England – Tabley House – An English Poet And His Home

AMONG my Evesham letters were two invitations : one to spend a day or two with a friend of mine who combined philosophic radicalism and farming on a pleasant estate near Market Drayton ; and the other to visit the home of that English poet in whose words a few chapters back I had prayed to Astarte at Avebury. I decided to visit Tabley first, and Market Drayton on my way south again.

Death is a great tester of the value of personalities. Some we had expected to miss so much — is it impious to say it ? — we miss hardly at all. The full significance of others to our general life, or more particularly to the life of the imagination, is not revealed to us till they are dead. Such personalities go on growing for us after death, with a singular reality and self-interpretation. Only when they are, or seem, beyond the reach of our recognition or sympathy, do we be-gin little by little to understand the wistful appeal they had been making—not specially to us, but to life. Thus only we begin to realise how much more they had to give us than we had seemed anxious to accept. Perhaps this is merely a posthumous reward of a reserved life. As certain poets, Tennyson, for example, have kept in reserve poems written in the spring and summer of their lives, to lend an unseasonable vitality to their winter volumes ; so these dead that go on growing in the grave have, as it were, reserved something of themselves as a provision for the after life of memory. They would not give all, or tell all, during life — those clever dead ones (and how clever are the dead !) – they would leave something for us to wonder about, to say ” maybe,” or ” if we only could know,” or ” if only we might question them now when it is too late.” I suppose that really no one has thus withheld themselves with conscious economy, and I am quite sure that the poet of whom I am thinking — John Byrne Leicester Warren, Lord De Tabley — never did so. Yet such is the practical outcome of such wistful reserved lives. Abundant self-revealing lives, however they appeal to a taste for such self-revelation, are apt to satisfy it during life. For example, Dickens bequeathed no mystery concerning himself that was not a mystery during his life-time. Scott, equally, was a public secret. Byron told all he knew about himself long before Missolonghi. For rapidity and voluminousness of self-revelation Byron has never been surpassed.

I had thought that I knew Lord De Tabley’s poetry somewhat exactly during his life, for some measure of his friend-ship I had been privileged to enjoy had originated in that exact and admiring knowledge. Yet when he died, I found myself, so to speak, suddenly eager for ” further information.” I read all his letters again, read parts of them, I felt, for the first time ; and I got all the scattered volumes of William Lancaster,” ” M. A.,” John Leicester Warren” together, well known as, separately, they were, that I might resolutely attempt a more intimate understanding of one whom, after his death, I suddenly cared more to study than ever I had cared during his life. When some writers die, and perhaps some time before, we feel that there is no longer any necessity to go on reading their books. Their books had, so to speak, existed as an extension of their physical existence ; that physical existence withdrawn, their books wither with them, as the eyes fade with the stopping of the heart, or the flower withers with its severance from the root. On the other hand there are writers whom one seems only to begin to read when they have passed beyond writing. Many of us read Lord De Tabley very enthusiastically, missing no single sumptuous word, while he still lived and wrote ; but I think it likely that the experience of such readers since his death is very like mine, — that they have suddenly realised that they had needed to know him better than they previously did, suddenly found themselves wondering and asking about him, and turning to his books, already maybe read and marked many times, for some further satisfaction and some completer answers.

Probably there is no better rough test of the vitality of poetry than our automatically remembering it at moments of emotional or social need. If a line springs into our minds, and insists upon being quoted, at moments when our mood is not consciously literary ” in its demands, the line has reason to congratulate itself and the poet who made it. Evidently, it is living poetry ; for it can still minister to the expressional needs of a living man. Those needs, of course, are many, and some of them do not cry out for an extravagant supply. One does not often need a hymn to Astarte, but one is perhaps the more grateful for knowing where to find it when one does need one.

Lord De Tabley used to hint to his friends that he possessed a charming old place in Cheshire which he was far too poor adequately to keep up. It was no affectation — he had no affectations— but I have reason to know that it was some-thing of an exaggeration. At all events, it was an opinion on his part which for many years deprived his Cheshire tenantry of his presence among them, — a presence for which they had, in spite of his vague comings and goings, and probably learned from his botanising boy-hood amongst them, a touching affection. The day or two spent in his old home, listening as it were to the echoes of his footsteps about the rooms, seemed to go some way to satisfy those cravings for knowledge of him, to answering those questions, to which I have made reference.

