The destination for history

Sussex poetry: A country saved...a country lost

the-firle-estate

Tony Ward’s popular Poetry+ series in Sussex Life combines poetry, local history and puzzle-solving in a unique and active way, encouraging those with an interest in the county to engage with the famous people and much-loved places connected to it. 

Here, Tony explores another fascinating piece of Sussex history - can you decipher the clues in the poem to work out who or what it is?

Villages, farms, farm-shop, pub,
the estate at the foot of the Beacon.
Tudor foundations, Georgian face,
the Priory stone re-cycled.

Parkland, gardens, pleasure grounds,
now sheep where once roamed deer.
A cherry walk, the greengage tree,
bearing the Viscounts’ name.

Five hundred years of kith and kin.
A faith held fast renounced.
The Tudor Knight, the second son,
two men who shaped a nation.

Their constant rock, four monarchs served,
in times of peace, in times of war,
sad duties for a ruthless King,
a welcome for a Queen.

The General, Governor, second son,
across the pond, success and loss,
a step too far, a midnight ride,
the rebels warned, the turning tide,

a second chance, at Bunker Hill,
the day yet won, a country lost.

St Peter’s chapel now their home,
the old religion, Latin text,
above the vault, the Tree of Life,
battles ended, world at rest.

FIRLE PLACE: HOME FOR OVER 500 YEARS TO THE GAGE FAMILY

Firle Place has been the home of the Gage family for over 500 years. Before that the Manor of Firle was a part of the Abbey of Wilton’s holdings during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), passed to the Count de Mortain (who controlled Pevensey Castle) after the Conquest, and then through a number of other families until the mid-1400s, at which time the land passed to the Gage family through marriage. However, it wasn’t until Sir John Gage KG inherited his parents’ property in 1501 that the family’s history at Firle Place really began to get under way. More of Sir John later.

The poem’s first verse mentions the Tudor, Georgian and ‘Priory stone’ roots of the house that you see today. The Tudor foundations still exist but the house was substantially remodelled in the eighteenth century and it now has a Georgian façade. The creamy Caen stone is a perfect example of how to re-cycle building materials. The stone was originally brought over from France by the Cluniac monks to build the Priory of St Pancras in Lewes in around 1080, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Priory was surrendered to Thomas Cromwell in 1537 and subsequently razed to the ground. But ‘one man’s loss is another man’s gain’; the timing was just right for Sir John Gage to use the stone from the Priory to build his great Tudor manor house. This first Firle Place was completed around 1543. By the eighteenth century fashions had changed, but the stone was again recycled – this time for the house’s Georgian transformation.

In the poem’s title, ‘a country saved’ refers to the family’s fight against the ‘Londonisation’ of Sussex in the early twentieth century and the inter-war years. As the Chairman of East Sussex County Council, Henry Rainald (6th Viscount, 1895-1982) led the successful campaign to preserve the South Downs. The area later obtained AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) status, and in recent years was designated a National Park. Unlike other historic landholdings, the family also managed to preserve their estate intact. In contrast, Lord Abergavenny parted with extensive Down-land in Lewes, Patcham and Rodmell, and the Earl of Chichester had to part with his Chyngton Estate in Seaford. All were developed for housing.

The second verse lists some features of the estate’s grounds. The particular point of note here is ‘the greengage tree, / bearing the Viscounts’ name’. This green plum, cultivated from a wild variety, was common in Europe, particularly France. In France it was known as the Gross Reine Claude. The first specimens were imported to Britain in around 1725 by another member of the Gage family. The importer was Sir William Gage, 2nd Baronet of Hengrave, thus the original tree was planted at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, rather than at Firle Place.  It is said that the labels became detached in transit and when they turned out to be green they became known as green Gage’s plums, later shortened to Greengages.

The third verse touches upon the Gage family’s religious leanings, ‘A faith held fast renounced’, as does the last verse, ‘the old religion, Latin text’. Early generations of the family were Roman Catholics. In Henry VIII’s time they were pragmatic as regards their faith, not making a big issue of their beliefs, but in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and subsequently, they made difficulties for themselves. They were fined, impoverished and even imprisoned. At one stage ‘recusants’ were not even allowed to own or ride a horse. Sir William Gage (1694-1744) inherited the estate in 1713. Within a few years he decided to renounce Catholicism and conform to the Church of England. Sir William became MP for Seaford and his successor was ennobled, becoming the first Viscount Gage. However it took another three generations, until the time of the 3rd Viscount,  for the family recusant debts to be significantly reduced.

Also in the third verse I have singled out two notable family members: ‘The Tudor Knight, the second son, / two men who shaped a nation’. The first was Sir John Gage KG (1479-1556). Sir John, the builder of the first Firle Place, was the first of the family who could be said to have ‘shaped a nation’. Sir John was a ‘soldier-courtier’ whose fifty years of royal service spanned the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. He managed to avoid becoming involved in the political intrigues of the times, remaining loyal to the monarchy whilst also forging links with Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. He also exploited his wider political and family connections. He was perhaps an example of a canny early ‘networker’, well before the days of the internet! Such was his acumen that he variously became Comptroller of Calais, Vice Chamberlain and subsequently Lord Chamberlain, an MP, a Knight of the Garter, Constable of the Tower of London, Comptroller of the Royal Household, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an executor of Henry VIII’s will and a member of Edward VI’s privy council – quite a CV!

