Ickworth: Aristocratic past of the church that stands alone

Ickworth church, scaffolding for its restoration now removed, makes a quiet scene with the great Rot

Ickworth church, scaffolding for its restoration now removed, makes a quiet scene with the great Rotunda on the skyline - Credit: Archant

Serving a ghost village and as remote as any in Suffolk, Ickworth church this week begins a new life. DON BLACK looks at the aristocratic links of an historic church

Evidence of good deeds by one of England’s most extraordinary families comes to the fore with the re-opening of its ancient church tomorrow, after a £1.2 million restoration.

No other aristocrats have quite matched the exploits of the earls and marquesses of Bristol in love and war. Human nature being what it is, we know much more about the downside. Their ownership of the 1,800-acre Ickworth estate in Suffolk over the centuries is now concentrated in the church and its churchyard, islanded in National Trust land. But what memories they hold.

As Frederick, the 8th Marquess says: “St Mary’s is hugely important as the linchpin that links all the other historic buildings on the estate.”

The church and churchyard contain some 35 monuments to the Hervey family; “my colourful ancestors” in his words, and numerous memorials to people who served them.

Saving the church from ruin and then restoring its treasures has cost much money and needed much skill over the years. Its first careful restoration was undertaken in 1775 by the 3rd Earl of Bristol, Augustus Hervey, Vice Admiral of the Blue and reputedly the “English Casanova”.

He was the first Hervey to be laid in the vault he created. Second was his brother Frederick, 4th Earl and Bishop of Derry, who created the Ickworth mansion with diocesan revenues. The 6th and 7th marquesses, latest to be interred in the vault, hit the headlines for wrong reasons and lost the family’s last major toeholds in the estate. Frederick, the 8th Marquess inherited a title without wealth.

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A businessman who appreciates the glories of Ickworth, he has made every effort to make the church reflect the fact that not even notorious Herveys were all bad.

Most took religion seriously. Sunday cricket in the park, for example, always ended by six so that players could get to the church for an evening service at half-past.

Augustus saw no contradiction in extending his romantic conquests to Portuguese convents. Revisiting Lisbon as a warship commander in 1752, his diary records that “we stayed late, making love in the frereatica (nunnish) way”.

The weighty diary is among family archives permanently on loan to the county record office at Bury St Edmunds. It has been edited by descendant David Erskine, who points out that Augustus “in describing his gallantries has the ability to laugh at himself when things go wrong...

“In this he is vastly superior to his contemporary and competitor, Casanova, who seems to have been blessed with very little sense of humour.

“Hervey also scores over his rival by virtue of the fact that his stories are certainly true.”

Augustus took risks both under enemy fire at sea and of discovery by angry husbands ashore. Ickworth made a safer haven, especially at Christmas when “we were all, according to ancient custom, to dance – lords, ladies, gentlemen, servants, maids, kitchen maids etc.”

The 3rd earl became MP for Bury in December 1758 – without the need for electioneering on his part or ending his naval career. Hervey disembarked at Chatham and immediately took his seat at Westminster before a triumphal progress from Ickworth to Bury St Edmunds: “The bells of Horringer, Chevington and Bury ringing all the way as I passed.” Thousands of people cheered him in the town.

While Augustus Hervey’s morals would not have been acceptable in Queen Victoria’s navy, his charm, his competence as a commander and his diplomatic skills won successes valued by his country.

He died “of gout in the stomach” in December 1779, aged 55. His vault is reached by a small trapdoor between pews, but will not be open to the public for reasons of safety and family wishes. Even the richest Herveys lie under simple ledger slabs.

The Earl-Bishop (4th Earl) went under in 1803. In his Irish diocese he apparently got on well with Catholics as well as Protestants, who united to put up a memorial obelisk in the park.

He planned Ickworth House with its great Rotunda, dying long before its completion. His extravagant travels across Europe generated another memorial – the naming of Bristol hotels. In the end, however, he died labelled “heretic” in an Italian farm outhouse. On the voyage home his body had to be disguised as a religious statue to overcome sailors’ superstition.

Immediately above the vault is a tablet to the memory of Cecilia Round, “nurse and faithful friend to the family” for 57 years. It epitomises the Herveys’ consideration for their employees.

Another epitaph charmingly remembers Molly Lepel, Augustus Hervey’s mother who had been one of Queen Caroline’s (wife of King George II) maids of honour. Molly was witty and educated as well as a renowned beauty.

“She has all the reading a woman should have and more than any woman need have,” Lord Chesterfield enthused. “She understands Latin perfectly well, though she wisely conceals it.”

The death at 47 of her husband, John, Lord Hervey, was attributed by his father, the 1st Earl of Bristol, to a liking for that “detestable and poisonous plant – tea”

Every trace of Ickworth manor and village next to the church has gone. In 1702 the 1st Earl demolished its cottages and the derelict brick hall that had replaced a timber-framed building on the site.

Wanting to have an unspoilt view over parkland from his planned new hall he moved the villagers to homes he had built for them in nearby Horringer. The gardens stayed but the replacement hall, with Rotunda, was built on higher ground.

If you take a 10-minute walk from there down into the gentle valley of the River Linnet and Ickworth church you will reach a place inhabited from Saxon times until the owners decided otherwise.

The result, wrote architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, is a church “in the park of the house, a considerable distance from this and anything else”.

He called the Earl-Bishop’s Rotunda “a crazy idea” and declared: “It makes for a lumpy appearance outside and creates very unsatisfactory shapes for most of the rooms inside.”

Sir Nikolaus kept his most critical comments ever for Ickworth, which in entirety has come to be accepted as a lovely part of the Suffolk scene. Perhaps he came on a rainy day.

Wet or fine, many of the people who made the church restoration possible will fill its pews for the thanksgiving service.