During lockdown, I’ve been enjoying getting to know Epping Forest. It’s truly vast and stretches across northeast London and out into the Essex countryside. A friend gave me a tip to find a disused stately home that had been left empty but was now being renovated.
Copped Hall is near to Epping in Essex. It is an 18th-century mansion situated on high ground at the end of a ridge. It is surrounded by 1000 acres of landscaped parkland. While that is substantial, the overall estate was once over 4000 acres.
Copped Hall means peaked hall and, from when I first saw the house, it piqued my interest. (Peak/pique weak joke. Sorry.)
Like many grand country houses, Copped Hall’s site has revealed evidence of ancient human habitation as Roman remains have been found.
The manor of Copped Hall was first recorded in the Middle Ages. The original owners were the Abbots at the huge monastery at Waltham. But the Hall and estates passed to the Crown during the years of dissolution under Henry VIII. Waltham Abbey was the last monastic house in England to be dissolved.
King Henry’s Walk
In the grounds of Copped Hall, there was an avenue of yew trees, with a statue of Henry VIII at one end and his son Edward VI at the other. The story goes that on the morning of 19 May 1536, Henry paced up and down the walk, waiting for the distant sound of a cannon from the Tower of London to signal that his second wife Anne Boleyn had been executed. As the cannon sounded, Henry is said to have mounted his horse and ridden off to Theobald’s at Waltham Cross, where Jane Seymour waited. The couple were married soon after on 30 May.
Sadly, the yew trees were cut down in the 1950s for the timber. A section still exists at the northern end of the avenue that was planted in 1895. And a new avenue of yew trees was planted in 1999 in what is believed to be the same position.
I had thought it unlikely that cannon fire could be heard from so far away, but it was checked a few years ago when there was a royal gun salute for the Queen’s birthday, and the cannons could be heard. That seems impressive today as it’s at least 16 miles away and with all the noise distractions of a capital city between.
After Henry VIII’s death, and during some of his son Edward VI’s short reign, his half-sister, Mary Tudor (daughter of Catherine of Aragon), lived at Copped Hall.
While Edward was the Head of the Church of England, Mary was defiant and continued Catholic Mass in her private chapel. She reigned from 1553 to 1558 before her sister, Elizabeth I (Anne Boleyn’s daughter), took the throne.
In 1564, Queen Elizabeth I granted the estate to Sir Thomas Heneage of Lincolnshire. He employed John Thorpe to design and build a substantial mansion between 1564 and 1595. (This building can be seen in the Lambert paintings below.)
By 1568 he had incorporated the old hall into the grand building. It had 103 rooms, and the largest room was the London Gallery at 168 feet (51 meters) long.
During the same year, the queen visited Copped Hall on a royal progress through Essex. She liked Thomas Heneage and appointed him Keeper of the Records of the Tower of London with his brother.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sir Thomas’s wife Anne died, and he married for the second time in 1594. His new wife was Mary, Countess of Southampton. She was the mother of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, the patron of William Shakespeare.
It is thought the first-ever performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was for the wedding as it was written especially for the occasion. It is suggested that the play took place over several days, beginning and ending in the Long Gallery in the east wing but with many scenes performed in outdoor settings around the park and at different times of the day.
Make Me A Countess
The estate was inherited by Mary’s daughter, Elizabeth Finch, who reputedly said she would give Copped Hall to anyone who could convince the king to make her a Countess.
When Lionel Cranfield became Lord High Treasurer, he paid off a debt to persuade King James I to give the title so he could claim Copped Hall. The king agreed but then only made her Viscountess. (Later, in 1628, Charles I created a new title and made her Countess of Winchelsea.)
Due to charges of “bribery, extortion, oppression and other grievous misdemeanors,” Cranfield was imprisoned at the Tower of London in 1624. After two years in prison, he retired to Copped Hall. He appointed Inigo Jones to rebuild the loggia, so the columns faced the inner courtyard rather than the garden. (Jones went on to design Covent Garden piazza.)
As an aside, in 1636, Copped Hall was hit by a hurricane that blew stones from the great east window the full length of the Long Gallery.
Lionel Cranfield lived at Copped Hall until 1645. He grew yellow tulips at a time when a tulip bulb might change hands for as much as the price of a house! He was possibly the first man in Essex to grow tulips.
There is a tomb for Lionel Cranfield in Westminster Abbey, near Poet’s Corner.
His eldest son, James, was born in 1621. His godparents were King James I, the Duke of Buckingham, and the Countess of Lennox – wife of the man whose debt had been paid for Lionel Cranfield to acquire Copped Hall.
After the shock of the execution of Charles I in 1649, James Cranfield retired to Copped Hall and died there in 1651. His brother Lionel inherited his estate.
