History of Audley End House and Gardens
Audley End was one of the greatest houses of early 17th-century England. In about 1605–14 Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, took an earlier house created by his grandfather Lord Audley on the site of Walden Abbey, and rebuilt it on the scale of a royal palace. Robert Adam transformed this house for Sir John Griffin Griffin in the 1760s, while Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown remodelled the grounds, to create one of England's finest landscape gardens.
The large manor of Walden was held after the Norman Conquest of 1066 by the de Mandeville family, the Earls of Essex. On it they established the castle and later town of Walden (now Saffron Walden). In 1139 Geoffrey de Mandeville founded a Benedictine priory (elevated to the status of an abbey in 1190) at Brookwalden, adjacent to the river Cam and the London–Cambridge road.
The De Bohun family, subsequent Earls of Essex and of Hereford, were important patrons of the abbey from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and many family members were buried there.
Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk
Ownership of Audley’s house descended to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was executed in 1572 for conspiring with Mary, Queen of Scots, against Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603). The duke’s second son, Thomas (1561–1626), redeemed the family reputation, gaining Elizabeth's confidence and being created Baron Howard de Walden and a Knight of the Garter.
On the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England in 1603, Howard was made Earl of Suffolk and appointed Lord Chamberlain. In 1614 he became Lord Treasurer, but four years later was convicted of corruption, extortion and bribery – the embezzled money had helped to pay off his debts. He and the countess escaped with a heavy fine and retired in disgrace to Audley End, the main cause of their financial problems.
No building accounts survive for Thomas Howard’s rebuilding of Audley End, but both historical events and documentary references place it in the date range of about 1605–14.
The Royal Palace
The 1st Earl of Suffolk’s extravagance and downfall left his successors seriously indebted. The 3rd Earl’s position was eased in 1667, when Charles II bought the house and park at Audley End for £50,000. Of this sum £20,000 remained on mortgage, and the Suffolk family were given accommodation in the northern pavilion of the outer court, as keepers of the new palace.
Audley End’s particular attraction to Charles II, a horse-racing enthusiast, lay in its proximity to Newmarket races. After about 1670, however, neither Charles nor his successors made much use of it. It was by then both old-fashioned and fast deteriorating, despite repairs by the Office of Works.
The house was returned to trustees on behalf of the heirs of the 3rd Earl in 1701, in settlement of the mortgage.
Sir John Griffin Griffin
Sir John, a distinguished professional soldier, came into his inheritance in 1762, having fulfilled his aunt’s condition that he change his surname to Griffin.
The countess’s reduction of the house proved impractical, and Griffin employed the architect Robert Adam to add a stack of galleries behind the great hall to connect the two sides of the house, and to build new kitchen offices to the north. Adam’s principal creative contribution, however, was a new set of ground-floor reception rooms on the south front.
At the same time ‘Capability’ Brown began remodelling the grounds, sweeping away the remains of the formal landscape, with Adam providing designs for the garden buildings, including the Temple of Victory and Palladian (Tea House) bridge. After a quarrel with Sir John, Brown was replaced by Joseph Hicks. Sir John took an active role in devising and directing the works, employing some of the best designers and craftsmen of the day.
In 1784 George III (r.1760–1820) recognised Sir John’s claim to the Barony of Howard de Walden. This event prompted Sir John to create a new state apartment at first-floor level on the south front, opening off the saloon. The east ends of the north and south wings, reduced to a single storey by Lady Portsmouth, were built back up to their original height.
Lord Howard and his second wife, Katherine, were by now respectively a capable amateur architect and decorator, and essentially planned the work themselves. They continued to augment the collections until Lord Howard died in 1797, as well as improving and extending the park. In the 1780s Sir John commissioned Richard Woods to create the Elysian Garden on the banks of the Cam, although it was modified in execution by Placido Columbani. The Temple of Concord was designed in 1790 by Robert Furze Brettingham.
The 20th and 21st Centuries
After the death of the 3rd Lord Braybrooke the house passed to his surviving sons as successive Lords Braybrooke until 1902, when Latimer Neville, 6th Baron Braybrooke, died. From 1904 until 1912 it was let to Lord Howard de Walden, a distant relative, who was attracted by the racing at Newmarket.
Under Henry Neville, 7th Baron Braybrooke (1855–1941), the Neville family retrenched, selling their seat of Billingbear, Berkshire, and bringing its contents to Audley End. After being requisitioned for war use in 1941 Audley End served as the headquarters of the Polish Section of the Special Operations Executive. It was bought for the nation in 1948, the 9th Lord Braybrooke leaving many of the contents on loan.
The emphasis under the Ministry of Works and, from 1984, English Heritage, has been on research, repair and conservation. Recent restoration has focused on elements such as the kitchen garden, domestic offices and parterre, which were maintained until the house ceased to be a family home in the mid-20th century.
About the Author
Paul Drury FSA is an archaeologist and architectural historian, whose interest in applying archaeological techniques (including excavation) to understanding the evolution of Elizabethan and Jacobean great houses began with his work at Audley End in the 1970s.
READ MORE ABOUT AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS