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November 2019 Meeting Report

Sawston Hall, by Mary Dicken

Mary filled in at short notice when the speaker planned for this meeting of Sawston Village History Society was unable to come. She was able to make use of her extensive knowledge of the building, having acted as a guide many years ago when it was opened to the public. Not only is the Hall a listed building, but so are the gates which bear the Huddleston crest, with two hands holding a bleeding scalp. This commemorates an early Huddleston who was captured by the Saracens when he went on crusade.

Sawston Hall is always associated with Mary Tudor and her July 1553 escape. The story is as follows. King Edward VI was a protestant who died from tuberculosis. Under changed laws of succession, the Duke of Northumberland, Lord Protector, planned to place his daughter-in-law, eighteen year old Lady Jane Gray on the throne. First he would need to dispose of Mary (a Catholic) on Tower Hill. Mary discovered the plot and fled from London to head for Norfolk. She stopped for the night at Sawston Hall, where she was warned that troops were coming from Cambridge to seize her. She escaped east, disguised as a milk maid riding pillion behind a manservant, just in time to see the hall in flames, set on fire by a frustrated Northumberland. She said "let it burn, when I am Queen, I will have it rebuilt". From her house at Kenninghall, Norfolk, she went to Framlingham Castle, where she was pronounced Queen. In thanks to John Huddleston, she made good her promise and had Sawston Hall repaired and rebuilt using stones from the derelict Cambridge castle. There are plaques on the courtyard wall, J.H. 1557 and E.H. 1584, the initials of John Huddleston who started the work and his son Edmund who completed it. John Huddleston was knighted and held many offices of honour, not least captain of the royal guard. However the picture of what was supposed to be the bed she slept in is extremely unlikely to be genuine.

Above the front door can be seen the Huddleston coat of arms. Mary showed a series of pictures of rooms in the house with features which have been preserved because the Huddlestons were a poor Catholic family without the finances to modernise as happened in many more wealthy families.

The Long Gallery was intended as a place where ladies could do their sewing and could exercise during inclement weather. The Gallery contained many pictures of the family including Father John Huddleston, who helped Charles II escape from the Duke of Cumberland after the Battle of Worcester. Father Huddleston was sent for when Charles was dying to hear his confession. "You have saved me twice", the King said, "first my body at Worcester and now my soul".

All good Catholic houses should be provided with a priest hole, and Sawston Hall had one built in. It was only eight by four feet wide and had a maximum height of six feet, but was provided with a toilet. Nicholas Owen, who built priest holes, was racked to disclose locations of those he had built, but managed to keep them secret. There are said to be two other priest holes in the house.

The hall was commandeered in the Second World War for use by the American Air Force, who were not used to houses without central heating, and as a result had very hot fires in the chimney of the Great Hall. They also left a number of sketches on the walls which can still be seen. Also in the more recent history of the hall, it was used in the film The Nightcomers with Marlon Brando playing one of the main characters.

Jim Butchart

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