The family’s 500 year history at Firle started when Sir John Gage, KG (1479-1556) built his great Tudor manor house, which appears to have been completed ca. 1543.
While Sir John pursued an eminent career as a soldier-courtier, his long career devoted to royal service was remarkable, spanning four monarchs, commencing in the service of Henry VII, notably in the court of Henry VIII where he held a number of offices culminating in the position of Lord Chamberlain between 1553-6, he served as a member of Edward VI’s Regency Council and was restored to the position of Constable of the Tower and Lord Chamberlain by Mary I, and a testimony to his skills in surviving the tumultuous changes of religious establishment and political regime.
His son, Sir Edward (d. 1567) had the unpleasant duty of supervising the ‘Lewes Martyrs’ between 1555-7, and his descendants followed his example in remaining true to the Catholic faith, until Sir William Gage (1695-1744) conformed to the Church of England in 1730.
Sir Thomas Gage (1719-1787), brother of the lst Viscount, fought in the Seven Years War in Canada alongside George Washington. He served as commander in chief of the British Forces in North America between 1763-1773 responsible for the supervision for the thirteen American colonies, where his administrative skills were well served, until the political situation unravelled resulting in the fact Gage’s forces were unsuccessfully engaged in skirmishes at Concord and Lexington on 19 April, 1775 and on 17 June in the first battle of the American Revolution at Bunker Hill.
The greengage plum has long been associated with the Gages, it is linked with another branch of the Gage family who lived at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk. It would appear that Sir William Gage, 2nd Baronet of Hengrave (c. 1650-1727), introduced the Gross Reine Claude fruit tree to England from France ca. 1725, and later became known as the Green Gage.
The Gage Family
By tradition, the family may have descended from a Norman baron Ralph, Sire de Gaugi, named Ralph, who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 and fought at Hastings. It is said that he was rewarded with large grants of land in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. His descendants may subsequently have anglicised their name, and be linked with the branch of the Gage family who resided in Circencester for several generations. What is certain is that by the marriage of Sir John Gage (ca. 1420-1475/6) (JG1) to Eleanor, co-heiress of the St Cleres of Ightham, this family began their migration, through inherited properties, first to Northamptonshire, then to Surrey and Sussex. Sir John was knighted by Edward IV, and Eleanor’s portion of her father’s estate included the manors of Heighton in Sussex and Burstow in Surrey. Their son William’s (1456-1496/7) will shows that he had lived most of his life at Burstow. In 1472 he married Agnes Bolney, whose lawyer-father Bartholomew (d. 1476, brass in Firle Church) was a substantial landowner in Sussex, including the manor of Amies in Firle.
Their son, Sir John Gage, KG (1479-1556) (JG2) was born at Burstow, and was to establish the blueprint of the Gage family at Firle today. A preoccupation throughout his life was to expand the interests of his family and dependants in order to establish a place in the gentry of England. This was achieved by the fact that his first loyalty was to the crown, which he served over half a century, rather than to a faction, which largely explains his capacity to survive political upheavals; neither did he display the steadfast loyalties to the Catholic faith of his descendants. His dependence upon Wolsey, closeness to Cromwell, prosperity in the post-Cromwell era, links to Norfolk and Northumberland and finally as a Marian councillor, while outwardly a devout Catholic, reflects a pragmatic outlook in terms of his faith. At the heart of his ambition lay his skill in accumulating land, by exploiting his political connections and networking his family allegiances, notably those of the Guildfords, Sandys, Fitzwilliams and Brownes. Upon the death of his father in 1496/7, John was made a ward of Robert Tate, an alderman of London. When his mother, Agnes, died on 5 July 1501, he came into possession of his parents’ property and attained his majority in October. In April 1502 he was betrothed to Philippa, daughter of Sir Richard Guildford of Cranbrook, Kent and Comptroller of the Royal Household, and probably through his patronage he had by 1503 entered the household of Henry VII as an esquire of the body. He subsequently caught the eye of Henry VIII, and accompanied the king on his French expedition of 1513. He became deputy captain of the castles of Guisnes and Oye and subsequently Comptroller of Calais, an office which was exchanged in April 1526, when his patron Sir William Sandys became Lord hamberlain, for that of Vice Chamberlain of the Household. Meanwhile, John was systematically establishing extensive landholdings in Sussex, in 1529 was elected to Parliament for Sussex, and in 1532 was installed Knight of the Garter. John found himself in a difficult position given Henry VIII’s decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon, and in 1534 was