Emergency repairs taking place at Grade I listed West Horsley Place have led to an unexpected – and rather chilling – discovery.
This week, a team of conservation experts assessing the most immediate conservation needs of the house – which has been placed on the Historic England At Risk Register – happened upon what could possibly be an ancient Executioner’s Axe among the debris in a derelict and unused room.
Although there is no record of executions having taken place at West Horsley Place, since Norman times beheading has brought about changes in ownership of the manor house and its surrounding 380 acre estate – starting in 1388 with the execution of Sir James Berners, charged with misguiding King Richard II. In 1536, King Henry VIII handed ownership of West Horsley Place to his cousin, Henry Courtenay – who is known to have entertained the King and his retinue to a 35 course lunch in the Stone Hall, only to be convicted of treason and beheaded two years later. And following the execution of her husband in 1618, Elizabeth Raleigh achieved her unlikely wish of retaining Sir Walter’s severed head in a “red leather bag” that she kept by her side at all times for the rest of her life – including the four years (1643 – 47) she spent living with her son, Carew, then the owner of West Horsley Place.
Commenting, Peter Pearce, Director of the Mary Roxburghe Trust – the charity created to rescue and restore West Horsley Place – said: “With a long line of illustrious owners – including Royalty and members of the Royal Court – it is perhaps not surprising that beheading, the punishment reserved for those of noble birth, has played its part in the history of West Horsley Place. But discovering an axe here was quite a shock! The axe has since been sent to an historic weapons expert for analysis.”
“As we take steps towards rescuing and restoring this enchanting house of significant historic and architectural interest, we look forward to unravelling more of its extraordinary past.”