AN American, who had not taken a long holiday for many a year, lately found himself walking about England and Scotland in the pleasant month of June, revisiting familiar places as well as faces, and though sorrowfully missing some of the cherished friends of former years, yet finding nature as lovely and the old English homes as enchanting as ever, and memory, if sadder, yet almost as sweet as presence.
During his summer rambles through England, it was once the traveller’s good fortune to spend a week within bowshot of the soft-flowing Avon, and to look from his chamber-window on the tall spire of the church where Shakespeare lies buried. The murmur of the stream as it moves gently by the guarded grave lulled the senses of the loiterer, while it brought before his mind scenes of the grand old times when Bacon pondered and Raleigh shone, when Shakespeare “warbled his native wood-notes wild,” not knowing half his own supremacy, and when the “throned vestal” ruled the land with a strong hand if not a wise one. The avenue of limes leading up to the venerable pile where the precious dust is enshrined was distinctly outlined against the summer sky ; the cheerful voices of the mowers came up from the fragrant meadows ; and a deep, happy rest seemed falling from the fleecy clouds that floated over the home of Shakespeare.
Perched on “ the Hill ” overlooking a prospect of rural beauty unsurpassed, enjoying the hospitality of a delightful country-house, the traveller’s days were filled with a “dreamful ease ” such as he had not known for many a year. His host, a Warwickshire gentleman of the oldest and best school, knew every nook and corner of interest in the country round ; and under such intelligent guidance who could go wrong ? There were delightful visits to Warwick Castle and Charlecote Park, to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, to the stately ruins of Kenilworth, with boating on the river during the long summer twilight. Every day brought its fresh pleasures and open-air entertainments ; and a programme of new excursions was discussed every morning at the breakfast-table. With a keen relish for all country sports and an inborn love for horses, the host of “the Hill ” was never at a loss for pleasant occupation, and “ gave his mind to it ” vigorously.
One of the pleasantest days spent by the merry crew from “the Hill” was passed at Lower Eatington Park, one of the most beautiful homes in England. It is one of those places for which we have no parallel in America, because we have no ancestral homes belonging for many generations to a leisure class, — no old “ pleasaunces ” which the love of beauty and the spirit of conservance have united to form and maintain for hundreds of years. Set in the midst of venerable trees — notably some old hawthorns — that are as sacred as the family plate and pictures, and the removal of which, so longas they will stand upright, nothing but the severest need would justify, — with many stretches of that soft, rich grass which is made only by constant years of close mowing, — the house looks out on to a scene of peace and loveliness and trimmed luxuriance, the like of which no country save England can show. For a thousand years has Lower Eatington been in the possession of the Shirley (anciently the Sasuualo) family; and in Domesday Book it is thus described : —
“ Sasuualo holds of Henry (de Feriers) seventeen hides (seventeen hundred acres) in Etendone. The arable employs twelve ploughs, four are in the demesne (or Home Farm), and there are ten bondmen (slaves), there are thirty-two villeins (somewhat superior to slaves), with a priest, twenty-five borders (cottagers), one soldier, and two thanes (freeholders). They have sixteen ploughs and a half: a mill pays eighteen shillings, and there are thirty acres of meadow. It was worth six pounds, afterwards four pounds, now twenty pounds.”
This was the condition of Eatington about 1085 when Saswallo, or Sewallis, the first ascertained ancestor of the house of Shirley, held it. Later, in the reign of Charles I., we find the place described by Sir Thomas Shirley the antiquary, thus : —
“ There are divers marks in this towne, by which we may judge that it hath been from all antiquitie the seat of a noble and renowned family. It hath a very ancient church, sumptuously built, and dedicated to the honor of the blessed Trinity, and likewise a chantrey founded, and a large chapel to the honour of S. Nicholas, which was anciently the place of sepulture for the lords of this manor, who had, at their proper cost and charges, built and endowed both these places of prayer and devotion : and close by the church is a very ancient Mansion House, built by an ancestor of this family, so long ago that the memorie, by the revolution of so many ages, is utterly lost and forgotten ; for the antient forme and structure of the house is a witness beyond all exception of its pristine antiquity, it being covered with so unknown a covering that none can tell with what it is made with, plainly shewith it was built in so ancient times that the very stuff itself whereof the texture was made is many ages since, not only worn out of the kingdom, but also the very knowledge that ever any such thing was within the realm.”1
This oldest of all the Eatington mansions on record was, however, presumably taken down somewhere about the year 1641, when Sir Charles Shirley terminated the long lease of the manor which had been made for generations to the Underhill family, and came into formal possession himself. A new and smaller house was built out of the old materials, with alterations, improvements, additions, etc., by various inheritors, till in 1858 the present owner, Evelyn Philip Shirley, finding the place considerably out of repair, commenced to case and roof it in the advanced early English style so much in vogue at the present day in England. The designs were made by Mr. Prichard of Llandaff, and the alterations were completed in the year 1862. And a beautiful place he has made of it! Turret and gable and an exquisite, cloister-like 2 veranda give the true mediæval character to the house ; while in the deep bay-window of the drawing-room our fancy can set soft, sunny ladies of the Stuarts’ time, looking wistfully across the broad domain for lovers out on dangerous ventures ; or perhaps listening to the tale of perils met and overcome, as the cavalier bends over the ringleted head with his plumed hat drooping low in his hand.
The interior of the house is as quaint and lovely as the outside ; and fourteen bas-reliefs represent the principal events of the family history. In one we have the earliest recorded ancestor, the Saswallo, or Sewallis, of the Conqueror’s time, on his knees, offering to the bishop a model of the church at Eatington, of which some remains still exist. In another, Henry, the grandson of the former, like Esau, is selling his birthright to his younger brother Sewallis, in the reign of Henry II. : from the elder brother descended the now extinct house of Treton, from the younger the present family of Shirley. Another bas-relief gives us Sir Sewallis de Eatendon, knight, a crusader, and grandson of the preceding ; another, his grandson, Sir Ralph Shirley, first knight of the shire for the county of Warwick, in the twenty-third year of Edward I., anno 1294; on another we have Sir Thomas, his son, in the Holy Land. “ His page is bringing him the head of a Saracen whom Sir Thomas is said to have vanquished and decapitated,” which circumstance is the traditional origin of the family crest. The sixth is the death of Sir Hugh Shirley, son of Sir Thomas, at the battle of Shrewsbury, on Saturday, the 20th of July, 1403. “ Sir Hugh was
one of the four knights who, clothed in the royal armour, successively encountered and fell under the victorious arm of Douglas in single combat, thus immortalized by Shakespeare in Douglas’s speech to the king in the first part of Henry IV.” : —
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colors on them. What art thou,
That counterfeit’st the person of a king ? ”
And again in Prince Henry’s speech to Douglas: —
Never to hold it up again ! the spirits
Of SHIRLEY, Stafford, Blunt, are in my arms :
It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee ;
Who never promiseth but he means to pay.”
