The Ancient High House in Stafford is the largest remaining Elizabethan timber framed town house in England.
Walking through its doors on Stafford’s main Greengate Street is like stepping back right into the Elizabethan and Stuart era.
The fact the building is still standing is testament to the carpentry and engineering skills of the craftsmen who designed and built it 425 years ago. The house itself was built to a plan which resembles the shape ‘E’ for ‘Elizabeth, the reigning monarch at the time.
It was built in 1595 for the wealthy Dorrington family who were affluent local merchants the house reflected their wealth and status. The oak was from Doxey Woods next to Stafford Castle. Back in the 16th Century it would have been mightily impressive. Even today it still is a striking sight on Stafford’s main street and looks fantastically out of this time. As you look up from the street the iconic building leans over your head – a feature which helped protect the building by throwing rainwater off into the street.
Many of the original timbers bear carpenter’s marks indicating that the frame was pre-assembled on the ground and the joints numbered to aid the on-site construction. Some timbers have additional joint housings cut into them, which would suggest that they have been reused from an even earlier structure. It was not unheard of for a building to be dismantled and rebuilt at a different location – hence the expression to ‘up-sticks’, which means to move to a new house.
As you move through the rooms and the floors the house seems to creak and groan. The sensation of being in a wooden building that old is unique – it is like something from a fairy-tale novel and literally like setting foot into the previous centuries. Many of the original objects and furniture from the house remain which increases the sense of history.
The huge stone fireplaces are wonderful and it’s a fascinating thought to touch those ancient oak beams and imagine who ate and slept and was born under them. There are many great stories associated with the old house.
Charles I visited Stafford and stayed here on 17 and 18 September 1643 en route to Shrewsbury, soon after raising the Royal Standard at Nottingham on 22nd August, the feudal signal to call his loyal subjects to arms – an act that was seen as the start of the English Civil War.
Charles was accompanied by this nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine (and his Poodle called ‘Boy’). The King and Rupert stayed as guests of Captain Richard Sneyd. The main room of the house would have been the central room on the first floor, and it is here that guests, including King Charles I and Prince Rupert, would have been entertained.
Having made the High House his temporary headquarters, the King talked to his advisers and dictating letters and military orders for the forthcoming campaign (some of these have been preserved in the nearby William Salt Library). While in Stafford the King attended St Mary’s Collegiate Church, an account being made by a local woman for the strewing of flowers along his route to the church.
There is a story that while walking in the garden of the High House with the King, Prince Rupert fired two shots through the tail of the weathervane of St Mary’s (located just behind the house) in order to demonstrate the accuracy of a continental Horse Pistol. The weathervane was removed several centuries ago, and so the story cannot be verified, although the pistol Prince Rupert is said to have fired was far more accurate than most of the weapons then in use.
I wondered what these walls saw when Charles stayed in this room and he walked over these very floorboards. What was he thinking? How was he feeling? It would be fascinating to be able to have a glimpse of his character and personality – something that these old wooden walls would have witnessed.
In May 1643, the King’s enemies, the Parliamentarians, captured the town and in the following January, the newly established Committee of Stafford ordered:
that the High House of Mr Dorringtons in tenure of Mr Lees shall be forthwith assigned to Mr Roberts the Provost Marshal to habite in for the securing of the better sort of prisoners…
These prisoners were Royalists. Whilst the unlucky classes languished in the town jail, the High House prisoners had many luxuries including servants and visits from their wives. Yet, as news spread of their four-star treatment, some of these privileges were withdrawn.
In 1826 the building was bought by John Marson, who converted the lower floor into shops. His son, William Albert, eventually took over his father’s grocery business. In 1885 he added new shop fronts, establishing himself as a high-class family grocer and Italian warehouseman.
The house has since lurched into the 20th and 21st Centuries surviving in the face of general decay and structural deterioration. Today it stands proud amongst the modern buildings, the juxtaposition of a McDonalds sitting right next to the house is marvellous and highlights the historical importance and architectural brilliance of this wonder of Staffordshire.