Wayneflete Tower was constructed in the 15th century, however, the recorded history of the site on which it stands commenced some 400 years earlier. The itinerary of John of Pontoise, (Bishop of Winchester, 1282-1304) provides the first evidence of Esher’s importance. Edward I stayed on two occasions (in 1289 and 1303) whilst travelling from Odiham to Windsor. He regularly visited and transacted business at Esher, as did his successors, who took advantage of its convenient location, which determined its significance as a bishopric residence and indeed this was to be echoed in future centuries. Esher was en route from Winchester to the Bishop’s London palace, Winchester House, Southwark and formed an ideal halting place, as it was situated close to the city, yet outside its boundaries. The Bishop’s itineraries show a regular commuting pattern between these two seats and Esher was clearly favoured as a rural retreat. Esher was therefore particularly important as the nearest residence to Winchester House, located within the diocese and with easy access not only for diocesan affairs but also for attendance at Court, at either Westminster or Windsor. Furthermore, it should be noted that, at this time bishops tended to travel accompanied by their entourage from one manor to another in a steady progress, much as the kings of the period moved from palace to palace. It was generally easier to move from one house to another with a retinue of chaplains and attendants and to consume the produce from the manor where it was grown than to have it all carried to one central house. This cavalcade would have made slow progress and Esher was well placed for the bishops as a regular and most desirable interim residence.
In 1447, William Wayneflete succeeded Cardinal Beaufort as Bishop of Winchester and it is from this moment that he is linked to the Palace of Esher. To date, it has not been possible to identify exactly the type of property that Wayneflete inherited from his ecclesiastical prelates at Esher, although excavations on the north side of the quadrangle in 1912 revealed the foundations of former buildings, including those of an earlier stone property, and have been interpreted as potentially associated with either Bishop des Roches or Bishop Rayleigh’s earlier construction. One of the stone walls which passed under the foundations would seem to relate to Wayneflete’s brick buildings. Medieval palatial residences tended to be built on a piecemeal basis and in a chaotic manner and it is therefore difficult to establish with certainty the exact buildings for which Wayneflete, his predecessors and successors were responsible, although the September 2005 Time Team Archaeological excavations have provided much enlightenment.
The results of the 1912 excavations were reported by Rev Floyer:
“These consisted of a range of rooms with an upper storey approached by a newel staircase at the river end. The windows faced the court and there was a fireplace at the back. The building, which was in brick, may have been a bachelor’s lodging. When opening up the foundations of the wall connecting the north side of the gatehouse with the end of this range of buildings it was discovered that the foundation cut across an older stone wall. There was no opportunity of excavating the site of the body of the house on the river, as part of it was covered by trees; it was therefore impossible to ascertain the extent of brick building, but from such indications as could be detected, it became fairly evident that the portion of the house which was contemporary with the building of the gatehouse was built entirely of brick, and consisted of the gatehouse itself, and the whole of the quadrangle, including the hall, but excluding the dwelling-house proper.”
An early 17th century plan by Ralph Treswell outlines the structure of the palace. The drawing shows that the Tower was the gateway to a complex of buildings that surrounded a central courtyard, typical of a late medieval plan. The gatehouse gave access by a passage – which would have been wide enough for carts – to a large base court, across which was the main entrance door to the residential buildings. These buildings were accessed via a pitched roofed porch, which led into a hall and terminated at the main dwelling (a castle-like “keep” with turrets at each corner), which was larger in size than the existing gatehouse. The sole surviving structure of this complex is the gatehouse, known today as Wayneflete Tower. Its maximum dimensions are 43 feet wide by 34 feet deep and 53 feet high, with the walls themselves being solidly built and considerable at between three and four feet thick. The bricks have been laid in English Bond style and without a rubble filled cavity. John Harvey (author of “English Medieval Architects”, 1984) states that John Cowper was Wayneflete’s master mason and architect. Cowper was an apprentice at Eton and may have gained experience at Tattershall Castle under a foreign master. His name is associated consistently with Wayneflete’s building works. He is also a strong candidate as the designer of Wainfleet School, which is based in part on Esher. In 1461, John Cowper had just finished his work for Wayneflete on buildings at Eton and he is recorded next in Winchester in 1466-67, before going on to work on other projects for the Bishop. The period 1461 to 1467 is unaccounted for. A dendrochronological survey undertaken at Wayneflete Tower took samples from original timbers within the building and obtained a felling date range of 1462-72, which would fit with Cowper’s ‘missing period’ very well. In all probability, Wayneflete’s craftsmen would have also worked previously on either Tattershall or Eton or even on both sites. Their craftsmanship and innovation was outstanding and perhaps the best example of their expertise is the integral brick newel staircase, which is simply a brickwork masterpiece.
