Visiting his family home today, nearly 500 years after he built it, Sir William More would have no trouble recognising it. In the light of a (drizzly) summer afternoon, the Elizabethan mansion looks much as it did in the 16th century. His carriage approaching the house from the South, he would know to find the main entrance door on the North side; this is because the warm southwestern breeze carried the danger of plague and other infectious diseases, so the front door was strategically placed on the northern facade - better safe than sorry.
Built during the reign of Elizabeth I by an ancestor of the present owners, Loseley is a stone and chalk mullioned stately home, surrounded by glorious parkland with views across the North Downs. According to family lore, Sir Christopher More, William’s father, was a lawyer who was asked to resolve an argument between two families over ownership of the Manor of Loseley. He liked the place so much, he convinced his clients to sell it to him: an early confirmation of the adage “where two are fighting, the lawyers win”. Loseley, as it stands today (some 30 miles SW of London) was built between 1562 and 1568, and it remains a lived-in family home.
William started the construction in anticipation of Queen Elisabeth’s visit. He personally supervised the work and brought stone from the demolished Waverly Abbey, the first Cistercian Abbey in England later dissolved by Henry VIII. The cost of the house totalled £1640 19s 7d – which seems quite good value for such a big house. How big? Not even the present occupiers know how many bedrooms there are.
There is a thrill to be experienced in visiting a historic house that is still occupied by the historic family – albeit (and understandably) in a separate wing, not open to the public. While waiting for our guide in the entrance hall, we were greeted by a couple of friendly, if rather wet, dogs (a Spaniel and a Dachsund, I am informed) and their mistress, Sarah, back from a walk around the estate. Chancing upon a member of the family is as inspiring as the thought of kings and queens stepping on these floors, opening these doors. In 1570 Elisabeth I finally visited the house – although, not one to travel light, she brought her own bed to sleep in. Her room is next to the King’s room – occupied by James I – and like it features 17th century tapestries. The bed she did not use is still here, with its carved oak pelmet depicting a dynamic boar hunt scene. A carved piece of wood above the mantelpiece in the Library commemorates the visit.
As we stepped into the Grand Hall, the entire More-Molyneux family, dressed in their best silks, greeted us from high above on the opposite wall. Sir More Molyneux, standing tall surrounded by his wife and daughters, was the son of Sir Thomas Molyneux and his wife Margaret. It was Margaret More who inherited Loseley, so the surname was preserved. I was intrigued that a women could inherit a large estate in the 17th century, but in the family tree it appears that all her three siblings were dsp – decessit sine prole (died without issue) so the youngest sister gave her hand, and with it the estate to Sir Thomas Molineux. The hyphen was added in the 1900’s.
The painting in the Grand Hall is of Sir More Molyneux and his wife Cassandra, with eight of their 11 children and a couple of dogs. Portraits of other family members adorn the walls. Further evidence to their commitment to material recycling is evident in the panelling; it came from Nonsuch Palace – the grandest Tudor palace built by Henry VIII. His and Katherine Parr’s initials can still be seen on the panels, which display some interesting trompe l’oeil techniques.
But it is the drawing room that has the wow factor; there was an audible intake of breath as we stepped into the room and faced the impressive Italianate chimney, carved out of a block of chalk. Compared with the rest of the house, which can feel cold and sombre, the drawing room is full of light – thanks to large windows and the large white chimney. The theme of “white” is echoed on the gilded ceiling, which was decorated in anticipation of James I’s visit to Loseley. The frieze features details typical of Elizabethan architecture: animals and foliage, together with the family’s heraldic insignia – the moor-cock and the moor-hen, possibly a rebus on the family name. There is a mulberry tree, on one side of which we can read “Morus tarde moriens” and on the other side “morum cito moriturum”, one of many maxims inscribed throughout the house and again, a pun over the family name. It implies that the family, like the tree, will survive for a long time, even if the fruit – the individual descendants – have a limited life.
It was our cue to visit the garden and find the mulberry tree, which is believed was planted by Elisabeth I herself. The tree has indeed fallen over - apparently when a More Molineux was away during the war – but the tree survived, so the family motto was proven a true prophecy. Over one thousand English Rose bushes were flowering in the appropriately named Rose Garden. Sadly for us, furious rain in the days leading to our visit has washed away many of the fragrant petals, but the beautiful symmetry of garden worked its charm. The original walled garden, featuring five different themed sections, is based on a design by Gertrude Jekyll, the famous horticulturist and writer, who was a local.
We ended the visit, inevitably, in the souvenir shop and the tea room. For me, the best souvenir from Loseley is the honey and stem ginger flavour – even if the ice cream is no longer made here and the last of the Jersey dairy cow were sold a few years ago. Souvenir may not be the correct term for something that lasts only a few minutes – but the taste and texture of Loseley ice cream is memorable.