In the big Georgian drawing-room of new Tabley House, the piety of the sister who was lifelong his closest friend has filled a case with characteristic relics of him, which combine to make a charming and touching symbol of his life. In the centre is a photograph of him as last taken. To those who knew him its perhaps necessary inadequacy will matter little. They will be able to fill in from memory what it lacks. Those who did not know him will realise a noble head, with, as has been well said, something “hierarchical” about it, with its “long rippled grey hair”: a head not unlike Mr. George Meredith’s. But they will miss the indefinable distinction, as of a god in exile, with which he carried it, and the mingled gentleness and sympathy and almost fierceness of his melancholy but all-observant blue eyes. A lock of his childhood’s golden hair lies side by side with a grey lock from that hierarchical head we know. Little bowls filled with Greek coins, his book-plates, his last gathered flowers, a page of his MS., his quill pen, speak of his several enthusiasms and the variety of his accomplished work. There is a world which knows him as perhaps the greatest European authority on brambles, and that is why you find brambles growing over his grave in Little Peover churchyard, brambles growing in soil taken, I have read, ” from a certain covert where he had loved to botanise.” Sir Mounstuart Grant Duff has printed a letter in which we get a charming glimpse of Leicester Warren, the passionate brambler:

“And so,” he writes, ” you have actually taken a walk with Wirtgen ! Well, I envy you. He is one of the best bramblers in Europe, and his name has long been a house-hold word to me. Alas ! the Rubi people are fading fast — Bloxam and now poor Areschoug have joined the majority. The last was a charming Swede, professor at Lund, and he came over here for a month or so years back. His ardour was such that, seeing a new and promising bramble bush, he would plunge into it for specimens like the Guards’ charge at Waterloo, and emerge eventually streaming with gore from face and hands. He had undertaken the light job of investigating Rubus in Europe, and was after the original and primordial Typus, which he suspected was Rubus Leesii, and was to be the ancestor of all the cousinhood of blackberries and raspberries in existence. I fear he has left this monography unfinished. Life is short and brambles are interminable.”

It is probable that Lord De Tabley, great as were his ambitions as a poet, would have chosen to be remembered rather as the botanist of “The Flora of Cheshire,” which since his death his sister Lady Leighton has published as an appropriate monument to his memory. In this it is not difficult to note the reappearance of a form of ambition to which his family owes its most illustrious name. A passion for county history, so to speak, was in his blood ; for the pioneer of county historians, the Sir Peter Leycester of the “Antiquities of Cheshire ” was his most famous and most individualised ancestor. ” I wish,” said Sir Peter in regard to his historical activities, ” this may incite some more able hand to undertake the like for the revising of those decayed Monuments of Antiquity, in the other Hundreds of this our County, which yet lie buried and covered in the Rubbish of Devouring time.”

Thus in making a Cheshire ” Flora ” Lord De Tabley was pursuing an inherited bent. Sir Peter’s hobby had not been botany but genealogy, yet both were scientific studies pursued in the honour of Cheshire. Sir Peter, like most Antiquaries, was very industrious, and he has left behind him much accumulation of manuscripts, from which I print the following memoranda concerning his ancestors, memoranda interesting not only in their present connection, but for the occasional quaintness of their phrasing : —

“SIR NICHOLAS DE LEYCESTER, Knight, was Seneschall to the greate subject & favourite Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln & Constable of Cheshire, in the reigne of K. Edward I, about A. D. 1288. This Nicholas had to wife Margaret, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Dutton, 1276, which Margaret had by the gift of her Father, the townshippe of Nether Tabley & the Manour of Wethall in Aston, in tymes it was usual to give landes for fortunes.”

” ROGER LEYCESTER, son of Sir Nicholas and Margaret, bought out all the freeholde landes in Nether Tabley, about the beginning of Edward III’s raigne ; were helde of him, & were given awaye by his ancestour Galfrid, sonne of Adam de Dutton, long before ; the Principall whereof was that of William Hart, had continued in foure descents in the name of Hart ; & he maide the towne solely and entirely his owne ; howbeit he was chief Lorde long before, as is above demonstrated.”