With the exception of the pipe rolls, the earliest surviving descriptive account of the Palace of Esher was by John Aubrey (1626 - 1697). Aubrey began his “Perambulation of Surrey” in 1673, the year in which he visited Esher and two centuries after Wayneflete’s building campaign. This was later included in “The Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey”, published by Richard Rawlinson in 1718. (Aubrey was the first person to propose that Stonehenge was a temple built by the Druids). Until recently, it was assumed that the 1718 publication included John Aubrey’s notes and drawings in their entirety. However, personal inspection of the original 1673 work held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, revealed new and exciting material. This sketch entitled “Eshur House” illustrates the substantial “castle-like” palace that would have been visible for miles. Aubrey noted that Wayneflete had erected a “stately brick mansion” on the banks of the Mole, within the park of Esher and described it as “a noble house, built of the best burnt brick that I ever sawe, with a stately gatehouse and hall.” Aubrey further stated that over the gatehouse, in the keystone of the vault and on several other parts of the building, Wayneflete placed the armorial bearings of his own family and those of his see, which were sculptured in stone. These have not survived. Also: “on the timberwork in the hall, not unlike that in Westminster Hall, are several angels, carved in wood, sustaining escutcheons; on two of which are scrolls, bearing this inscription, Tibi Christe.” (Christ be with you).
Comparison of the Treswell plan of 1606 with Aubrey’s sketch and plans made 67 years later reveals differences, but these could simply be attributed to contrasting perspectives due to opposing vantage points. The most striking difference between their records appears to be the disappearance in Aubrey’s sketch of the long narrow tall buildings to the far south of the courtyard and beyond, in what appears to be, in the Treswell plan, a dividing inner wall. Aubrey places the buttery and kitchens on the riverbank to the south-west of the courtyard, but his bird’s eye view plan does not stretch out far enough to the south to state with certainty that these buildings had been demolished by 1673, although their presence is not apparent from his sketch. Aubrey does, however, seem to indicate a further kitchen close to the riverbank in this more southerly position – a sensible location as all waste could be conveniently thrown into the river. At this time many homes were destroyed by fires originating in kitchens and so were commonly built a distance from the main residential buildings. It is therefore plausible that between these dates building works did take place in this area of the site. At a tangent to this domestic structure and the gatehouse, Aubrey has drawn an elaborate octagonal building crowned with a lantern. It appears to be a very grand dovecote and suggests that Esher was again following fashion. During the medieval period large dovecotes were built on manors, castles and monasteries. The 15th century pipe rolls make reference to a poultry house at Esher whilst the 1610 Particulars, as mentioned later, referred to a well stored brick dovehouse; although their location is unknown, it is plausible that the 1673 plan records a further Wayneflete structure.
The design and purpose of the gatehouse is intriguing. It is perfectly plausible to suppose that the gatehouse, with its defensive overtones (gun ports that flank the entrance, castellated parapet, machicolation and portcullises) was conceived in response to the crises and anarchy of late medieval England. Whilst the gatehouse conveyed a message of power and authority, and would have provided protection against thieves and bands of ruffians, the sprawling palace, with its low walls and easy river access, was hardly defensible against a professional army. The gatehouse provided fortification for the manor itself but the building complex could not be regarded as a defensive stronghold. Furthermore, the increasing use of gunpowder and the power of the cannon had rendered even the most sturdy defences vulnerable to assault and fighting was mainly confined to battles in the field, leaving castles to decline. Wayneflete’s Palace was a form of great display, with concentration more on grandeur and comfort than on defense, imitating the castles of old, but lacking their strength. However, it is interesting to note that by the next century, in 1535, an Act of Parliament declared that land owners who had land worth over £100 were to build a tower or castle, thus enabling the land owner to defend his property.
