A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1945.
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'Parishes: Billesley', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 3, Barlichway Hundred, (London, 1945) pp. 58-61. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol3/pp58-61 [accessed 29 February 2024]
Population: 1911, 48; 1921, 53; 1931, 58.
Billesley is a small parish on the north side of the Stratford-Alcester road. It appears to have been a place of some importance in early times, and a house in Warwick was attached to the manor in 1086. (fn. 1) But the village has long since disappeared and now only the Hall and church remain. The process of depopulation, which may have begun with the Black Death—the visitation of 1361 was especially severe in this part of Warwickshire (fn. 2) —was certainly hastened in the following century by inclosures. Rous, writing about 1450, laments the utter decay of the village, of which, even then, nothing was left but the manor house. (fn. 3) In Dugdale's time even the church was in ruins. (fn. 4) The lines of former buildings, which are generally supposed to mark the site of the village, are still clearly traceable in a field to the south of the church.
In 1649 the inhabitants of Billesley were directed to pay 5s. weekly towards the relief of the poor of Henleyin-Arden, but the order was rescinded when it was found that the parish consisted only of the manor-house, where Lady Lee maintained three or four aged pensioners besides contributing to the poor rate in Grafton. (fn. 5) Billesley is included in Grafton parish in the Hearth Tax returns of 1662–74, but it remained a separate parish in fact.
From the main road a by-road runs past the Hall to Aston Cantlow, with a fork westwards to Haselor, and south of the Hall another road comes in from Wilmcote. Billesley and Haselor were once more directly connected by a road now disused. (fn. 6)
Billesley Hall is built mostly of lias limestone, with tiled roofs. The plan of the older part is of L-shape, the main block facing south, (fn. 7) and the wing, now a galleried hall, being on the north side of the east half. The wing is probably of late-16th-century date, as its west wall is of timber-framing in the upper part and the stone east wall appears to be of older rubble than that of the main block. The main block was extended to the west late in the 18th century, (fn. 8) and modern additions have been built towards the north. The stucco applied to the walls in the 19th century has since been removed, but much of the masonry still bears the scars of keying, or has had to be renewed.
The south front has a projecting porch-wing in the east half, and near each end is a square bay window. The porch is of three stories: the entrance has moulded jambs and round head with moulded imposts and spandrels carved with scrolled strap-work. It is flanked by detached Doric shafts of red sandstone that carry an entablature carved with ornament, now much perished. The inner doorway is of more early-Tudor type, having moulded jambs and a four-centred arch. Above it is a three-light stone window with chamfered mullions, and on either side a small modern light. There is also an old nail-studded oak door. The first floor has a tall restored window of three lights with a transom. The second floor has a small two-light window. The gable-head has modern kneelers. The walling is of finely dressed squared lias rubble with angle-dressings of red-brown freestone. The main wall on either side of the porch is of less finished masonry and probably a little earlier. It has a moulded plinth, and a moulded string-course at the first-floor level. East of the porch is a six-light window with a transom, and west of it are three others; above each is a four-light window. A seam between the middle and western windows indicates the junction with the late18th-century extension, which is of more evenly worked lias coursing. The westernmost square bay window, which rises to a gabled third story, is modern, but the similar easternmost bay is old, although much restored. The first-floor window is a late-17th-century tall and narrow feature of two lights and a transom, a moulded architrave eared at the top, and a moulded sill; the second-floor window is contemporary.
The east end of the main block has a slightly projecting gable-head on a moulded string-course and with carved and moulded kneelers. The ground and first floors have restored windows of five lights; the second floor has a three-light window. The wall of the wing, next north, sets back 6 ft. and is of two stories with an eaves gutter. It has a six-light lower window and four-light upper, both restored or modern. The walling is of thinner stones and less neatly squared than in the main block, and has an old moulded stringcourse at the first-floor level. The west wall of this wing has a lower stone wall with a six-light window, but the upper story is of timber-framing, partly restored but with some ancient posts. The north side of the main block has a range of four chimney-stacks; the projecting stack of the old kitchen (now diningroom) has gathered-in sides of ashlar and carries two octagonal shafts of ancient thin bricks. The others, to the two fire-places in the billiard-room (east), and to the western extension, have diagonal and octagonal shafts of similar bricks. There is another great square panelled stack over the gabled west end. The back wall of the main block has wood-framed windows to the upper story (above the old kitchen). The modern extension north of the old north wing contains the principal entrance and entrance hall.