During this time he used his position to commercial advantage to build up the family’s fortunes, particularly through ventures in Sussex, which included rearing livestock, timber production, and an ironworks in the Weald producing artillery pieces.

When Constable of the Tower he was in post during the executions of both Katherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – the ‘sad duties’ mentioned in verse four. As a Catholic though a happier duty was ‘a welcome for a Queen’. As well as being part of the official welcome upon her arrival, he was a train-bearer at Queen Mary’s Coronation on 1 October 1553.

The second ‘man who shaped a nation’ was General Sir Thomas Gage (1718-1787). As a second son, Thomas knew that he would not inherit and so decided upon a military career. It was to change the course of history not only for Britain but also for her then American Colonies. The second half of the poem title, ‘a country lost’, hints at what was to unfold. As this was such a world-changing moment in history I have told the story in full.

Thomas Gage was once and foremost a soldier. He fought in the Battle of Fontenoy against the French (1745); at the Battle of Culloden (1746); and in the Low Countries (1747-1748). After seven years stationed in Ireland, he went into action in the Seven Years War in Canada (1756-1763), once more against the French. After the fall of Montreal in 1760, Gage was made its military Governor. In his three-year tenure he proved to be an efficient and popular Governor, but he became bored. In 1763 he moved to New York and became Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America, in charge of 5,000 regulars. He was tasked with holding most of the eastern half of the country for England. This was more to his liking. He stayed in post for twelve years. He was good at his job, universally popular, and was granted the Freedom of the City of New York.

Then came the step too far. On 16 December 1773, the infamous Boston Tea Party took place, a demonstration not against the Tea Tax as such but against the fact that Britain had imposed this tax unilaterally on the colonies. It was a case of ‘no taxation without representation’. Gage was sent to Boston to bring matters under control.

Thus, in 1774, General Thomas Gage was appointed Massachusetts Military Governor, based in Boston but also still responsible for supervising all thirteen American colonies. It was an impossible brief. He had insufficient forces to back up the implementation of what he knew to be increasingly unreasonable and unworkable British Government policies. The colonists were not happy. There was a breakdown in law and order.

Things came to a head on 18 April 1775. Gage’s plan was for a series of small-scale, secret operations to try and avert trouble with these self-styled ‘Patriots’. Eight hundred British troops set off, marching through the night towards Lexington and Concord, the site of a military stores depot. This was not intended to be an aggressive operation, the intention was more to avert trouble by placing the stores under the safety of ‘lock and key’ but this was misunderstood. As Deborah Gage explains in her insightful article on the Firle Place website, General Thomas Gage on the Eve of Revolution, ‘His objective was not to provoke a war but to prevent one’.

However, General Gage’s plan to undertake the approach in secret was undermined. The rebels had warning of their approach.

Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith (and express rider), upon determining the route of the departing British troops contacted a ‘friend’ to hang signal lanterns in the bell tower of Old North Church (Christ Church) in Boston. It was a pre-arranged signal to the Sons of Liberty across the Charles River in Charleston, part of an elaborate warning system. Revere was then ferried by two more ‘friends’ across the mouth of the river, slipping silently past the watch on the British warship HMS Somerset. Once safely across, Revere mounted a borrowed horse and sped off on his famous midnight ride. Having delivered his message upon arrival in Lexington, he was later joined by a second and then a third rider, both on the same errand. Revere had taken a faster route though and ridden flat out – ‘The fate of a nation was riding that night’.

That last sentence was taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long poem, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’, which became an American classic. Longfellow (1807-1882) published it in a series, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863), modelled on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The poem came 88 years after the event, not within living memory for most people. He thus perhaps felt free to simplify and re-arrange some of the facts to create a more dramatic poem!

As the British forces crossed Lexington Common, on their way to Concord, it seems John Hancock and Samuel Adams, key Patriot leaders who were staying in Lexington, were taken by surprise. In the breaking dawn, a diversionary shot was fired from the tavern window.

On Lexington Common, where the Lexington rebel militia (seventy-strong) faced the British column (800-strong), there was confusion. Shots were fired. Several of the rebel militia were killed. The British swept aside the survivors and marched on to their objective, Concord. It was a big mistake. The countryside was now up in arms and they returned to Boston with difficulty, pursued every step of the way by the enemy. News of Lexington and Concord spread like wildfire to the other colonies … and so began the American War of Independence.

Once back in Boston, General Gage’s command was reinforced by land forces and by sea. The city was besieged by the rebel colonists. They were encamped on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill, overlooking the city. Gage was afraid that they would sweep down into the city. What happened next was due to the orders issued by Lord Dartmouth, back in London. Gage’s forces took the initiative and attacked Bunker Hill. It was June 17, 1775, a date since etched into American history. The British forces won the battle, but at the cost of the lives of over 1,000 English redcoats as against some 500 on the Patriots’ side. It had been the wrong decision. As Sir Winston Churchill put it in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, ‘The rebels had become heroes … The British had captured the hill, but the Americans had won the glory’.