The exact function of Wayneflete’s gatehouse is a mystery and can only be speculated upon. Wayneflete did at times find himself in fearfully vulnerable situations and he felt genuinely threatened, particularly at the time of John Cade’s rebellion and the Wars of the Roses. In fact, he lived through unrelenting turmoil. The gatehouse with its protective features, whilst cosmetic, did provide the Bishop with an increased level of personal security; and, accepting this as a genuine necessity, it would most probably have been utilised for his personal accommodation during volatile times. This would account for the grandiose interior, particularly on the first floor. Furthermore, Wayneflete’s occupancy of the gatehouse would have freed up the keep for the much needed accommodation of those responsible for the day-to-day running of such an important bishopric residence but also for the constant flow of distinguished visitors. The main reception room on the first floor could have served ably as Wayneflete’s audience chamber, with direct access in the south-east turret to his private chapel. On the opposite side was a further chamber and garderobe, a bedroom suite being situated on the second floor with rooms for his aides above flanking the hollow battlement and machicolation. Thus, the architectural development of Esher Place incorporated nostalgic details from a bygone age simultaneously satisfied the practical requirement for Wayneflete’s safety and high status.
Following Wayneflete’s death in 1486, subsequent bishops maintained the property at Esher, but no significant building works were carried out until the election of Cardinal Wolsey to the see of Winchester in 1529. Prior to this date, Wolsey had been a regular guest of Richard Fox, (Bishop of Winchester, 1501–1528), at Esher, as it was a perfect retreat from his vast building project at Hampton Court. Esher was also a highly desirable property as its proximity to the Thames enabled easy access to the nearby residences of the King at Windsor and Richmond, which became increasingly crucial to Wolsey as he suspected his impending demise. The plan of the main house at this time becomes more apparent when George Cavendish (Wolsey’s gentleman usher) refers to the “Great Chamber” being in the body of the house on the first floor and overlooking the base court. Also leading out of this Great Chamber was a closet in which Wolsey said Mass. Close to it was the chief bedchamber and above on the second floor were further chambers, not dissimilar to the gatehouse layout.
Wolsey’s gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace provides the main visitors entrance and is where the most important guests and visitors were housed by Henry VIII. It originally consisted of five storeys with eight guest suites, but was reduced in height in 1731-33. The brick chimneys of Hampton Court were an integral part of the 1514 design and are reputedly the earliest of their type in England. Sadly, as the chimneys at Esher have not survived it is not possible to determine if they were original and thus, in fact the prototype. Wayneflete’s brick masons were certainly capable and according to Jonathan Foyle (former assistant curator to Hampton Court Palace) their craftsmanship was far superior to that of Wolsey’s men. The striking similarities between the two gatehouses blatantly demonstrate how Wolsey emulated Wayneflete’s much earlier work and highlights how Tudor architecture was pioneered half a century earlier at Esher by Wayneflete.
During his period of prosperity Wolsey had commenced the remodelling and significant enlargement of Wayneflete’s palace. However, the extent to which he contributed to this group of buildings is unclear, but on his fall, upon the King’s command unused building materials were transported from his incomplete works to Hampton Court and Whitehall. Four tons of Caen stone, nineteen tons of plaster, fifteen tons of brick and a further forty-eight loads of brick and tile were removed indicating the significant remains of, or the preparations for, a major building campaign.
Furthermore, Wolsey erected a long gallery constructed in timber at Esher. Its position is unknown, although it was probably sited along the riverbank to the north where the gardens and countryside beyond could be fully appreciated, with no compromise of loss of light in the Great Hall. The gallery was dismantled and carried to York House for re-erection there. The keeper of Esher Place was paid four pence in April 1531 “for his diligence in helping the workmen there …” It was evidently timber framed, for 105 tons of framed timber was transported to Thames Ditton and then sent by river to the site at Whitehall. The gallery was set up as the Privy Gallery of Whitehall Palace – which later became the spine of the whole complex. It seems from the evidence of the Whitehall building accounts, that the gallery was split into two parts, one either side of the gatehouse, which has become known as the Holbein Gate. This was decorated with flint and stone in a chequer pattern using over six hundred tons of flints brought from Wolsey’s Ipswich College which was dismantled in a similar vein. This information is provided in Simon Thurley’s “Whitehall Palace – An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments 1240 – 1690”, where he points out that “by extrapolating these sections of the gallery from the plan of Whitehall, it can be seen that Wolsey’s original gallery must have been about 200 feet long and probably ended in two small towers.” Wolsey’s galleries at The More, Hampton Court and York Place were built on a similar scale. In 1685, the gallery was demolished by Sir Christopher Wren.