Roger dyed about A. D. 1349.”

“This Roger lived constantly at his Manour of Wethall where he had a Park in the reigne of K. Edward II.”

“IVth in descent from Sir Nicholas was JOHN DE LEYCESTER, who served in the Warres of France under John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, of whose puissant Army our Histories make mention, & yet brought very few alive to Bordeaux, being starved to death for want of water; but John Leycester returned safe, & had allowed him at Southampton, on the Eve of St John, 49 Edward III. A.D. 1375, 205 : 13 : 4, for the payment of Jenkyn Mobberley, Esquire’ & the soldiers who served under him, & also for his own paye, who had allowed unto him, for himself for 210 dayes, (at 3 shillings the daye,) the sum of 31 : 10 : 0. He had also forgiven him in that account, ( I conceive to be as a rewarde, or gratuity,) 38 : 10 0, & thereupon he gave to Lady F felton a white ambling Palfrey.”

“This JOHN LEYCESTER married JOANE daur of Robert Tinchet, & built the Hall of Nether Tabley, in the place where it yet standeth, about the beginninge of the raigne of K. Richard II. was then called the New Hall of Nether Tabley ; the old Hall stood a little higher in a place now called the Saphyrne-yoards, old Hall I take to have been the seat of the Harts of Tabley, whose freeholde landes were bought by Roger Leycester ; old Hall was encompassed with a narrow sluice or trench of water, where the Ditch, or Trench, yet remayneth to bee seene encompassed it about. Nor must we imagine but that this New Hall bath, since the foundation of it, been much changed & altered ; howbeit I conceive the very fabricke of the Roome called the Hall, (now remayninge, Ann.: 1647,) to have been parte of the Ancient Fabricke, without repayre cannot stand longe. — It was repayred Anno 167I. ”

” WILLIAM LEYCESTER DE TABLEY, (sonne and heyre of John & Joane,) is the first that I find stiled de Tabley, who resided constantly at his Manour House of Nether Tabley, which his Father JOHN had erected, & where his heyres & successours have ever since fixed their habitation to this day (1675).”

“Xth in descent from Sir Nicholas, was PETER LEYCESTER, who married ALICE dau : of SIR JOHN HOLFORD, of Holford, 21 Hen: VIII, 1529. He built the bricke stable with the granary at the end thereof, belonginge to the Hall at Nether Tabley. He dyed 1577, 19 Eliz : & was buryed at Greate Budworth, in his appropriate buriall place in Our Lady Marye’s Chappell at the N. side of the said Church, ann : ætat : sum 70. This Peter was famous for his hospitalities, stiled the good House-keeper ; his inventories of Cattel & Household goods then amounted to 338: 12: 4.wherein 44 Cowes were apprised at 1 : 10 : 0 a piece, 30 oxen at 2 : 10 : 0 a piece, 2 Stalled oxen at 8 : 0 : 0, which in our dayes, at this present, would take at least 24 : 0 : 0.”

“This same Peter killed one Henry Newhall, upon some wrangle, whereupon he was forced to sue for his Pardon, dated 30 Hen : VIII 1538.”

” DOROTHY, widow of Adam Leycester, (XIIth in descent from Sir Nicholas,) and daur. of Peter Shakerley, of Houlme, buryed at Nether Peover 163o, built the Gate House of Nether Tabley Hall.”

“PETER LEYCESTER, (son of Adam and Dorothy, and Xlllth in descent from Sir Nicholas) was but three years old when his Father dyed, & was ward to his Mother, who compounded with the Queen for his Wardship, by means whereof, & want of education, he suffered much both in his Estate and Person. He married ELIZABETH, daur. of SIR RANDLE MAINWARING of Peover, A. D. 1611, 9th Jan:, and had issue, (with others,) PETER, who composed this table or treatise, born A.D. 1613, and is yet living, (1647) and dyed on Tuesday the 7th day of March, 1647, about sixe of the clocke at night, and was buryed at Greate Bud-worth on the Saturday followinge.”

