Having looked at exactly where Highbrooms sits in the previous blog entry I started to wander into the territories that border it and wanted to say something about the history of the bigger area. Much has been written about the Georgian spa town of Royal Tunbridge Wells so I won’t be attempting to add anything there, but Highbrooms is partnered up with Southborough, both as a ward and historically, and this has a lesser known but equally as interesting history.
Whilst searching for information to add to this blog I came across the following article in Wikispaces and rather than re-write it in an attempt to pass it off as my own, I am just reporting exactly it was written but with a few images thrown in, Enjoy!
The London-Hastings railway line between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells passes through a verdant valley of rare beauty. As it emerges from “Somerhill Tunnel”, south of Tonbridge, for about three miles, until it enters the cutting running into High Brooms, there is countryside of such loveliness that it takes your breath away. For up to two miles, one sees nothing but beautiful woods, green fields on slopes and wild flowers, embraced by the undulating lap of the High Weald of Kent.
New travellers and even commuters raise their eyes in wonder, little knowing the illustrious history of this place. Few know that turner painted it and only a handful ever, might know, that this is the chase or aristocratic deer park of South Frith. “Frith” comes from an Teutonic word meaning peace, security, peace among people to whom you have duties and very close ties. It is word denoting security, peace and welfare. Locally and on documents, South Frith is now called Southborough Valley. However, there is a house called “South Frith” overlooking the valley and when one looks on old maps one sees the valley’s old name and that of its counterpart: North Frith.
Old postcard showing Powdermill Lane as an un-made track
The train follows a section of ancient riverside route which runs onwards south from South Frith up Powder Mill Lane, linking the iron age and Saxon hillfort at Oldbury Hill near Ightham which the Romans under Julius Casear took, with Saxonbury Hill, near Frant. This route crosses the Medway, at the shallow ford of what would become Tonbridge. Even 18th century maps show this route through South Frith not as a railway line, but as a pathway. After the railway’s construction in 1845, the natural ancient road up over the hill from Powder Mill Lane towards Somerhill and Tonbridge became in winter a very little used pedestrian muddy track as once royal valley was “cut off” at the viaduct with no laces for car parking. Now since Powder Mill Lane, once the iron age through route, suddenly seems to stop at the listed Victorian viaduct (i.e. at the railway line).
Old postcard showing Powdermill Lane with the Victorian viaduct in the distance (1927)
This area formerly known as “South fryth” is clearly seen marked on John Speed’s map of Kent in 1611 on which Southborough, a medieval suburb of Tonbridge, though it existed, was not marked. South Frith is located in the**High Weald of Kent** (“wald” means wood in German). The High Weald is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty characterised by wooded valleys running east to west with sandstone ridges and clay valleys. It is a landscape largely unchanged since medieval times. There are still stretches of ancient woodland here, untouched by time: such as Simmonds Wood, Barnett’s Wood (a nature reserve) and Brokes Wood. On the damp slopes of Brokes Wood, three useful streams rose in ancient times, and still flow. They pass first into what is now a private pond for fishing, then on through South Frith to turn its mills and then into the Medway, at Tonbridge, which flows out into the Thames Estuary.
There are plenty of copses in South Frith like Minepit Wood, Beeches Wood, Annise Wood, Coney Burrow (rabbit burrow) Wood, High Wood, Rook Wood and LIttle Rook Wood.There is one quiet lane called Vauxhall Lane leading to the site of the vanished Tudor iron smelting forge **Vauxhall Furnace** which was once leased, by Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley. There are farms, some with names denoting old mill and iron trades:Broken Farm, Mote Farm, Old Forge Farm, Forest Farm and Bournemis Farm. There is a fine oast house and garden Honnington Farm Gardens which can be visited now and then, near the finest equestrian centre in Kent, where the wealthy stable horses, no doubt to ride through Southborough valley. Suitably, the Centre teaches medieval Skills at Arms – medieval jousting on horse back.
