Focus on Broughton Castle
 by Julia Abel-Smith

Historic HouseEven the directions to Broughton have a romantic ring. “Turn left at Banbury Cross”, said Lord Saye and Sele, “and we’ll see you at 10 o’clock.”

I parked by the parish church of St Mary the Virgin with its broach spire, which forms an essential part of the setting of the fortified manor embraced by a moat, as if enfolded in the arms of a mother.

Walking through the crenellated gatehouse and approaching the ironstone house across the lawns on a cloudless day in June, it seemed that here was the English country house at its most perfect.

No bossy signs, no noisy commercialism, just the quiet assurance of a well-maintained family home that has been here forever.

William of Wykeham, bishop, chancellor, and founder of Winchester and New College, Oxford, acquired Broughton in 1377. His descendant, Margaret Wykeham, married Sir William Fiennes, 2nd Lord Saye & Sele, who was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

In the reign of Edward VI, Richard Fiennes reconstructed the castle, adding two floors above the Great Hall and building the Oak Room and Great Parlour to form the West wing. His grandson, William, created Viscount by James I, and known as “Old Subtlety”, was a Parliamentarian leader in the Civil War, but deplored the royal execution and retired for a while to Lundy, before emerging with a royal pardon and becoming a privy councillor.

Broughton Castle Celia Fiennes, his granddaughter, was the doughty diarist, who so vividly chronicled her travels at the end of the 17th century. When Nathaniel Fiennes, 4th Viscount, died in 1710 without a male heir, his cousin Cecil Twisleton, became Baroness Saye & Sele in her own right.

The libertine 15th Baron, William Thomas neglected Broughton, preferring the more fashionable Belvedere House in Kent, rebuilt for his maternal grandfather by James “Athenian” Stuart. Broughton was thereby saved from the frequently drastic but always enthusiastic Victorian penchant for alteration, and it is an ironic tragedy that Belvedere, submerged by Greater London, was demolished as late as 1960.

The year of Queen Victoria’s accession, William Thomas sold off most of the contents from Broughton but after his death in 1847, his cousin and heir, Frederick Benjamin Twisleton, Archdeacon of Hereford, embarked on a careful restoration of the castle overseen by George Gilbert Scott. Perhaps it was distaste for his late cousin’s way of life that made him change the family name back to Fiennes. After his death in 1887, the house was let until 1910.

The present Lord Saye’s father inherited in 1948 — possibly the nadir for the country house owner – and in his son’s words “the house was derelict, there was water through the roof and the garden was in disorder”.

The National Trust, although never a really serious option for the family, could not act without an endowment, but the Historic Buildings Council in the person of Sir Alan Lascelles was sympathetic.

He sent an Inspector, who left his file in the hall by mistake, and on it was written: “Fiennes family, notoriously impoverished”. Thus it was that a new roof was laid in 1957 with an 100% grant and as Lord Saye points out “if you’ve got a decent roof, all things are possible.”

Mindful of his inheritance, he trained as a land agent and then set up a business with his partner, Laws and Fiennes, between Banbury and Oxford. From there he looked after estates including those of Trinity, Brasenose and Lincoln Colleges. When he moved into the castle, he moved the business into the gardener’s cottage. The Broughton estate encompasses 1,800 acres and Lord Saye was able to take advantage of the agricultural prosperity of the 1970s and 80s, to restore the house.

Broughton Castle The task was a daunting one but Lord Saye explains that “we had a survey done, which drew up a ten year programme of repair. We tackled the windows, timbers and stonework — it is North Oxfordshire/Northamptonshire ironstone, which was perishing so for ten years we lived with scaffolding.”

Always looking on the bright side, he points out that “we were very fortunate to get a 40% grant from English Heritage, agricultural rents were good and we were able to set off repairs against tax. It was painless but satisfying.”

In all this Nat (Nathaniel) Saye & Sele has been greatly supported by his wife, Mariette, whom he married in 1958.

