Excerpt from Historical Perspectives of To A Strange Somewhere Fled
I hardly expected my 17th century Genoese journey through the writing of A House Near Luccoli to direct me back to Oxfordshire, England where I lived from 1974 to 1990. Then I began to consider a sequel that would require a destination for Donatella beyond Genoa. Her flight from grief returned me to a first view of “Wroces Stan” – old English meaning buzzards’ stone – a village mentioned in the Doomsday book grown out of ancient crossroads, valley slopes, ochre stone, straw thatch, Augustinian principals, and aristocratic privilege.
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It was a place small enough to comfort and stately enough to unsettle, reclusive and inviting, its character formed as much by its lower as upper class – as is seen in the character of demon-obsessed Tobias, who is based on a real village resident I had known – a world as wild as it was well-designed, its seasons defined by flowers, fungi, berries, and trees, ever increasing clouds, fog and frost, rain and more rain so sunny banks and deep shadows were always noticed.
Wroxton Abbey, situated in a secluded parkland to the southeast of the village, was documented as a manor in the 11th century. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, a tenant, Guy de Reinbeudcurt, founded an Augustinian priory there. Due to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, much of it was destroyed. What was left of its buildings and demesne was leased to the treasurer of Henry’s Court of Augmentations, responsible for the dissolved monasteries, Sir Thomas Pope, who was the founder of Trinity College, Oxford. In 1551 Sir Thomas granted his brother, John, a ninety-nine year tenancy, and in 1556 endowed the manor and lands to Trinity College that subsequently renewed the lease for John’s heirs.
Construction on the manor surviving as the central portion of its present structure was begun around the turn of the 17th century by John Pope’s son, William, the 3rd Earl of Downe. A lack of male descendants eventually passed the leasehold to the 3rd Earl’s daughters, and one of them, Frances, married Sir Francis North, the lawyer involved with the settlement of the Pope estate. Sir Francis was succeeded as 2nd baron by his son Francis; his great-grandson Frederick, the most famous North, 2nd Earl of Guilford, titled Lord, and serving as Prime Minister to George III, made extensive alterations to the grounds and some to the house. A library and chapel were most likely added by the famous architect and landscape designer Sanderson Miller in the mid 18th century, but a shortage of funds limited further enhancements. The current interior decoration and windows owe much to Prime Minister North’s granddaughter Baroness Susan, who also oversaw the completion of a south wing that finally gave the house symmetry as viewed from its west-facing front and fulfilled the North family motto: Animo et Fide Perage. Carry through to completion in courage and faith.
Baroness Susan’s Irish husband took her surname, and their son, William, managed the estate until his death in 1932 at the age of ninety-six, marking the end of over 250 years of the Norths’ occupancy. All the family’s effects were sold off and the Abbey was turned into a warehouse during WWII. In 1948, Trinity College of Oxford leased it to Lady Pearson, who rented out large portions, which caused extensive damage. Fairleigh Dickinson University of New Jersey purchased it in 1963 and undertook an enormous effort to repair and modernize the building as well as restore and enhance the gardens and pleasure grounds, creating the splendid campus celebrating its fifty year anniversary in 2015.
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I was a junior in college, accepted into the program at Wroxton Abbey to study English history, literature, and theater, when my life-changing connection to Wroxton Abbey and village was initiated. A three month semester spanning the last chilly damp weeks of an Oxfordshire winter and the muddy beginnings and eventual warming and burgeoning of its spring turned into sixteen simple and complicated years of my calling Wroxton home.
As I began writing To A Strange Somewhere Fled, what I thought would come out of my memories and feared would be limited by my experience and prejudice slowly emerged from a more informed and imaginative perspective, a past long before mine that not only furthered Donatella’s exploration into life and love, but made me more understanding and appreciative of the unique opportunity I’d had once and then again: to linger and live in Wroxton and even the Abbey itself, and make a little private history of my own there.