The entrance hall has an 18th-century south screen of three bays divided by fluted Doric pilasters: the middle bay has an elliptical-headed doorway to the galleried hall, the side bays with similar heads are recesses; the heads have jewelled spandrels. The galleried hall occupies the old north wing and is lighted by east and west windows. It has a gallery crossing its west end, and along its south side to the rooms over the billiard room. The wall on this side above the gallery is of ancient timber-framing. Over the east end of the hall is a chamber with early-17th-century panelling. In the south wall is a heavily carved oak chimneypiece. The fire-place is flanked by Tuscan shafts and has a carved rounded mantel-shelf divided by pilasterbrackets. The overmantel is of three bays with elaborately carved round-headed panels and half-round Corinthian shafts. Rising from the west end of the north side is the main staircase, modern except for some 17th-century balusters on the upper landing. Opposite, in the south wall, is a four-centred moulded stone archway, into the lobby of the south porch, and in the west wall is another old stone doorway with moulded jambs and square head.
The billiard room, occupying all the main block east of the lobby, was two rooms originally. It has two moulded stone fire-places with four-centred heads on its north side. The room is lined with early-17thcentury oak panelling and has overmantels of panels with heavy moulded frames. The dining-room, west of the lobby, was formerly the kitchen and has a north fireplace 10 ft. wide, of stone, with a segmentalpointed arch. The room is lined with Elizabethan panelling and has late-17th-century east and west doors. The rooms farther west have late-18th-century fireplaces, &c.
The upper part of the galleried hall has a plastered frieze of running vine ornament which may be old. Leading into the galleries are four doors which have late-16th-century steel locks with pivot-hinged strap scutcheon-plates, &c. (fn. 9)
There are two rooms over the billiard-room—the eastern entered from the gallery of the hall through a thick (chimney) wall. The west reveal of the doorway has a cupboard in the panelling which was the way into a hiding-hole, and has a false ceiling to it leading to a space above. In the north wall is an elaborate early17th-century oak chimney-piece: the fire-place is of stone with a four-centred head, and is flanked by pairs of Ionic shafts in oak; the middle panel of the overmantel is deeply moulded and has a central oval jewel ornament in which is cut a slot, through which it is said the interior of the room can be seen from the chimney-flue communicating with the hiding-hole. The room is lined with Elizabethan and later panelling. The western bedroom also has an old stone moulded and arched fire-place flanked by fluted oak pilasters and having a carved mantel frieze. The overmantel is of panels formed by raised mouldings separated by wide pilasters with niches and panels, and has a frieze above carved with monsters, &c. It is probably earlier than the other. The room has a dado of late-16thcentury panelling. Above the dining-room is a room with a stone moulded fire-place, lined with early-17thcentury oak panelling with a carved frieze. A staircase from the first to the second floor has 17th-century turned balusters.
A stone garden-wall runs east of the house in line with the south front, and right against the building is an arched opening with a pair of good wrought-iron gates of the 17th century.
In the lawn south of the house is a circular fishpond, and away to the south are the remains of a former moat. A garden south-west of the house has some good modern yew topiary, but the yew hedge bordering the east side of the garden is much older—probably 17thcentury. South-east of the house, on either side of the road to the church, are outbuildings, mostly of stone, but one of which shows some 17th-century timber framing and brick in its west wall. Nearby is a rectangular (formerly square) stone pigeon-house. A gateway into the grounds, west of the road, has a pair of rusticated stone posts with late-17th-century urn finials.
South of the church is a moat of which three sides containing water still remain. The inner faces of the arms retain rubble walling of a former building, and there are traces of former banks to north and south. The west arm was destroyed for a roadway to the church.