King Henry’s increasing size, deterioration in health and level of fitness caused him to find the journey to Windsor tiresome and accordingly Esher was made an appendage to Hampton Court and the land was well stocked with deer. In a survey of the Manor taken in Edward VI’s reign it was stated that, besides the “sumptuously built manor house, which was reserved for the King’s access,” there was an orchard, a garden and a park three miles in circuit. The brief history of Esher as a royal residence was terminated by Queen Mary who, immediately after her accession, restored it to the see of Winchester.
By 1583, Richard Drake, cousin of the infamous Sir Francis, had established himself at Esher and remained there for twenty years until his death in 1603. He was responsible for the custody of three Spanish grandees for more than four years (1588-1593) following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and, as an equerry to Queen Elizabeth I, was engaged in state affairs. His Esher residence would have been required to reflect his status and was undoubtedly brought up to date with the installation of modern comforts. For example, the will of Richard Drake’s wife states that there was a large gallery of pictures and the Drake family may well have added this to replace Cardinal Wolsey’s gallery that Henry VIII had dismantled and removed to Whitehall.
During the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, well lit galleries with wide lattice windows and oriels were introduced in place of the narrow apertures, and spacious rooms were preferred to the numerous smaller medieval chambers. The hall was the chief apartment and was larger than any other room, with larger windows. The grandest of manor houses were designed around an enclosed courtyard and entered through a turreted gateway of dominant proportions, usually of brick. The venerable Wayneflete Tower was the precursor to the Tudor architectural period and would have stood as a nostalgic reminder of old medieval England.
In 1610, during the tenure of Richard Drake’s son, Francis, “A Particular of the Manor of Esher” records a total of 743 acres providing an annual income of £622. The property was valued at £2,000 and described as “A Goodly Brick house most parte covered with lead, two greate brick barnes cost £500 the building. Three stables, one Coach House & Granary of brick and one brick dovehouse well stored.” The “timber and wood” on the premises was valued at £1,500 and finally a payment of £13-07s was to be paid to the Bishops of Winchester in perpetuity.
Following Wolsey’s departure from Esher and the subsequent final loss by the Bishop of Winchester of this seat in 1582, there is no recorded building development to the property for the next one and a half centuries. In fact, not until shortly after John Aubrey’s visit in 1673, does the property appear to have been significantly altered and demolished, and then the works were so major that it was transformed almost beyond recognition. However, despite the lack of evidence of building and redevelopment during this period, it could be assumed that the property was maintained and enhanced in line with the fashion of the day, especially as it was such an important structure, not only on account of its architecture, but also its illustrious former owners and residents.
In 1677, Sir Thomas Lynch, a sugar baron and Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica, purchased the estate and either during his ownership or that of his son-in-law, Thomas Cotton, the palace as recorded in 1673 by Aubrey had gone. Only the gatehouse survived, to become the core of a Jacobean residence, flanked by three-storey wings and this major redevelopment marked the second architectural phase of the gatehouse. The Kip-Knyff engraving, published in 1707, dramatically illustrates this almost unrecognisable transformation. When comparing the Kip-Knyff engraving to Aubrey’s sketch it appears that the structure, which was previously the site of the kitchen, has been retained on the riverbank and the octagonal dovecote has been rebuilt to a similar design. Whilst the function of these two structures is unknown, the kitchen would certainly be located within the main house at this time due to convention and it is possible that both buildings were now being used for birds. By the 17th century, dovecotes had become more widespread and between 1650 and the late 18th century probably the greatest number of dovecotes were built; no farmhouse or country estate would have been considered complete without one. This was chiefly due to the relative cheapness and abundance of corn and also an Act of Parliament, (1761-1762), which permitted any tenant to build their own dovecote, subject to their landlord’s approval. The subsequent decline of the dovecote has been linked with the 18th century introduction of the turnip, which enabled more animals to be kept over winter for a supply of fresh meat. Furthermore, as it became more commonplace for individuals with large investments to own land, they became less inclined to tolerate the damage that the birds caused to their crops.