Lionel Cranfield (son of Lionel Cranfield)
After the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Lionel became ‘Gentleman of the Bedchamber’ to Charles II. The king is known to have visited Copped Hall on several occasions.
When Lionel died in 1674, his estate passed to his nephew, Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset. Charles was renowned for his hospitality and often entertained both King Charles II and his brother (the future) James II at Copped Hall.
An inventory in 1679 of the Copped Hall Tudor mansion noted there were 103 rooms, including three dining rooms and five drawing rooms. There were 50 bedsteads, and the Great Hall had a weaponry display of 10 racks holding 17 muskets plus 14 halberds.
Sackville was also a friend to William III, who once took refuge at Copped Hall when an attempt was made to kidnap him as he traveled through the forest. From 1689 to 1697, Sackville was ‘Lord Chamberlain of the Household’ to William III, which came with the perk of being able to acquire the entire contents of the royal apartments after the death of the king. Ceremonial chairs, tapestries, and other items from Hampton Court Palace were brought to Copped Hall.
Sir Thomas Webster
Charles Sackville lived an extravagant lifestyle and was forced to sell Copped Hall for £20,000 to Sir Thomas Webster in 1701. Sackville returned to his home at Knole in Kent (now a National Trust property).
He took most of the furniture and treasures, including a coat of arms cartouche of Lionel Cranfield, which was mounted in the Great Hall at Knole.
Sir Thomas Webster lived at Copped Hall with his family and was elected Verderer of the Forest of Waltham in 1717.
In 1719 he also bought Battle Abbey, and this became his family seat which his descendants maintained almost continuously until 1976. He neglected Copped Hall as he was rarely there. He did a swap with Edward Conyers in 1739 to exchange Copped Hall for an estate in Sussex nearer to Battle Abbey.
Conyers came from Walthamstow in northeast London and bought other properties in the town and surrounding areas. In 1736 he bought the manor of Epping, including Epping Place, which had been built on the ruined Winchelsea House, once owned by Sir Thomas Heneage’s daughter, the Countess of Winchelsea. He lived there while restoring Copped Hall. The walled garden was built in 1740.
John Conyers – The Georgian Mansion
After Edward Conyers died in 1742, Copped Hall was inherited by his son, John. (The same year, John became Governor of the Foundling Hospital – you can learn more about that at the Foundling Museum.)
In 1745 he commissioned the George Lambert views seen below. A year later, he asked Francis Hayman to add the figures in the foreground. (He would have met both artists through the Foundling Hospital.) The Tate bought these paintings in 1999 for £300,000.
The Tudor Copped Hall wasn’t looking its best at the time, which is why it may have been a distant landmark in these paintings. John Conyers had already made plans for the erection of a new Palladian house, so the artworks could well have been a record of his original inheritance and a commemoration of the grand old mansion before its destruction.
I find this part of the rebuild story fascinating as I hadn’t thought before about how the bricks were made. Brick earth was bought from Ware in Hertfordshire, and kilns were built in the park for the production of the bricks even before the new plans were approved.
In 1751, the Tudor mansion was demolished. Today, a single pillar marks the site of the old mansion, and the cellars under the north end can still be made out. The new stately home was completed in 1758 by the architect John Sanderson.
The Georgian building was constructed on higher ground than the Elizabethan mansion. This elevated position provided excellent distant views in all directions from the principal first floor (one above ground level) out across the parkland and beyond. And in return, the house was the centerpiece of its park. The windows of the principal floor are twice the height of those of the bedroom floor above as the rooms within the principal floor are very grand. It is interesting to note that these mansions have no back or front – only fronts – the entrance front, the garden front, etc.
The original Copped Hall mansion had an adjoining chapel where John Conyers had hoped to install a stained glass window commemorating the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. It was originally intended for Westminster Abbey, but by the time it was completed, the king was besotted with Anne Boleyn. In 1758, his son sold the window to St Margaret’s Church, next to Westminster Abbey, where it can still be seen on the east wall above the altar.
John Conyers continued to improve the house. In 1763 he commissioned interior designs from Robert Adam. Adam was ‘the’ designer of the era and designed Kenwood House in north London and Osterley House in west London. A ceiling from the (now mostly demolished) Adelphi development can be seen at the V&A.
The Next John Conyers
John Conyer’s son, also called John, inherited Copped Hall in 1775. He appointed James Wyatt to continue the redecoration of the property and to add the two lodges at the gates.
It is thought the Portland stone entrance porch is original with rosettes and swag embellishments added by James Wyatt. Note, a lot of Wyatt’s work can be seen at the Oxford University buildings. He also went on to restore the House of Lords after the 1834 fire at the Houses of Parliament.
John Conyers was interested in agriculture, and he kept cattle. An 1803 estate map showed it was 2981 acres: 30% arable land, 30% meadowland, about 22% pasture, and the rest woodland and buildings.
