Stories of a lost Oxfordshire Tudor mansion rediscovered by the Bodleian Libraries
The stories behind Rycote, one of England’s most important lost Tudor mansions, have been rediscovered with the help of the Bodleian Libraries archives. Work to uncover the history of Rycote has revealed this great mansion’s important historical connections and the key role the house played in local and national history. Now a new website (Rediscovering Rycote: http://rycote.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) brings these stories online, revealing the mysteries that were left in Rycote’s wake when the building was demolished in 1807.
The mansion at Rycote was one of the most celebrated and important country houses in Oxfordshire. During its existence, spanning almost three centuries, the great house welcomed key historical figures with the owners having close connections to royalty. Yet Rycote’s tragic ending meant its history quickly faded into obscurity. In the early 19th century Rycote became too expensive to maintain and over five days in June 1807 the mansion was auctioned off, brick by brick, by its financially crippled owner. A small 15th century chapel and a stable guest block were left remaining on the estate, the only remnant of the great house being part of the south-west tower. Regrettably Rycote’s archive, deemed to be of no further value, was thrown on a bonfire.
With the mansion’s archives destroyed or scattered, piecing together its history was always going to prove a challenge. The Bodleian Libraries, together with the current owners of the property, drew on the archives of over fifty different antiquaries, families and historical figures using manuscripts, letters, accounts, maps and drawings from medieval to modern times to piece together the story of Rycote. Many relevant items already featured in the Bodleian Libraries collections. Highlights from the items digitised at the Bodleian include: the first ‘modern map’ of Oxfordshire by Christopher Saxton, 1574; accounts of expenses for the entertainments of Elizabeth I at Rycote; and autograph letters of Elizabeth I and Henry IV of France documenting the exploits of Sir John Norris, one of Elizabethan England’s leading military commanders.
This lengthy archival work rediscovered and added rich detail to the fascinating and important lost history of Rycote. Highlights from Rycote’s history include:
- Hosting six English kings and queens, including Henry VIII who came in August 1540 with his new bride Katherine Howard.
- Numerous visits from Elizabeth I before and after she was crowned Queen.
- The strong connection between Rycote’s owners and Elizabeth I.
- The Norris brothers: six soldiers who fought in the armies of Elizabeth I. Five brothers died in the Queen’s service, all within the lifetime of their parents.
- James I’s five visits between 1612 and 1619.
- The relocation of Charles I’s court to Rycote following an outbreak of the plague in London in 1625
The investigation also uncovered, amongst other things:
- Insights into Rycote’s library, whose origins and date of construction is still unknown.
- Details of Rycote’s unique art collections.
- Information about Rycote’s nationally important 15th century chapel.
- The story of the fire that broke out at Rycote in 1745.
Now for the first time the public can go online (http://rycote.bodleian.ox.ac.uk) to discover the fascinating stories that have been uncovered to reveal the history of Rycote. An interactive timeline explores key moments in the history of Rycote and the lives of its owners while a mini-documentary gives an insight into just how a Bodleian Libraries Archivist was able to piece Rycote’s story together. The Rediscovering Rycote website includes a number of other features, many of them interactive, such as:
- An interactive map allows users to explore the mansion and its grounds as they appeared at the beginning of the eighteenth-century.
- An ‘Add to the Archive’ function, which allows visitors to the website to comment on the displayed objects and stories, contributing to Rycote’s story in the 21st century.
- A beginner’s guide to palaeography: an online tutorial that teaches visitors how to read Tudor and Stuart handwriting using Bodleian manuscripts as examples. A competition exercise is also included, giving visitors the chance to win an iPod Shuffle and headphones.
- A dedicated research area for academics and students featuring searchable catalogues, a bibliography and full texts of selected papers delivered at the Bodleian’s 2012 Rycote symposium.
Matthew Neely, Rycote Project Archivist, Bodleian Libraries: ‘Despite the destruction of its archive, Rycote’s national and local importance has left an indelible imprint in disparate collections, many of which now reside in the Bodleian Library. The Rediscovering Rycote website marks the first time that these formerly fragmented sources have been brought together.’
Dr Felicity Heal, Emeritus Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford: ‘Rycote in its heyday was a regional powerhouse. It is exciting that, as the house has been revived and rebuilt, the Bodleian has now been given the opportunity to re-assemble the scattered evidence of its history and architecture on a website, which will be an invaluable resource for the study of the local and national past.’
Mr and Mrs Bernard Taylor, current owners of Rycote Estate, said: ‘The restoration of Rycote has been a fascinating project and the work of Matthew Neely and the Bodleian Libraries has brought the practical task of restoration to life. Rycote’s history is important locally and we are delighted to have been able to support this archival work in the Bodleian over the past six years.’
While Rycote remains privately-owned the 15th-century medieval chapel is open to the public April to September on Friday, Saturday and Sunday: http://rycote.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/visiting
About the Bodleian Libraries
The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford form the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. They include the principal University library—the Bodleian Library—which has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years; major research libraries; and libraries attached to faculties, departments and other institutions of the University. The combined library collections number more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 50,000 e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats. For additional information see http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Rycote Project Archivist
Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries