary furniture and memorabilia is next door.

Anything else?

Two fine paintings on the wall above the stairs reflect Yarmouths maritime heritage. One, by George Vincent, shows the colourful Dutch Fair at Yarmouth. Up to the early 1800s Dutch fisherfolk visited the town to catch herring. They would also set up stalls, selling sweets and fancy goods. Painted in about 1825 it shows the new Nelson Monument, with Britannia pointing towards the admirals birthplace at Burnham Thorpe. Another painting demonstrates George Manbys life-saving ship-to-shore lines in use at Yarmouth. Manby was living in the town during the early 1800s when he came up with his invention.

Elizabethan House, 4 South Quay, telephone 01493 855746. The house is leased to Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

WEBSITES

www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk
www.nationaltrust.org.uk

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