Fawsley Hall was a royal manor as early as the seventh century. The area was hunted by royals from the nearby Anglo Saxon palace at Weedon.
Before the Knightleys
Fawsley Hall was a royal manor as early as the seventh century. The area was hunted by royals from the nearby Anglo Saxon palace at Weedon but there was no hunting lodge before the end of the eighth century. A land charter of AD944 records a gift of some land adjoining Fawsley by King Edmund to Bishop Aelfric, and the same charter refers to pagan burials in nearby Badby Woods.
The Domesday Book (1086) confirms the population of Fawsley as around 50. In 1224 the king granted the holding of a weekly market and the population had grown to its zenith by the 1340s, before the Black Death wiped out between a third and a half of the population: poll tax records show there were only 200 residents left in 1377. The site of the village was in the field around the Church of St Mary.
The Knightley Family
The Knightleys came over to England with William the Conqueror and settled in the Staffordshire village that became known as Knightley. In 1416 Richard Knightley became Lord of the Manor of Fawsley. He was a successful lawyer and the family were sheep-farming landlords. Richard Knightley later became the King’s Sergeant and Teller of the Exchequer. They developed the sheep farming at the expense of their peasant tenants, who were all evicted by the turn of the 15th century. Richard Knightley’s son, also Richard, was twice Sheriff and his grandson, also Richard, who through marriage acquired extensive estates, set about building the earliest part of the house, the south wing that exists today.
Henry VII knighted Sir Richard Knightley (third generation) in 1494. Henry VIII knighted Sir Edmund Knightley (fourth generation) in 1542. Edmund, a sergeant-at law, enhanced the family wealth by being appointed a commissioner for the Suppression of the Monasteries and confiscating monastic lands. Edmund held strong religious convictions, once trying to prevent Henry VIII from taking the son of his deceased brother in law (Sir William Spencer) into wardship. He was thrown into London’s Fleet Prison for his impudence. Edmund continued the building work at Fawsley with his brother Valentine and it was Valentine’s son who inherited the house, yet another Richard (died 1615). It was this Richard Knightley who entertained Queen Elizabeth I in 1575 in the South Wing.
There was no major building work in the 17th century, largely because of the extravagances of Richard’s son, Valentine and grandson of the first Valentine. He sold a large part of the family estates and these financial difficulties remained for some time. In an inventory of a family member who died in 1650, there is mention of the ‘Queens Chamber’, which is now our 1575 suite. Queen Elizabeth I often visited her courtiers during the summer months while her palaces were being cleaned. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Ferdinando and Seymour Knightley in the manor house at Fawsley.
The Puritans and the Civil War
Sir Richard Knightley (died 1615) was imprisoned for allowing the printing of Puritan material and there is little doubt that in the period leading up to the Civil War, the Knightleys were very much opposed to the unlimited power of royalty. The term ‘sub rosa’ is supposed to have originated here from the flower in the centre of the ceiling of the bay window in the Great Hall, above which is the secret room where meetings were held. On the eve of the Battle of Naseby, Charles I was seen hunting deer in Fawsley Park. This may seem curious seeing as the Knightleys were Parliamentarians but the Knightley family had leased out the house and were living in London at the time. Clearly the tenants were Royalists!
The Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians
Lucy Knightley inherited the estate in 1728 and added the Georgian Wing in classical style. During this time the family continued to represent Northamptonshire in Parliament. In 1798 Sir John Knightley, 22nd lord of the manor, was made the first Baronet. His nephew, Sir Charles Knightley, 2nd Baronet (1781-1864) carried out the Gothic alterations to the Georgian wing and his son Rainald III Baronet commissioned Anthony Salvin to re-model the north wing. Rainald was MP for south Northamptonshire for 40 years.
The life peerage, Baron Knightley of Fawsley, was created by Queen Victoria for Sir Rainald Knightley in 1892 but the decline of the family was dramatic. Rainald died childless in 1895 and his wife Louisa, died in 1913. There being insufficient capital for the will to be proved, the contents of the house were auctioned over a three week period in 1914. The duchess was the last Knightley to live in Fawsley Hall and her diaries have been published as The Journals of Lady Knightley, a copy of which can be found in all guest bedrooms.
Subsequently, when the penultimate baronet, Sir Charles Valentine, died in 1932 and his brother, Sir Henry Francis died in 1938, the house passed to the Gage family of Firle Place, Sussex, because of the earlier marriage of Rainald Knightley’s sister, Sophia, to Viscount Gage. The Gage family still owns the former Knightley lands. Both Sir Charles and Sir Henry, who lived in the Stewards House, died childless, leaving a vacant baronetcy.