The Two Elizabeths of Ashdown House

Ashdown HouseNicola here. Today it is my great pleasure to welcome to the blog Julia Gasper, a historian and author whom I met through a shared interest in Craven family history. Today Julia is talking about one of the Georgian Lady Cravens, Elizabeth Berkeley, whom she intriguingly describes as a "writer, feminist and European." Julia also draws some interesting parallels between Elizabeth Stuart, for whom Ashdown was built, and her namesake Elizabeth Berkeley.

"I greatly enjoyed reading Nicola Cornick’s novel, House of Shadows. However, one thing I found worrying was being told that, in this fictional world, Ashdown House had been burnt down in the early nineteenth century. This really bothered me. (And a lot of other people – Ed!) Every time it was referred to, I felt uneasy in case I might go over there and find that this exquisitely beautiful seventeenth-century mansion in Oxfordshire really had vanished!

I am happy to assure you all that Ashdown House, near Lambourn, is still there and owned by the National Trust. I visited it when I Elizabeth_(Berkeley)_Margravine_of_Anspach_by_Ozias_Humphrywas writing my biography of Elizabeth Craven, the Georgian writer, who lived there in the 1760s, when she was a young bride. It was her first marital home, and she shared it with her husband, William, 6th Baron Craven, heir to the considerable estates and wealth of the Craven family. His mother and his two sisters lived there with them.

Elizabeth Craven was born Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, younger daughter of the Earl of Berkeley, and she was married in 1767 at the tender age of sixteen to Lord Craven. She had little choice in the matter. She had seven children before parting from her husband rather traumatically in 1782 and going to live in France, to escape the scandal and gossip that always in this period accompanied aristocratic divorces. She did not disappear into obscurity by any means, but travelled around the whole of Europe, to Italy, Austria, Poland, Russia, the Crimea, Turkey, Greece and Romania, writing about everything she saw and everyone she met, from galley slaves in Genoa to the Empress Catherine the Great. She was a passionate person whose life included many love-affairs, and she had to be strong to stand up to the social disapproval this often attracted.

Baron Craven by Thomas BeachElizabeth Craven always loved reading and acting. She wrote plays, poems, novels and travelogues, as well as a remarkable early feminist work called Letters to Her Son, in which she condemned the laws that made a wife obey her husband and gave him so many unjust powers over her. She advised her son  – another William Craven  – to treat his wife with respect and sensitivity, as an equal companion, and never to remind her that he was, in the eyes of the law, her master. If he did that, they would both be very much happier. It is pleasant to record that he followed her advice, with total success.

House of Shadows tells the story of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I, and her secret love for Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia portrait by Miereveld an English cavalier. Elizabeth married Frederick, Elector of the Palatinate and became for a brief time Queen of Bohemia. But she and Frederick lost their throne after only one year and were driven out of their kingdom, and so she acquired the rather melancholy title of the Winter Queen. One of Frederick’s most loyal supporters was the gallant soldier William, 1st Lord Craven, who put his sword and his fortune at the service of the exiled monarchs. William fell in love with the Winter Queen and she returned his passion, but their difference in rank was a serious barrier. It is said that they married in secret, after many years of concealment and yearning.

Did any lady in the annals of courtly love ever set her faithful admirer a more gruesome task than that of retrieving a lost treasure from the coffin of her dead husband? That is what Elizabeth of Bohemia demanded from William, Lord Craven, and of course he did not refuse. He was hers to command, and the scene of the novel in which he performs the deed is dark and splendidly macabre.

Entrance hall Ashdown House portrait P Mary daughter of Charles IAshdown House was one of William’s gifts to his princess, who had lost her own home, and loved hunting. It was built in the 1660s and the first thing that strikes you when you approach is its extreme elegance and air of romantic aloofness, surrounded as it is by miles of green parkland and farmland. This was once a mediaeval deer park and it is close to the Berkshire Downs. When it was built it was actually in Berkshire, but by dint of a boundary change Oxfordshire managed to acquire it.