Vauxhall Inn, Tonbridge
Southfrith, “south land of peace and stability” is characterised by fields for grazing horses, wild copses, sheep, picturesque hillocks, a meandering stream, with one or two Victorian villas, with views over it, on the Southborough side. Yet, in spite of the High Weald Walk passing through the valley and a number of public footpaths, few people walk there. There are no cars, no industry now: nothing but England’s unperturbed beauty and opportunities for birdwatching. However, the walk from Southborough to the Vauxhall Inn through the valley has been recently named as one of the Great British Walks.
There was a manor, game reserve and park enclosed with fences at the northern part of Tonbridge, called North Frith. In the same way, there was an estate, though of much larger size called South Frith at the southern side of Tonbridge, with a deer chase laid out to grass, with intermittent trees (like Knole Park), enclosed by a pale. So “South Frith” comprised a chase, woods, mills, river (tributary of the River Medway) and in Tudor times, industrial iron works.
Great Bounds Manor, Southborough
Research shows that this valley had been highly prized and treated as a “royal reward” down the ages. For example, a great house “Great Bounds” in Southborough owned by the Boleyn and Carey families. Later **Catherine of Braganza** stayed in Great Bounds House, possibly built on Boleyn family land by Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth’s 1st cousin. Its location today is marked today by Bounds Lodge, west of the road between Tonbridge and Southborough from which the whole of South Frith/Southborough Valley can be easily viewed.
Great Bounds Lodge, Southborough
South Frith was once royal, a royal chase surrounded by a pale (fence and ditch) which stopped deer once they had entered from escaping. It also belonged to a medieval female “role model”, the intelligent founder of Clare College Cambridge, Elizabeth de Clare. This valley was once a playground of the English Court, a place of fine views, walks and hunting. **George III** came to South Frith to shoot ducks.
South Frith has had an illustrious history for centuries, not just in terms of royal ownership, but also for its produce. High quality possibly Italian sweet chestnuts are not native to England, so Romans probably planted the Italian sweet chestnut trees, whose wild descendants still drop delicious chestnuts. Romans exported the iron from the High Weald iron forges to Rome to make swords of the finest quality. South Frith or “Southborough Valley” was also centre of industrial activity during the late Middle Ages. Iron blooms from ore were smelted in Vauxhall Furnace and then transported to the Old Forge, where firebacks and other implements were produced using waterpower. The iron works closed in the seventeenth century.
Tonbridge Castle by Turner
The history of land ownership starts after 1066. The Norman de Clare family who owned Tonbridge Castle in the Lowey of Tonbridge (see more details and map here) also owned the deer parks of North and South Frith, until the estates fell to monarchs in the 16th century. Fascinatingly, one can still visit their living quarters within Tonbridge Castle. The mills and iron forges as well as the valley of South Frith later belonged to Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth 1st, the Earl of Leicester and Frances Walsingham, wife of Sir Philip Sidney of Penshurst. Her son, Robert Earl of Essex, one of the Puritan commanders of the Civil War, owned it for one year, having fought against his half brother, Ulick de Burgh, the previous owner who had also rambled, owned and hunted in South Frith’s woods and vales.
One can walk through South Frith without meeting or even seeing anyone. Animals rarely see people and, as a result, hares and rabbits seem almost tame.In the ancient woods, on rare mornings, small groups of antlered High Weald deer wander unperturbed by the sound of any medieval hunting horn. They move calmly and silently, through the ancient woodland. They are no longer potential venison fit for a King, since they no longer live in a medieval deer park. However, one must presume that private hunters may still be a threat.
Today, the history of “South Frith” is largely lost though “Southborough Historical Society” may be one source of information about it. There are still only a handful of people who live and work in the valley, riding and training horses and farming livestock.
