St Catherine's Court

St Catherine's CourtA few years ago I turned a corner and fell in love. I was walking up the secluded valley north of Batheaston and St Catherine's Court was my goal. I knew what to expect; photographs promised a serene and mellow Tudor house. And yet that first glimpse of glittering mullioned windows high among the trees made me catch my breath.

The Court casts a spell. This puts the wary historian on guard; such a house is the backdrop for dreams. But as I probed into its past, I found fact not fable. There were once three manors in Batheaston, the northernmost of which belonged to the Prior of Bath. His tenant there in 1086 was Walter Hussey. One of Walter's descendants presumably built the chapel of St Catherine, which still has some late Norman work. Manorial lords often maintained a private chapel. To this day the little church of St Catherine is just a stone's throw away from the Court and parishioners need to cross the Court's private grounds to reach it.

The Husseys did not stay at St Catherine and in 1258 the chapel was annexed to the church of Batheaston. For centuries Bath Priory ran the manor through its stewards and bailiffs. They grew grapes and sheared the sheep that grazed on Charmydown. Towards the end of the 15th century things changed. Perhaps the Priory needed a favour from Sir Thomas Fulford, the sheriff of Somerset and Dorset 1484-5, for St Catherine was let to him for a rose rent.

After Fulford died in 1490, Prior John Cantlow took a particular interest in this solitary manor house, an ideal retreat from the hurly-burly of the city. He built the present chancel of the church, leaving his portrait and coat of arms in the east window. He and his successor must have used St Catherine's Court, for when it was let again in 1516, a room called the Prior's Chamber was reserved to the priory.

The new tenants were William Herford and his wife Alice, previously smallholders in St Catherine. They had no sons, so they arranged for the lease to descend first to their younger daughter Isabel, as yet unmarried. This was tempting husband-bait and who better to realise it than the young priory steward appointed in 1519, Thomas Llewellyn. Sure enough Thomas and Isabel made a match of it and reared three sons - Benedict, William and John - whose inheritance was duly provided for in 1534. It was just as well, for a few years later the dissolution of the monasteries was upon them and the Llewellyns had a new landlord.

This was Henry VIII's tailor, John Malt, who in 1546 acquired 'Katerncourte', along with the manor of Kelston on the other side of Bath. Malt's illegitimate daughter Audrey was named jointly with him in this Crown grant, which has fuelled suspicion that she was in reality the daughter of the king. Audrey married a royal official, John Harington, who built a large house at Kelston. Meanwhile the Llewelyns continued to farm at St Catherine until Benedict died in 1582.

In 1591 John Harington the younger leased the property to John Blanchard of Marshfield for an annual rent of £20 and a couple of capons. Blanchard died the following year and it was his son William who actually bought St Catherine from Harington in 1594 and set about remodelling the house. A lease of around 1536 shows that St Catherine's Court was a substantial farm house when the Llewellyns lived there; unusually it gives a full description. The entrance faced the church and led into a hall on the right-hand side. On the other side was a parlour with a bedchamber above. All three had fireplaces, which was a fair standard of comfort for the period. There was a wool loft over the hall and other equally practical rooms behind: a dairy, malt lofts, a winnowing room and even a mill.

Panelling of c.1600 in a bedroom at St Catherine's CourtThe hall and parlour are in the same position today, but the style of this old part of the house is Elizabethan. At the very least, William Blanchard put his own stamp on his acquisition. His taste is everywhere in evidence. The snug, panelled parlour has a beautifully proportioned fireplace with a delicately carved overmantle. Elizabethan and Jacobean masons tended to use every ornament in their pattern books on fireplaces, with results that could overwhelm all but the largest rooms, but that mistake was not made here. Above the hall, in what must have been William Blanchard's own bedroom, his initials appear among the swirling tendrils in the plasterwork frieze. In a small panelled room now open to the landing is another typically Elizabethan frieze with mermen supporting shields. The fine Renaissance porch appears to be an afterthought in a slightly later style.

William died in 1631, but the house he built served several generations of Blanchards. His great-grandson Henry Blanchard seems to have been in a position to make improvements. In 1691 he inherited £500 (a considerable sum in those days) from an uncle and he contributed to the rebuilding of the church tower in 1704. Some bolection-moulded fireplaces and panelling presumably date from Henry's time.

When the last William Blanchard died in 1747, St Catherine's Court passed to his niece Quirina, who was married to Thomas Parry. A string of Parrys followed, but the last Parry heiress married one Captain Alexander Hamilton Erle, who ran through his wife's fortune. Perhaps it was extravagant of him to build a large drawing room on the south side of the house over the kitchen. He was forced to sell St Catherine's Court in 1841 to Col Joseph Strutt, whose grandson Richard was another builder of discrimination.

Around 1915 Richard Strutt redecorated the drawing room with panelling and plasterwork in the style of c.1700. He also built a south-east extension containing a Jacobean-style library. Nearby is his delightful orangery. In the Tudor period it was held that southern breezes were unhealthy and houses should face north. St Catherine's Court followed that principle, with the best rooms facing north. So Richard Strutt's sunny rooms added to the attraction of the house as a home, while destroying none of its history. It seems quite characteristic of him that when he threw the Elizabethan room above the entry into the first-floor landing, he continued the frieze, but with his own initials worked into it. The layers of history merge gracefully at St Catherine's Court.

First published in Bath City Life Autumn 1994.