reported to have ‘renounced his office and gone to a charterhouse, intending with the consent of his wife, to become a Carthusian’. However he returned to court following Cromwell’s arrest, seemingly even greater in the king’s confidence, receiving the posts of Constable of the Tower, Comptroller of the Household and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in October 1540. As Constable, John cared for Lady Jane Grey prior to her execution; earlier he had the unhappy task of escorting Katherine Howard there by river from Syon House. In 1542 John provisioned the army for the expedition against Scotland which resulted in the defeat and death of James V at Solway Moss in 1542. The following year he participated in the commission to negotiate the marriage of Prince Edward to the infant Mary Stuart. In 1544 he played a pivotal role in the organisation of the transport and supplies for the invasion of France. His prominent position both at the siege of Boulogne and in the diplomatic negotiations resulted in John being created a knight-banneret. John was appointed one of the executors of Henry VIII’s will and, despite being a Catholic, was briefly a member of the privy council for the minority of Edward VI. As a Catholic, he was in high favour with Mary, and received her at the Tower gates on her arrival in London on 3 August 1553. He had no time for Northumberland’s conspiracy and was promptly restored to his position as Constable and created Lord Chamberlain of her Household, and bore her train at the coronation on 1 October 1553. John played a major function as Captain of the Guard in the resistance to the rebellion of his kinsman Sir Thomas Wyatt in 1554. In March 1555, he was given charge of Princess Elizabeth, and appears to have treated her severely ‘more for love of the pope than hate of her person’. In tandem with his illustrious career as a soldier-courtier, Sir John Gage demonstrated outstanding commercial zeal, in part through his land transactions which in part were facilitated through the plundering of monasteries and religious houses. At the dissolution of Battle Abbey, the abbot’s sword passed into the hands of Sir John, one of the commissioners for accepting the surrender of religious houses. It was given to Sir Samuel Meyrick by the 4th Viscount Gage, was carried at the Eglinton tournament in 1839 by his son Henry (1814-1875), and is now in the collection of the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Sir John also partook of numerous commercial enterprises, many of which were based in Sussex. He took a keen interest in rearing livestock, also in timber production supplying much of the wood in 1538 for the construction of Nonsuch Palace near Ewell in Surrey . The ironworks of the Weald became increasingly significant for the production of artillery, and from the mid-1540s he had received the grant of a Duchy of Lancaster rights in Ashdown Forest, together the manor of Maresfield with its ironworks. In October 1553 he was granted honorary admission to the Mercers’ Company and in 1555 became a founder member of the Russia Company. Sir John died at Firle Place on 18 April, 1556, and is buried together with his wife in an alabaster altar-tomb, commissioned by his grandson, another Sir John Gage (1538-1595), in St Peter’s Church.
Sir Edward Gage (d. 1567) was the eldest son and heir, inherited Firle and had the royal licence to keep thirty retainers in his service. He attended Queen Mary’s coronation, as a Catholic retained her favour and was made Knight of the Bath and Sheriff of the counties of Surrey and Sussex. Edward was one of the surveyors of the dissolved college of Malling, the records the sale of the remains of which reflect that ‘Mr Gage received forty loads of Horsham stone’, indicating that building works were still continuing at Firle after his father’s death; in this case the Horsham stone would have been used for the roof. Edward’s zealous Catholicism resulted in dire consequences. The Marian Persecutions lasted through the queen’s reign, whereby the Privy Council instructed Justices of the Peace to punish Protestant dissenters. In terms of posterity, it was perhaps Sir Edward’s bad luck to hold the shrievalty at the height of the persecution. Apart from his role as a JP, as a result of his service as sheriff, he was the presiding officer when when 17 martyrs were burned in Lewes, while others were tortured. John Trewe of Hellingly ‘persuaded the people from going to mass’, as a result endured the malice of Sir Edward ‘an extreme persecutor of the Gospel who had unlawfully placed him in the pillory in the market town of Hailsham and Lewes, and caused his ears to be barbarously cut’. He gradually retired from public life with the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558, marking the beginning of a period of relative hardship for the recusant Gage family, who clung to their faith. This is exemplified in 1565 it was recorded that Sir Edward was suspected of being among the local gentry who ‘receive communion in their chapels and choose priests from a distance’. Edward had married Elizabeth Parker of Ratton in Willingdon, Sussex. She died ca. 1567, and both are buried and commemorated by a brass in the Gage chapel at St Peter’s church.
