Creating Kirby

The story of Kirby Hall  in Northamptonshire is inextricably linked with the story of the Hatton family who rose to prominence under Elizabeth I, and remained there right through the 17thc.  As their fortunes changed after that so did that of the house and garden, until large parts of it decayed or collapsed, before being handed over to the Office of Works in 1930.

Now the consolidated ruins of the mansion are amongst the most beautiful and romantic of all the monuments in Britain, boasting  extraordinary late Elizabethan architecture, and since 1997 a re-imagined late 17thc garden.

Images are either my own photos or from the various English Heritage Guide Books to Kirby unless otherwise acknowledged.

The site of Kirby has been occupied since at least Roman times and by the 14th century there was a small settlement around  the Gretton Brook which runs across the site just below the house. This included the church and a small manor house. From the main windows of the house it’s still possible to see the lumps and bumps of the remains of the mediaeval village in the fields.

At that time the manor of Kirby was owned  partly by the Brudenell family of Deene Park, the neighbouring estate,  and partly by Fineshade Priory a few miles to the north.  After the Dissolution the priory and its land  ended up in the hands of  Sir Humphrey Stafford. His grandson, another Sir Humphrey, inherited and  in 1570 decided to rebuild the existing manor house.  It was an ambitious project based on designs published in contemporary continental pattern books, and  an early example of one of the great prodigy houses of the late 16th and early 17thc.

The North front of the house as built by Stafford

The first impression of Stafford’s new house was of  a long, but quite plain and  simple facade with a single arch leading through it into a central courtyard.  Once through the arch, however the architecture was anything but plain and simple.

Opposite the entrance is a spectacular entrance to the state apartments and family quarters, with huge windows on either side. The right hand section of this is the Great Hall of the old manor house. The walls of the buildings around the courtyard have a series of ornate giant pilasters which  are topped in an unusual way – not quite classical revival    the capitals are topped by a narrow frieze and that in turn are topped by a further miniaturised column & a ball.

The decoration on/around the frieze harks back to earlier traditions and includes Staffords badge of a knot and boars head  – with his name on a panel above.

Most of the building work was finished within 5 years – remarkably speedy for this scale of operation – but unfortunately Stafford didn’t enjoy his new house for very long because at the end of 1574 just as it was nearing completion he died.   It’s unlikely he got round to doing too much outside, although it’s possible as ground was set aside on the west side for a garden and orchard.

Immediately after Humphrey Stafford’s death the house was sold to Sir Christopher Hatton. This is where things start to become confusing because there are four Christopher Hattons in our story so they usually referred to as Christopher 1 2 3  and 4.  They were all knighted although the last two are also distinguishable because they also gained other titles.  

As a second son and so not likely to get much by way off inheritance Christopher was sent off to study law at the  Inner Temple, where he got involved with their amateur dramatics. That might sound a bit odd but the Inner Temple was a venue for many plays performed by lawyers and students, probably including some by Shakespeare and they were regularly attended by courtiers and even occasionally by the queen.   Elizabeth must have seen Hatton in one such production and taken a shine to him.  Soon summoned to court he became one of her regular attendants and soon a particular favourite and constant companion.  He was made Lord Chancellor in 1587 and held the post until he died in 1591.

The north front of the house as modified by Lord Chancellor Hatton

By 1575 Sir Christopher was well entrenched at court and had become an MP for Northamptonshire. Despite being in debt to the tune of £10000 he decided he needed a house fit for his new status and so bought Kirby.  Almost immediately he began work    extending it but also making it outward rather than inward looking adding a new south west wing with massive bay windows looking out across the valley.

Ely Place, later Hatton House, in Holborn from Faithorne and Newcourt’s Exact Delineation surveyed in the 1640s.

However almost immediately he decided Kirby wouldn’t actually be  grand enough and started work on a palatial new house at Holdenby as well.   At the same time he persuaded the queen to “persuade” the Bishop of Ely to give him a perpetual lease for a nominal sum – the bishops palace in Holborn, which was later redeveloped as Hatton Garden.

He commissioned the great 16thc surveyor Ralph Treswell  to survey his  estates and there are detailed surveys of both Kirby and Holdenby which give us our first impressions of the new house and its setting.

detail of Treswell’s survey 1587



Treswell shows the main approach road from the north running right alongside the eastern side of the house, before going on to the village.  A garden and orchard can be seen on the western side.  Where the front court now stands was a range of outbuildings, probably built by Stafford but which were not considered grand enough for Hatton.   As Paula Henderson’s The Tudor House and Garden shows most grand properties of the period were approached by one, if not several courts, to impress visitors.  Stafford’s outhouses  were cleared away and a front court created.    It had two large gated entrances, similar but plainer than the ones that Hatton commissioned for Holdenby, set into plain stone walls. The arcading that can be seen today was added later.

This also meant moving the main approach road well away from the buildings partly to allow for a visual build-up to the new forecourt, partly to allow for new kitchens/service wing to be built and partly of course to increase the privacy of the mansion itself.