John’s eldest son, Henry John Conyers, inherited Copped Hall in 1818. As well as being Lord of the Manor, he was Deputy Lieutenant of Essex and a Verderer of the Forest.
When he died, his eldest daughter, Julia, lived with her husband at Copped Hall. A few years after being widowed, she sold Copped Hall and its contents to George Wythes in 1869. By then, the estate had been extended to 4113 acres.
A self-made man, George Wythes was one of the outstanding railway contractors of the Industrial Revolution. On his retirement, he bought estates in Surrey, Suffolk, Kent, and Essex – the largest being Copped Hall. While George lived at Bickley Hall in Bromley, Kent, his only son, George Edward, lived at Copped Hall with his wife and children.
George Edward died young, as did his eldest son, so George senior’s younger grandson, Ernest James, inherited the two estates. George senior’s estate alone was valued at £1.5 million to be split between his wife and Ernest James.
Ernest James Wythes
Ernest James Wythes was the last resident of Copped Hall. A wealthy young man, he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. He employed the architect C.E. Kempe to design two new wings on the house. The north wing was for domestic accommodation and bedrooms, and the south wing had an enclosed courtyard and a covered way leading to a conservatory. He added the balustrade around the roof and the triangular pediment to the central facade. These alterations cost £17,000, which was a significant expenditure at the time.
He added a terrace to the first floor on the west side with two sweeping staircases to access the garden. The garden was laid out in an elaborate Italianate style with stone temples on the outer corners of the upper terrace. It looked so good that Country Life magazine came and took photographs in 1910.
They also took photographs of the interior of the house, including the Entrance Hall, which incorporated one of the fireplaces from the Tudor mansion. There was also a set of damask-covered chairs, which are now reupholstered and held at Ickworth House in Suffolk. (This is because Ernest’s half-sister married the 4th Marquess of Bristol, who owned Ickworth.)
I was impressed to discover that the estate, at this time, was self-sufficient. It provided all of the food, flowers, wheels for carts, shoes for horses that the residents required. There was the walled garden, orchard, farms, stables, kennels, ice-house, laundry, and game larder for supplies.
If the family was staying at their central London home in Eaton Square, a cart would be sent from Copped Hall daily with goods from the estate. (The excess produce would be sold at Covent Garden market.) When the family would go to Copped Hall, Ernest James would hire a bus to transport his 28 servants.
In May 1917, a disastrous fire started (no one is sure how). It was hoped the fire could be contained, but sadly it was not. Some contents were saved, but the mansion was gutted, and only the shell remained.
The family moved to Wood House, a smaller building on the estate, and decided to stay there as getting and keeping servants after the war was an issue. They still lived a grand lifestyle, and Winston Churchill stayed at Wood House for two summer months in 1924 (when he was standing as the candidate for the Epping Division in the general election).
The estate and gardens at Copped Hall were still kept up until Ernest James, and his wife died in 1949 and 1951, respectively.
In 1952, the whole estate, consisting of 4000 acres with ten tenanted farms, was sold to the Talbot Trust. Everything of value in and around the mansion was removed or sold. That included the great staircases, garden stairwork, and garden statues.
The temple is now at St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire. (It can be seen in the 1910 Country Life photos link above.)
The grand iron forecourt gates were shipped to America. They were purchased by the billionaire Robert W. Dowling and have been erected as the entrance gates to the Westchester Apartments in Washington. You can see them in place in the US in this photo and this one too.
The destruction of the former stately home continued as the conservatory was dynamited – allegedly as part of an army exercise. Years of vandalism added to the decay of the roofless structure. The south front garden (Priory Garden or Dutch Garden) was concreted over, and large sheds were built to house pigs. And the ruined building was used to grow mushrooms.
The devastation of Copped Hall was, sadly, not unusual as, during the 1950s, historic mansions were being demolished at a rate of one every two and a half days.
The London orbital motorway was built between 1975 and 1986. The section that caused the most protests was the area close to Epping and Copped Hall, as there was a lot of opposition to so much traffic being routed across the parkland. (The M25 does run right through a corner of the Grade II* listed parkland. As a quirky aside, a deer tunnel was added under the motorway, close to Copped Hall, so the animals can reach both sides.)
Copped Hall Trust
The saving of Copped Hall has been described a number of times as a miracle. In reality, it was achieved by a great deal of hard work against overwhelming odds.
The Copped Hall site drew attention from property developers from the 1980s, but a small group of well-organized enthusiasts were able to object on the grounds of the historical importance of Copped Hall within the Green Belt. It was made a conservation area in 1984 and English Heritage followed by listing the older parkland as Grade II*.
In 1990, the estate was valued at £19 million as a development site. Another developer bought the mansion, ancillary buildings, lodges, and surrounding gardens with plans to convert to a large hotel and golf course. Fortunately, this was also successfully opposed.
