skip to content
home / edition / locations/ Sandleford Priory, near Newbury

Sandleford Priory, near Newbury

Joanna Barker

Sandleford is a parish about two miles south of the town of Newbury in Berkshire, adjacent to Greenham Common. A priory of Augustinian Canons was founded there at the end of the 12th century, but was abandoned in 1478 and ownership passed to the Dean and Chapter of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The building fell into ruin and the remains were converted into a country house during the 17th century. Edward Montagu took a lease over the property in 1730 and lived there with his mother Sarah Montagu, née Rogers (1661-1735): it is possible his father, Charles Montagu (d. 1721), leased it before him. After he married Elizabeth Robinson in 1742, they used Sandleford as their principal country house and spent much of every summer there, receiving and entertaining visitors. Robert Adam was employed to design the interior of the dining room, but his work was obliterated by later alterations.

Soon after her husband’s death in 1775, Elizabeth Montagu began to use some of the income from the Montagu coal mines in the north of England to improve Sandleford. The famed landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783) was retained to design the grounds: he laid out the park, dammed a stream to create a serpentine lake (known as Brown’s Pond) and created a new walled kitchen garden. When Brown died in February 1783, his foreman Samuel Lapidge continued the work. Brown was paid £500 in 1782 and Lapidge received further payments of £420 the following year: this would equate to round £170,000 today. However, she was concerned to live within her annual income, so the development took place over a number of years. She wrote in July 1781 that “it seems a pity the noble genius of Mr Brown should be restrained by ignoble considerations which forbid my incurring debt, so his improvement must not go beyond what my cash will immediately answer”.

In 1780, Elizabeth Montagu retained the renowned architect James Wyatt (1746-1813) to transform the building in the newly-fashionable Gothic style. Wyatt had initially developed his reputation with restrained classical architecture and interiors, and Sandleford was one of his early Gothic commissions; he went on to design Lee Priory in Kent for Thomas Barrett and Fonthill Priory in Wiltshire for William Beckford.

At Sandleford Wyatt created a new octagonal drawing room, converted the ruined chapel into a dining room, and later added a large bedroom and dressing room. Elizabeth Montagu was a tireless “improver”, and the work was not fully completed until 1786. Wyatt’s designs for Sandleford have not always been admired, being perceived as an awkward mix of the Georgian classical style overlaid with Gothic features. The dining room, for example, has large sash windows reaching to the ground, and is topped by a rose window and stepped gables. The radical journalist William Cobbett (1762-1835) visited in 1821 and was very rude about it in his journal, saying that ‘of all the ridiculous things I ever saw in my life this place is the most ridiculous. The house looks like a sort of church, in somewhat of a gothic style of building, with crosses on the tops of different parts of the pile. There is a sort of swamp, at the foot of a wood, at no great distance from the front of the house ...Here is a fountain, the basin of which is not four feet over, and the water spout not exceeding the pour from a tea-pot. Here is a bridge over a river of which a child four years old would clear the banks at a jump...' Cobbett was not renowned as an architectural critic, and was more interested in finding a hare to hunt in the grounds.

Mrs Montagu, however, was very happy with the result. She wrote in 1781, “I assure you Mr Brown has not neglected any of its capabilities, he is forming it into a lovely Pastoral, a sweet arcadian Scene, in not attempting more, he adapts his scheme to ye character of ye place, & my purse … The noble rooms which Mr Wyatt was building when you were at Sandleford are now finishing with ye greatest simplicity”. A year later she wrote, “These rooms are ye most beautiful imaginable. With ye shelter ye comfort & conveniences of Walls & roofs you have beautiful passage of ye green shade of a Grove. The outside of these buildings are stuccoed & restored to their antient Gothick character” .

Montagu noted that her husband had added to the land at Sandleford by two further purchases, increasing its size to 600 acres, and that when she was resident there she took great interest in agricultural improvements and considered herself as a “farmeress”.

After Elizabeth Montagu’s death, Sandleford passed to her heir, Matthew Montagu, together with the rest of her estate. It descended to his eldest son Edward Montagu, 5th Baron Rokeby; he disposed of the lease in 1835 to William Chatteris, who in 1875 bought the freehold from the Dean and Canons of Windsor. Since 1948 the house has been occupied by St Gabriel’s, a Church of England School.

References:

Stephen Bending, Green Retreats: Women, Gardens and Eighteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Universiy Press, 2013), pp. 135-172.

Reginald Blunt, Mrs Montagu “Queen of the Blues”, Her Letters and Friendships (London: Constable, 1923), vol. 2, pp. 108-109

Emily J Climenson, Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Bluestockings (London: John Murray, 1906), vol. 1, pp. 150-152, vol. 2, pp. 278-80.

J V Beckett, Elizabeth Montagu: Bluestocking Turned Landlady, in Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, 1986, pp. 149-164.


Please note that all dates and location information are provisional, initially taken from the library and archive catalogues. As our section editors continue to work through the material we will update our database and the changes will be reflected across the edition.