In 1730, Henry Pelham purchased the Palace of Esher and engaged William Kent, the celebrated architect and landscape gardener to make considerable alterations to both the house and the park, thus creating a property of magnificence that reflected not only his aesthetic taste, but also his political power and status. Like most Whig landowners, Pelham prided himself on being a country gentleman and was concerned about his rural seat. He therefore took a keen interest in the architectural style and in shaping the landscape according to his philosophical view of the universe. Kent was possibly awarded this commission on the strength of his recent work at Hampton Court Palace.
Kent’s proposal for an English castle with Italian refinements perfectly balanced this contemporary taste, for it not only recognised the Kingdom’s history, but also acknowledged the far off ancient world, which was newly familiar following the excavation of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It thus declared a joint celebration of England’s native past and republican Rome, which had secured the liberty of Europe. These sentiments were especially apt with reference to Pelham’s ancestry and increasing political position and no doubt Kent enjoyed the freedom from restraint and tyranny of rule that the Gothic style afforded him.
Pelham clearly wished to reminisce over the country’s heroic past but was also influenced by the discoveries of the ancient world and accordingly he allowed Kent to acknowledge classical antiquity throughout its interior, as well as by way of the statues and buildings that adorned his Esher landscape. Kent’s talent, expertise and versatility are undeniable and he justly received great acclaim for his work at Esher.
John Vardy’s engraved plan and elevation of Esher shows the attached wings with angular canted bays whilst the two pediments are of classical origin. At ground floor level on the west or river front the property is flanked with pavilions. No doubt Kent would have consciously designed and fully intended that the natural landscape, of which there was now no demarcation as it came up to the house, should be fully visible and appreciated; it is not surprising that so many windows were included for maximum effect and appreciation. For the first time the gatehouse had wings that returned away from the river on the landward side. The most contradictory element of his design is its strict symmetry that serves to highlight his love of Classical architecture.
Kent followed the existing lines of the turrets and, with the addition of the screen, created the perimeter foundation line for the entire design. The flowing canted bays of varying widths cleverly provided four octagonal rooms. Kent used his most favoured Gothick elements at Esher – quatrefoils, castellated parapets, ogee cupolas, Venetian windows and ogee heads to windows and doors. By adding the curvaceous lead cupolas, he crowned the palace, accentuated its turrets and successfully created an overall air of gracefulness that transformed a very masculine structure into an elegant one. Kent’s decorative Gothick is rather glamorously inspired and evokes reflections of a romantic past. His treatment of the interior decoration was also lavish and fine examples of this ornamentation remain.
Horace Walpole declared of Kent’s work that: “The King’s Bench at Westminster and Mr. Pelham’s house at Esher are proof of how little he conceived of either the principles or graces of Gothic architecture.” When put in context with Walpole’s later self-indulgent frivolity at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, which he referred to as his “Gothic Little Castle” this opinion could fairly be regarded as “the pot calling the kettle black”. Although Walpole was renowned for his inconsistencies and contradictions. Kent was sympathetic to medieval architecture, but recognised that this robust and masculine structure would not readily accommodate contemporary comfort, nor would it enable clear visibility and appreciation of the contrived surrounding naturalistic landscape. Kent ingeniously created a magnificent country mansion that incorporated references to past times and allowed for residents and visitors alike to reflect and reminisce, as was the order of the day. Kent took the concept of Gothic, which had certainly been inspired through literary awareness, and created his own runaway style. It must be remembered that Kent was not only influenced by English Gothic, but by Italian Gothic and in particular, Venetian, and his fluid, light, almost feminine interpretation suggests a strong Italian influence. Conversely, English Gothic was very foreboding; Vanbrugh, for example, built on Blackheath “something of the Castle Air because it would make a Masculine Show.” Kent’s vision and ability to redress the gatehouse so elegantly demonstrates his imaginative flair and architectural genius. His creations are a striking contrast and must be acknowledged as fresh and awe-inspiring. It is worth noting that in 1713, Christopher Wren, when reporting on the Towers of Westminster Abbey, which were then not completed, stated “I have made a design … in the Gothic form … such as I conceive may agree with the original scheme of the old Architect, without any modern mixtures to show my own inventions.” Walpole was wrong to suggest that Kent understood so little; Kent’s designs are consciously original and far from pretentious. He delighted in a playful reinterpretation of a romantic past. His designs were not intended to emulate but to surpass all others – presumably the ambition and goal to which all young architects aspire. Furthermore, his design strategy demonstrates how well he gauged the mood and taste of the country and his personal success is testament to this fact.
