|Ashdown House Parterre|
A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of The City Madam at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. This satiric comedy, written in 1632, reflects on the consumer culture of the early 17th century. The story contrasts the city and the court, new money and old and it was of particular interest to me because it set in context the rise of Sir William Craven, founder of the Craven family fortunes, and father of the First Earl of Craven, Stuart supporter extraordinaire, who built Ashdown House.
Philip Massinger, who wrote The City Madam, was the son of a provincial gentleman and a tradesman's daughter and was very familiar with the scramble up the social ladder in 17th century society. In scene two of the play Sir Maurice Lacy makes fun of the gentleman Mr Plenty with the following words: "Thy great-grandfather was a butcher, and his son a grazier; thy sire constable of the hundred and thou the first of thy dunghill created gentleman." He could almost have been talking about Sir William.
The Craven family can be traced back to William Craven of Appletreewick in Yorkshire who in the mid sixteenth-century married a woman called Beatrix and had three sons, Henry, Anthony and William. There is little information about the social standing of William’s family at this time but it is known that William was born in one of two cottages that now form part of the church of St John the Baptist in Appletreewick. He attended a "Dames School" in nearby Burnsall, a place where basic education was provided to the children of poor working families before they themselves were old enough to go out to work. In 1560 William got his big chance when he was chosen to be the new apprentice to Robert Hulson, a Burnsall man who had become a merchant tailor in London.
After he became a member of the Merchant Tailors' Company in 1569, Craven went into business with Hulson and when Hulson died he left his former apprentice £5, “a mourninge gown and my shop at Breedstreete corner of Watling Street with the lytle shoppe and warehowse thereunto adjoining, for a terme of three years.” This bequest was made to William "for failthful and diligent service to me done." He had evidently been a loyal and industrious business partner.
After Hulson's death Craven expanded the business and became a Warden of the Merchant Tailors Company on 4th July 1594. He married late, in 1597, when he was already a man of substance and could look for a wife who was younger but was of equal wealth and social standing. Elizabeth Whitmore was the daughter of William Whitmore, another merchant tailor, and her brother George went on to be Lord Mayor of London. Elizabeth and William Craven had six children.
William was by now well on the way to making a fortune and moving up in the fluid social world of the late-16th century middle class. Opportunities provided by trade gave men such as Craven a route not merely to money but also to influential municipal connections. He was elected Alderman of the Bishopsgate Ward of London in 1600, became Sheriff of London in 1601, was knighted in 1603 and became Lord Mayor of London in 1610. He made his money in the wholesale of cloth for the domestic market, providing, for example, cloth worth almost £600 for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth I. Later on in his career he became a moneylender to the aristocracy, and his debtors included Sir Robert Cecil, the 2nd Earl of Essex and the 9th Earl of Northumberland.
Craven was associated with a number of charitable projects in London and he also became a benefactor to the Yorkshire villages of Burnsall and Appletreewick. He paid for renovations to St Wilfrid's Church Burnsall in 1612, furnishing the main body of the church and the chancel with seats and "stalls of wainscot" and he walled the churchyard and had gates added. He paid for a bridge to be built over the River Wharf and had a causeway built from Appletreewick to the church. This was visible until the mid-20th century but is now buried. A rather charming verse was painted onto the church wall to record Craven's generosity:
This church of beauty most, repaired and bright,
Two hundred pouds or more, did cost Sir William Craven, knight,
Many other works of charity whereof no mention here;
True tokens of his bounty in this parish did appear.
His place of his nativity in Appletreewick is seen,
And late of London Lord City Mayor he hath been.
There is a second verse in a similar vein referring to "that bountiful knighte" and his generosity once again. The total sum Craven spent restoring the church and its grounds was about £600, the equivalent of about £80,000 today. Craven also built and endowed Burnsall Grammar School in 1605, giving £20 per annum to pay a schoolteacher and £10 for an usher (assistant schoolmaster). The scholars received free education in Latin and English but had to pay one shilling a week for tuition in Maths. The school statutes give a fascinating insight into both Sir William's benevolent paternalism and into the influence that the rest of the Craven family were already exerting in local affairs. All documents relating to the governance of the school were to be kept in a chest in the schoolhouse. The chest had three locks and the three keys were held by the Rector of Burnsall,
Sir William and his relatives Robert and Antony Craven. The keys were handed down through the family and the statutes decreed that they should be held by "two men of the name of Craven from the Parish of Burnsall" for as long as there were Craven descendents in the parish.
The school was built on land given by Sir Stephen Tempest, the local squire. The Tempest family had been well-established in the Appletreewick area for three hundred years; it would be interesting to know how they felt about the re-appearance of the newly rich and knighted Sir William Craven in a county where they had always led society, especially as in 1601 Craven bought the manor house Elm Tree in Appletreeewick, which he re-named High Hall. It was situated opposite the cottage where he had been born. Again this seems a significant statement in Craven's rise to eminence.
When Sir William Craven died in 1618 he left a fortune of £125,000, the equivalent of £5.3 billion in today's values. He was however still very much a man of the upper middle classes, not the aristocracy. What happened next in the Craven family, though, was possibly even more interesting in terms of upward mobility. In his will Craven specified that his wife (for obvious reasons now one of the most sought-after widows in London!) should invest some of his billions in land. This she did, buying Combe Abbey in Warwickshire, Ashdown in Berkshire and Stokesay in Shropshire, amongst many others. This had strong social as well as financial implications. Craven was posthumously moving his fortune and his family's social positioning from the middle to the upper class.
|William Craven, 1st Earl|
A look at the Craven family tree serves to demonstrate the influence that one success can have on future generations. Sir William Craven's eldest son William went on to become the first Earl of Craven, a notable soldier and friend of Charles II and prince Rupert of the Rhine. His second son John became Baron Craven of Ryton and married the daughter of the 2nd Baron Spencer. One of his cousins became Master of the Horse to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and another became her usher. His daughter Mary married Thomas, 2nd Baron Coventry. His other daughter Elizabeth married Sir Percy Herbert who succeeded to the title of Baron Powis.
Several other Craven nephews and cousins were knighted and married into the aristocracy. Perhaps the most interesting early descendent is Mary Craven who became Lady Andros. As a result of her connection to the first Earl of Craven she gained a place at the court of King Charles II and went on to marry Sir Edmund Andros, gentleman in waiting to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and later one of the early colonial governors of America. Mary died in Boston in 1688. It was a long way from Appletreewick in Yorkshire, and a graphic illustration of how high the Craven family had risen on the coattails of one man.