Thame Local History
The Tudor Palace at Rycote
In the Time Team episode called 'A Palace Sold for Scrap', broadcast on 11th February 2001, Tony Robinson and crew told the story of the Tudor Palace which once stood at Rycote.
Channel 4 Time Team Archive link to the episode
It seems remarkable that such a magnificent Tudor palace and such ornate gardens in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside should have all but disappeared.
As the title of the Time Team episode says, in 1807 the owners of Rycote Palace sold off the very fabric of the building in individual lots, totally dismantling what remained of the Tudor palace once enjoyed by King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.
There had been major changes to the palace since Tudor times, including fire damage. The ornate Tudor gardens had already gone, redeveloped in the style of rustic parkland by Lancelot Capability Brown.
The story of Rycote Palace begins in something of a mystery. There is no certainty as to who built it.
The mystery comes about in part because the building of Rycote Palace did not mark the start of prestigious habitation of the site. There was a medieval manor house of some size on the site, which it is known Richard Fowler inherited, through his connections with the family of Richard Quartermain.
Richard Quartermain's Manor House at Rycote
Richard Fowler the elder was the nephew of Sybil Quartermain, Richard Quartermain's wife. He lived at the North Weston manor house during the lifetime of Richard Quartermain, but on Richard's death he inherited the manor house at Rycote, to become his upon the death of Richard's widow Sybil.
Richard Quartermain died in 1477. Richard Fowler, who was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 1473, died in 1478. His son, also Richard Fowler, came into possession of the Rycote manor house upon the death of Sybil Quartermain in 1483.
Richard Fowler the younger has been called a spendthrift, and it is known that he was compelled to sell off much of his land, including Rycote manor, which he sold to Sir John Heron in 1521.
Sir John Heron was Treasurer of the Household to both King Henry VII and VIII. At his death, Rycote manor passed to his son, Sir Giles Heron.
With the onset of turbulent times in the reign of King Henry VIII, Sir Giles Heron's favour with the king did not match that of Sir John Williams, and in 1539 he was forced to sell Rycote manor to Sir John Williams, who made it his home until his death in 1559.
Sir John Williams, Baron Williams of Thame
The early years of the reign of King Henry VIII (1509 - 1547) saw the building of several Renaissance palaces, exemplified by Cardinal Wolsey's Hampton Court Palace, which was constructed between 1515 and 1521.
Who built Rycote Palace?
Sir John Williams became lord of the manor of Thame after the Reformation, and he also took possession of Thame Park Abbey following its dissolution. He made Rycote Palace his home, and in 1540 entertained King Henry VIII there during the king's honeymoon with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
By this time, Rycote Park had been created and the former villagers at Rycote had gone.
It was during the time of Sir John Williams that the young Princess Elizabeth began her long association with Rycote Palace, that was to last well into her reign as Queen Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth I and Rycote
Sir John Williams was survived by his two daughters, and his major possessions were divided between them. The manor of Thame and the palace at Rycote went to his elder daughter Marjorie, who married Sir Henry Norreys.
For nearly two hundred years, the lord of the manor of Thame was to live at Rycote Palace, from Sir John Williams to Willoughby Bertie, the third Earl of Abingdon, who moved his family seat to Wytham after a fire at Rycote in 1745.
The Berties acquired the manor of Thame and Rycote Palace through the marriage of Bridget Wray, a descendant of the Norreys family, to Montagu Bertie. Their son James Bertie was created first Earl of Abingdon by King Charles II in 1682.
Rycote Palace remained the seat of the Earls of Abingdon until 1745, when a fire killed the ten year old heir to the title in his bed. The fire is reputed to have destroyed Rycote Palace, but it is now clear that the building was not totally destroyed and that extensive rebuilding went on afterwards.
Although the Bertie family had decamped to Wytham, Rycote Palace was not abandoned. In 1778 the fourth Earl of Abingdon paid Lancelot 'Capability' Brown the vast sum of £2,888 to landscape the gardens at Rycote Palace.
Tudor gardens were very ornate and very geometric. The style of landscape garden favoured by Capability Brown was an attempt to recreate the open countryside in a parkland setting. What he did at Rycote was therefore to fill in the Tudor moat, remove the outlying ornamental gardens and plant trees to create a parkland vista.
The house itself was also refurbished after the fire in 1745. The Time Team dig uncovered evidence of substantial stone rebuilding in the mid to late eighteenth century.
The house that remains at Rycote today, a prestigious residence, is on the site of what remains of the stable blocks adjacent to the palace. In the time of the Earls of Abingdon, after the fire, these stable blocks housed a collection of thoroughbred racehorses.
Willoughby Bertie, fourth Earl of Abingdon, was a very keen racehorse owner, and Rycote was the base for his activities in this field. In 1770 he started the Earl of Abingdon's Hunt between Thame and Tetsworth, with kennels at Rycote.
It seems, however, that the Bertie family was facing hard times, and in 1779 the fourth Earl of Abingdon held an auction of all the interior goods at Rycote House. All the plans to renovate and refurbish had come to nought.
After the death of Willoughby Bertie in 1799, the fifth Earl Montagu Bertie carried on the process of asset stripping Rycote, through a quite remarkable sale.
In 1807 the entire building was sold off in lots. All that remains today is one small part of the front facade of the Tudor House, which it seems did not sell, or was kept as some form of folly.
The land on which the house stood simply merged into the surrounding parkland, although as Time Team demonstrated there is considerable archaeology to be found beneath the surface.
Modern maps still show the 'Old Paddock' and the 'Old Kennels' within Rycote Park, echoes of the eighteenth century hunting and horseracing passions of the Earl of Abingdon. Rycote Chapel remains as an echo of Richard Quartermain's England.
Brown and Guest say of the great families that have lived at Rycote :
"an old yew in the churchyard, said to have been brought from Palestine and planted in the coronation year of Stephen (1135), has easily outlived both them and their houses."
History lives at Rycote.