Billesley was held before the Conquest by Baldwin. He is probably identical with Baldwin son of Herlewin, a man of note before the Conquest whom Hugh de Grentmesnil succeeded in this manor as in others in Warwickshire (fn. 10) and other counties. In 1086 Osbern held the manor of Hugh as 5 hides. (fn. 11)
Ives son of Hugh de Grentmesnil mortgaged all his estates about 1102 to Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, who, in exchange, undertook to obtain pardon for Ives's rebellion and to advance money to enable him to go on Crusade. Ives died on Crusade and Robert retained the estates. (fn. 12) Billesley passed to Robert's son Robert, Earl of Leicester, who exchanged it and other manors with Roger, Earl of Warwick. (fn. 13) The overlordship of the Earls of Warwick was recognized until 1585 or later. (fn. 14)
There appears also to have been a mesne lordship held by the Botelers of Oversley. William Trussell in 1242 was holding Billesley of Maurice le Boteler, (fn. 15) and in 1315 William le Boteler held it of the Earl of Warwick. (fn. 16) But in 1285 William Trussell was holding Billesley as a knight's fee from Andrew de Astley as mesne lord between him and the Earl of Warwick, (fn. 17) probably during the minority of the Boteler heir. Half a fee in Billesley was returned in 1428 as formerly held by William Boteler. (fn. 18)
Osbert Trussell held the manor in 1166 (fn. 19) and the Trussell family remained in possession for more than 400 years. (fn. 20) Osbert's grandson Richard forfeited his lands for rebellion against King John, but recovered them soon afterwards, (fn. 21) and William Trussell held one fee in Billesley in 1235 and 1242. (fn. 22) Richard Trussell was lord of the manor in 1265, (fn. 23) when he was killed fighting on the baronial side at Evesham, and the estates were again forfeited and again recovered, (fn. 24) Richard's brother William being in possession in 1268. (fn. 25) William, by his marriage with Rohese daughter and heir of William Pantolf of Cublesdon, acquired large estates in Staffordshire and other counties, and Billesley ceased to be the chief seat of the family. Sir William Trussell, who was among those pardoned for their part in the death of Piers Gaveston, (fn. 26) was holding the manor in 1316, (fn. 27) but in 1322 he and his son William and his brother Edmund were fugitives from justice, having joined the rebels under Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, (fn. 28) and his lands were seized by the king. (fn. 29) Billesley was restored to the family, for Sir William's eldest son John Trussell of Cublesdon gave the manor to his brother Warin for life. There is a letter of 1337 still extant written by John to Warin informing him that he had granted to Richard Longespey, parson of Warmingham, the reversion of the manor after Warin's death. (fn. 30) Richard was evidently a trustee for John Trussell, whose son Sir William died in 1379–80, his only daughter Katherine having predeceased him. (fn. 31) Katherine had married her cousin Sir Alfred, or Avery, Trussell, who was descended from Edmund mentioned above, (fn. 32) and they had one daughter, Elizabeth wife of Sir Baldwin Freville. She died before 1383, (fn. 33) when Margaret wife of Fulk Pembrugge, daughter of Sir William Trussell (brother of John) and heir of Elizabeth Freville, granted the manor of Billesley to Sir Alfred Trussell and his issue male. (fn. 34) Sir Alfred married again and had a son William, (fn. 35) who died in 1432, his son John being then under age. (fn. 36) John's son Thomas (fn. 37) was sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire in 1509. (fn. 38) He died in 1517, having settled Billesley manor in 1508 upon his son William on his marriage with Cecily Curzon. (fn. 39) William, however, died before his father, and in 1517 the manor passed to William's infant son Alfred, or Avery, then aged 4. The king granted the wardship of Avery to Sir Robert Norwich, Chief Justice of Common Pleas, and he sold it to Robert Fulwood of Tanworth, whose daughter Margaret Avery afterwards married. (fn. 40) During his long minority one Richard Fulwood, who occupied the manor, claiming under. Thomas Trussell's will, allowed the buildings of the manor to fall into decay and pulled many of them down, besides cutting and wasting the timber on the manor. (fn. 41) Avery was succeeded by a son John, (fn. 42) whose son Thomas Trussell made conveyances of the manor in 1585. (fn. 43) On 6 August of that year Thomas committed robbery and felony on the highway at Bromley, Kent, and was in 1588 attainted and sentenced to death. (fn. 44) Billesley manor passed to the Crown and was granted in 1590 to John Willes and others, being then held on lease by Richard Ognell. (fn. 45) In 1600 Otho Nicholson of London and George Ognell of Billesley sold the manor to Robert Lee for £5,000, of which they received £4,000 and £1,000 respectively, (fn. 46) with a warranty against the heirs of Thomas and George Trussell. (fn. 47)
Robert Lee, alderman of London, knighted in 1603, (fn. 48) was Lord Mayor in 1602–3. He settled the manor of Billesley in 1599 upon his second son Robert Lee and his wife Ann daughter of Sir Thomas Lowe, Lord Mayor in 1604–5. (fn. 49) The younger Robert succeeded to Billesley on his father's death in 1605, (fn. 50) and was knighted in 1608. (fn. 51) Sir Robert's son, a third Sir Robert, married Frances daughter of Sir William Cope, (fn. 52) and succeeded his father in 1637. He died in 1659 leaving an only child, Anne, married to Sir Edward Barkham of Boston, co. Lincs., and she and her husband sold Billesley manor in 1659 to Charles Lee, Anne's uncle. (fn. 53) Charles sold the manor in 1689 to Bernard Whalley (fn. 54) of Norton, Leicestershire, who rebuilt the church in 1692. In 1721 his son Bernard Whalley and Anne his wife sold the manor to Thomas Sherlock, D.D. (fn. 55)
Thomas Sherlock was eldest son of William Sherlock, D.D., Dean of St. Paul's. He followed his father in 1704 as Master of the Temple, and became Master of St. Catharine's Hall, Cambridge, and Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1714. He was consecrated Bishop of Bangor in 1728 and translated to Salisbury in 1734. He appears to have refused the archbishopric of Canterbury on the ground of ill-health, but in 1748 he became Bishop of London. He died childless on 18 July 1761, leaving his library to the University of Cambridge. (fn. 56) His sister Mary married Sir Thomas Gooch, bart., Bishop of Ely, and her son Thomas Gooch inherited on the death of his uncle a fortune of about £150,000, including the manor of Billesley. He succeeded to his father's title in 1754 and died in 1781. His son Sir Thomas succeeded and with his son Thomas Sherlock Gooch conveyed Billesley manor in 1789 to Rickman Young, (fn. 57) —probably for sale to John Mills, who owned it at the time of his death in 1807. His son Matthew died in 1845 and his daughters Jane wife of Arthur Crowdy and Harriet Mills, and his niece Mary Straley wife of the Rev. Thomas Higgins succeeded.
