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Firle Place

The House

The chalk folds of the Sussex South Downs appear to rise just outside the drawing room windows at Firle Place; their proximity would have provided easy access for Sir John Gage, KG (1479-1556) to the sheep walks above.   Sir John led a distinguished career as a soldier-courtier, notably during the reign of Henry VIII. Thus sheltered, Firle has been the home of the Gage family for over 500 years.

 

Sir John’s descendants were staunch Catholics until the eighteenth century and for nearly 150 years life was difficult for the recusant Gages. The Acts of Settlement of 1701 helped to bring an end to the religious persecutions and fanatical feelings of the seventeenth century, coupled with the decision of Sir William Gage, 7th Bart (1695-1744), to conform to the Church of England brought a very different atmosphere to Firle. The family took part in public life and service again and were created Viscounts. The new prosperity in Britain encouraged the fashion for building,  Firle was remodelled  in the eighteenth century. The Caen stone blocks from the Tudor building were re-cycled in the subsequent iterations of the house, to provide its present Georgian façade.

The first phase of the eighteenth-century work was commenced by Sir William between 1713 and his death in 1744. Firle was inherited by his cousin, Thomas lst Viscount Gage (1718-1791) who appears to have completed the alterations by 1754, including the rare Serlian window on the entrance front.

The 6th Viscount Gage (1895-1982) married the Hon. Imogen Grenfell in 1931, a daughter of Lord and Lady Desborough, who in 1954 inherited through her mother part of the celebrated Cowper collection from Panshanger in Hertfordshire thus transforming the collection at Firle.

Today, Firle is lived in by Henry Nicholas,  8th Viscount (b. 1934 -) and his family.

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Firle Place

Further reading

Tudor Sir John Gage, KG (1479-1556) (JG2) was the only son of William Gage (1456-1497) of Burstow in Surrey; his mother Agnes was the daughter of Bartholomew Bolney of Firle, steward and legal adviser (among other great landowners) to the abbots of Battle. This branch of the Gage family had resided in Cirencester for several generations, and had clearly achieved a sufficient standing to be able to attain marriages of such status in Sussex.  His grandfather, Sir John Gage (ca. 1420 – d. 1475/6), by his marriage to Eleanor, co-heiress of the St. Cleres of Ightham, had already established a significant foothold for the Gages in Sussex (evidenced by the by the subsequent quartering of the Gage and St. Clere arms on the family achievement), bringing the St. Clere manors including Heighton and also Burstow.  The Tudor Sir John had a distinguished career as a soldier-courtier, notably during the reign of Henry VIII.  This placed him in the position to speculate in royal and domestic lands, and in particular Sir John systematically established and reorganised extensive holdings in Sussex and Surrey. By acquiring the Bolney inheritance in 1531/2 he built up the Firle estate, including the manors and Amies (also known as Levetts), the manor place of the latter probably providing the foundation of the present house. In 1532 Sir John purchased the sub-manor of Hosiers in West Firle from the lawyer, Giles Fiennes. Through examining estate plans, David and Barbara Martin (Brief Archaeological Survey of the Early Work at Firle Place, West Firle, 1993) place the stables and riding school on Hosiers. As a high-ranking officer of state, Sir John would have commanded a large household, especially after he was appointed Vice Chamberlain by Henry VIII in 1528, and thus his place in court would require a principal seat to establish his rank and standing. These land purchases made by Sir John between 1530 and 1532 provide a starting date for the commencement of his ambitions to build a great and impressive home in Sussex.   A feature of the Tudor building relates to the distinctive small ashlar blocks of Caen stone of the exterior that correspond with and were, in all likelihood, brought from the Cluniac Priory of St. Pancras at Lewes, dissolved in 1537, the keepership of which was bestowed on Sir John by King Henry in 1541 after the fall of Thomas Cromwell (ca. 1485-1540). By 1543 it would appear that the work at Firle was completed, when Sir John was granted a licence to keep forty retainers in livery, highlighting the intended grandeur of his household.

As the house stands today, the mansion is arranged around two courtyards, separated by the hall range, aligned approximately east-west with the long axis of the hall range situated north-south, under the lee of the Downs. Starting from the back of the house, there are clues that Sir John’s manor house was built on the site of an earlier building, combined with a number of 16th-century features notably the remains of a chamfered 16th-century doorway in what is now the kitchen, and windows which feature in the extant Tudor gable clearly visible from the south lawn.  In the room opposite are the remains of panelled walls and a plasterwork panel with classical scrollwork over the fireplace depicting the arms of Gage quartering St. Clere, and around the corner in what is today referred to as Corridor 30F, a partly blocked and a larger chamfered door way. A series of 16th-century tunnel-like drains run beneath the house to serve the household.

