Warwick's Priory is nowhere to be found in the town - but a reminder of the building does still exist in a surprising location, writes Chris Upton.
By far the nicest way to get from Warwick railway station into the centre of the town is to take a short-cut through Priory Park. It’s always a bonus to have parkland quite so close to the middle of town, and almost makes up for the fact that the station is so far from it.
But what exactly is Priory Park, and why, despite my best efforts, have I not found anything there apart than grass?
It was in 1109 that the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Newburgh, founded the Priory of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre on the north side of the town, at a time when chivalrous knights were more likely to be doing their crusading at home than in Jerusalem.
After the Dissolution the Priory land and buildings fell into the hands of the Fisher family, wealthy burgesses in the town. Thomas Fisher owned it first, then John Fisher, the man responsible for much of the famous Black Book of Warwick, which describes what the town corporation was up to in the middle of the 16th century.
Fisher’s house was undoubtedly one of Warwick’s most prestigious addresses, even before a fine Jacobean frontage was added around 1620.
When Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, made one of his occasional forays into the county town (as he did in 1571) it was always at the Priory he tarried longest.
In the early 18th century the house was owned by the Wise family, including Henry Wise, Royal Gardener to Queen Anne. A century and more later it was snapped by the Lloyds, bankers of that ilk, but was proving too expensive to maintain even by that well-heeled lot, and the house was sold for scrap in 1925.
So where is Warwick’s famous Priory now? A tad further from town than it used to be. It’s in Virginia.
The 1920s was something of a time of crisis for the great English houses. Woollaston Hall in the Black Country went to the knacker’s in 1926 and ended up in the States, and Warwick Priory was to go the same way.
The buyers were Alexander and Virginia Weddell. He was a career diplomat, with spells in India, Mexico and Argentina behind him, and enough money (prior to the Wall Street Crash, that is) to indulge in a little vanity project.
The idea was to ship as much of the house as could be salvaged to Richmond, and to erect it on a hill overlooking the river.
The Weddells would live in it for their lifetime, and then hand it over to the Virginia Historical Society as its headquarters, library and museum.
By the time the Weddells moved in to buy the house at auction, it had already been stripped of most of its furnishing, including the staircase. Don’t ask me how they got to view the upstairs.
Now you can put rollers under a house and move it across the country, but this doesn’t really work for an overseas relocation. For one thing, there was concern that the Priory stonework was already too far gone to be dismantled, and so the Weddells came to the surprising decision to blow the place up.
The argument went that whatever survived the explosion would be robust enough for shipping to the US.