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How the Verneys, whose seat, Claydon, is a National Trust treasure, fared in the turbulent 17th century

A true story of love, war and madness

A family history may be an unusual subject forThe Art Newspaper, but to see and marvel over the remaining part of what was the Verneys’ huge Claydon House in north Buckinghamshire, with its wonderful rococo interiors, and then its fabulous collection of family portraits by, inter alia, Van Dyck and Lely, then surely the case is made for a proper knowledge of the family that lived there.

The Verney family came to Claydon in the 14th century and are there still. An unending ­succession of Edmunds, Ralphs, Johns and Harrys, with the occasional Mun (actually ­another Edmund) or Francis or Tom to add a little dash of ­wildness to the clan, filled the years with their national, local and petty affairs and give a ­fascinating and very personal insight into the catastrophic events of the 17th century. Adrian Tinniswood’s book was launched at Claydon earlier this year and the host was the ­present Sir Edmund Verney. It is a tribute to the enduring nature of rural communities that one can recognise in this book, not just the family names of today’s local landowners, but the farmers and tradesmen as well. The Roades and Dancer families are still very much a part of life in north Buckinghamshire.

In Mr Tinniswood’s ­introduction he tells of the great collection of 17th-century ­letters and papers at Claydon still, and how two Victorian members of the family, Parthenope (the sister of Florence Nightingale), and later her daughter-in-law Margaret, following on from more learned historians, had sorted and worked through these papers and produced the two-volume Memoirs of the Verney Family during the Civil War, published in 1892. He tells us, rather unkindly, that they were “sometimes overeager to turn the Verneys’ story into a 17th-century version of The Forsyte Saga”. Certainly, Victorian ­family biographies are often quite heavy going, and one can but be grateful to writers like Mr Tinniswood who, with their contextual knowledge of the times, take the trouble to ­paraphrase, précis and re-order these works; and transcribe their interminable quotations from their quaint 17th-century spelling into a modern and computer friendly form. But, whichever the author or ­transcriber, the story of the Verneys, through their own ­letters, is hugely compelling.

This is not just the lives of the main players. Everyone knows the story of Sir Edmund Verney, the Standard Bearer for the King at Edgehill in 1642, and how, when the Parliamentarian cavalry broke through and surrounded the colour party, they had to cleave his hand from his body to get the standard away. His body was never found, but his ghost is said to wander the battlefield (and Claydon) searching for the lost limb. And his son, Sir Ralph, agonisingly on the side of Parliament, but not a warrior, spends his time, mostly in exile, trying desperately to keep his huge and recalcitrant extended family together, and ensuring that the Claydon estates survive those appallingly turbulent times.

Parts of the story of the Verneys are straightforward and immensely interesting in putting together the brutal, and sometimes farcical, reality of The Civil War and the well-known schoolboy dates and ­battles. Other parts are a ­revelation to those readers not wholly acquainted with the ­tortuous and bloodthirsty ­complexity of Irish politics at that time. In 1641, Mr Tinniswood tells us, in one ­corner were the Old Irish, Catholic nobles whose clans had seen their power eroded by successive waves of English and Scottish colonists. In ­another were the Old English who had come over to Ireland with Henry II and King John; confusingly a lot of these were Catholic also—the Reformation had passed them by. In the third corner were the New English, Protestants who had come over to take offices barred to Catholics, and finally there were the Protestant Scottish planters who settled Ulster. Not surprisingly, King Charles had an impossible task. Verneys are involved and Mun writes to his brother Ralph about an assault on a castle near Trim where they had put 80 rebels to the sword, but “…like the valiant knights errant, [we] gave ­quarter and liberty to all the women…” What goes round comes around and seven years later Mun himself is in the Royalist army defending Drogheda from Cromwell, and is one of those put to the sword by the Parliamentarian forces.

Perhaps though, the most evocative accounts are of ­personal and family life in that troubled century, Ralph himself getting married at the age of 15 to a 13-year-old bride. Rather sensibly he was not allowed marital relations until his wife was 14, “giving rise to ­excruciating comments” from his tutor at Oxford about “Hymen’s delights…”

Then there is the next Mun, Ralph’s eldest son. After a good dose of gonorrhoea, with “one of his testicles swelled…bigger than his fist”, he fell in love with his second cousin Mary Eure. A long and largely ­unrequited courtship then took place, only to be ­terminated by his father hinting that he himself might marry again. Mun at last drops that Mary for another—Mary Abell, whom he marries in Westminster Abbey in 1662. Sadly she turns out to be hopelessly mad. “Zelotipia [a ­morbid jealousy] is got into her pericranium…”

Finally there is Ralph’s death, described from the ­letters in prurient detail. The undertaker despatches “his son-in-law, a plumber and a cart which held a lead-lined coffin covered in black baize and a hamper with the materials needed to prepare the body…”

And the detail is all. Sir Ralph, Sir Edmund and their wives are commemorated in that wonderful wall monument in Middle Claydon church, in what are now the gardens of Claydon House, which cost £130, “the carriage of the work by land and water to be done at the charge of Sir Ralph Verney…and also the brick, lime, sand and ­scaffolding to finish the work in the country…”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A true story of love, war and madness'