Ashdown was not the only house that Lord Craven built to receive his royal beloved. He also built her a far larger house, a veritable palace, at Hampstead Marshall, another one of his Berkshire estates, but that has not survived. In the century between the first Lord Craven and the sixth, Ashdown House was used as a minor residence, a convenient hunting-estate, not too far from London, where deer, pheasants, hares and other wild game could be shot and either eaten on the spot or taken up to London for a dinner-party at the Cravens’ house in Mayfair.

In her Memoirs, Elizabeth Craven says that she was very interested in the history of the Craven family. She looked at documents in the family archives, and she was sure the Queen of Bohemia had married the first Lord Craven. When I was writing my biography of her, I had a strong feeling that she was fascinated by this earlier Elizabeth, her namesake who also married a William Craven. 

There are many other things they had in common. They were related, because Elizabeth Craven was actually descended, via the View from Ashdown House Berkeley and Richmond lines, from King Charles I of England, brother of the Queen of Bohemia. So Elizabeth of Bohemia was her great-great-great-great-aunt. Both women married at sixteen, both had large families of children. Both were women of considerable intelligence and strength of character, a strength they needed as both suffered great upheavals and reversals in their life. The Winter Queen had to endure her husband’s defeats in he Thirty Years War and the loss of his hereditary domains in the Palatinate. Elizabeth Craven had to suffer cruel persecution from the prigs and the gossips when her husband decided to part from her, and most painful of all, she was forcibly separated from six of her seven children. All of her four daughters were kept in the care of their father, and forbidden to write to her, a wound that was as humiliating as it was distressing.

Margrave AnspachBoth Elizabeths, curiously enough, married minor German princes. After many outrageous love-affairs, including one with William Beckford, the author and art collector, Elizabeth Craven found herself a second husband, the Margrave of Anspach, who made over his little principality to Prussia and retired to England. She married him in 1792 and until his death in 1806 they lived at Hammersmith near London. They made their home a hub for artists, musicians, actors, unconventional people and French emigrées fleeing from the Revolution. Elizabeth had a private theatre where the performances became celebrated. After the Margrave’s death she retired to Naples to spend her last years in quiet seclusion.

When we compare their portraits, it is not too fanciful to see some resemblance between these two Elizabeths, who were both admired for their brains as well as their beauty.

My intuition that Elizabeth Craven was fascinated by the Queen of Bohemia, whose destiny in so many ways resembled her own, was finally confirmed in a surprising way. After I had finished writing the biography, and published it, I discovered a lost novel by Elizabeth Craven, called The Witch and the Maid of Honour. It is set mainly at Coombe Abbey, one of the Craven properties, and the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I, features in it as one of the characters. A tournament at court to celebrate her wedding to the Elector Frederick is one of the high points of the book. The Princess Elizabeth is shown at exactly the age Elizabeth Craven was when she arrived at Ashdown House in 1767, and learned about the history of the Craven family. I am now in the process of editing this book, which may be the very first historical novel ever written in the English language, to bring it out in a more accessible form so that it finally gets some of the attention it deserves.

The Winter Queen bequeathed to Lord Craven many wonderful portraits of the Stuart royal family, and many of them can be seen still at Ashdown House. To Elizabeth Craven the writer, these were her distant relatives too. 

Elizabeth Craven: Writer, Feminist and European by Julia Gasper is published by Vernon Press 2017 – ISBN 9781622732753 is now out in paperback and E-book formats.

Some of Elizabeth Craven’s more unusual works are available here:

The Modern Philosopher, Letters to Her Son and Verses on the Siege of Gibraltar, by Elizabeth Craven, edited by Julia Gasper.

Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Craven and the eighteenth-century world she lived in on Julia's blog ELIZABETH CRAVEN AND HER WORLD

Thank you very much to Julia for a fascinating blog piece and for sharing her knowledge about the two Elizabeths with us today!