Title:

The History of Michaelchurch Court and its Estate

Date:

1200s - 1900s

 

Contents

Introduction

Michaelchurch Court was the principal residence in Michaelchurch Escley for many centuries, but for most of that time it was not the manor house or Court in the literal sense. In Norman times the de Lacy Lords of Ewyas maintained their seat at Weobley. Later successive Lords of the manor also exercised their prerogatives in absentia until the early 1800s.  Then, for around a hundred and  fifty years, Michaelchurch Court did become the residence of the Lord of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy - or at least, the Lord of that moiety of the manor that had descended from Maud de Lacy[1] when the male line of the de Lacy Lords of Ewyas came to an end in 1241. However by the 19th century the ancient manorial customs and property rights associated with the lordship of the manor had largely disappeared and the title had become more ceremonial than substantive. Instead, the Court became the focus of a freehold estate that incorporated by purchase a number of old freehold tenancies and areas of common land and which became known as the Michaelchurch Court Estate. Prior to this comparatively recent development the house and lands were occupied for most of their history by tenants paying rentals to the Lord of the Manor.

 

That is not to say that the early occupants of the property were of no account; on the contrary, they were important figures in the local community and also wealthy, judging by the way the house has been progressively extended and developed over many centuries. However, while it has been possible to trace the continuous legal ownership since Norman times of what has now become Michaelchurch Court by following the descent of the Lords of the Manor [2] , it has proved much more difficult to identify with confidence all of those who have occupied the house as tenants over that time. Given the significance of the property locally there is surprisingly little surviving documentation relating directly to the house, its occupants, or the estate that grew up around it prior to the 1860s when it was purchased for the Trafford family. The following account is consistent with such facts as are known but also depends to a degree on deduction and inference to bridge gaps and ambiguities in the records.

Origins and Development of the Court Buildings

There is no documentary record of the construction or development of the buildings at Michaelchurch Court before 1867, when a major new wing [the Victorian Wing] was added. The earliest map of sufficient scale and accuracy to show the Court is Isaac Taylor’s map of Herefordshire in 1764[3] , but the building is shown as an icon rather than a scale drawing. The Court appears as a substantial property on subsequent large scale maps in the 1800s, but it is difficult to be sure how accurately the drawings match the actual building layout when examining old maps at this level of detail.

 

However, it can be seen from the present building structure that the fabric has been extended considerably at different times from a relatively simple [though still substantial] original building. No formal architectural or structural survey is known to have been carried out, but it is said that there are several well-defined main phases of development in evidence in the surviving house, as outlined in the schematic below. It is also possible that there were pre-Norman buildings on this site, but there is no evidence available on this question one way or the other.


The original part of the house, aligned east and west, is said to date from Norman times, with a large extension on the north side added perhaps in the 15th century to create an imposing ‘L’ shaped house. Both parts are substantial stone buildings with heavy oak structural timbers, and are of a quality that suggests that money was not a constraint when they were built. A further Tudor  ‘black and white’ extension, with a wattle and daub-filled oak frame on a stone base, was added on the west face of the north extension, along with an entrance porch, in 1602 – the date being incorporated in the ornate plasterwork of the porch along with a Tudor rose as shown in the photograph below. This porch protects a large iron-studded oak door that is the main entrance to the house, and is approached up stone steps from the courtyard in front of the buildings on the eastern side. The whole Tudor extension provides a relatively small addition to the living space and may well have been added more as a grand façade for the house than for additional room, suggesting that the occupants at that time were both wealthy and status conscious.






 

Original plasterwork in the Tudor porch at Michaelchurch Court

 

 In any event, these combined developments resulted in the creation of a splendid mansion house that probably rivalled anything in the manor of Ewyas Lacy at that time. Certainly there was no other comparable property in Michaelchurch Escley; one of the few contemporary records – of the hearth taxes paid in the parish in 1665[4] – shows just one house in the parish with seven hearths, and the next largest has only three. The tax record does not name the property, but there are still seven fireplaces today in the three parts of Michaelchurch Court described above, and the tax was levied on the occupier who was named as Michaell Thomas, gent., who is known to have lived at the Court [see later], so there is no doubt as to its identity. This reference also provides corroborating evidence that the above three principal components of the building were in place prior to1665. In addition there would have been a variety of outbuildings associated with the house. Today these include a granary, stables, tack room, a coach house and store rooms, but these are probably of Victorian construction, perhaps contemporary with the Victorian wing, since a surviving map from sale particulars of 1815[5] shows a quite different arrangement.

 



If this map, at a scale of 10 chains [660 feet or 1/8th of a mile] to an inch, can be relied upon, a number of interesting features of Michaelchurch Court can be noted.