Shortly afterwards, General Thomas Gage was recalled to London and his command was handed over to General William Howe. Howe had led Gage’s forces at what now went down in history as the ‘Battle of Bunker Hill’. Gage never returned to America. The family settled in Portland Place, in London, only occasionally spending time at Firle Place. Firle did, however, become his final resting place. He is buried in the family plot in St Peter’s Church.

Following Gage’s abrupt departure from the war in America, a forty-three-year-old Virginian was chosen by the Patriots to form the first American army. This was in fact an erstwhile fellow-officer who had previously served alongside Gage during the Seven Years War, in Canada, against the French. They had been friends, respecting each other’s bravery in the field. In one incident the wounded Gage even helped his friend escape from a forest ambush. Such was the irony of war though that they were subsequently to find themselves on opposite sides in the greater conflict. The Virginian’s name? Colonel George Washington.

As Deborah Gage concluded in her article, ‘Thomas Gage was a victim of circumstance: in the wrong place at the wrong moment!’.

The poem’s final verse concerns St Peter’s Church, situated near to the house and connected by a short path leading from the garden. The church contains the family vault, located in the sixteenth-century Gage (North) Chapel. Besides the memorial brasses there is a striking alabaster monument featuring life-size figures of Sir John Gage (d. 1556) and his wife. The last two lines of the poem highlight the beautiful east window of the chapel, commissioned from John Piper in 1985. It depicts the Tree of Life in the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘above the vault, the Tree of Life, / battles ended, world at rest’.

EXPLORER’S GUIDE

If this chapter has whetted your appetite for exploring further, you are invited to follow these waymarkers. You will find some excellent audio/video clips included.

PRINT

Arscott, David, The Little Book of Sussex (p. 138. Firle Tower).
Brandon, Peter, The Discovery of Sussex (pp. 186-187, 210. The opposition of the Gage family to the ‘Londonisation’ of Sussex).
Jenkins, Simon, England’s Thousand Best Houses, (Allen Lane, ‘Firle Place’, pp. 764-766).
Lee, Christopher, This Sceptred Isle 55BC-1901 (Chapter 39, 1770-1781, pp. 435-438. General Thomas Gage’s part in the start of the American War of Independence).
Russell, James, Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs (pp. 8-9. Firle Beacon).
The Garden Show in Spring at Firle Place. (Advertising flyer).

AUDIO/VIDEO

https://www.paulreverehouse.org/poem/sample.mp3 (Audio clip of the first two verses of Longfellow’s poem, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’. The full text can be found at www.poetry.eserver.org/paul-revere.html and ‘The Real Story of Paul Revere’s Ride’ (fact not fiction) can be found at http://www.biography.com/news/paul-reveres-ride-facts).

A search for ‘Videos of Firle Place’ brings up several of interest – ‘The Garden Show at Firle Place 2013’, ‘Sussex Bonfire Night Celebration: Firle Bonfire Society (FBS)’ – a birthday bash for Deborah Gage, and many YouTube videos on Horse Shows.

WEBSITES

www.firle.com (The official extensive website, including an Interactive Guide to the Firle Estate)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gage (A summary of Sir Thomas Gage’s life and career).
A very full and interesting account, to which I am indebted, is that in an article written by Deborah Gage, who also suggested some beneficial adjustments to my own article. Deborah Gage’s definitive account is to be found on www.firle.com
www.sussex.villagenet.co.uk/firle.php (a one-page history of Firle, subtitled ‘Home of the Greengage’).

Relevant websites can be found by searches for ‘Firle Place’, ‘General Thomas Gage’, ‘Boston Tea Party’, ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’, ‘Greengages at Firle Place’, St Peter’s Church, Firle’, ‘The Garden Show at Firle Place’.

A PLACE TO VISIT

Besides the house and grounds, Firle Place is notable for its art collection and the Garden Show in Spring. It was known that Sir John Gage KG (1479-1556) was a collector of fine furniture and art, but all that remains from the Tudor and Elizabethan period are a few family portraits and his Book of Hours. The important works started arriving in the eighteenth century and have been added to ever since, not least through the inheritance of four of the other family collections that have been relocated to Firle. Artists featured in the collection include van Dyke, Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Ruysdael, Hoppner, Thorburn, Zoffany, de Koninck, Teniers the Younger and (in 1967) Duncan Grant. Many of the paintings are family portraits. Other items include Chippendale furniture, Sèvres Porcelain and an important collection of books, some of which date back to the 1500s. The family opens the house to visitors in the summer months. The Garden Show in Spring is held annually over the Easter holiday and is a must for gardeners – specialist plant nurseries, garden furniture, supplies and decorative items, arts and crafts, food and wine, and a strolling jazz trio all feature.

Firle images courtesy of www.firle.com and www.kingslandlinassi.com.             ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ illustration by Grace Osborne. 

By Tony Ward     

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