Over the coming months historian June Davey will explore some of the fascinating figures and events associated with West Horsley Place. She starts with Elizabeth Fitzgerald ‘The Fair Geraldine’.
During the second half of the sixteenth century, a famous court beauty became chatelaine of both Hatchlands and West Horsley Place. She lived a long life and was married twice to rich and powerful men.
Lady Elizabeth FitzGerald was born in Maynooth, County Kildare, Leinster, Ireland in 1527. She was the daughter of the 9th Earl of Kildare, Gerald FitzGerald, Lord Deputy of Ireland and scion of an immensely powerful family in Ireland, with lands also in England and Wales. The FitzGeralds traced their origins to the Florentine Gherardini, with later Norman lineage. The dynasty – often referred to as ‘The Geraldines’ – gained large swathes of Irish land over several generations: a process of conquest begun by Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor (c.1075-1135.) He was already established in Wales before arriving in Ireland, and was married to a Welsh wife, Nesta ferch Rhys; they were the progenitors of the FitzGerald dynasty: ‘fitz’ derives from the Anglo-Norman ‘fils’ meaning ‘sons of Gerald.’ The Welsh connection through Nesta links the FitzGeralds with the Tudors. Elizabeth’s great -grandmother was Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, and the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth were second cousins.
FITZGERALD’S FALL FROM GRACE
In fact, the Geraldine family comprised two powerful branches. The Kildare was the most powerful: the other branch was ruled by the Earl of Desmond, and the two branches were often at loggerheads with each other. Kildare, being powerful and wealthy had enemies at court, who were constantly plotting his overthrow, and on many occasions he had to go to England to defend himself against such charges. He was usually able to vindicate himself, and remained on good terms with Henry VIII, but Wolsey was suspicious of him, and Henry, very aware of the earl’s influence, was forever watchful of events in Ireland. In 1533, Kildare’s wife, Lady Elizabeth Grey brought daughter Elizabeth and other children to London to attend at court. But in that same year the earl was finally accused of treason, and imprisoned in the Tower of London. A complicated web of events unfolded: as the young Elizabeth’s half-brother, Thomas FitzGerald, known as ‘Silken Thomas’ on account of his magnificent attire, and the silken banners carried by his retinue, immediately took over from his father as acting Lord Deputy of Ireland. He was a larger than life character, generous but impetuous, and in 1533 was only just twenty-one. He received forged letters, probably emanating from Kildare enemies at court, describing details of the execution of his father in the Tower. Silken Thomas sought vengeance, declaring: ‘I am no longer Henry Tudor’s Deputy. I am his foe.’1 There was a disastrous rebellion in Ireland, culminating in the murder of an Archbishop, which resulted in the excommunication of Silken Thomas and his five uncles. They were hunted down and arrested, brought to London and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, on 3rd January, 1537. When news of all this, reached the 9th Earl in the Tower, he is said to have died of a broken heart. Elizabeth’s oldest brother, another Gerald, aged twelve, now became 11th Earl of Kildare (later known as the Wizard Earl.) He went on the run in Ireland, and protected by friends and relations spend the next years on the continent: at one time he was Master of Horse to Cosimo de’ Medici, in Florence.
FAIR GERALDINE AT COURT
This was the extraordinary background to Elizabeth FitzGerald’s introduction to the court: she was sent to the household of Princess Mary at Hunsdon. Her younger brothers were raised in the court of Prince Edward. It was perhaps her family connections with the English ruling family that gave her some security.
In 1537, aged ten, Elizabeth’s childish beauty was immortalised by the poet, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, where she appears as ‘The Fair Geraldine.’ (Howard actually wrote the sonnet when he was in prison for beating up a ‘courtier;’ actually a courtesan.) Biographers now argue that such a sonnet was a stylised fashion, not evidence of a romance: in any case Surrey was already married to Frances Vere.2 It is thought he was trying to enhance the young girl’s chances of a good marriage when she was of age, praising her virtue, beauty and noble ancestry. She surely needed such help after the affair of her half-brother Silken Thomas and her five uncles.
MARRIAGE AND PROPERTY
In 1543, aged sixteen, Elizabeth married Sir Anthony Browne (c.1500-1548,) after the death of Alys Gage his first wife. She became step-mother to his eight children, including Mabel Browne, who later married her brother, Gerald, ‘The Wizard Earl.’ Gerald was eventually welcomed to the court of Edward VI, who restored all the Kildare lands to him. Sir Anthony was – and managed to remain – a favourite of Henry VIII, despite being a Catholic. He was a significant figure and court, and was knighted in 1523, and granted Battle Abbey in 1538. In 1539, he was made Master of the Horse for life, becoming a Knight of the Garter in 1540. In 1544, Henry gave him Hatchlands and the Manor of East Clandon. This was followed, in 1547, by the gift of West Horsley Place. One of the legacies of the Browne ownership of West Horsley Place is an intriguing Tudor room, adjacent to the drawing room, on the first floor of the house. It has a striking ceiling embellished with low reliefs which carry the initials ‘AB’ (Anthony Browne) and ‘EB’ (Elizabeth Browne.) This evocative and impressive ceiling decoration once extended to the far end of the Great Hall.