Map of Michaelchurch Court and vicinity, 1815

Firstly, the map shows a small extension at the west end of the original Norman wing, which is still in place today and was a kitchen. More significantly, there appears to be a quite large east/west extension [a ‘North Wing’] running from the east face of the black and white Tudor facade, which must have been built after 1602, and probably after the Hearth Tax record of 1665. This places it perhaps in the eighteenth century. That extension has disappeared entirely today, although it appears in surviving photographs thought to date from the mid 1800s through to the 1920s[6] . There is no record of exactly when it was demolished, though the photographs suggest this was done in the 1920s or early 1930s. The 1815 map also appears to show small constructions of some sort on the east and south faces of the Norman wing, though it is thought likely that these are steps and/or raised terraces [which survive on the east face in broadly this configuration today] rather than building extensions.

 

This 1815 map additionally shows a farmhouse, yard and buildings separate from the Court to the north, occupying an area where there are some newer buildings today called Michaelchurch Court Farm, and there are many historical references to Michaelchurch Court Farm that can be taken to mean that it was a separate entity from the Court. It is quite common for large country houses occupied by the Gentry to be closely associated with a ‘Home’ farm in this way, and this interpretation here is also consistent with the 1815 sale particulars, and those of 1863 showing that ‘Escley Court farm’ still has its own farmhouse at that time. Finally, it is interesting that the map shows that in 1815 the Court drive approached in a straight line directly to the front of the building. Today, the drive deviates to the north towards the old farmyard before a fork loops back to approach the front of the Court, though traces of the original line can still be seen in the field on the south side of the present driveway. When these changes to the drive took place, and for what reasons, is not known.

 

Latin inscription on a foundation stone in the Victorian Wing

The next known development of the Court was in the nineteenth century, when following a change of ownership major work was undertaken to build another large extension – the Victorian Wing. This was designed by and built c.1867 to the design and under the supervision of George Frederick Bodley, an eminent Victorian architect, as evidenced by the foundation stone still in place in the basement, photographed opposite. GF Bodley was principally known for his church architecture[7] , and it seems he was also commissioned to rebuild the tower of St Michael’s church[8] at the same time as the work was carried out at the Court. No expense was spared; the stone was not quarried locally, and in those days it must have been very costly to transport such large quantities – some of them very large blocks – a considerable distance up to Michaelchurch. The quality of the dressed masonry is also exceptionally fine, with matched courses of varying thickness and carved window and door surrounds, as illustrated in the photograph below of a doorway from the south terrace into the Victorian Wing. This suggests that a team of skilled masons was probably brought in from outside the local area to carry out the work.

 

Carved stone doorway in the Victorian wing


Outside, there are formal pleasure gardens to the south and east, and evidence of a much larger area of parkland planted with mature trees, which has now returned to pasture. There is also a terraced garden to the south west of the house, with ornamental ponds. Behind the house to the west lies a large partially walled kitchen garden, a mixed orchard, a complex of glasshouses [including one with a grape vine], and a heated pineapple house, which together with the local farms would have supplied the household with most of the fresh produce required. This was supplemented by two fish pools in the near vicinity [one of which also served as a secondary mill pool for Michaelchurch mill] that also supplied the kitchen. It is said that in the 1930s a flock of Flamingos was also kept on one of the ponds, though these presumably were purely decorative.

 

A more detailed description of the development of the gardens and grounds is given in ‘A Survey of Historic Parks and Gardens in Herefordshire’[9] in which the terraced garden and walled kitchen garden are attributed to the early 17th century. The initial phase of formal landscaping of the grounds is attributed to the early 19th century, with a second and more extensive development, including additional terraces to the garden, taking place in the late 1800s under the auspices of the Trafford family. The fish pools are said to date from around 1815 before falling in to disuse and then being restored about 1869.

 

After the Second World War Michaelchurch Court went into gradual decline, as did many of the old country houses of England. This was partly due to the death of the last male heir in the war, and partly to the austere economic conditions of the late 1940s and 1950s. The house gradually fell into decay, and was left empty in the late 1960s. Various plans were mooted for its redevelopment, including a planning application [which was rejected] for its conversion to a health spa. Finally in the 1970s the condition of the Victorian Wing became so bad that most of it was demolished, before the property was sold separately from the estate lands and the new owners began the gradual restoration of the remaining structure.

Origins and Development of the Estate

The emergence of the Michaelchurch Court Estate as a distinct freehold entity appears to be a relatively recent development that took place between 1815 when the Court and lands were put up for sale merely as part of the wider manor of Ewyas Lacy and 1835 when a survey[10] [probably ahead of a further proposed sale] identified the property as a specific estate. Nevertheless, much of the land that was to become the 1835 estate can be linked to freehold tenancies granted by the Lords of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy dating back to the early sixteenth century, which do not seem to have been disturbed by sometimes dramatic changes to the Lordship itself. Thus, although it may not have been known as such, the ‘estate’ has an identity and cohesiveness that goes much deeper than appears at first sight. However, both before and after the survey of 1835 individual farms and land were being acquired and/or disposed of as the economic fortunes of the occupiers of the Court changed with the times.

