C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

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C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

'Madresfield: the Real Brideshead' by Jane Mulvagh

‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead’ by Jane Mulvagh

My breakfast time reading for the last few days has been Madresfield: the Real Brideshead by Jane Mulvagh [1]. It is an account of the history of the Lygon family and their country home, told via a series of objects found in and around the house (eg. The Nursery, The Ditch, The Portrait, the Red Heels, The Tuning Fork, The Tree of Life). As with any aristocratic British family whose ancestors ‘go back’ to the Norman Invasion, the family was active and involved in most of the major events of our island’s history and politics and frequently pioneers in the arts and exploration.

But why take a special interest in this family and their country pile rather than another? The clue is in the title of the book – Brideshead. Even though Castle Howard in Yorkshire was used to represent the Brideshead revisited in the TV and film versions of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of 1945, it was really Madresfield Court in Worcestershire owned by the Lygon family that was the beautiful old house in Waugh’s mind as he wrote.

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

And it was the (beautiful? you judge) son of the house, Hugh Lygon (1904-36), who was a model for the beautiful and doomed Sebastian Flyte.

Hugh Lygon

Hugh Lygon

The first chapter of Mulvagh’s book on ‘The Nursery‘ is actually about Waugh as it was in the nursery of Madresfield where Waugh wrote on his frequent visits.

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters and a friend

And what does all this have to do with C S Lewis? I certainly didn’t begin to read this book with Lewis in mind, but as always seems to happen, there were connections that seemed to jump out of the pages. Lygon (pronounced ‘Liggon’) is the family name of the Earls of Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) who own Madresfield and it is the sixth Earl of Beauchamp who was the main founder and financial supporter of both Malvern College where Lewis went to school (for one year in 1913/14)

Malvern College

Malvern College

and Keble College Oxford where Lewis received his military training before going to fight in France in 1917.

Keble College Oxford

Keble College Oxford

As I read more about the sixth Earl and his family, there were unavoidable resonances between his emotional history and spirituality (which expressed itself in architecture, literature, and good works) and Lewis the writer and Christian apologist.

The sixth Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

The chapter of ‘Madresfield’ that concerns Frederick, the sixth Earl, is entitled ‘The Breviary’. This is because he was a “highminded High Churchman” who was fascinated by liturgy and wrote a much-researched book of prayers and services now in Madresfield’s library [2]. Frederick had been a younger brother in the family who was not expecting to inherit the title – in fact, early on he looked more likely to ‘go over to’ Rome and become a priest. The young Frederick’s mother had died when he was only five and his father withdrew emotionally, so the small boy was largely raised by a stern anglo-catholic governess, with chapel at the beginning and end of every day and church seven times on Sunday [3]. Even as a schoolboy at Eton, Frederick Lygon began collecting medieval religious texts. He went on to read Greats at Christ Church Oxford and became a follower there of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a Tractarian or ‘ritualist’. Frederick even made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1856 in order to decide once and for all between the Anglican Church and the Roman but, after a severe struggle, remained Anglican, although praying for the reunion someday of the Anglican and Roman branches of the Church.

According to Mulvagh, “his Christian mission continued in his political career” [4] and he had considerable success in various government posts. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, described him as “a very smart, bright man, a little chimerical, gaily dressed and brushed, and beneath a most loving son of the church.” [5] In the House of Commons he earned himself the nickname “the Ecclesiastical Layman” and wrote all of Disraeli’s speeches on religious matters [6].

Meanwhile at Madresfield, Frederick’s older brother Henry Lygon, the fifth Earl, was transforming the house from a medium-sized squire’s manor house into a 160-roomed Victorian neo-gothic stately home [7].

