An Audience with Lady Ashcombe

  • Lady Ashcombe's Study (Will Juhasz)
  • Sudeley Castle Banqueting Hall (Val Corbett)
  • Sudeley Castle View (Nigel Schermuly)
  • Sudeley Castle Chandos Bedroom (Nigel Schermuly)
  • Sudeley Castle Knot Garden (Val Corbett)

The chatelaine of Sudeley Castle on castle life, her friendship with outspoken historian David Starkey, and the domestication of badgers…

It’s 2015, and the Tudors are sexy again – not that they ever really stopped being sexy, even hundreds of years after the dynasty has ended. The long-awaited adaptation of the author Hilary Mantel’s smash hit Wolf Hall has hit British screens, stoking the long-simmering interest in the machinations of the rapacious Henry VIII – plus the sprawling cast of plotters, scapegoats and unfortunates who had the mixed fortune to live alongside these indomitable titans.

There is a place in the Cotswolds where this corner of history is particularly well tended. It is Sudeley Castle, the place where Henry’s final wife – Katherine Parr – lived out her last days, enduring beyond the death of her wife-slaying husband only to end up in a love triangle with the young Princess Elizabeth and the charismatic, dark-intentioned rogue, Thomas Seymour. Katharine’s remains lie there, still: Sudeley is in fact the only private residence to have an English Queen buried in its grounds. Yet, there’s far more to Sudeley’s history than the Tudor bit.

The estate’s long story entwines with those of some of England’s most celebrated monarchs – and her most notorious monsters. The beleaguered Charles I used the castle as his base during the Civil War; Richard III came into ownership of Sudeley twice but was killed in battle before he could see his own grand additions; Mad King George discovered its remains and promptly fell down a tower. Sudeley has seen extravagant royal parties, greats sieges, ruination and abandonment: its many owners have been crucified by fate just as often as they’ve been kissed by it.

And the castle’s present custodian, Lady Elizabeth Ashcombe, is no stranger to adversity, even if the battles fought over the last few decades have been a question of balancing books rather than aiming cannons. Under her watch, a once-draughty old house has again become a private kingdom of artisan gardens, sumptuous antiques and evocative ruins. And with plenty worth preserving, thank goodness Sudeley is well looked after today.

Lady Ashcombe was introduced to Sudeley via her first husband, Mark Dent-Brocklehurst, in the sixties, and has weathered all manner of storms to remain here since. Her story almost has the aura of a fairytale about it – a girl from a South American family becoming chatelaine of a wildly beautiful English castle – but the reality is somewhat different.

I greet Lady Ashcombe in the room known as the ‘big kitchen.’ Belonging to the family’s private apartments, it is not accessible to the public. With beautiful paintings and portraits lining the walls, it is certainly grand for a kitchen – but it is cosy, too, and causes one to think of the many people, some famous and illustrious, to whom this castle has served as a family home.

CH: Tell us about your family and the years before Sudeley.

LA: My family are from the South: my mother from Virginia and my father from Mississippi, and we lived in New Orleans and Virginia. I went to boarding school and had further education in New York and Paris.

Back in New York I went to design school, and that’s where I met Mark Dent-Brocklehurst who would become my husband and introduce me to Sudeley, the family home.

CH: How did you feel when you first saw the castle?

LA: It was such a long time ago…when I first laid eyes on the castle I never knew that I would end up here. I never knew that I was going to marry Mark and that this life would unfold. It was always his mother’s home and even when we married, that was the intention. I suppose we knew that one day we might come to live in Sudeley but we didn’t come to consider it much in those days. I was twenty…quite young when I first came to England. Mark and I lived in London and I had a business there, which I was very focused on, and we started a family.

Maybe about six or seven years later, Mark’s mother said to us that she thought it was time that we thought about coming to live at Sudeley. She bought a house quite nearby and moved away. Actually, it came as quite a surprise…it was a daunting idea.

First of all we had to give up our life in London. Second of all we wanted to know exactly how we could possibly live in a house like this. It was caught in a time warp and certainly wasn’t open to the public. There had been very little modernisation since the 1930s. It was cold, creaky, drafty, spooky. I remember it not with huge fondness.

CH: So, was it an almost frightful prospect, taking Sudeley on?