 

The earliest known evidence of the origins of the modern estate lies in a 1566 survey of the rentals of the manor of Ewyas Lacy[11] . This does not paint a full picture of land tenancy in the area because it deals only with a moiety of the manor, and in addition it is impossible to correlate with certainty the parcels and areas of land given in the survey with their modern equivalents. However, the moiety of the manor dealt with includes the lands around the Court from which the Michaelchurch Court Estate evolved, and ancient patterns of fields and farms have tended to persist in Ewyas Lacy over the centuries. It is therefore possible to develop a picture of how the Estate may have evolved by tracing similar sized parcels of land and continuity of tenancy recorded in various surveys.

 

As well as this 1566 survey, there are four other main starting points for tracing the development of the estate. Firstly Michaelchurch Court and surrounding lands are documented as being in the tenancy of the Thomas family from the mid 1500s to the late 1700s[12] , which allows the land they held to be identified in various surveys. Secondly, two detailed surveys survive, both from c.1700, that list the tenancy of lands in both moieties of the manor of Ewyas Lacy and thus give a comprehensive view of occupation at that time. Thirdly, sale particulars from 1815 and 1863 survive with accompanying large-scale maps that associate with Michaelchurch Court a number of named farms that form part of the later Court estate, and also show details that help identify specific freehold tenancies mentioned elsewhere. Fourthly, the 1835 survey specifically of the Michaelchurch Court Estate referred to above shows details of 14 named farms of specified acreages located in Michaelchurch Escley, Craswall, Newton and Peterchurch, which can be compared with details from earlier surveys and from other later records.

 

Turning first to the 1566 survey, a gentleman named David Thomas is shown as the freehold tenant of two parcels of land in Michaelchurch Escley each with a ‘messuage’ [house and outbuildings] and totalling about 260 statute acres. Allowing for uncertainties in measurement and the possibility of some land being undeveloped in earlier times, this is consistent with one of the houses being the precursor of Michaelchurch Court, and the two farms together being the precursor of the Michaelchurch Court farm. This interpretation that the lands originally associated with two adjacent farmhouses were merged is consistent with the 1815 map and other records, and their identification with Michaelchurch Court is consistent with the fact that David Thomas is a member of the Thomas family known to have been resident at Michaelchurch Court for many generations.

 

By the time of his death around 1603-4 David Thomas was according to his will[13] , possessed of 6 tenements or farms held ‘in fee simple’ in addition to his own residence, of which one was in Longtown, two were in the part of Michaelchurch Escley covered by the 1566 survey, and the remaining three were almost certainly [by reference to the later survey of 1701] also in Michaelchurch Escley but located in the moiety of the manor owned by Lord Abergavenny. The freehold properties are not named, but were assured by a deed to his son Leyson and his grandson Michael and their heirs. The will also refers to leasehold and copyhold properties which were left to a second grandson, David; they included a leasehold farm at Blackhill, a lease of a farm called ‘the Grainge’ and copyhold lands, all of which were almost certainly [by reference to the later survey of 1701] in Craswall and held from Lord Abergavenny. All these properties appear to have devolved to Humfrey Thomas [below] and were the nucleus of the later Michaelchurch Court Estate.

 

The 1701 survey[14] of Lord Abergavenny’s moiety of the manor of Ewyas Lacy show that Humphrey Thomas, who is a direct descendant of David Thomas [above], has by copyhold in Michaelchurch two farms of 78 and 36 acres respectively plus a further 48 acres of land, together with a freehold farm of 16 acres, along with a freehold farm and lands in Craswall extending to perhaps 480 acres. The roughly contemporaneous 1705 survey of John Jeffreys’ moiety of the manor[15] shows that two parcels of land in Michaelchurch Escley totalling 272 statute acres, each with a messuage and presumably David Thomas’s original residence, are held freehold by Humfrey Thomas, along with a further messuage and 70 acres of freehold land, plus a further 69 acres of leasehold land. In Craswall, there are two further messuages and freehold lands totalling about 340 statute acres, and in Newton there is a farm of about 120 acres. Overall, therefore, the six properties in Michaelchurch Escley and three in Craswall that are referred to in the 1603 will of David Thomas seem to have come into the hands of his descendant more or less unchanged a century later, with the subsequent addition of the property in Newton.

 

Comparison of Humfrey Thomas’s properties in the 1701 and 1705 surveys with the Michaelchurch Court Estate surveyed in 1835 reveals fairly close similarities in general land distribution. However, matching specific individual holdings is more problematical. The largest holding in the 1835 survey is described as Michaelchurch Court farm of 281 acres including the Court buildings, which may be presumed to be David Thomas’s original residence as in 1705 and 1566 described above. The additional freehold house and lands of 70 acres referred to in 1705 could well be the nearby Wilderness farm [Cae Vatin] shown in 1835 as part of the Michaelchurch Court Estate and then amounting to 71 acres freehold. However, there is not enough information to be able to match with confidence the other three Michaelchurch farms and lands held in 1701 from Lord Abergavenny to specific 1835 holdings in the Michaelchurch Court Estate. The same applies to the various farms in Craswall where Humphrey Thomas’s holdings seem to be fewer in number but larger in extent than appear in the later estate. The overall picture may well also be confused by whether or not mountain and common land in Craswall is included or not in the various acreages reported, and by the 1815 auction22 of the Court and lands in which various lots were offered separately and may have been sold to different buyers. In Newton, Thomas holds a messuage and about 120 statute acres in 1705, whereas the Court Estate has Castle farm there in 1835, but with only 62 acres, and these may or may not be linked.

 

There are also a number of areas where there is no apparent correlation between the Thomas family holdings and the later Michaelchurch Court Estate. Substantial lands and houses in Longtown, Llanveynoe and the Fwthog are held by Humphrey Thomas in 1705, which do not subsequently appear in the 1835 Court estate survey, although farms in Llanveynoe and the Fwthog were sold as part of the 1815 auction referred to above and it seems likely that these were the earlier Thomas holdings that were thus separated from the estate at that time. Conversely, there are also substantial holdings in the 1835 survey that clearly did not come from the Thomas family – or at least not directly. Firs Farm for example is shown as belonging to Doctor Exton on the 1815 map, but has become part of the Court estate by 1835. Likewise, Rhyd-y-Bach farm was probably also acquired for the estate from Dr. Exton about this time, and Llandraw farm seems to be shown belonging to Mr John Beavan in the 1815 map before appearing as part of the estate in 1835. There is no evidence of when Trenant farm [Peterchurch] was brought into the Court estate, but it does not seem to have been owned by the Thomas family. These properties were probably acquired by Thomas Daniell [see later] who appears to have bought the Jeffreys’ interest in the manor of Ewyas Lacy [including the Lordship of the manor] together with much of the original Thomas family holdings in the auction of 1815, and made other purchases between 1815 and 1835 that created a more integrated estate. This also appears to be the explanation of how the Lordship of the manor of Ewyas Lacy became attached to and subsequently descended with the Michaelchurch Court Estate.

 

Overall, the evidence that the Thomas family holdings derived from David Thomas in the mid sixteenth century were the principal component of the 1835 Michaelchurch Court Estate seems persuasive, especially when combined with other records identifying the successive occupiers of Michaelchurch Court which are discussed in the next section of this paper. However, apparent correlations of specific properties spanning long periods of time and with limited information must necessarily be viewed with caution, and the trail of documentary evidence is very limited.

 

1863 sale particulars of the Michaelchurch Court Estate

After 1835, the next major stage in the development of the estate was in 1863 when it was purchased, along with the Lordship of the manor of Ewyas Lacy and other property locally, by the wealthy Rawson family of Nidd Hall, Yorkshire. The sale particulars issued at that time itemise Michaelchurch Court Estate holdings totalling 1213 acres [exclusive of common land]. This is slightly less than the 1241 acres of the 1835 Estate survey, but the difference is broadly accounted for by Trenant farm being sold separately in 1863, and this loss being only partly offset by the inclusion of Bridge farm, which had been acquired by the estate at some point in the intervening years. The farms and holdings of the Estate sold in 1863 were otherwise essentially the same as in 1835.

 

The influx of new money not only led to the expansion of the estate and cemented its identity, but also led to the substantial upgrading of the Court buildings as noted earlier. Contemporary details of the various further purchases and developments to the estate in the years following the 1863 sale are not available, but the estate probably reached its peak in the 1920s when its extent was documented in a Vesting Deed of 1926[16] , which has survived. Trenant farm in Peterchurch had been disposed of separately from the Michaelchurch Court Estate in the auction of 1863, but the vesting deed shows that before 1926 substantial new acquisitions had been made that linked the estate lands into a significantly larger and coherent whole centred on Michaelchurch Court. These principally extended the estate along the Escley valley, incorporating Lower House farm, Cefn Ceist farm, Marsh farm, White House farm, Rhuinsford farm, Coed Poeth farm, and Gigfran farm, as well as a variety of cottages and other buildings. The original Michaelchurch Court farm seems to have been split up by this time, perhaps partly to move farming activities further away from the Court and partly to create the kind of extensive parkland that was fashionable in Victorian times; some 80 acres are described in the 1926 deed as ‘Michaelchurch Court Gardens, Pleasure Grounds and Land’, and extensive evidence of formal landscaping around the Court can still be seen.