All aspects of life and our surroundings evolve; architecture is no exception. It would have been far easier for Kent to have unimaginatively reproduced earlier architecture as Wren had acknowledged, but he gained renown because he fully appreciated and understood the Georgian Age of Elegance and created an appropriate ensemble. Without wishing to labour the point, if the ghost of King Alfred had travelled through time to the 18th century he would have been surprised and possibly even dismayed to see the male populace experimenting with their feminine side dressed in wigs, silk stockings, high heeled shoes, lace frilly collars and cuffs with complementary powered faces. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for considering their appearance to be that of men in drag, but the style of this period was particularly feminine and elaborate. The phrase “horses for courses” certainly seems relevant with reference to Kent’s solution. His easy merger of Gothic and Classical architectural elements was simply the best recipe of the time and should be regarded as pioneering England through the 1700s. Not surprisingly by 1748, Horace Walpole had a change of heart about the building and wrote to George Montagu: “Esher I have seen again twice, and prefer it to all villas.”
In 1805, John Spicer, a London stockbroker, bought the estate from Pelham’s heir, Lord Sondes and proceeded to demolish unceremoniously all the additions that Kent had made for Pelham, leaving Wayneflete Tower to stand alone as a monument to the past. Ironically, Spicer built a neo-Palladian house on the hill to the south east of the Tower – in the location and style that Kent had first proposed for Pelham. This new position provided the Spicers with a commanding view of the neighbouring countryside. The materials from Kent’s additions were reused to erect a brick mansion, stuccoed in imitation of stone where the Belvedere stood, which was also dismantled. Similarly, when Lord Clive bought Claremont from the Duchess of Newcastle in 1768, following her husband’s death, he chose to relocate Vanburgh’s palace and salvaged the materials to build a neo-classical house to the north-east on higher ground.
The project for Spicer was superintended by Edward Lapidge (who was also County Surveyor and designed the bridge at Kingston-upon-Thames). In April 1806, Lapidge provided John Spicer with a “Valuation of the Old Materials contained in the present House and adjoining offices at Esher Place in Surrey – valued at a price, which they are worth to carry from the premises.” It is interesting to note that the Tower was distinguished from the house and offices. The “Value of the Materials, standing – House and Offices – exclusive of the Centre Towers” was placed at £5,528 to be offset against a figure of £652 for the “expense of taking down, cleaning and sorting the old materials.” The “Towers” on the other hand was given a material worth of £473. The value of the bricks at £300 and lead and pipes at £118 comprise the bulk of this figure. The fact that the Tower was specifically separated from these calculations suggests Mr Spicer’s merciful intention to maintain it, albeit bereft of its magnificent Kentian architectural limbs. Further accounts held by Surrey Records Office show Lapidge’s estimate for the rebuilding of the house at £12,800, of which £450 was assigned to the Doric portico. Between 1805 and 1821, £22,924 was spent on buildings, including £854 for a new vinery and garden walls, £1,506 on new stables and £3,037 on further additions to the front of the house.
In 1879, Ralph Neville, FSA and a fellow architect, Charles Cooke, inspected the gatehouse and observed that “the large beams over the modern staircase are original, and the colour, red, can still be seen on the edges of the champers, and on the underside there is a stencilled pattern of lilies.” This refers to Kent’s marble staircase that rose to the first floor in the north-east room. Today, the beams exist, but the 15th century stencilling of Wayneflete’s Magdalen lilies have disappeared.