” This Peter and Elizabeth erected the new Milles of ffree stone, under the Hall of Nether Tabley, A.D. 1630 ; pulling downe the old Mille stood a little more remote neare the stone bridge in the High Street.”

” PETER LEYCESTER, sonne and heyre of Peter and Elizabeth, married ELIZABETH daur of GILBERT LORD GERARD, of Gerard’s Bromley, 1642, was created a Baronet 12th Car : II 1660, and was one of the Deputy Lieutenants of Cheshire. This Peter had the whole Estate past over to him by his Father 1636.”

“This same PETER built the bricke wall about the garden and Halle of Nether Tabley, A.D. 1656, and with the wash House also ; he like-wise built the Drawing Roome by the Parlour with the Balcony at the top thereof, and, joyntly with his Sonne, 1671, repayred the Hall of Nether Tabley. — Sir Peter Leycester also built the chappell at the Manour Hall of Nether Tabley, at his owne sole cost and charge, who with his owne hand did lay the first foundation stone thereof the 29th day of June, 1675, commonly called S’ Peter’s day.”

“IVth in descent from this Sir Peter, and XVIIIth in descent from Sir Nicholas, was another & last, SIR PETER, who built (after the designs of Mr. Carr of York) and first inhabited the New Hall in Nether Tabley, now called Tabley House, which was finished during the minority of his son. This Sir Peter married CATHERINE, daughter and co-heir of SIR WILLIAM LE FLEMING, Baronet, of Rydall, and had issue Sir John le Fleming Leicester, b : 1762, who with his two brothers and one sister, were the last Leicesters born in the old Hall.”

[Note by the last Lord De Tablet']

” When the family left the Old Hall to dwell at the New House, a considerable portion of the old Hall containing, I conceive, the principal living rooms, was pulled down, and only the more ancient part of it left standing, as it still exists in these present days, 1880.”

” On the spot where stood these living rooms was planted by Catherine Lady Leicester an Acorn, which has now become a spreading Oak Tree — 1884.”

To this may be added an interesting note by an intermediate Leycester in regard to the chapel, still in beautiful preservation, with the plate and other sacred accessories, as Sir Peter left it ; and still the private chapel of the Tabley tenants :

” The last & best Chappell was built of Bricke & Stone at the Manour Hall of Nether Tabley, by Sir Peter Leycester, baronet, situated in the very South-East Corner of the Garden, with the Poole, close to the Poole side; begun upon the 29th day of June, A.D. 1675 upon a Tuesday, & was finished within & completed A.D. 1678, the last day of May. John Birchenough, of Over Alderley, Maister Mason, William Merriman, of Nether Tabley, Chiefe Bricklayer, John Kell, of Over Tabley, Carpenter; and Ephraim Broadhurst, of Nether Knutsford, Joyner, who took his pattern from Brasennose Colledge Chappell, in Oxford. But Broadhurst dyed before the work was finished.”

This record of the craftsmen employed would have delighted William Morris. It is to be feared that the bricklayers of our modern sacred edifices pass unchronicled. Such records speak very eloquently of the personal dignity attaching even to the humblest handicraftsmen in the days when English ” artisans ” felt themselves to belong, in however minor degrees, to the ” mystery” of a beautiful art.

It was upon a nice question of ancestry that Sir Peter engaged in a pamphlet war with a neighbouring knight, which locally and temporarily made him more famous than his “Antiquities.” His neighbour, Sir Thomas Mainwaring of Peover, and Sir Peter Leycester himself, had a remote ancestress in common, Amicia, daughter of Earl Hugh Cyvelioc (about 1129 to 1177). The question was one of her legitimacy. Sir Peter in his ” Antiquities ” had decided that she was illegitimate. Sir Thomas furiously supported the other view, and some fifteen pamphlets were needed to thrash out the difference of opinion. These can still be read by the abnormally curious in the publications of the ” Chet-ham Society.” The controversy evidently made some amusement for the Cheshire gentry, for a ballad preserved in the Ashmolian MSS. records in doggerel the famous encounter of

” Two famous wights, both Cheshire Knights, Thomas yclept & Peter. . . .”

