A heritage group hopes to raise almost £5 million to buy Sawston Hall, one of the most historic Catholic buildings in England.
The aim is to open the Grade I-listed Tudor building to visitors,
with £4.75 million the expected asking price.
The building, which
contains two chapels, was home to the Huddleston family, one of the most
prominent of Recusant families, and was visited by Mary I on her way to
taking the throne.
The campaign by the Sawston Hall Heritage Trust wants the home to be
opened to the public, and is backed by leading Catholics including
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster
and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe.
Before the current building was put up a medieval building stood on
the site, which is where Queen Mary stayed on her route from Norwich to
London to take the throne in 1553.
According to folklore she escaped
from the Duke of Northumberland, who had been involved in putting her
cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne, while dressed as a dairymaid, and
looked back to see the building in flames, promising to rebuild when she
This she did and work finished on the current building in
During the reign of Elizabeth I Lady Huddleston was summoned to
London to explain why she did not attend Anglican services and being ill
sent St John Rigby as her representative.
He revealed he was Catholic
and was executed.
The Huddlestons owned the house until 1981, after which it became a
language school until 2002. It was bought by internet entrepeneur
Stephen Coates four years ago, in a state of disrepair, and he has spent
millions refurbishing it.
Mr Coates said: “One of the fascinating things about this house is,
it was like a castle. It was built with the stone of Cambridge Castle,
with a grant from Mary I, and like a lot of these country houses, it was
built by exceptionally talented craftsmen, and it took them 27 years.
“It has retained its integrity. One of the reasons is that because of
the poverty of the Catholic family they weren’t able to knock it down
and rebuild it, as was the case with many grand houses.
“There are three priest holes in the building, including one in the spiral staircase designed by the famous Jesuit Nicholas Owen, who was martyred in 1606.
“He was an extremely clever stonemason, it was designed for someone
to hide. He never revealed the locations of these priest holes even when
tortured, he was a very special person. The kids have had an incredible
time here. There is history everywhere. If you grow up and see that
history it’s a tremendous education.”
Mr Coates spent four years refurbishing the house, which did not have
a functioning lavatory when they arrived, and at one point 100 people
were working on the building. He said the plan was for the centre to act as a social enterprise,
including offering affordable loans. He paid tribute to all those who
had helped with the project, and encouraged it.
Among these were the
late Canon Timothy Russ, a Buckinghamshire priest who inherited the
artefacts and furnishings of Sawston Hall from his mother, a Huddleston,
and Brian Plunkett, whose brainchild the heritage centre is.
In the 19th century Sawston Hall hosted a number of distinguished
visitors, including Daniel O’Connell and Empress Eugénie, the wife of
Mr Coates said: “That was a motivation. The first time I came here
and looked properly. It immediately strikes you that there is an unique
combination of religion, military history, the atmosphere is like an
abbey, and we are a Christian family. So the religious side is a great
asset, it has two chapels. It’s got tremendous religious history.
“The site here is very old, from medieval times there was a history.
Then there was obviously the whole phase when Catholicism was struggling
and had problems.”
The hall also played a big part in the Second World War as a base for
US airmen, and hosted Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower. The
hall contains graffiti by US soldiers. After the war Marlon Brando
stayed while filming The Nightcomers.
The archives, which are stored at County Hall, Cambridge, go back to
the 14th century and include proceedings at the manor court.
The hall’s paintings are held at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, and
include a portrait of the Queen, and the college has offered to return
some of the Huddleston’s heirlooms to the building. There is also a
portrait of Lord Hardwick who, according to Father Russ, fell in love
with a Lady Huddleston but could not marry her because he was not
Brian Plunkett, one of the heritage group’s trustees, said: “It’s a
magnificent hall which has been beautifully restored. The hall boasts a
100ft great hall, a panelled Queen Anne room, a stunning gallery and a
chapel, plus three priest holes.”