The road was not the only thing that was moved.  The village of Kirby disappeared too! It’s known that there were 7 tenants paying rent in 1578 but only 1 in  1608.  This is because Hatton enclosed the common fields on which the villagers relied to graze their cattle or sheep and they either moved on voluntarily or were evicted.  The houses were presumably then demolished and soon all that was left was the small village church, perhaps because it served as a family chapel.

Plans from Teresa Sladen, The Gardens of Kirby Hall, in the Journal of Garden History, 1984

Building on this scale was expensive and the Lord Chancellor  was ruined by his extravagance and despite having had a huge income  on his death in 1591 his estate was largely confiscated by the Exchequer to pay his debts.  His nephew and heir  William Newton, who changed his name to Hatton on inheriting, was then allowed to buy them back on a lease.   However, he already had plenty of other properties and  probably never lived at Kirby,  which was rented out to two different tenants  meaning that  nothing substantial happened to the house or grounds.  In any case William only lived another few years, before in theory Kirby passed to Lord Chancellor Hatton’s godson, a 15 yr old cousin Christopher Hatton II.



I say in theory because William’s widow Elizabeth, who was Lord Burghley’s  granddaughter,   remarried. In itself that wouldn’t have been much of an issue but her new husband was Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General. He had a fine legal mind but also a fine sense of his own importance.  As men largely controlled their wive’s property, and as Christopher II was a minor he managed to tie up the estate for several years leaving the young man with an income of just £100 pa instead of at least £4000.  It was at this point too that Holdenby was sold off.  Coke may have benefited from the money but he also benefited from his new wife’s tongue and temper and there are many reports of their constant wrangling and animosity.  Coke was unpopular and she was friendly with both King James and his wife Anne of Denmark, entertaining them in London without inviting her husband. She also welcomed them to Kirby in 1605, when Anne stayed for several days.

In 1619 both Coke and the  young Christopher Hatton II died.  Only 38 Hatton had forged a life for himself in London and Essex and had little to do with Kirby. The estate was now inherited by his 14 yr old son, Christoper III.  His widow, Alice, sold up down south and moved to Kirby with him.  James I paid another visit that year and again in 1624.

Those visits were quite possibly the excuse for major works refurbishing the house but also redesigning the garden.  Archaeology suggests there was already a garden in place which included a water course of some kind, because this was diverted into a well-constructed tunnel which still exists under the western terrace.

The watercourse tunnel. From Archaeological Journal 1995

The site stretching to nearly 4 acres was levelled and walled-in  with high terraces being created on two sides to overlook  the garden so that, just as at Kenilworth, it could be better appreciated.  It’s not quite clear how things finished on the south side but the likelihood is there was a wall across that side too, but no terrace.

Plans from Teresa Sladen, The Gardens of Kirby Hall, in the Journal of Garden History, 1984


Christopher Hatton III became an MP at the ripe old age of 20 and at 25, in 1630, married Elizabeth Montague of nearby Boughton.  As the political situation began to deteriorate he joined the royalist party. At the same time he began to think about improvements at Kirby which was now sixty years old and perhaps looking a little old-fashioned and he called in the king’s master-mason Nicholas Stone.

The north front remodelled by Nicholas Stone

The  northern facade was remodelled for a second time. Stone modified the windows and chimneys, and replaced  the Elizabethan obelisk finials  with much more classical pediments. He added balustrading and a clock tower with a prospect room and rooftop lookout.  What’s most impressive is the way that  all this just blended in  seamlessly with the original Elizabethan work.

The gateway formerly on the south side off. the Great Garden, and now in the forecourt.

Stone is also usually thought to be responsible, amongst other things,  for  2 or 3 ornate arched “gateways” in the garden.  However Brian Dix suggests that  one of them may well have been an earlier structure that was remodelled by Stone.

detail showing the remodelled top of the arch on the North Terrace From Archaeological Journal 1995

In fact only one of these was actually an opening. It stood on the southern side opening onto the valley below, but  was later moved to the forecourt where it  is now used as the main entrance to the site. The other two were closed arched structures built into  the terraces which  acted as both seats and  eye-catchers at the end of the main paths.    The one on the northern side is still in place, while archaeology  has revealed a plinth and foundations of the same dimensions for the western one.

Central section of the west terrace during excavations. From Archaeological Journal 1995


The garden was then relaid, almost certainly as a simple quadripartite cut-work parterre, with wide axial paths, and it was this design that the first reconstruction of the garden in the 1930s aimed to recreate.

Undertaking major building work like this was quite  unusual given the troubled state of the country and inevitably the war stopped work, leaving Hatton £18,000 in debt.  In 1642 he abandoned everything  including his wife Elizabeth and children who remained at Kirby and joined Charles I at his new HQ in Oxford.  The king put him on the Privy Council, made him comptroller of the royal household, the following year  made him Baron Hatton of Kirkby.