No further building work appears to have been carried out to either the gatehouse or the neo-Palladian house until after 1893, when Esher Place was sold at auction at Token House Yard, London for £18,600. The new owners and residents were Sir Edgar and Lady Helen Vincent, who later became Lord and Lady D’Abernon. They proceeded to build the present house (now owned by the Trades Union, Amicus) between 1895 and 1898. They employed the architects G T Robinson and Achille Duchene to build them the present Esher Place, an imitation of an 18th century French chateau. Spicer’s original house with stables and kennels was incorporated and formed the south-east wing, attached to a central block. The flanking wing consisted of an indoor royal tennis court which was paid for by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. It would be reasonable to assume that the D’Abernons removed the redundant marble staircase from the Tower at this time and incorporated it into their new residence.
Wolsey would have fully appreciated the sentiment of the Latin verse that was carved into the stone pediment of the present house in 1898: “Sat me luisistis ludite nunc alios”, which translates: “You have made enough sport for me: Now make sport of others.”
The D’Abernons were clearly curious as to the early history of the Tower. In 1912, the same year in which the excavations were carried out, Mr Redfern, architect for SPAB, took away, at Lady D’Abernon’s request, some of the plaster ornament covering the ribs and bosses of the vaulting of the entrance hallway. “On the removal of a thin skin of plaster”, he reported, “we found a shield of arms with clear traces of a coat of arms in grey on a greenish-white field. The shield was surrounded by an enriched plaster moulding, and on removing this, we brought to light more traces of colouring and of lettering. It appears to be a garter with a motto. Most of the letters have disappeared, but I think “y pense” comes in the place where one would expect it.”
Presumably the inscribed motto would have read in full “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, meaning “Ashamed be he who thinks ill of it.” This is the motto of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, an ancient order of knighthood, founded by King Edward III in 1348, which represents the most senior and oldest British Order of Chivalry. The Order, consisting of the King and twenty-five knights, was intended by Edward III to be reserved as the highest reward for loyalty and for military merit; the Prelate is always the Bishop of Winchester.
The economic slump that followed the Great War of 1914-1918 marked a period of neglect in the Tower’s history. The D’Abernons left Esher in 1934, leaving their property to the Shaftesbury Society for use as a girls’ school. Much of the remaining parkland of Esher Place including Wayneflete Tower was sold to Wayneflete Holdings Ltd, which developed most of the houses that exist on the estate today.
Despite being protected since 1925 by the Commissioners of Works under the Ancient Monuments Act, during this time Wayneflete Tower was somewhat forgotten, became the prey of vandals and was left to decay. Windows were broken, doors caved in and heavy coping stones hurled from the roof. In 1934, the Tower was inspected by The Ministry and the poor state of repair was highlighted, including the lack of light and water services, although this apparently did not prevent the Masons at this time from holding meetings on the first floor. At the time of inspection, the fourth storey was devoid of any flooring, however, it would appear that prior to the time of the Spanish grandees (late 16th century) it did not exist either as “From the painted decoration on the plasterwork in the large room it is clear that the additional floor, of which only a few beams remain, is an insertion. In the bay later painting is superimposed on earlier and finer work.”
Demolition was mooted and in 1938, having secured a six month option, the Council of the Surrey Archaeological Society launched a national appeal for funds to purchase the Tower from Wayneflete Holdings, who were still developing Esher Place into a private estate and hoping to achieve a sale price of £1,600. Few estates can have been divided quite so successfully. By giving just three months’ notice to the Office of Works, the owners, Wayneflete Holdings, were at liberty to dispose of this ancient monument.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, understandably priorities lay elsewhere and the appeal proved abortive. However, mercifully destruction of the Tower was averted by Frances Day, a famous American film and stage actress and singer, who swiftly responded in the Tower’s hour of need and purchased the property jointly with Sir Raymond Francis Evershed on 7 November 1941, for £905. Her identity was initially withheld as she felt that: “[her] action in buying such a place might be misunderstood in these times”. Mr Evershed’s name appears on the deeds but curiously it seems that his involvement did not attract press coverage. She obtained the necessary licence to carry out renovations, to install drainage, water and other services, including a lift and permission to spend more than the war-time restriction of £100.
Without the perseverance of Mr Strange, a Ministry of Works official, a SPAB member and local antiquary, the Tower might not stand today, for although his initial rescue operation failed, without the publicity that it created, more than 500 years of history may have been destroyed unnoticed. Here is a copy of a photograph of Frances Day, who presented it to Mr Strange and his wife and rather touchingly refers to him as: “The Father of the Tower”; she obviously shared this sentiment.