Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Turbulent Times and Terrible Legacy of Henry VIII

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
Sir Anthony Browne of the House of Cowdray supported King Henry VIII. He was so mean to the abused monks that one put a terrible curse on the Cowdray line. Cowdray Castle, now a ruin, is in Midhurst in West Sussex.

You have to do something dreadful to be cursed by a monk for your sins. Such a person was Sir Anthony Browne, who inherited The House of Cowdray (later Cowdray Castle) from his half-brother, Sir William Fitzwilliam on the latter’s death in 1543.
The turbulent times of the Dissolution of the Monasteries from 1536 to 1541 enabled Sir Anthony to seize his opportunity. This was a time when King Henry VIII’s soldiers, drunk with power, went on the rampage, sacking and looting, destroying great properties and murdering the King’s detractors. In medieval times, opportunities could be uncertain, but Sir Anthony was already feeling pretty secure. For a start, he was ‘Master of the Horse’ and ‘Chief Standard Bearer of England’.
With due regard for his own advancement, he supported the King in his campaign against the Catholics. Henry needed to establish the Protestant church and himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England and to overcome Papal authority and his dissenters so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. He was a ruthless King, used to getting what he wanted and getting it now – and Ann was equally single-minded and had no qualms about displacing Henry’s existing Queen, the pious Catherine.
An Angry Monk Curses the Family Name
The beautiful Battle Abbey became another victim of the King’s command, and after it was dissolved with the help of Sir Anthony, the presumptuous Lord promptly moved in with his family, servants, furniture, hangings, animals and other lordly possessions. He began to alter the Abbey to suit his needs, knocking down this and changing that, much to the distress of the former occupants. The helpless, displaced monks watched the sacrilege carried out on their beautiful home and place of worship. But, not content with that, Sir Anthony then held a great, celebratory feast, a sort of Tudor Abbey-warming. This really got up the monks’ noses.
During the grand banquet, one monk, livid with anger, approached the noble Lord. Unafraid, he went right up to him, thrust his face forward and, with great vehemence, cursed the family name of the usurpers. "Doom," he said, "would fall upon the descendants of the family - until it ceased to exist." In some sources the monk is quoted as crying: "By fire and water thy line shall come to an end."
It did – but it took some time. Sir Anthony Browne and King Henry were close friends – so close that Sir Anthony would, some time later, actually be picked as Henry’s proxy for the bulky sovereign’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Sir Anthony’s son also became a prominent man. He stayed true to his Catholic faith and was even esteemed by Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry, despite being necessarily excluded from her list of Privy Councillors.
Then things started going downhill. The grandson of Sir Anthony proved an extravagant rake and impoverished himself, subsequently suffering several humiliations, including a period in the Tower as a Gunpowder Plot suspect. Still, the Castle remained in the hands of the family until 1793 through eight successions.
The Curse of Fire and Water is Visited on the Family
An adventure holiday in Germany seemed a great idea for the twenty-four- year old eighth Viscount. The family seat was being renovated at the time and the Lady Montague and her daughter had taken off to Brighton to escape the dust and noise. So, on Tuesday 24 September 1793, young George Samuel Browne, together with Charles Sedley Burdett, tried to ‘shoot the falls’ along the Rhine at Laufenberg in a small boat. Tragically, both young men were drowned. Almost simultaneously, word came from England that Cowdray had been destroyed in a fire. This event had happened around ten days previously, but by the time the word reached Germany, the young Viscount was dead. His body was never found.
The fire was a result of carelessness. During the renovations, in a carpenter’s workshop on the north side, some smouldering charcoals fell into wood shavings and caught light. In no time at all, flames started shooting out of the windows. To make matter worse, no one could find the key to the front door, so it had to be battered down, losing valuable time. The housekeeper and servants did what they could. A few pictures, originally obtained from Battle Abbey, were saved and some pieces of furniture, but the fine building was now a blackened ruin.
The few relatives that remained produced no male children to continue the family line. The male line was extinguished in the year 1797. It took 250 years for the Curse to reach its conclusion and many argue the whole thing was a coincidence. Even so, both fire and water combined to destroy the family line, and almost at the same time.
Background notes: The origin of the castle’s name was Codreye which is a Norman word for the hazel tree or shrub. Codreye was built in 1284 by Sir John Bohun and at the end of the 1400s, an uncle of Henry VII, Sir David Owen, owned it. He built a much larger house on the site. It was this house that was sold to Sir William Fitzwilliam, who set masons to work to bring this fine building to its full potential – only to be destroyed by the monk’s curse.
This Sceptred Isle, Christopher Lee, Penguin Books, 1997.

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