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Ashby St. Ledgers

Ashby St. Ledgers was first mentioned in the Doomsday Book which gives the place name as Ascebi (Ash Tree Settlement). In Norman times, a church was erected on the site, dedicated to St. Leodegarius, from whom we get the modern-day name derivation. The manor was given as a gift to Hugh de Grentemaisnil by William the Conqueror and passed to various other occupants until 1375 when it passed into the Catesby family, and became their principal residence.

It was briefly confiscated after the attainder and execution of William Catesby, one of Richard III's counsellors, after losing the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, but was later returned to his son George. It passed down the male line to Robert Catesby's father Sir William Catesby, who managed to hold on to the property in spite of massive debts caused by recusancy fines and years of imprisonment for his stubborn adherence to the Catholic faith.

Sir William, when at liberty, used Ashby St. Ledgers quite frequently as a residence, along with Bushwood Hall in Lapworth, Warwickshire. Records seem to indicate that there was no parish priest at the church of St. Leodegarius from 1554 to 1610, and it is possible that this may have added to the appeal of residing there. On Sir William's death in 1598, the property passed to his wife Lady Anne (a daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton Court), as a dower property for her lifetime, reverting to their son Robert on her death. However, Robert predeceased his mother by virtue of his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, and therefore never inherited Ashby St. Ledgers.

Although Robert Catesby's primary residence until his death was at Chastleton in Oxfordshire, he spent a great deal of time with his mother at Ashby St. Ledgers. As Robert's own wife, Catherine Leigh, also died in 1598, Robert quite often left his surviving son Robert in his mother's care, and the property's central location was also more convenient to the houses of his many friends and relations.

It is this central location that made Ashby St. Ledgers a type of 'Command Centre' during the planning of the Gunpowder Plot. We are told that it was here, in the room above the Gatehouse, with its privacy from the main house and clear view of the surrounding area, that Robert Catesby and the other conspirators planned a great deal of the Gunpowder Plot.

Ashby St. Ledgers also became a repository for the arms, munitions and gunpowder that the plotters were amassing. Although there is no evidence to show that his mother was aware of his activities, Robert claimed to others that he was organizing a regiment, of which he was the captain, to fight in the Low Countries.

On the morning of the 5th of November, before the news broke of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby, by prior arrangement, had a servant of Ambrose Rookwood fetch his son and the child of his sister Anne from Rushton to his mother's keeping at Ashby St. Ledgers. His sister was married to Sir Henry Browne, the uncle of Anthony, 2nd Viscount Montague. (Viscount Montague later came under suspicion, as a Catholic Lord who had stayed away from Parliament, and was thrown into the Tower, where he confessed to Catesby warning him to staying away, but giving no reason.)

Catesby's mother and son had no idea he was riding hard towards them in a desperate attempt to salvage what he could from the ruins of his failed attempt on the Houses of Parliament. With five of the other conspirators and their servants, Catesby arrived on the outskirts of Ashby St. Ledgers, where he sent a message to Robert Wintour, who was having dinner with Lady Catesby inside the manor. He asked Robert to meet him in the fields at the edge of town, bringing his horse, but not to let his mother know of his having been there. Robert Wintour dutifully complied, and Catesby left towards Dunchurch and on to his death at Holbeche House without saying a last goodbye to his family.

After his death, Ashby St. Ledgers and his other houses were thoroughly searched and Catesby's goods confiscated. The searchers found nothing there except for a few arms in a nearby ditch. Ashby St. Ledgers managed to be saved from immediate confiscation due to Lady Anne's life-tenancy claim on the property, but by 1611 it was granted to Sir William Irving and finally passed out of the Catesby family after 400 years.

Ashby St. Ledgers was purchased from Sir William Irving by Bryan Janson (l'Anson), Esq. in November 1612, after which the estate remained in this family until 1703, when it was sold to Joseph Ashley, Esq., a sheriff of the county of Northampton.

In 1903, Ivor Guest, Viscount Wimborne, bought the manor, and employed the renowned architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to do work both on the manor and in the village. It was later sold by his son, and passed through the hands of some speculators, who, having little interest in or respect for the history of the property, allowed it to fall into considerable disrepair. It was eventually purchased in 1998 by Viscount Wimborne's grandson and namesake, now the current Viscount Wimborne, in an attempt to save Ashby St. Ledgers from total ruin.

And it was just in time: Viscount Wimborne was kind enough to invite us to Ashby St. Ledgers on several occasions to see the manor, and to discuss his plans for its desperately-needed restoration. Many of the photographs shown here provide ample evidence of the restoration currently underway.

The manor is much larger than expected, and most of the buildings that stood in 1605 are still there. Built in the local 'golden ironstone', there is a sunny warmth in the central courtyard, and in the rolling lawns at the back of the estate. At first glance it is beautiful, and to walk through the rooms, including the one where Lady Catesby dined with Robert Wintour, with their magnificent fireplaces and oak paneling, really takes you back to that time period.

It is only when you look closer that you can see the decay. One entire wing is sagging and has to be dismantled piece by piece and reassembled. Walls are crumbling, and numerous leaks are damaging the interior. The famous Gatehouse, which looked so pristine in the photograph in Lady Antonia Fraser's book not so long ago, is now in imminent danger of falling down and is only being held up by scaffolding.

We are lucky to have been allowed into the Plot Room above the Gatehouse - at our own risk we might add! This small room, where so much history was made, has its original paneling, and its atmosphere is such that it doesn't take much imagination to picture the plotters, sitting around, amid flickering candles, making their plans in here. But the stairs are rotting away, it leans so badly, and they have had to run the scaffolding through the Gatehouse roof for support. It would truly be a tragedy if such a piece of history were to disappear forever.

Lord Wimborne estimates that it will take about 10 million pounds and many years to save Ashby St. Ledgers and preserve it for future generations. He is hoping one day to be the first to be able to open the Gatehouse to the public, but it is a race against time. We find it particularly admirable that he, a young man in his twenties, is dedicating so much of his time and his own money to such an effort, an enormous undertaking in anyone's book, but his love and devotion to Ashby St. Ledgers is obvious, and for this reason we at the Gunpowder Plot Society have volunteered our efforts and joined forces with him to help save this crucial part of the history of both the Gunpowder Plot and England.

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