Hinchingbrooke House

The History of Huntingdon

The Buildings and Architecture of Hinchingbrooke House in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Obviously during its history of habitation the buildings have changed dramatically. There is evidence that the nuns came to a site which had existing structures. Evidence has been found that an early Norman Church was on the site pre-dating the Benedictine nun’s arrival. Changes were made over time, as already mentioned. The first documented one being Henry III donating timber from Sapley, and the second the funds from the Bishop.

As referred to earlier Richard Cromwell, first to own the property after the dissolution was not overly enthusiastic about the place. Alterations were made to make the buildings less draughty and more comfortable summary; using locally produced red bricks to block up some of the doors and windows, in order to begin converting it from a functional nunnery into a house for domestic use. Dividing up some of the larger areas also began at this time, turning the chapel into a series of rooms.

But it is Richard Cromwell’s son Henry Cromwell the ‘Golden Knight’ that created the scale building projects undertaken at this time, and created a house fit for Kings, and capable of housing and entertaining royalty and its entourage. There were parts of the site as yet unchanged when he took control, and on the northern side of the building range he decided to create a new dramatic entrance to his estate. Requiring a new gateway he struck on the idea of moving the elaborate late-mediaeval gateway from his summer residence of Ramsey Abbey. And it stands today in its relocated position, but he added to it creating an upper story with gables and porters accommodation. When this was removed to return it to the gateway only there is no available date.

Once through his new gateway you entered a courtyard, in the corner of which was an elaborate wooden porch through which to enter the impressive range of buildings. Unfortunately the cost of building, running and maintaining the house, along with the already heavy expense of regular royal guests brought to an end the Cromwell’s time of ownership, forced to sell in order to settle debts, they take full time residency at Ramsey Abbey.

The Montague's

Purchased Hinchingbrooke Estate, although already owning nearby Kimbolton Castle, so Henry Montague, Earl of Manchester let his Brother Sir Sydney take Hinchingbrooke House from him, as he was only interested in the remaining acquisitions made from Sir Oliver Cromwell.

The Montague’s as owners are mentioned before, outlining the lineage, which led to it being a family home for over 300 years. And from the Samuel Pepys diaries we have a glimpse of the next major alterations taking place at Hinchingbrooke House during 1661 to 1663. Creating a magnificent building, with five new marble fireplaces costing £2,250, a huge sum of money at this time. Also embellishing the grand staircase with new panelling created by the joiner to King Charles 2nd, Mr. Kennard. On completion of the works Samuel Pepys scribes of his approval, finding it even more pleasing than Audley End, a great house south on the great north road in Essex, praise indeed. This is also the end of new construction on a grand scale here.

The next major event to affect the fabric of the building occurs on 22nd January 1830, when a fire breaks out in an upstairs room. Despite all efforts it takes hold with the assistance of a strong wind. Rooms which dated back to the late 16th century were destroyed, the Great Hall, staircase, and Bow Room being the greatest losses. Luckily the contents and furnishings were saved by the prompt action of the staff, removing the contents to the lawns and terraces.

Reports of the aftermath could bring into question whether more damage was done by the crude removal of some items, than the fire itself?

  • The splendid library piled in the snow
  • Marble fire surrounds and wall plaques ripped from their wall and mountings
  • Painted glass torn from windows, shattered and broken
  • Paintings by Van Dyke, Hogarth, and other masters laying amongst beds and
  • Mattresses on the ground

Also there was a feeling at the time that not everyone had arrived to help, with reports of the little cellars champagne being drunk, water pipes being cut, and pump handles going missing

Sadly it was the documents stored in large boxes above the hall, which were damaged beyond any use, sadly losing for future generations the detailed history of the Montague’s works at Hinchingbrooke. Just as the Priory records were destroyed as being irrelevant after the dissolution.

Most of the exterior walls from the east and north of the house remained standing. And thankfully the decision was made to repair rather that demolish and build anew. The remains were shored up and made safe awaiting the new phase of building works to begin.

Thankfully an architect known as Edward Blore was bringing a revival of Elizabethan architecture back into fashion, and had even visited Hinchingbrooke House before the fire in order to draw it for future reference. How lucky this should have been so.

The old stonework was used in the rebuilding. The seven bay window from the east side, was now a five bay window on the south. A tower was added on the corner of the north front and the old nunnery range. He also moved the entrance point of the house, changing what had once been the Great Hall to its detriment. Although not a brilliant architect, it could have been worse if totally rebuilt.

Modern conveniences were the next problem for the builders to incorporate into Hinchingbrooke House. Rooms being required for inside sanitation, pipes and electricity cables being required throughout, and servants to accommodate all brought about more changes to a building originally evolving from a Norman Church into a Priory then into a Elizabethan house into a comfortable family retreat. During the late nineteenth century an entire west wing was added to facilitate more bathrooms and servants, only to be demolished in 1947, returning Hinchingbrooke House of its former proportions.

Now came the major changes of the twentieth century, with its sale from the Montague family to the county council, which by September 1970 had incorporated it into a brand new Hinchingbrooke Comprehensive School, the old buildings becoming the sixth form block, the opening of which was attended by Victor Montague.

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