Tonbridge and the “de Clare” family
South Frith was probably part of the estates of the Norman family of Clare, Earls of Gloucester and Hertford, who owned Tonbridge Castle and the manor of Tonbridge (then all called “Tunbridge”). They built the Priory of St Mary Magdalene which stood on the site of Tonbridge Station. In fact, when Tonbridge signal box was being constructed bones from the Abbey were uncovered. South Frith remained with the de Clare family until **Gilbert de Clare**, the only son and heir of Gilbert, Earl of Gloucester and Hertford, who died without issue in 1314, in the reign of **King Edward II**.
His three sisters became his co-heirs. **Hugh de Audley**, in virtue of his wife Margaret, second daughter, and co-heir, had control of the Castle and Manor of Tonbridge. But Margaret’s younger sister **Elizabeth de Burgh**, the youngest, widow of John de Burgh, inherited South Frith, as well as now ruined Clare Castle and Priory (where Joan of Acre is buried) in Suffolk. After three marriages and still only in her late twenties, Elizabeth took a vow of celibacy to keep and take control of her lands and then used the fruits of her lands to found Clare College, Cambridge. Her surviving household accounts tell the story of her productive land management techniques.
Elizabeth de Burgh
Elizabeth de Burgh had a son, **William de Burgh**, who on his grandfather’s death became Earl of Ulster. From his industrious and itinerant mother, he inherited South Frith.
Lionel, Duke of Clarence
William de Burgh left the manor and deer park to his heir, Elizabeth, who married Lionel, , Duke of Clarence, third son of King Edward III. Lionel, Duke of Clarence was in her right created Earl of Ulster. When she died, Lionel was lured by the offer of an Italian bride with a huge dowry by the Visconti family, Dukes of Milan. He travelled to Italy, was married in Milan and during wedding celebrations died in Alba in Piedmont (“Alba Pompeia”) in 1368, possibly murdered by his father-in-law.
Lionel left South Frith to his only daughter **Philippa**, born at Eltham Palace who, at about the time of her father’s death, by the King’s command, married **Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March**. He died in Ireland in 1381, in the reign of King Richard II. Ownership of South Frith then passed to their grandson **Edmund, Earl of March**, who died in the third year of King Henry VI’s reign in 1425.
Richard of York
South Frith then passed to **Anne Mortimer**, Countess of Cambridge, wife of Richard Earl of Cambridge who was the Edmund Earl of March’s sister and from her to her son, his nephew ****Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York****, the father of both Edward IV and Richard III. Richard, Duke of York was also great-grandfather, through Elizabeth of York, of Henry VIII.
Richard Duke of York, being both on his father’s and mother’s side, descended from King Edward III, began to think of claiming the Crown by crushing the House of Lancaster which was then under the control of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. In December 1459, Richard of York and the Earl Warwick and Salisbury suffered ‘attainder’. This means that their lives were forfeit and their lands, including South Frith, reverted to the King, so that their heirs would not inherit them. This was the most severe punishment a member of the nobility could suffer, and York was now in the same situation as Henry of Bolingbroke in 1398. Only a successful invasion of England would restore York’s lands and fortune. Assuming the invasion was successful, York had three options. Either to become Protector again or to disinherit the King so that York’s son would succeed, or to claim the throne for himself. On 26 June 1459, Warwick and Salisbury landed at Sandwich. The men of Kent, always ready to revolt, rose to join them. London opened its gates to the Nevilles, on 2 July. They marched north into the Midlands and on 10 July 1459, they defeated the royal army at the Battle of Northampton through treachery among the King’s troops and captured Henry VI, who they brought back to London.
Thus, Richard, Duke of York regained the possession of South Frith and his other lands. After his death, Cecillie, Duchess of York, his widow, and mother of King Edward IV, continued to hold the estate until her death in 1495. Then it passed through her daughter Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, to King Henry VIII.
King Henry VIII granted South Frith to **George, Lord Cobham**. He gave him the offices of master, manager, and supervisor of all the beasts, of what sortsoever, of the (King’s) “park of South Frith” and “keeper of all the King’s ponds and waters within them”. The fees remained with the Crown until King Edward VI came to the throne in 1547.