The co-heiresses of Matthew Mills and their descendants held the manor jointly until 1899 when, after the death of the widow of Laurence Crowdy, it was sold to Charles Somerset. Thence it passed by purchase successively to the Hon. Charles HanburyTracy in 1905–6, to Mr. H. B. Tate, son of the founder of the Tate Gallery, in 1912, to Mr. H. G. Bois in 1927, and then to the present owner, Sir Martin John Melvin, bart., in 1934.
The church of ALL SAINTS is a rectangular structure 30½ ft. by 13½ ft. inside with a round apse, a south vestry, and west porch. It is said to have been rebuilt by Bernard Whalley in 1692, but there is evidence of a 12thcentury origin in the walling, with remains of later medieval windows and doorway.
The east window of the 1692 apse, and two windows in each of the main side walls, have moulded architraves with square imposts, round arches and moulded sills. West of the two eastern windows and east of the two western windows are jamb-stones of former medieval windows, of a hard grey-brown sandstone, and in the middle of the north wall is a 14thcentury blocked doorway of similar stone. The north wall is of hard, grey stone, thin rubble work in the lower part, and of streaky lias rubble in the upper part, and has a moulded eaves-cornice of 1692. The south wall is of the grey stone rubble, but includes some herring-bone coursing under and east of the western window. Patchings in the walling east and west of the transept suggest former small round-headed windows of the 12th century. At the angles are rusticated angle-dressings of 1692. The east gable wall is of old rubble but much of that in the head is squared rubble, as in the apse wall. The square-headed west doorway is of 1692, also the window above, which has an eared architrave and entablature. A wooden round head in the window is made up of recut boarding with elaborate facial carving of the late 17th century inside. The wall is of old rubble and has some stones of an earlier window outside the 17th-century window. Over the window is a round panel on a square stone with rosettes in the centre and in the spandrels. Above the gable is a wooden bell-turret with louvred sides and a leaded ogee roof with a weather-vane.
The south transept or vestry is central with the south side; it is all of 1692 and has a south window like the others and a bull's-eye window over. The gable head had urns on the kneelers (the eastern missing) and apex. In the west wall is a blocked doorway with a plain architrave lintel and key-block. Reset in the blocking is a fragment of a carved stone, 21½ in. by 11 in., carved with a figure of Christ with a cross nimbus and holding with His left hand a cross staff. On His left is a lower head, perhaps with a nimbus, the rest cut away. The carving is probably a part of a 12th-century Harrowing of Hell. (fn. 58)
The west porch is of c. 1692 with a segmentalpointed entrance, rusticated angle-dressings, and a gable with pinnacles at the kneelers and an urn at the apex.
The interior has no medieval features. The moulded round arches to the apse and the south transept are of red sandstone and of 1692. The roof is hidden by a plain flat plastered ceiling. At the west end is a gallery of plain woodwork, probably of 1692.
The communion-table has legs, each of four twisted posts; the communion rails also have twisted balusters and moulded rail; another small table and a quire desk also incorporate moulded and twisted balusters; all are probably of 1692. There are contemporary box pews under the gallery. The plain slender octagonal font may be of the same period but has had later crosses cut in relief on four faces of the bowl.
There is one small bell of 1721 by Richard Sanders. (fn. 59) The communion plate includes a cup and cover of 1634 and an alms-plate 'The gift of Mr. Whalley, A.D. 1700'.
The advowson of the church followed the descent of the manor until the death of Matthew Mills in 1845. It then passed to his trustees, in whose possession it still remains. (fn. 60)