The seventh shows Sir Ralph, son of Sir Hugh, on the eve of his departure for the French war, making over to his mother, Beatrice, the care of Ralph, his infant son and heir, and to Richard Elebet, clerk, and others, the fee of his estates. The eighth gives Sir Ralph, this same “infant son,” now grown to man’s estate, taking leave of his mother previous to his expedition to France, with his band of archers, just before the siege of Harfleur and the battle of Agincourt; and the ninth shows us his great-grandson dubbed a knight by Henry VII. on the field of Stoke, 1487. Over the great library window are three panels representing incidents in the lives of the three celebrated Shirley Brothers, the sons of Sir Thomas Shirley of Wiston (Sussex), the representative of a younger branch of the family. The first, or tenth, rather, shows the attack of Sir Thomas Shirley the younger—eldest of the “Three Brothers” — on the Turks in the island of Zea (Archipelago) in 1603 ; the second, or eleventh, Sir Anthony and Sir Robert, the younger two of the “Three Brothers,”leading the Persians against the Turks and teaching them the use of artillery, in 1599; and the third, or twelfth, the same Sir Robert Shirley’s reception at the court of James I., as ambassador from Shah Cebbas, King of Persia, in 1611 ; the thirteenth gives Sir Robert Shirley, baronet, five generations removed from the last Sir Ralph, in the act of founding the church of Staunton Karold in Leicestershire, 1653; and the fourteenth gives him again in 1656, when committed to the Tower of London (where he died) “ by the usurper Oliver Cromwell in consequence of his loyalty to his Church and King.” The last public record of the family is an address signed by the principal noblemen and gentlemen of Warwickshire to Major-General Horatio Shirley, C. B., on his return from the Crimea, 1856, with their respective arms emblazoned on vellum. This hangs in the hall opposite the carved oak mantel-piece; and here also are preserved the rifle and the prayer-book carried by the general during the war; which last, being in the holster of his saddle during the battle of the Alma, most probably saved his life by receiving the bullet which else would have passed into his body. Further must be noticed the old family pictures by such names as Rembrandt, Vandyke, Canalelti, Zucchero, Huysmans, Kneller, Sir Peter Lely, Gainsborough, Wilson, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Northcote, Clint, and others ; while coats-of-arms, blazoning the various alliances of the family, give warmth and color and the flavor of old-time chivalry to almost every wall and window.
A bow-shot from the manor-house are the remains of the old parish church, consisting only of the towers and south transept, with two arches on the north side and part of the walls of the nave and chancel, the latter of red sandstone from Kenilworth, all overgrown with ivy and the small, ivyleaved toadflax bearing its pale purple blossoms in rich profusion. Two old effigies, representing a knight and lady, are held to be the effigies of Ralph Shirley and Margaret Waldershef, his wife, in the time of Edward 11.(1327); and there are other monuments and inscriptions less doubtful and more detailed.
But the whole thing goes together. The ivied ruins holding their ancient memorials of departed greatness ; the old house, new cased and fronted, with its lavish blazonry and gesta magnatum; the leafy park with its herds of deer, its grand old trees, and that indescribable look of high condition which generations of ease alone can give ; the host himself, the representative of the long line of illustrious ancestry, proud of his family, and yet not too proud, faithful to its traditions, to its politics, its renown, a true gentleman, one too highly set to be over-careful of his dignity because safe in his own unassailable place,—all strike upon the imagination with a fulness and suggestiveness beyond measure fascinating. And though not unique in England, where many such are to be found, yet Lower Eatington, the home of the house of Shirley, may be taken as typical of the real English country home, where the gentleman of old lineage and fine estates lives his life as it has been marked out for him for more than a thousand years ; doing such good as he can to his tenantry and poorer neighbors, setting an example of high honor and incorruptible integrity ; and, if less receptive and go-ahead than our own energetic, selfmade men, offering a standard of noble bearing and an example of stately qualities which the world would be the poorer were it to be without.
Nothing was wanting to complete its charm to the American visitor, who saw Lower Eatington in the soft summer weather, and in that lovely season invoked the associations of the place, where knights and crusaders had ridden forth to their deeds of “derring do” ; where men who knew and loved Shakespeare had walked among the trees and talked of his works and genius; where, perhaps, Shakespeare himself had rambled, musing, through the glades, fashioning the figure of the “ melancholy Jaques ” in his mind ; where, doubtless, Queen Elizabeth had cast approving eyes when on her famous visit to Kenilworth, not so very far away ; where, maybe, Leicester and Amy Robsart had lingered in the moonlight ; where the stout old cavalier had defied the power of Cromwell and the rushing tide of political change ; where man had done his best for nature, and nature in return had yielded back to man deep peace and loveliness.
Mrs. Lynn Linton.
The web of life is spun ;
Fourscore and four, the Cloister’s length
A statute mile is run.”