LA: It was a shock and a challenge. It had come at a time in our lives that we hadn’t expected it to. However – we decided to fold up the tent, pack up our life in London and take our children to start a new life here in Gloucestershire, send them to school locally. It was my husband’s idea – after much thought and consultation – to open it to the public. Which it deserves to be – it’s a very historic building with a very interesting history.’

Sadly, Mark died very soon after we came here, which was a huge tragedy. Sudeley was opened in 1970, and here we are almost fifty years later.

CH: Were you both confident in the idea of opening to the public?

LA: At that time I didn’t know anything about the business of making it open to the public – and neither did Mark, but he was a businessman and he consulted other estates.

It took us two years to get it open. We had to put in new infrastructure, facilities, a car park…we had to create a tour in something that my mother-in-law had been living in as a family home for a number of years. We divided up the chores – I was responsible for the exhibition as I had a design background, and other things like that, while Mark was responsible for the estate and the business side of things. But I think we were confident. I don’t remember not being confident.

When Mark died, it absolutely blew everything out of the water. He died in 1972, when there was hugely high taxation and death duties. There was no spouse exemption, so the taxes on the house, estate, contents, everything were absolutely enormous. So from that date to now there’s been a huge challenge in trying to balance it and make sense of it again. And it’s not that easy.

I guess I don’t mind saying this, it’s probably good to be honest – we’re probably one of the few houses that are as big as this with so little land. We needed to sell a lot of acreage, a lot of assets to be able to pay the death duties in 1972. So we’re very dependent on tourism as opposed to other sources of income. When Mark and I took it on, we had an estate that had other sources of income, but it’s been whittled down a lot. So what we’ve [still] got is the quintessential Englishness, the history – that’s what we do.

And it works reasonably well, it doesn’t work perfectly [laughs]. We want more and more visitors.

CH: Do you feel that you’ve struck a decent balance between visitor attraction and private family home?

LA: Yes. We are a comfortable private home, having divided the private part into three apartments. I have one, my daughter and her family have one and my son has one. My son Henry spends most of the year in Hawaii at the moment – I’m hoping he’ll relocate here eventually – but while he’s away we spread out and use his rooms as well. So it’s quite concertinaed, but it works quite well. It’s lovely as a family gathering place, and the reason I’ve been so keen on keeping it going. Yes, I love having it open to the public and I think that’s the way it should be. But that’s not the reason I’ve done it – it’s my passion as keeping it as a family interest.

We have completely different lives. Mollie is the director of an art gallery in London and my son chose to live in Hawaii for a period of time, as his wife’s family live there. The only thing I would say is that I think the time is coming soon when they should be coming back again!

CH: I’ve heard that the family kept a badger as a house pet? Not an animal I would have thought that could be easily domesticated…

LA: Well, it certainly was domesticated. Mark loved animals and wildlife and he started a wildlife collection here, in the early days, but even before he came to Sudeley – he used to go back when his mother was still living here and we were in London. One weekend I had remained in London with the children and Mark came back with two baby badgers in a box. That was the start of this experience, this relationship with a badger, who we called Brock.

And actually it became very interesting and fascinates me still to this day. They are very intelligent creatures. The other badger went to live with Mark’s mother and he didn’t fare so well. She left him outside in the kennels and he was killed by other territorial badgers…it was very sad.

Brock was brought up in our nursery with my two children…My daughter was a baby and we had a nanny who first objected to the badger but then bonded with it. She brought it up like she would one of her charges: kept it clean, fed, smacked if it did something wrong, brushed its teeth, combed its hair, got it ready to go to the park…She’d take it out to the park in the pram and I asked her one time, when she came back many years later, “What did those other nannies in Kensington Gardens think of you with a badger in your pram?” She said she supposed they got used to it and would eventually remark about how both Mollie and the badger had grown. They just accepted him.

And Brock came to live here at Sudeley after getting into trouble in London digging up people’s gardens. And he didn’t adapt well to the castle life. It was hard for him to figure it out. He ripped up some valuable curtains and would jump out at people’s ankles having hidden behind the settee. But for a wild animal, he absolutely adored the nanny and Mollie and Henry and Mark, though he didn’t much care for the rest of us. One time he went missing and when he was found he snuggled up in the nanny’s arms and suckled her ear. He would follow them around, trying to figure out what on earth you’re supposed to do if you’re a badger living with humans in a castle. And it was simply fascinating watching him try to figure this out.