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

But in 1866 Henry died of TB and Frederick succeeded to the title and the task of finishing the building works. This had happy results, as Mulvagh points out:

“Frederick’s devotion to God was bound up in the Gothic rebuild. Though in ecclesiastical matters he was nit-picking and academic, his architectural instincts were sentimental and idealized. The Gothic was the Tractarians’ preferred architectural style. Their romantic imagination associated it with the medieval: the chivalric knight, the medieval monk, the artisan. Inspired by nostalgia, these modern crusaders turned their backs on classicism, a style they associated with the decadence of Ancient Rome, the godlessness of Georgian England and, worst of all, the barbarity of French Republicanism. Gothic Revivalism – conveniently rinsed of all its violent associations – suggested to them high-minded poetry, an undivided and true church, Plantagenet nationalism and, for those so inclined, ancient lineage.” [8]

Malvern College

Frederick built almshouses, estate workers’ houses, several gothic churches, and donated to the restoration of the Priory at Great Malvern [9]. As a substantial landowner in Worcestershire, he helped found Malvern College and a nearby girls’ school. I picked up a copy of A History of Malvern College 1865-1965 by Ralph Blumenau [10] for only a £1 at my favourite shop in Oxford (‘Arcadia’ on St Michael’s Street – oh, another coincidence: the first chapter of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited about being an undergrad at Oxford is called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, I should imagine the source of the name of the shop). Frederick Lygon became the Chairman of the College Council, built the headmaster’s house, and was one of the main investors in the Building Company which was formed to develop the school. He was the biggest sharehloder, along with John Wheeley Lea, and Blumenau concludes: “it is no exaggeration to think of these two men as the principal founding benefactors of Malvern College.” [11] Frederick’s heir, William, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was only a minor when Frederick died but in turn also became Chairman of Malvern College’s Council in 1905.

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

While still just a member of the Coucil, the seventh Earl was instrumental in getting one of his old masters from Eton, S R James, to be Malvern’s headmaster. S R James was headmaster from 1897 to 1914 and therefore during the time Lewis and his brother attended the school (the college called ‘Wyvern’ in Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy). Blumenau makes several references to C S Lewis in his history of Malvern College, noting some of his positive and negative reactions to the teaching and regime there (I’ll deal with this in a later blog).

Keble College

John Keble himself died in 1866 and his supporters were determined to build an Oxford college in his memory (as well as to “counteract Rugby and Balliol” in spirituality) [12]. It was to be High Anglican, frugal, and for those training for ordination in the Church of England. Donors included Gladstone, Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford, and of course Frederick Lygon who gave £5,000 at first and more anonymously later. William Butterfield, a neo-gothic architect, was chosen as designer. The foundation stone was laid on 25 April, Keble’s birthday. “Not surprisingly, in its Gothic style, Keble bore a remarkable resemblance to the rebuilt Madresfield and some rooms in college were named after the Earls Beauchamp.” [13]

Coincidences

So it was to be the architectural preference of the 6th Earl of Beauchamp and the deep spirituality that it sought to express that was to be the backdrop for some of the formative years of C S Lewis at school and university. Both lost their mothers at a young age, had fathers who withdrew from them emotionally, and had formative training by a nanny/governess. Ironically, even though Lewis pretty much hated his time at Malvern and his military training at Keble, he grew up to share the deepest aesthetic and spiritual interests and instincts of Frederick Lygon’s heart – the medieval romantic imagination, nostalgia for the chivalric knight and medieval monk, a hatred of the idolatry of Reason, and a desire for the universal Church to be united once more.

Any other serendipitous connections? Well, while I’ve been writing this blog everything’s come full circle. I’ve been listening to the TV music of composer Geoffrey Burgon, a CD which just happens to start with Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia,

Geoffrey Burgon CD

Geoffrey Burgon CD

continues with Testament of Youth about young people at Oxford affected by the First World War, and which ends with – you’ve guessed it – the mellifluous beauty of Brideshead Revisited.

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

NOTES

[1] Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, Black Swan, London, 2008.

[2] Day Hours of the Church of England, 1858 – it was actually a translation of the Roman Breviary and the Earl published it anonymously.

[3] Mulvagh, ibid., p199.

[4] ibid., p203.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p206.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p213.

[10] Ralph Blumenau, A History of Malvern College 1865-1965, Macmillan, London, 1965.

[11] ibid., p10.

[12] Mulvagh, op.cit., p215.

[13] ibid., p217.


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