In her latest novel, House of Shadows, bestselling author and historian Nicola Cornick investigates the untold story of Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, and her affair with William Craven, who built Ashdown House in Berkshire. Here Cornick explains how the research for her novel began…
High on the chalk downs, hidden deep in a wood, is a little house that is one of the most perfect examples of 17th-century architecture in England. It was built for William, first Earl of Craven, the fabulously wealthy son of a former Lord Mayor of London. A hunting lodge, it was a gift for Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, the woman to whom Craven had been devoted through 30 long years of political struggle and war.
I first came across Ashdown House about 20 years ago. Driving past the wood I caught sight of a tantalising flash of white stone through the trees and was immediately intrigued. The house, and the story behind it, seemed straight out of a fairytale. I volunteered to work there as a guide and historian for the National Trust and I started to research its history.
Information on William Craven and Ashdown House itself is elusive. There is only one biography of Craven. Although he was a hero of his time, a famous soldier, his legacy to history has been lost, so parts of his life remain a mystery. One thing we do know, though, is that he was an ardent cavalier who supported both King Charles I during the English Civil War and Charles’s sister Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, in her fight to reclaim her sons’ patrimony. It is rumoured that Craven and Elizabeth were secretly married but no documentary proof of their relationship has ever been found. Certainly queens had married commoners before and kept those matches quiet for political and personal reasons.
We do know that Craven intended Ashdown to be Elizabeth’s country refuge when she returned to England in 1661 from exile on the continent. She was living in London, in another of Lord Craven’s houses, whilst the plans for Ashdown were being drawn up. Elizabeth was reputed to love her dogs, her hunting and her monkeys more than her children, and after all the years of war she wanted to retire peacefully to the countryside. However it was not to be for she died in London in 1662, long before Ashdown House was completed.
Some of the Ashdown estate records are lodged in the local records office but most were destroyed in a fire in the 1940s. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford are the Craven Papers, which contain the plans for William Craven’s other building projects at Newbury and Coombe Abbey and Stokesay Castle. It is both fascinating and frustrating to have them and yet to have no information on the building of Ashdown other than an eyewitness account of workmen rolling the huge boulders from an iron age hill fort across the field to use as the foundations.
Because there were so few main sources for Craven and Ashdown I found the best way to research the estate and its history was by painstakingly gathering together all the small bits of information I could from a huge variety of documents. It’s been a treasure hunt connecting references from books, letters, estate inventories and other records. One of my favourite sources was the letters from Lord Craven to Elizabeth. These, and Elizabeth’s own letters, give a fascinating insight into their relationship, on her part demonstrating her complete trust in him and on his, showing a very respectful admiration.
Also fascinating were the portraits showing William and Elizabeth together. I have only been able to find two; one from the 1630s, painted in The Hague, which shows a very handsome and elegant Lord Craven bowing over Elizabeth’s hand. The other, painted some years later, is more intriguing. Called the Allegory of Love, it was painted by Sir Peter Lely and shows Elizabeth and William surrounded by cupids. The painting is packed full of symbols of love and loyalty.
So, in the end, what do we know of the Earl of Craven, the Winter Queen, and the house he built out of love for her? We know that they were very close friends, if not more, for over 30 years, that Craven was completely dedicated to Elizabeth’s cause and that she valued his support immensely. We know that when Elizabeth died she left Craven her private papers, her hunting trophies and her royal portrait collection in recognition of her regard for him. A selection of these portraits is now on display at Ashdown House, which is a wonderful way to celebrate the connections between Ashdown and the Winter Queen. They give a window into life at Elizabeth’s court and the people who were most important to her, from her swashbuckling sons and beautiful, well-educated daughters to statesmen, soldiers, princesses and poets.
All these characters people a stunningly beautiful house with its grand 17th-century staircase, its secret passageways and its fabulous roof platform that gives panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Ashdown is an enchanting place with an equally enchanting story to tell.