Cowdray House, Midhust, West Sussex title banner, a history of a magnificent 16th Cent house, destroyed by fire in the late 18th Cent
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In the introduction I referred to a sinister aspect of Cowdray’s history. This concerns the so-called ‘Curse of Fire and Water,’ that was supposed to have been put on the house and its owners. There are many versions of how and when the curse was invoked. The custodian of the ruins in 1979, Mr. Brounger, told me that he stopped counting after the first twenty-five he heard. He suggested that it rather depended on which pub you go to, or rather to those the historians of the last century went to, as to which account you were told. Essentially there are two popular versions and I shall refer to them here.

Through the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536-3, Easebourne Priory was disbanded and the Prioress and her nuns ordered to leave. At the time of eviction, the Sub-Prioress pronounced “a curse of fire and water on the male children and their heirs” of “he who takes these lands and it shall come upon him and his name shall die out.” The Priory and its lands were granted to Sir William FitzWilliam, Earl of Southampton, who was at that time building Cowdray.

The second account concerns Sir Anthony Browne who held Cowdray between 1542-48. In 1538, Henry VIII had granted him the suppressed Battle Abbey and its lands and on taking over, Sir Anthony promptly pulled down the abbey church. It is said that when Sir Anthony was holding his first great feast in the Abbot's Hall at Battle, a monk made his way through the crowd and striding up the dais on which Sir Anthony sat, cursed him to his face. He foretold of the doom that would hang over the family following the destruction of church lands and ended by saying, “by fire and water, thy line shall come to an end and it shall perish out of this land.”

For two-hundred-and fifty years and eight successive ownerships later, nothing disastrous had happened to Cowdray or its resident Browne family. Nothing that is, until the time of the eighth Viscount Montague. (The first Viscount was the successor to Sir Anthony Browne in 1548.)

In September 1793, the younger George Samuel Browne, the eighth Viscount, was abroad in Germany, while back at Cowdray the house was being re-fitted and renovated. Lady Montague and her daughter were in Brighton, waiting for the completion of the house. So Cowdray was quite empty save for the housekeeper and a few servants. For ease of decoration, all the valuables, including the furniture and every picture that could be moved was removed to and stored in the north gallery so they would be out of the way. The workmen were then allowed to have their workshop on the second floor of the northwest tower, just above the end of the north gallery. This was against the usual practice in houses of this age and style, where for reasons of safety, workshops, which frequently involved the use of fire as a heat source, should be sited away from the house.

The date was Tuesday 24th September 1793. The repairs to Cowdray had just been completed. At just before eleven o'clock that night, in the carpenters' workshop, a small piece of smouldering charcoal, that with almost inconceivable recklessness the workmen had been allowed to burn up there, fell among the wood shavings that were strewn about the floor.

Minutes later, two men who were sitting up, brewing tea, saw flames flashing out of the windows at the end of the north gallery. Mrs. Chambers, the housekeeper, had no sooner got to sleep than she was woken by cries of fire. She got up and saw the fire raging with all its devouring fury through the most valuable and treasured collection stored there. All hands rushed to the gallery to rescue what they could, but regrettably this was only three pictures and a few sticks of furniture. All the rest, including the treasures from Battle Abbey, were destroyed. The northern section of Cowdray was now well alight and local people from Midhurst were soon on the scene ready to assist in great numbers, to rescue what they could from the other three sides of the quadrangle. Fire-hoses and buckets were kept in the conduit house to the north, but the key was lost and much valuable time was lost trying to batter the great door down.

The strong wind that prevailed increased the fury of the flames and soon they broke into the east range and ravaged the dining parlour, hall and chapel, from which only the altar painting by Jacopo Amigoni was saved. Attempts were made to pull down sections of the house to prevent any further spread, but the structure proved too strong. Nothing could be done now but to let the fire take its course and by the following morning the whole house was a blacked, smouldering ruin.

The cure of fire?

About ten days later, at the beginning of October, the actual date is not recorded; the eighth Viscount at the age of twenty-four took on the mad project of trying to shoot the falls of the Rhine at Laufenburg. He attempted the feat with a friend, Charles Sedley Burdett, in a small boat against much advice. At the first falls they were successful, but at the second, the boat capsized and they were never seem again. Viscount Montague never heard of the fire at Cowdray, the letter giving its details arrived too late. If he had, he might have abandoned the project.

The curse of water?

The curse of fire and water?

It is impossible to say whether there is any truth in the curse stories or not. The facts seem to be that the first public mention of the curse came several years after the fire and drowning. The two events were most likely just coincidence, but it is easy to see how stories could start, linking the two tragic events by a common legend. Of course if there was an element of truth in the curse, it would be natural for the family to keep it quiet and after two and a half centuries it was probably half forgotten anyway. The fact is that many legends, especially those with as many versions as this one, are often based on some grain of truth. We will never know, but the story does add to the ‘magic’ of Cowdray. It is interesting to note, though, that Sir William St.John Hope’s detailed account of the history and ruins makes no reference to the curse, where many of the other accounts of an earlier date, do.

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