Audley End was built to accommodate King James I; however, he is said to have remarked about it: 'Too good for a king, but good enough for a Lord Treasurer'. He only stayed there for three nights in 1614. The house had the ultimate status symbol: matching royal suites in both wings - and early example of "his 'n' hers" perhaps, although in James' case more likely "his 'n' his"... It was the ultimate Prodigy House, the most ambitious Jacobean house in the country.
Walden Abbey was suppressed in 1538 and Henry VIII granted it to his Chancellor (Thomas, Lord Audley), who converted the monastic buildings to a house. His grandson, Thomas Howard (1st Earl of Suffolk) and Lord Treasurer to James I, remodelled and greatly enlarged the house from 1605 to 1614. However, he had embezzled the Treasury to finance its construction. The king rumbled him, he was heavily fined and retired in disgrace to his vast mansion. Ownership passed to Charles II, then back again to the Howards under William III.
The upkeep of such a massive palace was burdensome and in 1751 the then owner 'reduced' a large part of it, leaving the house we see today - but it is still huge. Reshapings of house and grounds eventually led to Lancelot 'Capability' Brown being commissioned to design fashionable gardens and park and Robert Adam producing an equally fashionable suite of reception rooms. I was privileged to have a quick 'pirate' tour with a guide: they have marvellous colour schemes and exquisitely delicate decorations.
The 3rd Lord Braybrooke inherited the estate in 1825, made it his main seat and cleverly introduced some neo-Jacobean work - in the best possible taste - no heavy Victorian renovation here. His legacy is the continued Jacobean character of the house despite many alterations by many owners over 400 years.
In 1941 the house was requisitioned for war use; in 1948 the 9th Lord Braybrooke left the house and gardens, but not the contents, to the National Trust. In 1984 English Heritage took over and they have done much valuable restoration work.
The house contains much of opulence and beauty: the Hall with its 1603 oak screen, the Drawing Room with its Canaletto and numerous Dutch School paintings, the Library with its Erard grand piano of 1850 - I played it!, a delightful Gothic Chapel of 1768 and George III's state bed (never used by him).
On the top floor is the Nursery suite of rooms; there is also the unique Coal Gallery, where coal was shovelled and water boiled for domestic use. Outside, the Service Wing comprises Kitchen, Dairy, Wet & Dry Laundries which show how hard those Victorian house-servants worked. Past the 'Cloud' hedge (a heavy fall of snow had distorted the branches, hence the cloud shape) to the Jacobean stables, then the huge, walled kitchen garden; to the Tea House Bridge by Adam.
Go and see Audley End: words alone cannot do it justice. Our thanks to June Peck for another fascinating outing and to Paul, our driver.