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Thursday, April 15, 2010
This magnificent moated fortified manor house, in lovely countryside near Downham Market, has been the home of the Bedingfeld family since the 15th century. It endured, with them, years of religious oppression after the Reformation. The Bedingfelds were not the first owners of the site, nor the first to get into difficulties. It is recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as Oxenburch a fortified place where oxen are kept. Before the fens were drained it was surrounded by marsh, and thus quite inaccessible a good defensive position. Thomas de Wayland, Edward Is Chief Justice in 1274, owned the land, but he tried to swindle the king and was eventually forced into exile. An even more colourful owner was Sir Thomas Tuddenham who, in the 1450s, terrorised Norfolk with brute force. He came to a bad end, executed at Tower Hill in 1461. His sister had married Edmund Bedingfeld from east Suffolk, and the estate fell to him. He decided to build a grand new house at Oxburgh.
Not only expensive, he had to get royal permission. This came from Edward IV in 1482, who allowed Bedingfeld to build Oxburgh complete with its imposing gatehouse using stone, chalk and gravel. He also used red brick, a pricey luxury in those days. The kings permission was necessary as these were violent days of civil war, and fortifying a house sent out a sometimes aggressive message. Although Bedingfeld was a Yorkist supporter, he prudently failed to turn out for Richard III at Bosworth in 1485. Prudent because Richard lost. Bedingfeld fought for the new king, Henry VII, two years later at Stoke. His reward was royal trust, and a prestigious, if expensive, visit by Henry and Queen Elizabeth. To this day the room occupied by the monarch at Oxburgh is known as the Kings Room. This royal favour ushered in a century of service to the Tudors by the family. Edmunds descendants were soldiers and courtiers, trusted with the onerous responsibility of guarding both Catherine of Aragon in the 1530s and the future Elizabeth I in the 1550s. This royal service would no doubt have continued had it not been for the familys religion.
They were fervent Catholics, and kept their faith alive through two centuries of government threat, fines and the proscription of their religion. From the 1570s until 1791, when legal restrictions were at last removed, Catholic services were held in secret. Henry Bedingfeld had a priest hole built to hide ministers (you can still climb in if youre slim enough) and the signal that a service was taking place was when the washing was left out. Sir Henrys descendants were denied careers at court. Many were educated overseas at Jesuit seminaries, and the estate was hit hard by fines for recusancy. Lack of cash was to be a permanent problem for succeeding generations, and the house began to materially decay. Things got worse in the Civil War of the 1640s, when the family once again backed the losing side out of conviction. As supporters of the Royalist cause in a Parliament-dominated region, they were isolated. Cavalier Sir Henry Bedingfeld was captured fighting at the siege of Lynn, and imprisoned at the age of 65; his son, Colonel Thomas, was severely wounded at Lincoln, his other son, Henry, forced into exile.
Faithful steward Henry Widmerpool kept things going while Sir Henry was in the Tower of London, while his sons wife, the Norfolk heiress Margaret Paston, held the fort while her husband was exiled. In 1652 disaster struck. Parliament confiscated the estate and the house was ransacked, the gardens destroyed. The Bedingfelds returned after the Restoration but, despite close friendship with Charles II, they were not compensated for their losses. A row of dummy books in the library with the ironic title Rewards for Sir Henry Bedingfeld, His Loyaltie bear witness to a lasting bitterness.
In the more relaxed 18th century their political situation eased. But the family pile was creaking and old-fashioned. Richard Bedingfeld was a moderniser, knocking down the medieval Great Hall without keeping a record of what it looked like. He had a caring side, innoculating the whole estate against the deadly smallpox in 1781. His son, another Richard, found the expense of Oxburgh hard to maintain, and let the house to tenants while he lived at Bath. It was only when his newly-married son, Henry, moved back to Norfolk in the 1820s that the house received attention. Unlike his grandfather, Henry loved all things medieval and improved the house while keeping its original character. It was he who had built the distinctive barleytwist chimneys. He also built a Gothic chapel in the grounds where he is buried in the mortuary.
Oxburgh had one more trial to go through. After the second world war, the ninth baronet was forced to sell the estate. It looked doomed when a local timber merchant planned to demolish the building and cut down the trees. Sybil, Lady Bedingfeld, who had married into the family in 1904, saved the day. By selling much of the contents of the house and persuading relatives to sell their own properties, she managed to buy the house back. In 1952 it was given to the National Trust for the nation. Lady Sybil died at the age of 101 in 1985, and the family still lives at Oxburgh.
The house and gardens are open to the public. Look out for the 16th century needlework panels created by those best of enemies Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick. You can also see rare terracotta screens from the 1530s in the nearby church, the steeple of which collapsed in 1948.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk Telephone: 01366 328258.
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