Double Bass player and Garsington Orchestra Manager, Chris West, visited West Horsley Place this summer to attend Grange Park Opera’s production of Don Carlo in the Theatre in the Woods. A keen genealogist, Chris discovered he had ancestors connected to West Horsley Place and started doing some digging: 

By Chris West,  

When the  news  broke in 2015 that Bamber Gascoigne, the veteran TV presenter, had ‘accidentally’ inherited a stately home after the death of his 99-year-old aunt, Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe and created a charity The Mary Roxburghe Trust,  to restore it and open it the public as a home for creative arts of all kinds,  most of us were briefly interested and then forgot all about it.  

My friend Wasfi Kani, who had already founded acclaimed opera companies in Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Leicestershire, immediately recognised that West Horsley Place in Surrey would be an ideal new location for her company Grange Park Opera. She set about raising several million pounds to build a theatre in the grounds and judging by the performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo that I attended recently, she is putting on opera of the highest artistic standards that is a match for anything staged by the publicly-funded opera houses. 

The gardens, which fortunately were not affected by the 18th century craze for Capability Brown-style landscaping, retain their ancient layout with box hedges, pebble paths and a  crinkle crankle wall. They make a magical setting for audience members to picnic in during the long supper interval of the operas. 

For those that choose to dine in the restaurants, several of the ground-floor rooms of the house are available, although most of the 50 room Grade I listed manor house remains in need of restoration; it is currently on Historic England’s At Risk register. The oldest part of the house dates back to the early 15th century. 

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover after my visit that one of the families that owned West Horsley Place from 1066-1532 are direct ancestors of mine. 

Tree showing Jane Bourchier Knyvett’s descent from Sir James Berners of West Horsley and his persecutors, the Lords Appellant 


The Berners family 

Arms of Berners, quarters of yellow & (unusually for the period) green 

 The Manor of West Horsley was acquired by Ralph de Berners in 1271; his wife Christina was the heiress of the previous owner, Hugh de Windsor. The Berners family and their heirs the Bourchiers were to hold the manor for the next 260 years. 

The most famous Berners resident was Sir James Berners (1361-1388), whose short but eventful life is detailed in the History of Parliament. He was born at the manor house at West Horsley but his father and elder brother died when he was very young. His valuable wardship was passed first to Humphrey Bohun, the Earl of Hereford, then to the Earl’s widow and eventually in 1375 to the Black Prince, who promptly died a year later. James became a royal ward and grew up with the Black Prince’s heir who became Richard II in 1377. 

The two were very close and James became a figure of importance at court. He was knighted even before he came into his inheritance, but the king’s attachment to him was to be his undoing. Richard was opposed by a group calling themselves the Lords Appellant. They were led by the king’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and included the earls of Warwick, Arundel, Derby (the future Henry IV) and Nottingham (Arundel’s son-in-law Thomas Mowbray). In 1388 the Lords purged the court of Richard II’s favourites and Sir James was executed on Tower Hill on the flimsiest of charges for having undue influence over the king. 

All Sir James’s lands were forfeited to the crown. One can speculate about the nature of his relationship with Richard II, but he had been married with children. Of all the victims of the purge, his widow Anne was the only one to be left without an endowment or other means of support. Richard II, at this point a puppet of the Lords Appellant, showed her mercy by giving her permission to remain living at West Horsley. 

In 1397 Richard overpowered the Lords – imprisoning Warwick, executing Arundel and having Gloucester murdered. He restored Sir James’s lands to his heirs and banished Derby and Mowbray (who was by now Duke of Norfolk). This is the start of Shakespeare’s Richard II. But as the play tells us, Derby returned to usurp the throne in 1399, and once again Sir James Berners’ heirs were dispossessed. 

So it was a much-reduced estate that was passed on by James’s son, Richard de Berners, to his heiress Margery when he died in 1417 (although he had managed to reclaim their 243 acre estate in Islington, now known asBarnsbury). She was married as a child to John Fereby, who held court at West Horsley as early as 1420. (The oldest part of the house dates to this period.) He died in 1441 and Margery married John Bourchier, who in 1455 was created Baron Berners.  

The Bourchier Barons Berners 

Garter plate of the 1st Baron 

 John’s eldest brother, Henry Bourchier, had married the sister of the Duke of York, so the Bourchier family inevitably fought on the White Rose side throughout the Wars of the Roses. Henry was created Earl of Essex when his nephew Edward IV ascended the throne in 1461. 

The owners of West Horsley Place were drawn into the royal circle. John, already Constable of Windsor Castle, was appointed chamberlain to the Queen, while Margery became Governess to her daughter. 

Funeral brass of Sir Humphrey

 Their eldest son, Sir Humphrey, married a wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Tilney of Ashwellthorpe, was appointed to share his father’s role at Windsor and became the queen’s carver. Elizabeth became a lady-in-waiting to the queen. 

The Bourchiers remained loyal even when Warwick the Kingmaker briefly restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470-1. Sir Humphrey died fighting heroically at the Battle of Barnet on Easter Day 1471 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. So when John and Margery Bourchier both died in 1474/5, West Horsley Place was once again inherited by a child, the 7-year-old John Bourchier, 2nd Baron Berners, Humphrey’s son. 

John Bourchier, 2nd Baron Berners 

I like having Lord Bernersas an ancestor. Most medieval ancestors are remembered as soldiers, statesmen or merely for their genealogical importance. But the last of my ancestors to own West Horsley Place is that rare thing, a medieval man chiefly remembered for his efforts in the arts. He made translations of Froissart’s works and other French books that were widely read for centuries. 

After the death of his father, his mother married Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, the eldest son of John Howard, the first Howard Duke of Norfolk (grandson of Thomas Mowbray), who died at Bosworth fighting alongside Richard III in 1483. 

Lord Berners married Norfolk’s youngest daughter and his prospects remained uncertain as long as Surrey, his stepfather/brother-in-law, remained under suspicion by the new Tudor regime. In the end the Howards became the premier family of England in the time of Henry VIII. By her second marriage, Berners’ mother was grandmother to two wives of Henry VIII – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and great-aunt to a third, Jane Seymour. His sister Margaret Bryan was Lady Governess to all the king’s children. 

He himself took on several important appointments, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of Calais, but life was expensive in the Tudor court and Bourchier was always short of funds. When he died in 1532, he was heavily in debt to the king, who in the next two or three years seized several of his manors including West Horsley, from John’s surviving daughter and heiress, Joan Knyvett. John had already sold Barnesbury to Sir Reynold Bray in 1502. The Knyvett family continued to live in Ashwellthorpe, the estate inherited from John’s mother. 

Sir John also named three illegitimate sons in his will, but in contrast to the more usual situation, nobody knows who the mother was! 

And so West Horsley Place passed into another chapter of its fascinating story. . .