Sir Peter was a valiant royalist and churchman. We find the royalist suffering for the cause, compounding for his estate to the sum of 778 pounds. 18. 4.; and after the Restoration we find the churchman vigorously persecuting a ” seditious ” clergyman of his neighbourhood, one Adam Martindale, because he would not read the proclamation against unauthorised religious meetings, ” conventicles,” and so forth. The last Lord De Tabley once contested Mid-Cheshire in the Liberal interest, but it is evident that his famous ancestor was an uncompromising Tory.

The name of Byrne ” and with it the broken harp, this of double significance upon Lord De Tabley’s grave, came into the family with the death, in 1742, of Sir Francis Leicester, son of Sir Peter Leycester ; when the estates passed to his grandson, a boy of nine, son of Sir John Byrne of Timogue, an Irish baronet by Sir Francis Leicester’s daughter Meriel. The name Warren ” and most of its wealth were added to the family at the same time. Sir John Byrne’s mother was Anna Dorothea Warren, of Poynton in Cheshire ; and by this connection later on in the history of the family, the wealth of the Warrens was to be diverted into the Leicester coffers ; as by his marriage settlement Sir John Byrne had contracted to change his name to Leicester and to sell out his other estates and to invest the money round Tabley. Owing to Sir John Byrne’s death, his infant son, Sir Peter Byrne, had to fulfil these conditions, he being the first to bring together the three names, Byrne, Leicester, Warren. The Byrnes were descended from the old kings of Leinster, and the Warrens from William the Conqueror, whose daughter Gundred married the first Earl Warren. The chief genealogical distinction and the main wealth of the family thus came of the marriage of Meriel Leycester and her father’s astute will. Its peerage and its Turners came into the family together with Sir Peter Byrne Leicester’s son who was created first Lord De Tabley in 1826. He was a great friend of the Prince Regent — the immense stables at Tabley still commemorate the friendship — and a generous and intelligent patron of painters. He devoted himself to the encouragement of the English School, and in 1818 opened in London the first gallery ever hung exclusively with the work of British artists. Of Turner he was a specially generous patron. Hence the Turners which hang in the drawing-room at Tabley.

” How many suns it takes to make one speedwell blue ! ” sings the modern poet. No doubt if the genealogies of all notable poets had been as carefully recorded as that of Lord De Tabley, it would be found that any one of them had taken no less making than he, who, whatever his ancestral distinctions, is so far the crowning product of his line. A poet being Nature’s culminating achievement costs very much to make. The blood of warriors, of beautiful women, of curious students, must meet in the alembic of his brain. Byrne and Leicester and Warren were needed to make John Byrne Leicester Warren. But while he remains the final flower of much old-world strength and beauty, he has one rival as a symbolic expression of the vigorous past of his ancestors : the old moated hall down among the trees of the park, which, though now unoccupied by living Leicesters, is very carefully preserved for such of dead or living as care still to dream in its old rooms. Rich as England is in old houses, — gables and black oak and dreams, — it can hardly contain a more perfect or more appealing embodiment of its masterful and musical past than Tabley Old Hall. The smallness of the place does much to help the effect, for, since it was built on its moated island, in the reign of Richard II., it has lost several of its rooms, as it has put on a Jacobean front. This smallness saves it from seeming a museum, and preserves it as a home, a home broken-hearted by the long absence of all who once peopled it with gay and forcible life — yet one might fancy, still keeping itself ready in a hope-against-hope for returning feet. We often say that certain old houses make one feel that their long dead occupants have only left them a few moments ago ; just flung out of doors to go a-hawking, or just left the tapestry-frame to gather flowers in the meadows. The fancy is indeed hackneyed enough, —yet there are a few old houses that really inspire it. You seldom feel, as at Tabley, that the hall fire has only just gone out ; that indeed a new log might even now set it going again. Warm human breath still seems to hang in the rooms. Local sentimentalists have invented vulgar ghosts for its occupants to Lady Leighton’s very natural indignation. Haunted indeed the place is, but only as a room is haunted where some exquisite lady stood a moment ago at her harpsichord, or an old scholar laid down his still open book in the window, to take the air up and down his garden walks.