But as the war increasingly went against Charles, Hatton gave up his positions and attempted to save his estates from seizure by the Parliamentarians and his family from poverty.   Eventually he joined other royalists in self-imposed exile in Paris, leaving  his wife,  two sons, Christopher and Charles, and 3 daughters at Kirby.

Lady Hatton had to resort to selling or mortgaging land to survive but it’s easy to get the sense from her letters that things were pretty desperate.  In April 1655 for example she wrote  from Kirby to her husband that she “found all ye poore Cheildren well though stark naked: Charles with onely halfe a shirt”.   Somehow though she was able to keep the estate together and when John Evelyn visited in August 1654 he found  “Kirby, a very noble house … built à la moderne; the garden and stables agreeable, but the avenue ungraceful, and the seat naked”.

Annoyingly this is the edge of Merian’s map, and so we can’t identify Hatton’s house which was a little further out, nor Morin’s nursery which was close to the Hospital de la Charite.


Poverty may have been the reason why, in 1656,  Lady Hatton packed Christopher and Charles off to their father in Paris who was living in the Faubourg St Germain in relative comfort compared with other royalist exiles.  This meant that the two young men had access to many important Paris gardens, including  the Jardin du Roi and the gardens of the Duc d’Orleans, which was under the supervision of Robert Morison, another royalist exile, and Charles  seems to have become a student of his.

The garden of Pierre Morin  by Richard Symonds, 1649 from the Leith-Ross article

fr om the Leith-Rooss article.

Even more significantly  they lived very close to the nursery garden run by Pierre Morin. The Morin family were probably the leading French nurserymen of their day and their garden was well known all over Europe.   They  specialised in ornamental plants, particularly  bulbs and their  first catalogue, issued in 1651 had 100 named varieties of tulip, 71 bulbous iris, and 27 sorts of anemones.   Hatton knew the garden and the Morins well and I’ve written before about he sent plants back to England, including to General John Lambert, one of Cromwell’s senior military officers.

[For more on Morin and his nursery see Prudence Leith-Ross, A Seventeenth-Century Paris Garden, in Garden History, Vol.21, No.2 pp150-157]

The Cromwellian government began easing restrictions on royalists returning in the mid-1650s and so late in 1656 Lord Hatton returned to England, taking his elder son Christopher with him while  it seems  likely that Charles stayed on in Paris working with Robert Morison.   Certainly Charles was in Paris again by 1660 because in the estate papers, there is a catalogue of trees sent by him to Kirby that year.  Exile had cost Lord Hatton very dear – even though he had been living in comparative poverty. He had lent money to Charles II and on his  return had  debts that  amounted to £45,000.

Hatton Garden from. Ogilby & Morgan’s Large and accurate Map 1677

In order to make ends meet  he joined the ranks of aristocratic speculative builders and  started the redevelopment of the large garden of Hatton House in Holborn.  Evelyn saw it in June 1659 and described “the foundations now laying for a long street and buildings in Hatton Garden  design’d for a little Towne: lately an ample garden.” It was a slow process and initially not very successful and certainly didn’t make the Hattons much money.

When the Restoration came in 1660 the family must have been hopeful of an upturn in their family fortunes, but it was slow in coming.

It wasn’t  until  May 1662 that he is given his first paid government post  as Governor of Guernsey, and I suspect to his surprise it wasn’t a complete sinecure and  he actually had to live there. Guernsey was, if not exactly on the front line, heavily fortified and it made a good place for the internal exile of General John Lambert. I’ve told story of what happened next between the Hattons and the Lamberts in an earlier post. Suffice it to say Hatton ended up being  recalled in disgrace. He spent his remaining days in London rather than Kirby  and died there in 1670.  Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Charles II’s chief minister summed him up  as “a man of great reputation, which in a few years he found a way utterly to lose”.

Kirby, the  title and even the Governorship of Guernsey now passed to Christopher Hatton IV who, faced with mounting debts,  immediately set about trying to restore the family fortune.   Of course as was usually the case he looked for a rich heiress to marry and found one in Cecily Tufton, daughter of the Earl of Thanet who bought a dowry of at least £5,000 nearly 4 times his  annual estate income. He spent a lot of time on Guernsey while Charles remained in London and acted as a sort of agent for the Kirby estate.

Sadly  tragedy struck the family during  the night of 30th Dec 1672  when lightning struck the governor’s residence, Castle Cornet,  and hit the garrison’s powder store. The castle was devastated and Cecily Hatton and old Lady Hatton were killed, although Christopher and his 3 daughters somehow survived.   He stayed on for another 8 years  before finally returning to Kirby for good  in 1680. It’s  from then on that Kirby enters its horticultural heyday and becomes one of the moist celebrated gardens in Britain …more on that soon.

For more information see Teresa Sladen, The Garden at Kirby Hall 1500-1700, Journal of Garden History 1984;  Brian Dix et al Kirby Hall and its Gardens, Archaeological Journal 1995, and the English Heritage Guidebooks.




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1 Response to Creating Kirby

  1. Pingback: Reimagining Kirby | The Gardens Trust

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