A brief summary of the history of the Fawsley estate and house starting from the 7th century through to the present day.
A Royal Manor
Fawsley was a royal manor as early as the 7th century, it being the headquarters of administrative and ecclesiastical matters for 12 settlements.
The Domesday Book (1086) confirms the population of Fawsley as around 50. The population had grown to its zenith by the 1340s, before the Black Death wiped out between one third and one half of the population. Poll tax records show that there were only 200 residents left in 1377.
The site of the village was in the field around the Church of St Mary. On the other side of the lake, the ridge and furrow created by the early single plough is particularly well preserved.
The Knightley Family
In 1416 Richard Knightley became lord of the manor of Fawsley. He was a successful Staffordshire lawyer, and the family were sheep-farming landlords. Richard Knightley's son, also Richard, was twice Sheriff and his grandson, also Richard, who through marriage acquired extensive estates, set about building the earliest part of the house, the South Wing.
Henry VII knighted Sir Richard Knightley (third generation) in 1494 and subsequently Henry VIII knighted Sir Edmund Knightley (fourth generation) in 1542.
Edmund, a sergeant-at-law, enhanced the family wealth by being appointed a commissioner for the Suppression of the Monasteries and confiscating monastic lands. Edmund continued the building work at Fawsley with his brother Valentine, and it was Valentine's son Richard who inherited the house. It was this Richard Knightley who entertained Queen Elizabeth I in the South Wing.
The Tudors and the 1575 Suite
There was no major building work in the 17th century, largely because of the extravagances of Richard's son, Valentine, and grandson of the first Valentine. He sold a large part of the family estates, and these financial difficulties remained for some time.
In an inventory of a family member who died in 1650, there is mention of the 'Queenes Chamber'. This is now our 1575 Suite, which Queen Elizabeth I stayed in during her last visit to Fawsley in 1575.
The Puritans and the Civil War
Sir Richard Knightley (died 1615) was imprisoned for allowing the printing of Puritan material, and there is little doubt that in the period leading up to the Civil War, the Knightleys were very much opposed to the unlimited power of royalty.
The Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians
Lucy Knightley inherited in 1728 and added the Georgian Wing, in classical style. During this time the family continued to represent Northamptonshire in parliament.
In 1798 Sir John Knightley, 22nd lord of the manor, was made the first Baronet. His nephew, Sir Charles Knightley, 2nd Baronet (1781-1864) carried out the Gothic alterations to the Georgian Wing and his son Rainald, 3rd Baronet, commissioned Anthony Salvin to re-model the North Wing. Rainald was MP for south Northamptonshire for 40 years.
The life peerage, Baron Knightley of Fawsley, was created by Queen Victoria for Sir Rainald Knightley in 1892. The decline of the family was dramatic. Rainald died childless in 1895 and his wife Louisa, extra lady-in-waiting to HRH Duchess of Albany, died in 1913 (the Duchess of Albany was the widow of Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria).
There being insufficient capital for the will to be proved, the contents of the house were auctioned over a three-week period in 1914. She was the last Knightley to live in Fawsley Hall. Her diaries are now out in book form called The Journals of Lady Knightley. There is a copy in all guest bedrooms.
Subsequently, when the penultimate baronet, Sir Charles Valentine, died in 1932 and his brother, Sir Henry Francis, died in 1938, the house passed to the Gage family of Firle Place, Sussex, because of the earlier marriage of Rainald Knightley's sister, Sophia, to Viscount Gage.
The Gage family still owns the former Knightley lands. Both Sir Charles and Sir Henry, who lived in the Steward's House, died childless, leaving a vacant baronetcy.