The property was sold again, this time to Cambridgeshire Property Developments Ltd. The company collapsed in 1992 during the property crash of the 1990s, leaving The Royal Bank of Canada with a legal charge on the estate.
After much campaigning, in 1992, the Conservators of Epping Forest (The City of London) took the opportunity to buy nearly 800 acres of land surrounding the mansion from the Copped Hall Estate. This would not only serve as ‘buffer land’ for Epping Forest but also preclude any golf course plans. The Conservators are committed to the restoration of the parkland, the reintroduction of animals, and to the preservation of this important wildlife habitat.
The bank of the liquidated developer offered to sell the mansion and gardens of Copped Hall for £500,000.
A committee of representatives of local conservation societies quickly set up the Copped Hall Trust in 1993 to try to buy the property. Alan Cox, the current Chairman of the Trust, approached Maria Bjornson, the stage designer of many international musicals and operas, including Phantom of the Opera. She visited Copped Hall and was prepared to lend half of the finance. The Architectural Heritage Fund and the Mischca Trust then lent the rest.
So, against the odds, the specially formed Copped Hall Trust was able to purchase the mansion, stables, and gardens in June 1995. The Trust’s objectives are to preserve what it owns and prevent development, plus to educate the public and to restore and repair the historic aspects of the Hall and garden. While the site was heavily vandalized and overgrown, Copped Hall was saved!
Emergency stabilization of structures in both the buildings and in the gardens was started immediately, and a policeman was employed to guard against vandals with two further police officers living on the site rent-free. Apart from permanently protecting the site, the purpose of the Trust is to restore and establish relevant educational, cultural, and community uses.
To start paying off the loans, parts of the stable block and other outhouses were sold on long leases with covenants to protect the integrity of the site. Incredibly almost all of the purchase price loans were repaid by the year 2000.
The Friends of Copped Hall Trust was set up in 1998, and they raise funds, organize visits and tours as well as volunteering for gardening work. In 1999 the Trust acquired the completely derelict 4-acre Walled Kitchen Garden, one of the largest in Essex. The garden is now mainly planted with produce sold locally and to visitors. (There were twenty-four varieties of potato in 2019!) The Trust’s approach to the gardens is gentle and respectful. The excellent garden layout of 1917 is being retained, and two of the ruined glasshouses have been restored. The concrete slab and farm structures have been removed, and two lawns have been created, plus replacement trees have been planted.
In 2001, funds became available to start on the house, so a roof structure was reinstated. The triangular pediment on the east facade, which was added by Ernest James Wythes in the 1890s, has been restored and the roof balustrades renovated too.
Internally, the mansion is to be restored to its 1750s form, and the 18th-century interior of one of the major rooms has been completely restored. A replacement stone staircase now reaches the principal floor, ceilings have been installed, and most rooms have electricity.
As the rooms are restored, the windows are reinstated. The second floor (bedroom level) windows are exactly half the size of the sash windows on the principal floor below. To open, the six-paned single sash slides up into a slot in the brickwork. (Similar windows can be seen at Marble Hill House in Twickenham).
Plans for the Future
The house and garden restoration program still continues. When the garden stonework was dismantled and taken away by dealers in the 1950s, many balusters were broken, and these were simply thrown onto the ground. The Friends have had success marrying them together with the components being rejoined using stainless steel rods and resin.
The four original columns of the loggia had been incorporated into a garden temple elsewhere, so new Portland stone columns were commissioned to match the originals. The Essex Heritage Trust has awarded grants to help pay for this work.
The Copped Hall Trust owns the freehold and has no debts. It was unable to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020 (due to you know what) but can, hopefully, do something this year. Copped Hall has been saved for the community by an extraordinary optimism coupled with a hard sense of reality. The Trust hopes that their efforts inspire other communities to secure the protection and restoration of heritage sites that are similarly threatened with unsympathetic development.
Visiting Copped Hall
Many drive nearby on the M25 motorway and probably wonder about this mansion in a commanding location surrounded by green space.
Once lockdown restrictions are lifted, there can be the return of monthly guided tours and regular open days. As well as the garden afternoons plus specialist study days, lectures and concerts. And even if open days have to wait a bit longer, I have really enjoyed exploring the surrounding parkland. It’s glorious and full of wildlife, including owls, foxes, badgers, and deer.
Friends of Copped Hall Trust
The ‘Friends‘ are supporters of the Copped Hall Trust charity and its objectives. They send out two newsletters each year and regular e-bulletins. Friends get free entry to all of the open day events. The newsletters always clearly state the projects that need funding and the amounts needed to complete. For example, one step of the stone staircase required £1,850, and a second-floor window is £2,000.
Address: Copped Hall, Crown Hill, Epping, Essex CM16 5HS