Their eldest son, John (1538-1595) (JG3), who was knighted, was the next in line. Sir John, who is commemorated with a similar tomb and brass memorial to that of his father in the Gage chapel, married, first, Margaret, daughter of Sir Roger Copley, of Gatton in Surrey, and second Elizabeth Shelley, who from the armorial bearings on the tomb, appears to have come from the family of Littleton of Frankley in Worcestershire. While John represented Lewes in Parliament for a short period under Queen Mary, as a Catholic he suffered as a result of Elizabeth’s new penal laws, often in custody as a recusant during the Armada years. Among the Gage muniments, one document refers to the fact ‘John Gage, esq, owes £260 because he has not gone to any church or chapel, or other place of common prayer from the 27th day of Oct. in the 38th year of the Queen’s reign to the 26th day of October following in the 39th year, that is to say for a space of 13 months ….’. In 1592, John Gage of Firle, George Gage of Alfriston and Edward Gage of Ifield, were amongst those disarmed by the Queen, as dangerous papists to have ‘good quality of armoure in their possession’. Sir John died in 1598, and it would be hard not to sympathise with the last pathetic clause in his will that states his heir should ‘satisffie, paye and discharge all and singular my debts which are great and manye by reason of my troubles and sondrye other my great and extraordinary charges as sondrye of my good friends can well witness.’ Despite his reduced circumstances, John was determined to leave a legacy proclaiming his family’s prestige, and he commissioned the monumental alabaster tomb to his grandfather and wife from Gerard Johnson (in his native Dutch Gheerart Janssen) the Elder, a sculptor from the Netherlands who had settled in Southwark in 1567. He also commissioned the Purbeck marble table-tombs of his parents and himself and his two wives; the original drawings still exist, one of which is signed. That of Sir John and his two wives is of interest in that there are notes around the border by Johnson, and subsequent comments by John to ensure the ladies’ attire was more respectable, ‘Where you have sette owte my two wives with longe heare wyred, my request is that they shall be bothe attired with French hoodes and cornetts, some heare shewed under the cornetts. The patterne of the cornett I have sent you by this berer in a boxe bowed and dressed as it shall stand uppon their heads, their gowns to be made lose and not girded with no girdle without vardingales and close before, and to be so longe as may cover some parte of their feete’.
As John died without a direct heir, Firle was next inherited in 1598 by his nephew, John (d. 1633) (JG4), the second husband of Lady Penelope Darcy of Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, the daughter of Thomas, Earl Rivers and Mary, heiress of the Kytsons of Hengrave. Firle remained a Catholic enclave and a branch of the Gage family was established at Hengrave Hall, which was inherited by their third son, Sir Edward Gage. He was created a baronet in 1622 and Hengrave too became a Catholic stronghold for generations in Suffolk.
The family continued to experience difficulties due to their strong adherence to the papacy. Firle was searched for arms in 1619, between 1624 and 1627 John was fined £20 for non-attendance at church, and was imprisoned in 1628 for recusancy. Despite such hardships, on 26 March 1622 John was created a baronet by James I for maintaining 30 men in a foot regiment. John died in 1633, is buried at West Firle, and an inventory taken in 1634 attached to his will provides us with another indication of the size of household at Firle. Furthermore, in his will he desired that not less than 120 deer should be kept in his park at Plashett.
Firle was inherited by their eldest son and second baronet Sir Thomas (1619-1654), who married Mary, co-heiress of John Chamberlain of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire. Their sons Sir Thomas (1640-1660) the third baronet, and Sir John (1642-1699) (JG5) the fourth baronet succeeded in turn to Firle. Sir John briefly served in Parliament and as Sheriff of Sussex under James II, only to be imprisoned following the king’s flight in 1689. He married twice, first Mary Middlemore, and secondly Mary Stanley. His three sons succeeded one after the other – the eldest Sir John (1691-1699) (JG6) who became the fifth baronet, his brother Sir Thomas (1693-1713) the sixth baronet, and finally Sir William Gage (1695-1744) the seventh baronet, who inherited aged 19.