In 1551, **Edward VI** granted South Frith, with its Tudor iron workings, streams forest and deer park to **John Dudley, Earl of Warwick**, at that time regent of England, together with Tonbridge Castle, which was now in such a state that it was no longer habitable, to hold “in capite by knights service”. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Protector of England returned Tonbridge (then called “Tunbridge”) and South Frith to King Edward VI before his death.
After this, Mary Tudor, who executed John Dudley for putting Lady Jane Grey on the throne, granted South Frith to Cardinal Reginald Pole, to hold during his life. His mother was the grand-daughter of Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville its previous owners. Cecily had died in 1495 still in possession of South Frith. Probably, his family knew South Frith well. Cardinal Pole died in 1558, and South Frith reverted to Queen Elizabeth 1st.
Around 1573, **Elizabeth 1st** lent the valley and royal deer park, along with Tonbridge Castle, to her favourite, **Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester** son of its earlier tenant, John Dudley. He probably knew the estate well and may have expressed a wish for it, with its iron workings, useful for artillery for his wars. He died in 1588 and so it reverted to the Crown. Then Elizabeth 1st granted it, in perpetuity, to Frances, Countess of Essex, widow of poet, soldier and courtier, Sir Philip Sidney and of the Earl of Essex whom Elizabeth had beheaded in 1601.
Frances, Countess of Essex, nee Frances Walsingham, was daughter of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, to whom Queen Elizabeth owed so much. She had first married Sir Philip Sidney, son of Sir Henry Sidney of nearby Penshurst, when she was fourteen. They had both experienced the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 whilst living at the English Embassy in Paris. After Philip died of his wounds in the Low Countries, she secretly marriedRobert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, favourite of the Queen. Elizabeth 1st was forced to behead him in 1601 for leading a failed rebellion against her in London.
The Essex Family
Frances Walsingham at the time her husband’s execution, had just seen her daughter by Philip Sidney, Elizabeth Sidney, marry Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland (aged 35) as the age of thirteen. Now in her thirties, she had four small children by Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex one of whom is an ancestor of Diana Princess of Wales, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and Prince William.
In 1603, twice widowed Frances married Richard Burke, 4th Earl of Clanricarde. By him, she had three more children, Honora, Mary and Ulick Burke, 1st Marquess of Clanricarde. Thus **Richard Burke, Earl of Clanrikard**became, by this marriage to Frances, owner of South Frith. Together, the couple finally adorned the valley with a Jacobean House designed by John Thorpe, in the classical style after Palladio, **Somerhill**, now a school which celebrated its 400th anniversary on 26 May 2011. Somerhill was probably built on a site of an earlier medieval mansion, in which the owners of South Frith would have stayed, but so far evidence is lacking as to it actual design and size.
Sommerhill by Turner
**Somerhill** was built solidly, in Calverley sandstone. It overlooks South Frith from its pleasant hill in the northern part of the valley near Tonbridge. It is immortalised in a painting by Turner. Somerhill is rarely open to the public but can be viewed on special open days (contact “English Heritage” for information). In 1625, Richard Burke was created Baron of Somerhill, Viscount Tunbridge and Frances, Countess of Clanrikard, became “Baroness Somerhill, Viscountess Tunbridge”.
The Lost Tomb of the Clanrikards
In 1628, Charles 1st made Clanrikard Earl of St. Albans and Viscount of Galloway. However, he, like Frances, lived most of the time at Somerhill, which was within easy reach of Courts at Whitehall and Greenwich. Frances died in 1631 and her husband died in 1635. It is reliably reported that the Earl was buried in To(u)nbridge Parish Church.
Happily, I have just solved “the mystery of the lost grave of Frances Walsingham” which has caused debate online. The National Dictionary of Biography states that the graves of the Earl of St Albans and his Countess, Frances Walsingham were listed in the burial book of Tonbridge Parish Church. This solves a mystery which has been puzzling many and I can now approach the church with more confidence – and raise the issue with them, again.