In 1548, Anthony Browne died, leaving Elizabeth a widow, at just twenty-one. Two sons had been born, but neither boy survived infancy. Her stepson, Anthony Browne, later 1st Lord Montague, gave her ownership of West Horsley Place for her lifetime, and she retained Hatchlands. Later, in 1589, she appears to have given or bequeathed Hatchlands to her niece, Douglas FitzGerald, who is recorded as residing there in that year. (The Hatchlands connection still remains, as Alex Cobbe is connected with both FitzGerald and Browne families.) Elizabeth had remained friendly with Princess Elizabeth since childhood, and upon her husband’s death, she joined the household of dowager Queen Catherine Parr, now married to Thomas Seymour and living at Chelsea Manor. Her friendship with the future queen strengthened, and she also became well acquainted with the young Lady Jane Grey.
SECOND MARRIAGE & SURVIVAL
On 1st October, 1552, she married Edward Fiennes Clinton, Lord High Admiral, and later 1st Earl of Lincoln. She was his third wife and step-mother to his nine children. In 1553, she and Edward supported the claim of Lady Jane Grey to the throne. But when the plot failed, perhaps because of ‘Fair Geraldine’s’ long friendship with Mary Tudor, the couple managed to regain the new queen’s trust.
Upon Elizabeth Tudor’s succession to the throne, Elizabeth FitzGerald became one of the ‘Unfeed Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber,’ and was very much part of the Queen’s inner circle. She was in attendance at meetings with foreign dignitaries such as the Duke of Feria, King Philip of Spain’s ambassador. Her possible involvement in court intrigues brought about a fall from grace in 1561, when she was accused by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, of weakness and disregard of duty. He even declared that she should be ‘chastised in Bridewell’3 for her failings. David Starkey suggests that the Archbishop had dismissed her as a ‘strumpet.’ 4(An epithet frequently applied to ladies of the court, whether deserved or otherwise. )
A ROYAL VISIT TO WEST HORSLEY PLACE
Elizabeth and Admiral Clinton spent time at West Horsley Place, and on the 17TH August, 1559, Queen Elizabeth visited them there. The Queen’s Master of Revels and Tents, Thomas Cawarden organised a masque (similar to an opera) called Shipmen and Maids of the Country. It would appear that Clinton built his own theatre for the occasion. 5 Guests of the Queen included Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Sadly, poor Thomas Cawarden died at West Horsley Place on 29th August, 1559, from complications following a broken leg. Martin Smith, whose historic construction company built Grange Park Opera in the orchard of West Horsley Place, has done significant research, and discovered documents describing the masque. The account describes thirteen tailors spending a fortnight creating costumes for the masque: ‘in purple cloth of gold barred over with gardes of cloth of green and silver, with sleeves of blue cloth edged with gold and red silk lace.’ 6 A team of court painters led by Richard Bossum, made ‘pictures upon cloth in the front and the gallery.’7 Barges carried set, costumes and props from the stores in Blackfriars to Hampton Court, and thence overland to West Horsley Place. Apparently it took a month to transport everything back to London.
In 1569, Elizabeth showed both spirit and acumen when she seized a ship which had been illegally taken by Martin Frobisher. She was exercising her husband’s rights as Lord High Admiral. Frobisher was charged with piracy, and Elizabeth was allowed to keep both vessel and cargo.
Admiral Clinton died in 1585, and Elizabeth spent part of her widowhood in West Horsley Place. Clinton had left her considerable lands and possessions for her lifetime, warning his son Henry to respect this. Henry reneged on his promise, to his father, but she managed to retain them. She is credited with planting a beech avenue which ran from St. Marys Church to Hillside Farm, acquiring the saplings from diarist John Evelyn’s nursery at Wotton. There was a friendship between her and the Mores of Loseley, and in 1588, the year of the Armada, she pleaded with Sir William More to ride over to West Horsley, as she feared a Spanish invasion.
‘The Fair Geraldine’ died in Lincoln, in March, 1590. She is buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. The chief mourner at her funeral was her sister, Lady Margaret FitzGerald, who was both deaf and dumb. West Horsley Place passed to her stepson, Sir Anthony Browne, later 1st Lord Montague, who had also inherited other great houses from his father. Elizabeth Fitzgerald – forever ‘The Fair Geraldine’ – was an incredible survivor in an age of intrigue and danger.
Childs, Jessie, Henry VIII’s Last Victim: The Life & Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007
Hatchlands Park, The Cobbe Collection Trust/The National Trust
Starkey, David, Elizabeth, London: Random House, 2008
Wickham, Glynne, Plays and Their Makers, Up to 1576, London: Routledge, 2013. Vol 3
Brigden, Susan, Clinton, Elizabeth Fiennes de. www.oxfordnb.com/view/article.9549
http://tudordynasty.com.elizabeth-fitzgerald-the fair -Geraldine
This article appeared in Around & About Horsley no. 241