 

The final stage in the evolution of the estate covers the period after the Second World War, when difficult times led to the piecemeal sale between 1945 and the 1980s of a number of farms and houses, including the sale of Michaelchurch Court itself with its immediate grounds. In the 1980s the entire remaining property was offered for sale and purchased in one piece, now as ‘the Michaelchurch Estate’. The sale particulars from that time[17] show that the so-called ‘lowland’ estate [excluding commons] had shrunk to about 1050 acres compared to 1240 acres in 1835 and nearly 1500 acres in 1926. Of the named farms, only Bank farm, Cefn Ceist farm, Gigfran farm, Grove farm and Bridge farm remained, plus a farm called New Barns comprising about 54 of the 251 acres of land that had probably belonged to Michaelchurch Court farm in 1835 before it was broken up. Numerous other individual parcels of land including some that had been part of the ‘pleasure grounds’ or parkland surrounding the Court were included in the sale, which also incorporated 13 separate woods covering some 120 acres [compared to 60 acres of woodland shown in 1835 and 146 acres in 1926].

 

It is also noteworthy that the 1980s sale particulars include in the estate some 2300 acres of commons in 11 parcels, mostly accounted for by about 440 acres on Vagar and Cefn Hills in Michaelchurch Escley, and about 1800 acres on the Cats Back in Craswall and Black Darren in Llanveynoe, with the balance of small lots in various parishes being described as ‘waste of the manor of Ewyas Lacy’. The 1835 survey of Michaelchurch Court Estate does not specifically identify these commons, though it does refer to ‘a considerable tract of mountain land [that] yields little or no return unless taken for sporting’, and this may be the same land. The rights to these commons presumably attached to the Lordship of the manor of Ewyas Lacy that, it was claimed in the 1980s sale particulars, still belonged to the owners of the Michaelchurch Estate, but the precise grounds for claiming legal ownership of the commons are not made clear.

 

Ownership and Tenancy

The Lords of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy traditionally held all the lands and property, including those that were to become the Michaelchurch Court Estate, as ‘tenants-in-chief’ of the Sovereign. This state of affairs persisted in principle until the nineteenth century, when the long decline of the manorial system finally forced changes to property law and the modern concepts of freehold ownership of property began to emerge. In this sense the early history of the ownership of Michaelchurch Court and its estate is defined by following the descent of the Lordship of the manor. A research paper on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website describes this descent in detail and it is not repeated here. However, for most of that time the Lords of the manor were not the occupiers of the Court or the associated lands, which were let out under various forms of tenancy agreements. These tenants are the people who farmed the land, constructed and extended the buildings and brought together various properties into a working estate; they are therefore in many ways more interesting historically than the absentee legal owners. Unfortunately, they are also rather more difficult to trace in the historical record and prior to the mid 1880s this account relies heavily on very few surviving sources.

 

The first major clue to the early tenancy of the Court is in a book by the Reverend CJ Robinson published in 1872[18] , which asserts that the ‘chief residence’ in Michaelchurch Escley was occupied by the Thomas family from at least the 1630s until 1757, and then passed to two generations of the Lewis family [their kinsmen] before becoming the property of the Trafford family by way of their family relationship with Miss Rawson of Nidd Hall, Yorkshire. There is no doubt from a host of documentary evidence that the Traffords were resident at Michaelchurch Court from about 1864, and so tracking backwards this identifies the Court as the Thomas’s ‘chief residence’ too, though it must be borne in mind that Robinson’s account is by no means contemporary, and there are some important people missing in his chronology in the early 1800s, as discussed below.

 

Another source that links the Thomas family to Michaelchurch Court, and takes the connection back further to about 1600, is Joseph Bradney’s book on the history of Monmouthshire[19] , where he refers to the family of Thomas seated at the Court of Michaelchurch Escle, and mentions Leison Thomas, son of David Thomas, as ‘being of that place’ in 1600. This family line is corroborated by records of the Heraldic Visitation to Herefordshire of 1634[20] . Further important information comes from the 1566 survey of the rentals of Ewyas Lacy [discussed above], which identifies David Thomas, Gentleman, as freehold tenant of two significant properties in Michaelchurch Escley, one of which can be identified with reasonable confidence as Michaelchurch Court. The 1566 survey also states that David Thomas’s properties were previously in the hands of Philip Vaughan and Ievan Vaughan respectively, and it is interesting to speculate that if the latter two were relatives then the Court could have been in the possession of the Vaughan family in the fifteenth century, and that they might have been responsible for the first significant extension built in that era onto the original Norman farmhouse.

