One of the foremost thoughts to strike you when you visit Stoneleigh Abbey is a sense of fascination, especially when you can almost imagine the mystic monks laying the foundation of the 10th century building (the Abbey was founded by Cistercians in 1154, a Roman Catholic religious order of monks and nuns). One can even feel the distress they must have felt at the dissolution of the monastery some 400 years later by King Henry VIII, after which they are said to have abandoned the Abbey with a curse.
The monastery was given by King Henry VIII to his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, but the monks’ curse seems to have worked, for two of the Duke’s sons died the same day and the Stoneleigh Abbey soon became a roofless ruin.
During my visit to the Abbey, I was ecstatic to walk the grounds where Jane Austen, the illustrious 18th century English writer, strolled almost 700 years later. In that sense, England is replete with old state homes whose grandeur is kept intact by their caretakers. Stoneleigh Abbey is one such that was visited by Jane Austen as well.
We entered the estate through the ‘Medieval Gatehouse’ and were met with a panoramic view of the 690 acres of parkland and River Avon. It was in 1561, we are told, when Stoneleigh Abbey became the countryseat of Jane Austen’s maternal relatives – the Leighs – and owned by them for the next 400 years.
During her stay there, Jane is said to have been so enthused by the house and its inheritance intrigues that she wrote descriptions of the interiors, views of the ground and cameos of her family in her novels. In fact, one of the rooms that had been described as a ‘gloomy apartment’ by Jane has now been redesigned into an impressive paneled library, made from the famous Coromandel rosewood.
Coincidently, the sunny rooms favoured by Jane and her family were used almost 50 years later by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert when they stayed at Stoneleigh in 1858. An exquisite green and gold room still displays the Queen’s bathtub.
Stoneleigh remains unaltered since 1806, so we can assume Jane would still be able to identy with the rooms. Since December 1996, the Abbey’s ownership has been with a charitable trust, which has restored it.