“It would have been difficult without an active, determined and capable wife. She endears herself to all comers for there is no room in this day and age for grandes dames.” With a twinkle in his eye, he continues, “Nobody thinks I’m the Lord, which is very satisfactory.” Like Christopher Wren at St Paul’s, their achievement is all around them.

The first job was to convert the servants quarters into a family home. Lord Saye’s parents had used Queen Anne’s bedroom but with a young family and William, the first baby to be born at Broughton for two centuries, appearing a few months after they moved in, that arrangement was no longer practical.

With the help of their architect, James Fletcher Watson, Nat and Mariette reordered the servants quarters with the smaller 14th century rooms at the east end of the house. The vaulted crypt beneath the chapel became a very atmospheric kitchen, with the old scullery as the breakfast room. The servants’ hall became the playroom, and a ceiling in another room was removed to provide space for a dramatic spiral staircase thrown up to the first floor, giving access to sleeping quarters and a sitting room with wonderful views to the north and south.

Mariette explains the appropriateness of this arrangement, “We are the people who do the work now, and we have given birth to a new area of the house.” The private rooms are hung with oil paintings by their daughter, Susannah, a successful artist living in New York. Her twin, Martin,a venture capitalist, lives in London with his wife and three sons.

Broughton Castle embodies that special atmosphere unique to houses that have been in the same family for centuries. The family portraits, the Civil War artefacts, the exceptional fireplaces in the King’s and Queen’s bedrooms, the plasterwork and woodwork are all top quality. But there is a difference: this castle is not chained to the past.

The Sayes believe “that every house should contain some contemporary artefacts designed and made by skilled craftsmen”, and the description in the children’s booklet of a new table made of olive wood from the Philippines, is followed by this gentle hint, “You must remember that all the items inside this castle would have been modern at one time”. The oak bed made in 1992 by Robin Furlong in the King’s Chamber and the stained glass window of 1994 in the chapel designed by Alfred Fisher, which commemorates the completion of the major works here, bear witness to this conviction.

The house is run on the “lowest common denominator” with one part-time administrator, who copes with group bookings and publicity, a rota of about 30 guides and stewards, and one full-time gardener who was born in the village and trained at Waterperry.

Garden Broughton CastleThe garden is glorious, surrounded by the moat, which had been clogged with mud and rushes and is now clear water. Lanning Roper provided a skeleton plan in 1970 for the series of borders along the walls and the Ladies’ Garden with fleur de lys beds, on the site of the medieval kitchens. The roses – Charles de Mills, Fantin-Latour, Albertine and Purity – planted alongside lysimachia atropurpurea, and foxgloves seemed quintessentially English.

No wonder then that Broughton is a popular choice for location finders and has been featured in numerous films. Two bedrooms were used in The Madness of George III, and most appropriately, the great hall was used in Shakespeare in Love, in which Joseph Fiennes, a fourth cousin of Lord Saye, took the lead part. Joseph and his equally famous actor brother, Ralph, are the sons of Mark Fiennes, the photographer who shot many of the pictures in the guide-book. Ranulph, another cousin, is the well-known explorer and onetime member of the SAS, who wrote The Feather Men.

Theirs is a literary family. In the gothic library there is a Victorian volume by one of the Twistletons, highly improbably titled, The Tongue — not essential to Speech. The manuscripts of Celia Fiennes’ diaries are owned by Lord Saye, and most recently his younger son, William, was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction with his first book, The Snow Geese. Dedicated to his parents and inspired by Paul Gallico’s classic, on one level it is an account of following snow geese from the Texas prairies to their summer breeding grounds on Baffin Island, north of the Hudson Bay. At a different level, it is William’s personal journey from his reliance on the “ironstone house”, his childhood home at Broughton, and his deep sense of belonging to it, towards the ability to turn his “nostalgia inside-out” and find “that security and happiness, in some other place, with some other person, or in some other mode of being.” Underpinning the whole book is the author’s affection for Broughton. It is a testament to his parents’ success at making a romantic castle — often open to the public — into a beloved home.