 

Pulling the various threads together, then, we can speculate that the Norman origins of Michaelchurch Court may go back to the early 13th century by which time Walter II de Lacy, Lord of Ewyas, Ludlow and Weobley, Sheriff of Herefordshire and Earl of Meath, had pacified this part of the Welsh Marches sufficiently to reward his favoured knights with the tenancy of lands in the area and the right to establish homesteads there. In those turbulent times such men frequently fell in and out of favour with their Lords [as did Walter de Lacy with the King], and the property in Michaelchurch might well have changed hands several times. Further tenancy changes would probably have followed the end of the male de Lacy line on the death of Walter de Lacy in 1241, when the moiety of the manor of Ewyas Lacy descended through his granddaughter Maud to the powerful de Mortimer family, Earls of March, who held it from about 1300 to 1425. It then passed to the Plantagenet Dukes of York and by that means into the hands of the Crown when Edward Plantagenet became King Edward IV of England in 1461. No names of any individual tenants from this period have been found in the surviving record until the Vaughan family are named towards the end of the fifteenth century as freeholders of the messuage and lands identified as the precursor of Michaelchurch Court.

 

In the early sixteenth century the record shows with somewhat greater certainty that the freehold tenancy of the messuage and lands that were to become the Michaelchurch Court farm and heart of the later estate were acquired from the Vaughans and others by David Thomas, Gent., who is described as an attorney in the Marches of Wales. He was established in possession by 1566 when Queen Elizabeth I gave a moiety of the manor of Ewyas Lacy to her favourite, Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester who promptly sold it to the Hopton family for cash. David Thomas, however, had put down roots, and kept the tenancy of the Court and other lands in the area. Presumably his profession as a lawyer at that time had made him a wealthy man, and he had chosen to establish himself in a country estate. The exact date of his death is not known, but his will survives dated 27th February 1603 and it was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury by his son Leyson in April 1604, so we can conclude that David Thomas was responsible for the Tudor extension to the Court building dated 1602, which seems to have been completed just before he died. The construction of an imposing façade to the existing house fits with a picture of a rich incomer emphasising his status and making his mark in local society.

 

Hereford Journal, 1790

When Leyson Thomas died in 1635, however, it appears he was not living at the Court, which is recorded by Robinson as being in the occupancy of Richard Aubrey of Clehonger. This was presumably only a letting, since Leyson’s son and heir Michael Thomas quickly moved in to the house after he inherited. The property then descended through successive generations of the Thomas family; to son Edward Thomas on Michael’s death in 1670, then to son Humphry [Humfrey] Thomas on Edward’s death in 1671. On Humphry’s death in 1732 the inheritance passed to his son Edmund Thomas. When Edmund died in 1757, the property was inherited by John Lewis who is described as a kinsman of Edmund Thomas, though the exact relationship is not clear. John Lewis seems to have held the Court until his death in 1795, when the property passed to his son Thomas Edmund Lewis. John Lewis may or may not have lived at the Court; certainly by 1790 the house and 314 ‘chain acres’ were advertised to let [see opposite] in the Hereford Journal[21] , although the wording implies that John Lewis may have been living there then since enquiries are invited at Michaelchurch Court. His son Thomas probably did not initially live at the Court since the land tax records seem to indicate that the letting was successful; in 1798 the occupier was Henry Lilwall who was presumably a tenant. However, no other references to tenants’ names have been found and in 1815 sale particulars [see below] state that the Court was ‘occupied by the proprietor’, presumably Thomas Edmund Lewis although he is not named.

 

All the above freeholdings appear to have remained broadly unaffected by major changes to the Lordship of the manor over this period, including the sequestration of the manor from Lord Hopton by Parliament during the Civil War, its recovery after the restoration of the Monarchy by descendants of the Hopton family after conflicting claims were eventually settled in the Chancery Court, and the subsequent sale of the manor to John Jeffreys of Brecon.

 

1815 sale of the manor of Ewyas Lacy and Michaelchurch Court

Michaelchurch Court and 1,364 acres of land eventually changed hands after being put up for sale by auction in 1815, apparently along with the remaining Jeffreys family interests in the manor of Ewyas Lacy [including the chief-rents and other rights to some 50,000 acres according to the sale particulars[22] , together with the Lordship of the manor], following the death of Walter Jeffreys who was the last of the male Jeffreys line. According to Duncumb’s History of the County of Hereford[23] Walter Jeffreys died in 1811, after which the inheritance passed to the descendants of his two aunts who presumably wished to realise their assets. It is not recorded whether Thomas Edmund Lewis had also died or simply disposed of his freeholdings at this time, but whatever happened the new owner and Lord of the manor, Thomas Daniell or Daniels, seems to have acquired the freehold to most [but not all] of the properties sold in 1815. However it appears that [at least initially] he did not take up residence at Michaelchurch Court – the Hereford Journal of December 25th 1816 contains an advertisement offering Michaelchurch Court and 326 acres of land, currently in the occupation of William Ashton, to be let from the following Candlemass.

Daniell was originally from Trelissick in Cornwall, where he made his money as a copper smelter and dealer. However, sometime before 1836 he was declared bankrupt and fled to Boulogne in France to escape his creditors[24] . Michaelchurch Court and the estate were left by default in the ownership of the mortgagee, Miss Barbara Traill, who is shown as paying the land tax for Michaelchurch Court as ‘occupier’ in 1838 though it is not certain whether she took residence. The 1835 survey of the Michaelchurch Estate referred to previously may have been done at her instigation, or that of the other creditors, with a view to selling the property to settle debts. It appears that this sale was not completed for some years, however, since the 1844 Tithe maps and associated records still show Daniell as a major landowner in the area. There is no information about who was living in the Court during this period.

 

By 1851 Lascelle’s Directory[25] reports that Michaelchurch is ‘the noble mansion of Richard Watson Barton Esq., in the manor of Ewias Lacy’ and a variety of other sources report that Barton is both a principal landowner and Lord of the manor after this date, having purchased the Court and its estate [presumably from Daniell or his creditors] in 1847. However, Barton did not live at Michaelchurch Court [though he kept private rooms there for the occasions when he visited], which was occupied by JD Kedward Esq. as a tenant, from 1851 or earlier until c.1863.

 

The Trafford Coat of Arms

This situation did not last, and when Richard Watson Barton died in 1862 the Michaelchurch Court Estate was again put on the market, but seems to have failed to sell at auction. In 1863 revised sale particulars[26] were issued, and the property was finally sold to Elizabeth Rawson of Nidd Hall in Yorkshire who purchased it for her nephew Charles Guy Trafford, the son of her sister Anne [who had died in 1843] and Major-General TS Trafford. Elizabeth Rawson was the heiress of Benjamin Rawson, a Bradford merchant who had made a large fortune in the wool trade. No expense was spared to ensure that Michaelchurch Court became a high quality country mansion, with improvements ranging from the construction of a complete new wing [the Victorian wing, see above] to the installation of hand-painted tiles with a Trafford family Coat of Arms in the bathroom [opposite].

 

When Elizabeth Rawson died in 1892, she left the Michaelchurch Court Estate to the male Trafford heirs for their lives, subject to the supervision of trustees of the Rawson estates, and this arrangement continued until the trustees formally conveyed the freehold to the Traffords in 1928 in response to changes in property laws introduced around that time.

 

In the meantime, Charles Guy Trafford, having taken up residence in 1864 and overseen the redevelopment of the Court and the Estate, died in 1879. His eldest son, Edward Guy Trafford, is said to have led a somewhat disreputable lifestyle and run up large debts, which led to him being disinherited, and the property being passed to his second son, Henry Randolph Trafford. Of the two younger brothers, Lionel James Trafford died in 1900 and Guy Rawson Trafford [who died in 1930] did not succeed to the estate because of the male issue of Henry, who had married Bettina Maud Partridge in 1899.

 

When Henry Randolph Trafford died in 1910 he left a daughter, Clare Margaret and one surviving son, Richard Randolph Rawson Trafford to whom the Estate devolved. Richard Randolph was killed during the Second World War. Because the freehold property had been conveyed to the Traffords in 1928 the terms of Elizabeth Rawson’s will concerning descent in the male line no longer applied, and in 1942 the Estate passed to his mother, who was now Bettina Maud Capper after remarriage.

 

Subsequently in 1944 the Estate was conveyed to her daughter [Richard Randolph Rawson Trafford’s elder sister] Clare Margaret, who had married Michael John Hunter in 1919. After her husband’s death in 1951 many of the farms and other properties were conveyed to their son Michael Henry Hunter between 1953 and 1976, and were gradually sold off. Clare Margaret Hunter left Michaelchurch Court in 1968 and emigrated to Portugal, leaving the house empty until it too was eventually sold.

 

Finally, on the death of Michael Henry Hunter the remaining properties were put up for sale as the Michaelchurch Estate, and purchased entire by John Williams of Eaton Bishop.

 

Summary and Conclusion

Michaelchurch Court and its estate have evolved from the ancient manor of Ewyas Lacy, but not in a straightforward way or as a single recognisable entity that has persisted unchanged through the centuries. The evidence is consistent with the Court buildings starting life in Norman times as a farmhouse of sufficient importance to suggest it was in the tenure of one of the trusted retainers of the Lord of Ewyas, and thereafter being significantly extended, probably in the 15th century, then again in the 17th , 18th and 19th centuries.

 

The lands attached to the house have expanded and contracted at various times as the fortunes of the occupiers have changed, but there were three main periods of growth. The first was in the mid to late 16th century, when the original farm developed into a sizeable holding of 9 farms and extensive lands in Michaelchurch Escley and Craswall in the hands of David Thomas. This property, centred on Michaelchurch Court, descended largely unchanged through the Thomas family and their kin until the early 1800s when their holdings were sold to Thomas Daniell, a Cornish copper smelter then resident in the City of Bath. The new owner seems to have acquired a number of additional key parcels of land that integrated the various farms together into a formal estate called Michaelchurch Court Estate, which was then sold as a whole in the 1840s to Richard Watson Barton and again in 1863 when it was bought by Elizabeth Rawson on behalf of the Trafford family. The estate reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the acquisition of a number of additional farms, principally in Michaelchurch Escley. After the Second World War many of these acquisitions, and the Court buildings, were sold off piecemeal until the remaining farms and land were sold together as the Michaelchurch Estate in the 1980s to Mr John Williams of Eaton Bishop.