The hall range, with its surving 16th-century roof, covered in Horsham slabs, is framed with five equal bays of hammer beam construction, now concealed by an 18th-century coved ceiling, and provided the central focus to the life of the household.  An excavation carried out on the south lawn in 1993 indicated the presence of a substantial wing, which was presumably demolished during the Georgian remodelling. Bequeathing all ‘stock and furniture’ to his son Edward (d.1567), Sir John Gage (JG2)expressed anxiety that without it his successor would be ‘greatly hyndred in his lyving and not lyke to be hable to furnyshe his howse without great danger of decaye’.   From an inventory, attached to Tudor Sir John’s will, we know that there was a great and  little parlour, nursery and two wardrobes, kitchen, buttery, dairy, brew house, chapel and bell and gatehouse, proving insight into the size of his establishment,  also its wealth listing for example 40 feather beds, 12 testers, several richly embroidered. Edward’s son John (1538-1595) (JG3), was succeeded by his nephew, another John (d. 1633) (JG4) who was created a baronet in 1622, and married Lady Penelope Darcy. Despite the extreme times, this John’s later probate inventory of 1633 again reflects the scale of the house, recording 51 beds and 30 or 31 fireplaces, ovens and furnaces. Of interest, this inventory refers to a bedchamber over the outer gate, so by implication there was also an inner gate, whereas, today there is one arched entrance way leading to the first courtyard before the Great Hall.

Firle was remodelled during two phases in the eighteenth century, in part due to the fact much of the Tudor building had fallen into decay, also because through the centuries the emphasis and way of life had changed, requiring by Georgian times a different layout and sequence of rooms. The compact Georgian house maintained its footprint with a double courtyard, the hall was divided creating the Great Hall and Little hall today, the fireplace was moved against the inside wall in the Great Hall, and the ceiling raised in the Little Hall to accommodate its splendid partly cantilevered staircase with a Roman balustrade, while the Caen stone blocks were re-cycled in the subsequent iterations of the house, to provide its present Georgian façade.   What is referred to today as the Palladian Drawing Room was added to an area of re-construction east of the Little Hall, it was used as the dining room in the eighteenth century, and a music room in the nineteenth century, while a long gallery, an unusual feature to find in Georgian architecture, was added along the length of the front of the suite of rooms on the first floor of the east range, to house the lst Viscount’s collection of paintings.

The first phase of the eighteenth century work was commenced by Sir William between 1713 and 1744.  Records relating to the eighteenth century re-modelling are scant. Timothy Knox (Firle Place guide book, 2000) proposes that the work was carried out by the masons Arthur and John Morris of Lewes, who operated a virtual monopoly in the area. Furthermore, he thoughtfully suggests as the architect the French-born Huguenot Nicholas Dubois (1665-1735), who commenced rebuilding Stanmer Park, Brighton between 1722 and 1729 for Henry Pelham (ca.1694-1725), his cousin, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, was the supreme ‘fixer’ of affairs in Sussex, of whom William was a staunch supporter. However, Dubois died in 1735, so he could only have worked for Sir William Gage.  Alternatively, Richard Hewlings (Georgian Group Journal, Vol. XVI, 2008) proposes a convincing case for the appointment of a London architect such as Roger Morris (1695-1749), the pupil of Colen Campbell (1676-1729) (who worked on Compton Place, Eastbourne) based upon the evidence of number sophisticated Palladian elements related to the Georgian re-modelling, perhaps commissioned by the lst Viscount, Thomas Gage. Between 1747 and 1751 Thomas was responsible for the cultured household of Frederick, Prince of Wales, where no doubt he met the most eminent architects and artists of the day. One of the most remarkable features incorporated during the second phase is the rare Serliana window on the entrance front.

Firle was inherited from his uncle by Henry, the 3rd Viscount (1761-1808), who on 12 January 1789 married his cousin Susannah Skinner, only daughter and heiress of Lieut. General Skinner (whose wife was the daughter and co-heiress of Admiral Sir Peter Warren of Westbury House in Hampshire). Henry was considered one of the wealthiest peers in England, given their combined inheritances.  Henry and Susannah divided their time between Firle and Westbury, and by 1794 an extensive programme of redecoration within the house was commenced in Sussex, and the grounds landscaped. The stables were built in 1804, railings of which, with the cypher of Thomas, 1st Viscount Gage were removed from the front of the family’s Gloucestershire estate, Highmeadow, following its demolition.  A thatched dairy which stands in the grounds beside the south lawn of the house was built for Susannah. Drawings exist by John Brodie for the stables (dated 1801) and dairy. The gamekeeper’s tower was also constructed as a keeper’s cottage, and placed at the top of a small hill, both as a lookout for poachers (who were tried and fined at sessions held in the Ram Inn), and so that the keeper of Plashett deer park at Ringmer, which also belonged to Lord Gage, could signal his pending arrival from London.

During the Second World War, the pupils of Southover Manor School in Lewes occupied the house using the state rooms as classrooms and dormitories, and eating their meals in the Great Hall. The girls were well behaved, unlike the three successive divisions of Canadian soldiers stationed there between 1940 and 1945 who caused much damage to the house and, much to the consternation of Henry Rainald, the 6th Viscount (1895-1982), emptied its cellars of his prized wines. In 1931 the 6th Viscount Gage married the Hon. Imogen Grenfell, a daughter of Lord and Lady Desborough, who in 1954 inherited through her mother part of the celebrated Cowper collection from Panshanger in Hertfordshire, and from her father part of the Grenfell collection from Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, thus transforming the collection at Firle. Consequently the tired and faded Victorian interiors were cleared, and during this refurbishment the original Tudor doorway was found in the Little Hall, and the remarkable remnants of an Elizabethan frieze in the dining room.

Today, Firle is lived in by Henry Nicholas, the 8th Viscount (b. 1934 -) and his family.