Since this is the month we bid farewell to Julia–at least for now!–I thought we would celebrate with a look back at some of the exclusive extras I’ve written that aren’t available in the print books. Feel free to add your own favorite memories of Julia, Nicholas, and the gang of unruly Marches in the comments!
Today’s entry is a bit of history regarding Bellmont Abbey, the seat of the Earls March and Julia’s childhood home.
A Short History of Bellmont Abbey
Elegant and austere to modern tastes, Bellmont Abbey was constructed as a Cistercian abbey under the special patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine, newly Queen of England, and named by her to honour the beauty of its views and hilltop setting. It was Queen Eleanor who selected the site in Sussex and laid the cornerstone in 1155. She returned to preside over the dedication of the Abbey in 1172, shortly before her imprisonment by her husband, King Henry II. The Abbey again received royal attention when it sheltered the boy king, Henry III, whilst he was on progress through his lands. A serene and peaceful place, it remained under Cistercian control until the Dissolution. Although a Discalced Order, the monks at Bellmont Abbey served as shoemakers to the great and good, and it was their custom to present each monarch with a new pair of shoes upon accession. The Order was cast out of the property in 1536, mere days after the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the Abbey–now crown property–was given to the seventh Earl March in recognition of his service to King Henry VIII as sometime cupbearer.
This transfer of ownership marked the beginning of the most frenzied period of building activity at the Abbey since its inception. It was the intention of the Marches to retain the grand feel of the Abbey even as it was remade into both a family home and the impressive country seat of a rising dynasty of the Tudor nobility. The Earl March, dissatisfied with the plain glass favoured by the Cistercians, replaced the great windows with stained glass fenestrations depicting the most notable moments in the history of the March family. Interior walls were erected to divide the grand spaces into smaller, more comfortable family apartments, with the glorious Chapel of the Nine Altars made over into a great hall. The nave was converted to a corridor, while the original Galilee Tower was kept intact, complete with the great bell that once tolled the hours for the religious community. Above the main doors to the Abbey, the earl commissioned the March family motto–Quod habeo habeo (What I have I hold)–to be carved. Holding the lintel aloft are two great stone rabbits, the hare being the heraldic badge of the March family. The monks’ dorter was easily adapted to a family picture gallery and ladies’ wing, and portraits of the most illustrious Marches may still be seen there today. (Missing from this collection is the celebrated portrait of famed Regency beauty, Lady Desdemona March, which disappeared whilst on loan to the royal collection.) The lay brothers’ dormitory was a natural choice for conversion to a bachelors’ wing for unmarried gentlemen guests, while part of the south transept was used first for an armoury and later a billiards room. It is believed to be in this room that William Shakespeare, an occasional guest at Bellmont Abbey, staged the first reading of Cardenio in 1612. The play was subsequently burned by the Countess March in retribution for a perceived slight in the text, and it is believed no other version of the play survives.
The property was further extended by land grants given by Queen Elizabeth in 1589 for the eighth Earl March’s role in aiding the defeat of the Armada and in 1662 by King Charles II for more intimate services rendered by Lady Lavinia March. A smaller house, the Rookery, once used by the Cistercian brothers as a dovecote, was enlarged by the family and used as a dower house. Use of it was given at the pleasure of the sitting earl, and the most famous occupant of the Rookery was Lady Julia Grey (née March), the Victorian adventuress. Coincidentally, Bellmont Abbey’s lands march alongside Greymoor, the ancestral home of Sir Edward Grey, Lady Julia’s first husband. The nearest town to Bellmont Abbey is Blessingstoke, a small and sleepy village most notable for its neo-Gothic church of St. Barnabas and annual pig-leaping festival held each April 19 on the village green.