CH: Sudeley has such a rich history – it’s not ‘just’ a nice country house. Does being the caretaker of that heritage ever feel like a burden to you?

LA: I think it is important to succeed. I think it would be a great sadness – a tragedy, in a way – if Sudeley wasn’t open to the public. If my family were unable to stay here that would only ever be for financial reasons, because we simply couldn’t make it work. [I imagine] that it would only be us who would want to keep it open to the public…and it would be a huge shame for the community and the story of Sudeley. It gets more fascinating day to day, the more you live with it.

CH: Tell us about a day in the life of Lady Ashcombe. What are your responsibilities?

LA: I work here three days a week – Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays and Thursdays I’m in London. If you look at my diary there are meetings all the time, and they’re completely varied. I meet at least once a month, if not more, with all the different teams that work here. Yesterday, for instance, I had a meeting regarding exhibitions next year (we’re having a Wellington exhibition), and then a 2015 marketing review. In January I go to Hawaii, and that all has to be ready by Christmas – because by the New Year it’s all underway for the re-opening in March.

Then there are community things to do with Winchcombe – entertaining a vicar who is leaving, for example. Once a week I meet up with our Head Gardener, Stephen Torode. I’m very involved in developing the gardens. I write lots of letters and am in regular correspondence with various people. It’s a proper business. Most of it is pleasurable and rewarding, but a bit is tricky.

CH: What are some of the major changes you’ve made to Sudeley during your residency?

LA: We’ve made huge changes. There’s little here that would be recognised [from before]. When I first came this room was the servants’ hall – though we didn’t have any servants, but that it was in Victorian times. The ground floor was the below stairs when I first came here.

In 1979, I married my second husband, Lord Ashcombe, who sadly died last year. For a few years we lived at his property outside Dorking in Surrey, and Sudeley was getting increasingly run down and wasn’t getting enough attention, so we decided to move back in and make it our permanent home. In the early eighties there was enormous modernisation in everything – roof, plumbing, heating, decorating – making it comfortable for a 20th century family and for the public. It was a Renaissance – we were starting all over again, with a very positive hope that it would become a home as well as preserving the heritage.

CH: It’s incredible to think of how it looks now after spending a couple of hundred years in dereliction…Even in the last few years much has changed.

Last year we really looked at where we wanted to go with the business. What the problems were with it, what the visitors were saying. We looked at TripAdvisor, particularly the negative comments – from people who felt they didn’t see enough of the castle, and so on. So we opened four new rooms in the castle. We opened a whole new itinerary so visitors could walk through the history of a thousand years inside and outside. Tudor history, Elizabethan history, walking through the ruins…switching in to where we live, learning about Katherine Parr – it’s an interesting walking experience, snaking in and out through the site. Somehow we got it right. People just love it here.

So now we’re having a big new think about the gardens, which are wonderful – perhaps something really exciting happening, which I can’t quite say what here…introducing unusual plants, collections of plants. But you have to keep going. You can’t just sit back.

CH: There have been some interesting anniversaries and events in the last few years: the quincentenary of Katherine Parr’s birth (and the re-enactment of her funeral at Sudeley), the discovery of Richard III’s remains in a car park…

That was amazing.

CH: And of course he had created the great Banqueting Hall at Sudeley, which was ruined…

LA: When Richard was Duke of Gloucester, he was given the castle. I don’t know if he was telling the architect what to do, exactly, but at that time this magnificent hall was created (on the site of something else, and we’re not quite sure what that is).

What really catches my breath is that if you approach it in a certain way - which I encourage visitors to do - is if you go to the Dungeon Tower first (which is quite dark) and then see it. Wonderful.

And of course it’s the backdrop to so many wonderful stories. Think of all the people who were here – Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Katherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey, Thomas Seymour, Charles I…you know, all wining and dining and dancing or feeling awful, or being, whatever they were doing, in that setting…

CH: And all of those important historic personages must be of great asset to Sudeley, because there’s no end of commemorations and anniversaries that you could celebrate here…

LA: We don’t have mementos from a lot of them, but the stories are there to develop and refer to. There’s a lot more interest now in other areas of history – the Tudor period is and has been just so popular. It encourages tourism from all over the world.

CH: Is that the period of history that you are most interested in?

LA: It’s the period that we have promoted at Sudeley for two reasons. The first is because of the great interest in Henry VIII and his six wives – and the wife that survived, the fact that she’s buried in the garden. You know that Sudeley is the only private house with a queen buried in the garden.