To any sufficiently damp-resisting person Tabley Old Hall is still comfort-ably habitable. It is a paradise of old oak, — there is a Queen Elizabeth bed to sleep in, — and its walls are hung with many a curious decorative device of the past. Among these is a Jacobite relic of particular interest ; one of those perspectives ” which are found in only one or two Jacobean collections. It is a grotesque portrait of Charles I I. elongated broadways out of all recognition. The idea was to place it on a table and set an upright cylinder of polished steel beside it : in the cylinder, by some simple optical law, the distorted features became normal and recognisable and you drank reverentially to the king across the water.

There is in the Hall, with its unusually massive roof-beams, a very curious fire-place, dated 1619, of carved, gilded and coloured wood, bearing rude figures of Cleopatra and Lucrece. It is this fire-place of which Lord De Tabley is thinking in a long and elaborate passage of his ” Soldier of Fortune.” Says Conrad to Violet, as they stand before the coloured and embossed chimney-piece : —

What have we here; Fables in wood ? Figures in allegory Crowning the hearth? ‘T is quaint this sculptured text, For him who warms to read. Lend me the key Of all this coloured triumph, hares and hounds : Lucrece and Cleopatra : each i’ th’ act Of letting the red passionate life away, She with a point, she with a brace of vipers : ‘T is pitiful to see them stare and do it.”

Violet answers with her sad fancies, and Conrad asks again:

” . . . I smile not : give me more ; explain This mystic carving, apex of the screen, Roofing the storied interludes beneath, Dogs, dog-sized hares, and moribund great queens — Declare this emblem. Here ‘s a naked child Recumbent with an hour-glass in its hand, And the sand-cups are winged as Hermes’ heels : While a great human-faced profile of sun Rays in athwart the infant on its bed.”

Violet’s reading of the riddle is too long to quote.

But most fascinating to me is the old Herb-garden where still grow all the herbs just as they used to Wild Thyme, Star of Bethlehem, Wormwood, Spikenard (“very precious “), Balm of Gilead, Rue, St. James’ Wort, Black Helebore, Balm for the Warrior’s Wounds, Borage, etc. To keep this old Herb-garden well-stocked was one of the fancies of the playful side of Lord De Tabley as a serious botanist. The Library at Tabley is almost as rich in old herbals as in old poets. Perhaps the most valuable out-come of that love for flowers and herbs is the exact natural history of Lord De Tabley’s poetry. In this he is at least the equal of Tennyson.

So I may end as I began with his poetry. That poetry, I hold, is destined to take a higher place in Victorian poetry than it has yet taken. 1 am prepared to admit its limitations. It lacks fusing emotion. It is a poetry of lines rather than of whole poems : yet if the truth were told, should not the same be said of most poetry that we value ? The architectural canon of complete harmonious edifices of song is rather an arbitrary ruling of fashion than an eternal law of poetic art ; and it is easily proven so. There is some-thing limited in any so-called ” perfect whole,” even, perhaps, the very greatest. You can only, to speak like an Irishman, get everything in — by leaving something out, and that something is usually the very thing we want in, the sense of what we call the infinite, without and within a human temperament. The eighteenth century was rich in “perfect wholes,” but who would not prefer a single rich Elizabethan line to some” perfect whole” by Pope? Besides, a fine line is a “perfect whole.” Sun, moon, and stars are in it. It is a microcosm, no less than the most ambitious poetical structure. Thus, many so-called imperfect poems are more valuable by their splendid flashes than other poems perfectly illuminated throughout. Blake (or even Crashaw) is a more important poet than Gray. Gold is gold, however irregularly minted; and a pocketful of silver is not equal to a handful of gold. I have just tested Lord De Tabley in his most vulnerable play : “The Soldier of Fortune ” –anything but a “perfect whole.” I have drunk a glass or two from the enormous hogshead, but what a wine ! Must I drink it all at once to prove it a noble vintage ?

The day done, we sat in his study discussing his various dreams of a better land, where each man should be his own agriculturalist and the golden age return., We talked too of books. How could we help it with so many of the best of them around us ! Strange little company of poets and philosophers looking out incongruously upon the grazing sheep, and the quiet hills. I often think of you, and of him who sits by the lamp with open book at evening, and wish that mine had been a day so well spent. Benedicite !