 

Some of the detailed links and deductions in this paper are speculative, because the historical record is often sparse or capable of differing interpretations. Overall, however, the picture presented of the origins and development of Michaelchurch Court and its Estate is consistent with the known facts and seems reasonable in the general context of our wider local history.

 

Bob Steele

November 2007

 



[1] The Lordship of Ewyas Lacy from Norman Times to the Present Day : Bob Steele & Nina Wedell, Ewyas Lacy Study Group

[2] The basis of “ownership” of land and property has changed considerably over time; for the purposes of this paper it is taken to include the Lord of the Manor’s rights as ‘tenant in chief’ of the King in Norman and Medieval times, and the subsequent evolution of these principal rights into the modern concept of freehold ownership.

[3] Isaac Taylor produced the first one inch to the mile map of Herefordshire in 1754 [re-issued in 1786]. A copy can be found at the Herefordshire Record Office, reference AP25/2. A photograph of the Michaelchurch area of the map is on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website

[4] Hearth Tax schedule : Private research, Ewyas Lacy Study Group

[5] Reference National Library of Wales; Leonard Twiston Davies  3907: 1815, July 13, Particulars and Conditions of Sale of a freehold and leasehold estate comprising of the manor of Ewyas Lacy, parishes of  Michaelchurch Escley, Clodock, Walterstone, Rowlestone, Llancillo, Ewyas Harold, St Margaret's, Peterchurch, Bredwardine, co. Her., Cwmyoy, co. Mon., and Glascomb, co. Rad . Map included.

[6] Digital Images Collection – Michaelchurch Court: Ewyas Lacy Study Group 2007

[7] Wikipedia Biography of GF Bodley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Frederick_Bodley

[8] Jakeman & Carver’s Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire, 1890; Hereford Public Library. Photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website

[9] A Survey of Historic Parks and Gardens in Herefordshire, David Whitehead, 2001, ISBN 0953133881X, County Gardens Trusts’ Publications

[10] Particulars of an Estate called Michaelchurch Court c.1835: Herefordshire Record Office reference 019/2/14

[11] 1566 survey of the Rental of Ewias Lacy on the behalf of Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester: renewed before John Dudley and others acting under a commission dated 29 June, 8 Eliz. [1566], Longleat DU/VOL XVII [Private research/ transcription by Dewi Bowen Williams B.A., 2005]

[12] The Mansions of Herefordshire and their Memories’ by Reverend CJ Robinson, published by Longmans & Co 1872. Copies in Hereford Public Library; photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website.

[13] Will of David Thomas of Michaelchurch Escley: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/HEF/ProbateRecords/WillsT.html#W01977

[14] Survey of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy for Lord Abergavenny, 1701 : Gwent Record Office reference Man/A/2/0252. Transcription by the Ewyas Lacy Study Group 2007

[15] Survey of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy for John Jeffreys, 1701-1705 : HRO reference J91/4. Transcription by the Ewyas Lacy Study Group 2007

[16] Schedules to 1926 Vesting Deed for the Michaelchurch Court Estate; Summary, Ewyas Lacy Study Group 2007

[17] Michaelchurch Estate Sale particulars, Knight Frank & Rutley c.1980

[18] ‘The Mansions of Herefordshire and their Memories’ by Reverend CJ Robinson, published by Longmans & Co 1872. Copies in Hereford Public Library; photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website.

[19] Joseph Bradney, A History of Monmouthshire, Vol I, Part 2a: The Hundred of Abergavenny (Part I), p227-8 [1906]

[20] Heraldic Visitation of Herefordshire 1634: Photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website

[21] British Chronicle or Pugh’s Hereford Journal, 10 November 1790: Hereford City Library bound copies, reference 1787-90, 072.44

[22] Sale particulars: Auction of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy and the Mansion House of Michaelchurch Court, 1815: Hereford City Library: Davies, Collectanea Herefordiensia Volume 50, LC942.44/AB

[23] Duncumb: History and Antiquities of the County of Hereford, published 1812: Photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website

[24] Press cutting, West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~wbritonad/cornwall/1836/misc/dec.html

[25] Lascelle’s 1851 Directory: Hereford Public Library Reference section. Photographed extracts available on the Ewyas Lacy Study Group website

[26] Sale Particulars for Michaelchurch Escley Court Estate, 1863: Hereford Public Library documents collection LC 942.44/92


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