English Civil War
**Ulick,** de Burgh, heir of the Earl of Clanrickard and Frances Walsingham, was a royalist and fought for King Charles I in Ireland, from which he was obliged to flee to find refuge in England, with the King, who in 1645 created him Marquis of Clanrikard. His attachment to the King was a sufficient reason for the Parliament to declare him “a delinquent” and to confiscate South Frith in 1645.
Effect of The Civil War on Somerhill and South Frith
In 1645, Parliament granted Tunbridge (Tonbridge) Castle, the manor, lands, a parcel of the estate of Somerhill, belonging to the Earl of St. Albans, regarded by them as ” a papist”, to his half brother **Robert, Earl of Essex**,against whom he had fought during The Civil War. This was a reward for the Earl of Essex’s “heroic valour, prudent conduct, and unspotted fidelity in that high and important command of captain-general of their (Parliamentary) army”, to hold during his life “in part of the yearly sum of £10,000” which they had voted to him.
Robert Earl of Essex, a presbyterian was also a grandson of Protestant Francis Walsingham, a close ally of Calvinist Robert Dudley. He did not enjoy the manor of South Frith for more than a year and died in possession of both Somerhill and South Frith in 1646, possibly having been poisoned. He was granted a funeral at the charge of the Parliament with a grand procession of State to the place of his burial, in St. Paul’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Having no heir, Parliament then gave Somerhill to Commonwealth Judge John Bradshaw. John Evelyn, who no doubt visited him at Somerhill on 29 May 1652, described Somerhill as “situated on an eminent hill, with a park, but has nothing else extraordinary”.
At the Restoration, South Frith and Somerhill were restored to the Burke-de Burgh-Clanrikards. They were descended from the original de Clare family, who originally owned South Frith.
The Restoration and afterwards
Margaret, Viscountess Muskerry, the daughter of Ulick de Burgh, grand-daughter of Frances Walsingham, inherited Somerhill and South Frith. Before Tunbridge Spa, the “riviera” of the 17th century, had luxury accommodation, aristocrats would stay at Somerhill, treating it like a hotel. Margaret had very extravagant tastes, and she and her son wasted the estates, gradually selling off much of the southern side of South Frith. They granted land for the construction of “King Charles the Martyr Parish Church” in Tunbridge Wells. “Impious” as some consider the name, it was a royalist salute to Charles 1, by one of his most loyal families.
When she died in 1698, Somerhill passed to her son, John Villiers, who styled himself the Earl of Buckingham. Villers sold the Manor of South Frith to a man called Mr Dekins. Some 1,200 acres (490 ha) of grounds was sold separately to Abraham Hill of Sutton at Hone, Kent. Somerhill itself became a warrener. Mr Dekins sold Somerhill to Mr Cave, who sold it in 1712 to Mr John Woodgate of Penshurst. Woodgate lived in the house and on his death it passed to his son Henry, who lived at Somerhill until 1769.
Horace Walpole in 1752 described its setting as “a vast landscape, beautifully wooded and has quantities of large old trees to shelter itself”. Somerhill was itself remained derelict for most of the rest of 18th century.
The more recent history of South Frith and Somerhill are recounted here and in a 2009 paper here
Notable later facts about South Frith and Somerhill:
- In later years, George III came to Southborough Valley to shoot game, particularly ducks.
- The Duke of Wellinghton did not think the fox-hunting at South Frith was good enough to interest him in buying Somerhill.
- From 1939-1945, Somerhill was “Prisoner Camp Number 40” housing hundreds of Italian prisoners of war and later German working soldiers
- later owners of Somerhill commissioned the commemorative stained glass windows by Chagall in Tudeley Church in memory of their daughter who died in an accident
- after the Second World War, Somerhill was inhabited by squatters, and was in a very poor condition around 1980.
- Partly due to English Heritage, Somerhill was entirely restored to Grade 1 listing, using 12 miles of cable for rewiring. The result is considered to be “nothing short of a miracle”
- Somerhill schools cover just 120 acres, which is a fraction of the size of the park of South Frith which was about 6500 acres.
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