So we’ve created our story with the Queen’s gardens, and the Victorian chatelaine, Emma Dent, collected a lot of Tudor paintings and memorabilia - Katherine Parr’s ring, her hair, and so on – so we have that as an exhibition. When Mark and I decided to open the house to the public we already had a collection of beautiful things – Dutch pictures and a few mementos – but previous generations had not really though about celebrating the history so much, so out first thought was ‘well, what are we going to show the public?’ To resolve that problem we engaged a theatrical designer who was a friend of ours, an opera designer, and he designed the story of Sudeley, taking inspiration mainly from the Tudors and going up until the time of Cromwell, the Civil War. The art and the memorabilia that we already had were displayed, and we got David Hockney to produce a new work.

The exhibition was innovative for its time, all sound and light when you walked around, things lighting up, but unfortunately the machinery became antiquated, finally broke down. So we became known as a Tudor exhibition, and we developed the theme in the gardens. It’s lately that we’ve extended it to welcome Richard III…

CH: He was a particularly short-lived king. Did he get to see Sudeley, see the banqueting hall?

LA: Yes, because he left, then came back for a little while for the Battle of Tewkesbury. History’s a little vague and some historians don’t agree with each other. But Richard III’s fascinating: he’s got a huge supporting audience, a fan club who don’t think he was quite as guilty as Shakespeare made him out to be.

CH: I saw the documentary where Philippa Langley had an incredible passion for his story and an unshakeable belief that he’d been maligned, and these things ultimately led to the discovery of his remains, in that car park…

LA: That’s right, and in the most extraordinary way, because she intuited they were there, she has this feeling as she stood over that bit of ground. How strange.

CH: You just mentioned the David Hockney artwork – that’s an interesting piece, because it represents a love triangle between the young Elizabeth I, Katherine Parr and the roguish Thomas Seymour…

LA: I always felt David Hockney was a little unkind to Katherine Parr because - first of all - she was meant to be very beautiful. OK, she was supposed to be older, about 38 or something, but nowadays that’s hardly considered old at all. Of course, Elizabeth was then 14. I think it is true that Seymour was a ladies man – if not rather lecherous as well. But Katherine Parr with whiskers sticking out? Come on, that’s not fair!

But I think David Hockney was illustrating some fairytales at the time, so the artwork is done in a similar style. It was meant to be humorous in tone…

CH: It is interesting how the story of Sudeley is one of strong women and some very powerful, but very flawed men…

LA: It appears that way. Emma Dent was a hugely vibrant personality here, in Sudeley and the community. Her husband, John Dent, appears – when you read between the lines – to be quite henpecked, sort of told what to do. [Obviously] there’s also our association with Elizabeth I and Katherine Parr. We like to follow the thread of feminine influence through Sudeley. King Ethelred the Unready’s daughter was given Sudeley just south of the palace in Medieval times [that was] in Winchcombe – it was called South Place. She was Goda, the first ruler of Sudeley.

CH: And she too was a survivor, against the odds, in what was a very brutal time.

LA: There have certainly been some very turbulent times for what has elsewise been a very gentle environment.

CH: Tell us about Sudeley’s relationship with the historian David Starkey.

LA: He’s a great fan of Sudeley. When he was making the television documentary The Six Wives of Henry VIII he used a couple of background shots of Sudeley. So I got to know him…become friends with him, really. He’s a most engaging character. Challenging, but delightful and brilliant. He’s been a great supporter and has helped me a lot…He’s a great historian, and he knows his facts – and I think he knows them better than anybody. He also understands what the visitor would like to see, and how much time they would like to spend – he understands all that very well. And he’s a showman as well, so he’s been extremely helpful in bringing it alive. He teases me about it as well, and we take licence with certain ideas.

CH: Finally, what can you tell us about next year at Sudeley?

LA: Much is under wraps but we have just entered into an exciting partnership with the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. They’re creating a willow maze which will have a badger set in it and will show children all about wildlife in the Cotswolds…But you’ll have to come back and interview me later if you want to know more.

With thanks to Lady Ashcombe

This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 Edition of Cotswold Homes.

Image credits:

Portrait by Will Juhasz, Castle View & Chandos Bedroom by Nigel Schermuly, Banqueting Hall & Knot Garden by Val Corbett