While the Gage family had been able, on the whole, to continue their squirarchical way of life at Firle for over 150 years, times were very trying. The Gages had sold off estates across the country, which had come through various marriages, and a vast and complex vellum manuscript among the muniments dated 1753 details how it had been necessary generation after generation to roll one mortgage into another, finally totalling £23,000. The debt was subsequently re-assigned in 1757 to Sampson Gideon (1699-1762), future father-in-law of the 2nd Viscount Gage, and thus a more sympathetic lender. Apart from fines and imprisonment for non-attendance at church, there were many restrictions imposed upon recusants; they were not allowed to own or ride a horse, nor could they maintain a bank account. Being Catholics, the Gages were natural Tories, after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion it was clear the game was up, that England was going to be a Protestant country, and the family had an urgent need to restore their position and fortunes. Access to the powerful local magnate the lst Duke of Newcastle, Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693-1768), the King’s Lord Chamberlain and Secretary of State and his brother, Henry Pelham (1695-1754), who also became Prime Minister, clearly influenced Sir William’s decision to conform to the Church of England, probably in the mid-1720s , thereby aligning the family to Whig politics. Subsequently Sir William was elected MP for Seaford in 1727, a Newcastle ‘pocket borough’, and kept his seat until his death. He was installed a Knight of Bath on 17 July 1726, probably in recognition of his staunch support of the Pelhams. This gesture brought about a very different atmosphere at Firle and the family returned to public life and service. Firle appears to have been re-modelled during two stages in the eighteenth century, in part because no doubt large areas of the Tudor building had fallen into decay, and also because through the centuries the emphasis and way of life had changed, so that by the Georgian period, a very different layout of rooms was required. The Caen stones from the Tudor house were re-cycled, providing us with today’s Georgian façade. William Gage appears to have been cultivated and a patron of Italian musicians – Handel’s long-time concertmaster, Pietro Castrucci, dedicated some of his concerti grossi to Sir William. William has one further claim to fame – he has been referred to as ‘The Father of Sussex Cricket’. In 1728 he organised at match in the Dripping Pan in Lewes between the Duke of Richmond’s and his own eleven. He was also a regular frequenter of the races.
Upon William’s death, Firle was inherited by his cousin, Thomas Gage (c.1695-1754), the eldest son of Joseph Gage of Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire and his wife Elizabeth Pendruddock. Joseph was the youngest son of the second baronet and had inherited Shirburn from his mother, the Chamberlain heiress. In 1717 Thomas was elected MP for Minehead and in 1721 for the borough of Tewksbury, a position he continued to hold until a few months before his death. He was created Viscount Gage of Ireland, and Baron Gage of Castlebar, by privy seal, dated at St James’s on 12 June and letters patent of 14 September 1720, with the creation fee of 20 marks [£13 6s 8d]. Thomas owned land in Ireland, including Castle Island in Co. Kerry. By his first marriage in 1717 to Benedicta, the only daughter and heiress of Benedict Hall of High Meadow in Gloucestershire, he acquired wealthy estates in Gloucestershire and the sinecure of Verderer of the Forest of Dean. Their marriage, though unhappy, produced two sons, William Hall Gage (1718-1791) second viscount, and Thomas, later to become General Gage. Benedicta died in 1749, having long been separated from Thomas, who married Jane Bond within a year of Benedicta’s death. It is interesting to note that a large estate was left to Thomas by Mrs Wilson of Drayton, near Winslow in lieu of a £1,000 mortgage she had on Sir Francis Fortescue’s estate through Benedicta, an illustration how many loans were interwoven among Catholic families, due to banking restrictions imposed earlier on recusants.
Between 1747 and 1751 Thomas managed the cultured household of Frederick the Prince of Wales, where he met the most eminent architects and artists of the time; he was admitted a Fellow of the Royal Society on 1 November 1731. Thomas came to live at Firle in 1744, and appears to have completed the Georgian re-modelling of the house, in particular adding the west front, and galleries supposedly to house his collection of paintings. There is evidence of a number of sophisticated Palladian elements being incorporated in the house at this stage, including the addition of a rare Serliana window on the entrance front.
William Hall, 2nd Viscount Gage (1718-1791), inherited Firle upon his father’s death in 1754; he was thirty-six, and ten years earlier had been elected MP for Seaford, which he represented in five Parliaments until 1780. He was elevated from an Irish to a peer of Great Britain in 1780 by the title of Baron Gage of Firle in Sussex. Amiable and absent-minded, he followed his father’s footsteps into court, serving as equerry to the Prince of Wales. His service placed William Hall in the position to obtain perquisites – he held the lucrative position of Paymaster of Pensions between 1755 and 1763 and again between 1765 and 1782. His full-length portrait, undertaken by Thomas Gainsborough in 1777, shows him dressed in a dark blue coat with dark blue lapels and gold buttons, an undress form of a semi-official paymaster’s department uniform. Mary Howard, duchess of Norfolk (1692-1754) commissioned James Gibbs (1682-1754) to build a new house at 16 Arlington Street between 1734 and 1740. She died without heirs and in a codicil to her will left the house and contents to William Hall Gage, again possibly as a repayment of a loan between Catholic families, and incidentally providing the family with a London townhouse. In 1757 William Hall married Elizabeth Gideon, daughter of the celebrated Jewish financier Samson Gideon, bringing a considerably dowry to the family. None of their seven children survived childhood, and on William Hall’s death in 1791, Firle was inherited by his nephew Henry, 3rd Viscount (1761-1808).
By the time of Henry’s accession, a succession of marriages and the profits of office and perquisites had restored the family to prosperity and eminence once again. In 1789 Henry Gage married his cousin Susannah Maria, the only daughter and heir of William Skinner, whose wife was the daughter of Admiral Sir Peter Warren, KB, of Westbury in Hampshire. Henry, who had been born in Montreal as the eldest son of General Thomas and Margaret Gage, was then a major in the 93rd regiment. Henry would have benefited as well from the American income generated through his father’s ownership of large amounts of property, including 18,000 acres located in what is now Oneida County, New York State. He also made a shrewd investment in a sugar plantation in Montserrat that brought in an income of £600 a year, perhaps the reason that he was offered the governorship of Jamaica (which he declined) in July 1800. Henry and Susanna were considered ‘among the most opulent Peers in the kingdom’ and divided their year between Firle, Westbury House and High Meadow in Gloucestershire. In May of 1805 Henry razed the house, gardens and grounds at High Meadow, so that Firle became the focus as the principal family seat. As a result Henry and Susanna set about refurbishing the rooms, landscaping the grounds, a thatched dairy was built beside the house for Susanna and new stables constructed in 1804.
Henry Hall Gage, 4th Viscount Gage (14 December 1791 – 20 January 1877) inherited the viscountcy on 29 January, 1808 aged 18, so that his nearly 70 years tenure at Firle Place, ran through much of the 19th century. Henry was educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge and wrote several mathematical papers which were read before the Royal Institution and several other societies.
Unlike his father who was disinterested in politics, Henry was a staunch Conservative. A reactionary opponent of the Reform Bill, he was one of the twenty-two ‘stalwarts’ who voted against its third reading in June 1832, long after the Opposition and Duke of Wellington had given up the cause. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, there was a huge agricultural depression in England, and in 1829 a bad harvest sent the price of bread soaring. There were riots, in 1834 three men were hanged for rick-burning, protesting against the invention of the threshing machines, which put people out of work. Henry Gage diffused the situation at Firle by raising wages, and local landowners restored calm by handing out allotments.
In 1835 Henry swopped the Arlington Street House in London for one in Whitehall Yard. He married Elizabeth Foley in 1813, their son Henry (1814-1875) had a passion for chivalry probably inspired by a revival of the medieval sport of tilting at the quintain at Firle in 1827, when he was 13. Later Henry participated in the Eglington Tournament held at Eglington Castle in Ayrshire in 1839.
He served as Lt Colonel of the Royal Sussex Militia. In 1840 Henry married Sophie Selina Knightly of Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire, and they divided their time between Fawsley, the house in Whitehall and in part at Firle. Selina used the Ante Room as her sitting room, and it is still decorated with Oriental porcelain and many of her personal possessions. Henry pre-deceased his father in 1875 so the title skipped a generation, Henry Charles Gage (1854-1912) inheriting Firle from his grandfather as the 5th Viscount in 1877.
The 5th Viscount immediately set about refurbishments within the house. Photographs of the time show the rooms decorated in the Victorian manner, and the terrace and balustrades were added to the gardens. He also sold the house in Whitehall. In 1894 Henry Charles married Leila Peel, who enjoyed entertaining and arranged great gatherings at Firle to include visiting royalty, especially German princesses. The 5th Viscount was a devout churchman, and prayers for the household were recited every morning in the Great Hall. He died in 1912, leaving Firle to his son Henry Rainald 6th Viscount (1895-1982), who inherited at the age of 17.
Henry Rainald attended Eton College and was on the verge of going to Oxford when the war broke out. He joined the Coldstream Guards and went to France early in 1915, and was invalided out in 1917 having been hit by shrapnel. In 1931 Henry Rainald married the Hon Imogen Grenfell, daughter of Lord and Lady Desborough of Taplow House and Panshanger in Hertfordshire, inheriting part of the celebrated collection of both houses in 1952. Together they re-arranged the rooms at Firle, and Henry Rainald continued to take a great interest in the collection. His great contribution was his leadership of the campaign to preserve the South Downs from growing development, and as a result of his efforts as Chairman of East Sussex County Council the area eventually came to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, long after his death, a National Park. His two sons succeeded him in turn, George John (known as Sammy) (1932-1993) became the 7th Viscount, and Nicholas Henry (b. 1934) is the 8th Viscount. He lives at Firle today with his family, where he manages the estate and is an artist.