The history of Wroxton Abbey spans over 800 years. Originally an Augustinian Priory stood where the Abbey is today. The Abbey as we know it, was built in the 1580s at the behest of Sir Thomas Pope, founder of Trinity College, Oxford, and his brother, John. It has been home to the Pope family, the North family, most notably, home to Lord Frederick North, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1770-1782), it was a warehouse for the duration of World War II, apartments under Lady Pearson and now is the home away from home for students from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
At Wroxton, the past permeates the atmosphere and reaches out across the ages and generations.
Wroxton Abbey History – Augustinian Priory: Mediaeval England
Ownership of the Wroxton manor is recorded as far back as 1089 when it was held by Guy de Reinbeudcurt, Lord of Chipping Warden. Michael Belet, a tenant at Wroxton founded an Augustinian priory in honour of St Mary in 1216.
When the priory was dissolved in 1536, it had twenty tenants and held almost all the lands in the parish of Wroxton and Balscot.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, in 1537, Sir Thomas Pope the treasurer of Henry VIII’s Court of Augmentations, purchased the lease to the lands and the monastic remains.
Wroxton Abbey History – The Pope Family: 16th Century
Sir Thomas Pope never lived at Wroxton but purchased the land and monastic ruins. He granted his brother, John a 99 year lease to the manor of Wroxton and Balscot in 1551.
Sir Thomas was the founder of Trinity College, Oxford and in 1556 he endowed Trinity College with the manors and lands of Wroxton. In accepting their founder’s endowment, the College was obliged to renew the lease of the estate to the male heirs of John Pope, Sir Thomas Pope’s younger brother.
Sir Thomas’ nephew, William Pope, began work on the site of the former priory near the turn of the 17th Century. He spent £6,000 on a mansion built in the symmetrical form of the letter E, in keeping with Elizabethan architectural taste. His house survives today as the centre section of the Abbey. Anyone who’s ventured down into the basement will find the 13th century arch and a 14th century moulded doorway which may be the remains of the priory cloister. They were incorporated into Pope’s designs.
The exact construction dates of the manor are unknown. It is thought that work began in the late 16th Century (c.1580) and the house was completed in 1618.
Wroxton Abbey History – Early North Family: 17th-18th Century
The Abbey passed from the Pope family to the North family in 1672 when Lady Frances Pope married Francis North. Francis North was a gifted lawyer. He rose to become Lord Chancellor and the first Baron Guilford. Francis North’s brother, Roger, an accomplished architect extended the Abbey, by adding a dining room and a garden parlour. The dining room is now the Reading Room and the garden parlour is now the North Library. Roger North also built the Carriage House. The Carriage House housed coaches, horses and later provided a brewhouse and laundry.
Francis’ son, also Francis, inherited the Barony of Guilford and passed it on in turn to his son, yet another Francis in 1727.This Francis improved the family status by inheriting the Barony of North from an extinguished branch of the Norths and raised its prestige further by his place in the affections of Frederick, Prince of Wales. He was raised to the Earldom of Guilford in 1752.
Further alterations were made to the Abbey in 1740 when a library and chapel were added to the house. This library, also known as the Red Drawing Room is now the Pope Library. The addition of the chapel was overseen by the well-known architect and landscape designer, Sanderson Miller.
Wroxton Abbey History: Prime Minister Frederick Lord North: 18th Century
The Abbey’s most famous resident has to be the much maligned Prime minster, Lord Frederick North. Lord North was named in honour of Frederick, Prince of Wales, his father’s patron.
Lord North held many titles; Knight of the Garter, sometime constable of Dover Castle, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons between 1767 and 1770 and most importantly, Prime Minister of Great Britain between 1770 and 1782.
Lord North was Prime Minister to King George III. He had real achievements in such fields as finance, Ireland and India. Nonetheless, he has been dubbed, “Britain’s worst Prime Minster” though there have been other contenders vying for that title. He was dubbed Britain’s worst Prime Minister because he lost the American colonies. So there’s more than a little irony in the fact that his ancestral home is now an American owned University.
Wroxton Abbey History: Later North Family: 19th Century-20th Century
Prime Minister Lord North had three sons and they became the third, fourth and fifth Earls of Guilford. Frederic North, the fifth Earl, built the Guilford Library in the early 19th Century. The Guilford Library has been attributed to Sydney Smirke, the younger brother of Sir Robert Smirke, best known for his design of the British Library. There being no male heir, the Earldom of Guilford was passed to a cousin while the Barony of North was devolved by order of the House of Lords in 1837, upon the third earl’s daughter, Susan. To perpetuate the family line, her Irish husband, Lieutenant John Doyle, took the name of North in 1838.
Susan and John North built the South Wing in 1859 which now houses the seminar rooms. They also collected wood carvings and paneling for the Reading Room and for other parts of the Abbey.
