Both externally and internally, the present Bucklebury House gives the impression of a very large and comfortable farm house. It is only when you begin to take a closer look that it soon becomes clear that this building is only part of a highly important complex of structures which originally made up one of the great country houses of Berkshire.
The original building on the site was one of the the several manor houses or 'granges' in Berkshire belonging to the great Abbot of Reading. The place may have been run by a lay-steward but, considering its proximity to the Abbey, it is likely that there was a small semi-permanent community of monks there. Tradition actually suggests that this was the country retreat of the abbey's vestment keeper. The monks would have employed most of the local population in the cultivation of their large and important estate. There would have kept livestock too and there is clear evidence of other animal produce such as fish and game. There are still five very large monastic fishponds near the present house and the manor dovecote dates from the late 15th century. The abbot's men could keep some 586 pigeons or doves in this latter building. A hundred years later, the lord of the manor was able to subsidise his income still further as the birds' dung became an important ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder!
Of course, along with all the monasteries of the time, Reading Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Its lands were seized and those at Bucklebury, along with Thatcham and other places, were granted, two years later, to John Winchcombe Junior, son of the famous wool clothier, Jack O'Newbury. John commanded considerable influence at the court of King Henry VIII, due largely to the patriotic zeal of his father. His new Berkshire manors cost him £2,619-13s-4d, a considerable sum for the period, though not so great as the spoils gathered by many others. John immediately tore down the old Abbey Grange and began to built a fine brick mansion of the latest style in its place. Old Bucklebury House was basically a Tudor E-plan building, consisting of a central portion with wings on either side. The rooms were large and ornamented with panelling and carved oak chimney-pieces extending to the ceilings. There was also a long gallery for exercise during inclement weather. The place took many years to build and was still incomplete upon John's death in 1557.
The first lay resident at Bucklebury, therefore, was John Winchcombe III. During the dangerous and changeable period of religious history in which he lived, the Winchcombe family remained Roman Catholic while most of the country followed the new-found Protestantism of the Church of England. Catholic priests were hunted down by the authorities as they travelled the country incognito, visiting adherents of the old religion. However, they often escaped capture by hiding in 'priest-holes' at great houses like Bucklebury. The Winchcombes were accused of harbouring such men in their Thatcham Manor of Henwick, where they had lived while Bucklebury was being built. The allegations were probably correct for, in recent years, a priest-hole has been found behind a fireplace at the present Bucklebury House. Its location was revealed when a fire broke out within!
The Winchcombes continued in residence at Bucklebury House for about a hundred and sixty years. They were converted to Protestantism in the early 17th century and became staunch Royalists during the Civil War. Their house at Bucklebury may have been ransacked or otherwise attacked for there were several skirmishes on the nearby Common and troops from both sides passed through the area before and after the two Battles of Newbury. The family survived, however, and Henry Winchcombe was made a baronet for his loyalty to the Crown. The last of the family, Lady Frances Winchcombe, married the leader of the Jacobite restoration movement, Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke, in 1701. In his youth, he was well-known for his writing and was often visited at Bucklebury by distinguished literary contemporaries, such as Harley, Pope, Swift, Prior, Gay and Arbuthnot. With the succession of King George I, however, he fled abroad and the poor Viscountess was left to rattle around in the great house alone, until her death in 1718. Bolingbroke made his peace with the Government five years later and, upon his return to England, seems to have set about much building work at Bucklebury. The coach-house, stables, kitchen (with its great fireplace) and alterations in the servants' quarters - including the installation of a vast lead bath which is still extant - date from this time; although it is said that the Viscount never returned to see the results.
The house then passed to the son of the Viscountess' younger sister, who had married Robert Packer of Shellingford Manor in North Berkshire. The Packers united the Manor of Bucklebury with that of Donnington, and the two were later inherited by their descendants, the Hartley family. Several of the subsequent manor lords preferred to live at Donnington Castle House. Later, their Gloucestershire estate of Lyegrove in Old Sodbury was also popular. Rev. Winchcombe Henry Howard Hartley moved back to Bucklebury House when he became the vicar there. However, in 1833, shortly after his son and namesake inherited the property, disaster struck. The grand old Elizabethan house caught alight and was badly damaged by the ensuing blaze. Quickly falling into a ruinous state, it was decided to pull the whole place down and the materials were sold off by auction.
What remained to be converted into the present Bucklebury House were the old Tudor servants' quarters, with Bolingbroke's kitchen block running in parallel. Both stood on the rear western side of the old mansion and survived the fire. The coach house, stables and dovecote were, of course, always somewhat detached. Having other grand estates to sustain them, the family entered a period largely of residence outside Bucklebury. However, they did return to the village in the 1920s and the buildings at the manor were eventually fully restored in 1957 when an eastern extension was also added to the main house. Now the Hartley Russell family, they are the oldest family in the post-1974 administrative county of Berkshire to have continuously lived on the same estate. The present Lord of the Manor, Mr. Willie Hartley Russell, has beautifully restored the gardens and the entrance vista to the old mansion. He is highly active and well-known within the communities of Bucklebury and Donnington, both through the estate and in his capacity as Patron and Chairman of the Donnington Hospital Trust.
Many thanks to Mr. Willie Hartley Russell for providing many of the details for the above article.
Bucklebury House is a private residence. The stables, dovecote and kitchen block can, however, be clearly seen from the road alongside.
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