The Not-So-Secret Passion of William, Earl of Craven
Hello Hoydens and Firebrands and thank you for inviting me to visit today! I’m very excited to be talking about that most chivalrous cavalier William Earl of Craven and Ashdown House, the beautiful seventeenth century hunting lodge that he built on the Berkshire Downs for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen.
The name of William, Earl of Craven is not one of the more familiar ones from the English Civil War period. In part this is because Craven, whilst a staunch cavalier and supporter of King Charles I, did not fight in the Civil War and spent the entire period abroad. Craven was the son of a cloth merchant and moneylender; his father had made a vast fortune during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, bought himself a knighthood from James I, been Lord Mayor of London and had died one of the ten richest men in England. William Craven studied law at Oxford but gave it all up to become a soldier, making his name in Europe fighting with distinction under Prince Maurice of Nassau in the conflict later known as the Thirty Years War. In 1629 rumours circulated that he was to marry Lady Ann Cavendish, daughter of the earl of Devonshire, but instead he returned abroad. Lady Ann was willing but Craven evidently was not particularly keen!
It was whilst Craven was abroad that he met Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I. Elizabeth was a remarkable woman possessed of a charm and charisma that was absolutely dazzling. She was known as the “Queen of Hearts;” Sir Henry Wootton wrote a sonnet extolling her beauty and Sir Walter Raleigh called her “one of the brightest jewels of the kingdom.” Elizabeth gathered about her a coterie of gentlemen sworn to her service in the courtly style of medieval knights. William Craven was one such, the Marquis of Hamilton another, Sir Thomas Roe a third and her cousin Christian of Anhalt, who rode into battle with her glove pinned to his hat as a token, yet another of her admirers. Craven, twelve years her junior, remained devoted to her for the rest of her life.
Elizabeth had been married at the age of sixteen to Frederick, the Elector Palatine. They ruled in Bohemia for one year only before being defeated by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Elizabeth and Frederick fled into exile with their young family and found refuge in The Hague. From there Frederick launched a number of unsuccessful attempts to regain his patrimony with the financial and military support of William Craven, amongst others. Frederick died in 1632 and Craven remained at Elizabeth’s court-in-exile throughout the period of the English Civil War. He became even more of a support to Elizabeth during this time, providing the financial means to keep her afloat in her exile. One letter from Elizabeth to William Craven reads: “There is no more to eat and today, if no money be found, we shall have neither meat, nor bread nor candles.” Craven, clearly a man who could take a hint, came through with the cash she needed!
Elizabeth finally returned to England in 1660 after the restoration of her nephew King Charles II to the English throne. She had nowhere to live and again it was William Craven who came to her aid, putting his house in Drury Lane at her disposal. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys record in their diaries that Craven was the master of her household (with the official title of Master of Horse) and that he squired her about London, to the theatre and other entertainments. This was the time that Craven, aware of Elizabeth’s desire “to live in quiet” started to build houses for her – Ashdown, a hunting lodge high on the Berkshire Downs, and Hamstead Marshall, modelled on her palace in Heidelberg. Sadly Elizabeth died before these were completed.
Rumours of a secret marriage between the Winter Queen and William Craven at some point during her widowhood in the Hague have never been substantiated. In support of the marriage is the portrait by Van Dyck showing the two of them together, joined by a cupid. The original stone gateposts at Ashdown House and Hamstead Marshall also had a crown and an Earl’s coronet entwined, although these were built after Elizabeth’s death. Members of the Craven family in the 18th century spoke of the marriage as a fact. It has even been suggested that the £50 000 that Craven gave to the Royalist cause during the Civil War was contingent upon Charles I giving him permission to marry his sister. Against such a marriage is the lack of contemporary record and Elizabeth’s strong sense of her own status – would she really marry a man who was the son of a cloth merchant and so far below her in rank? Whatever the truth of the secret marriage, Ashdown House still stands as a testament to Craven’s devotion to Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.