Their son, William, the eleventh Baron North did not inherit the Wroxton property until 1894. A keen sportsman, he died in 1932 at the age of 96 and is remembered with great affection in Wroxton and Banbury. All the North effects were sold at a public sale in 1933 and the North family relinquished the lease of Wroxton Abbey.
Wroxton Abbey History: Pawson and Leafs: 1930s-1940s
Trinity College, Oxford, the owners of Wroxton Abbey, leased the property in 1938 to Pawson & Leaf, a London lingerie company. They turned the Abbey into a residential warehouse for the duration of the Second World War. The interior fabric of the house was protected by screening as the clothiers went about their business. The Great Hall was the dispatch department, hosiery was stored in the Library and lingerie in the Regency Room, while the King’s Room was the counting house. The staff lived upstairs on the top floor.
Wroxton Abbey History: Lady Pearson: 1940s-1960
In 1948, the Wroxton Abbey lease was given to Lady Pearson. She rented out large flats in the building and also opened the house to the public. Lunches and teas were served in the restaurant created in the south wing. The maintenance of the building became too costly for Lady Pearson and for Trinity College, the landlords and in 1963, the Abbey and its fifty-six acres were sold to Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Wroxton Abbey History: Fairleigh Dickinson University: 1960s-present day
The Abbey and its fifty-six acres were sold to Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1963.
In purchasing Wroxton College, FDU became the first American university to own a campus in England. With buildings and grounds in disrepair, the new owners were faced with a massive restoration project. Dry rot permeated the building, the plumbing was held together with scotch tape and the electrical heating system required extensive upgrading. Soon after purchasing the estate, FDU had the timber work, floors and ceilings repaired, installed central heating and rewired the Abbey.
A three day conference was arranged in 1965 for the College dedication. Various guests attended including King Humbert II, the last king of Italy. On the last day, the College held the official dedication with a full-fledged academic procession. The procession wound its way from the Abbey through the village streets and ended at the church.
In 1973, the university received a gift from one of its benefactors, Morris Leverton, to enable the interior of the Carriage House to be converted to a lecture hall, dining room, bar and kitchen. Between 1986 and 1988, extensive renovations took place in the Abbey, transforming the 40 bedrooms and 8 bathrooms into 45 bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. At the same time, major changes were made in the Abbey basement, including the addition of a gym, TV lounge, teaching room as well as a laundry and workshop.
Further restoration and conservation work continues to this day, as Fairleigh Dickinson University continues to enhance the house with skillful restoration creating a modern college in one of England’s most historic houses.
WROXTON ABBEY GARDEN HISTORY
Wroxton Abbey Garden History – Tilleman Bobart
Whilst there are records of medieval fishponds, vineyards and plantations at Wroxton, the present day appearance of the grounds was largely formed in the first half of the 18th Century.
In 1727, the second Baron Guilford decided that Wroxton should have a garden on a scale with the recently much improved house. Tilleman Bobart was commissioned as the designer. He had trained under Henry Wise, the Royal gardener at Hampton Court Palace and at Blenheim Palace.
Bobart removed the old orchard and constructed two terraces along the slope of the land on the east side of the house. The higher platform was a terrace walk and the lower terrace contained a central canal, 240 feet long, 40 feet wide and 3-4 feet deep. Bobart carried out works to the parlour garden on the north side of the house and he constructed a walled garden to the north east. It is likely Bobart was also responsible for the stone built icehouse on the northern boundary of the grounds.
Wroxton Abbey Garden History – Sanderson Miller
In 1729, the third Baron Guilford inherited Wroxton and removed Bobart’s formal garden less than a decade after it had been finished. The Bobart layout was grassed over and the canal removed. In the 1740s, Sanderson Miller, a landscape designer from nearby Radway Grange designed Wroxton’s evolving gardens. Miller was a leading exponent of the Gothic revival in architecture in the 18th Century and was an advisor on landscape gardening to many estate owners in the Midlands.
Miller was responsible for the dovecote, the Chinese House, Chinese Lodge, Chinese Seat and Chinese Bridge. Of these, only the dovecote and the bridge now remain. Miller also built the Grand and Little Cascades. The Grand and Little Cascades fell into abeyance after the North family moved out. The Grand Cascade was little more than a trickle. Extensive work took place in 1983 to restore the Cascades to their former splendor.
Miller also designed Drayton Arch. Although Drayton Arch is now somewhat hidden, when it was built it was on the main road linking Banbury to the Abbey and visitors to Wroxton would pass it on their way to the Abbey.
Wroxton Abbey Garden History – Susan North
As well as building the south wing in 1859, Susan and John North also made several improvements to the gardens. The Doric Temple and the rose gardens were added to the estate in the 19th Century, as was the knot garden, surrounded by its great yew hedge.
Her Ladyship’s Lake was named after Lady Susan North. Although it’s likely that there was a pond here of some description since mediaeval times, Susan North established the water lilies which are still on the lake today.