1,000 years in the making, to the Pendley Manor born

Coloured lithograph of Pendley Manor House dedicated to the owner, Sir Richard Anderson, 1826
Coloured lithograph of Pendley Manor House dedicated to the owner, Sir Richard Anderson, 1826

The manor of Pendley, (Penley, Pendele or Pentlai) dates back nearly 1,000 years, to at least the time of the Domesday Book of 1086.

At that date, Robert, Count of Mortain, was awarded two hides of land in the manor as a reward for supporting his conquering half-brother, William. (the Count of Mortain was also given other manors in the Dacorum Hundred.)

There was one villager with six smallholders who shared a plough and enough meadowland for one and a half ploughs.

It was valued at 30 shillings, but had been worth 40 shillings before 1066.

Over the years it saw many owners and custodians who helped create the Pendley Manor we see today.

In 1440, the Lord of the Manor, Sir Robert Whittingham, was granted ‘free warren in the manor’ (snaring of rabbits) and granted a licence to enclose 200 acres in the parish for a park.

The good times were to end in 1461, when Whittingham was attainted for his loyalty to Henry VI.

The manor was granted instead by the new king, Edward IV, to George, Bishop of Exeter, for life.

However, it appears that the lifestyles of the rich and noble were not always protected, when in the same year Pendley was granted for life to Thomas Montgomery, then again in 1467 when it was granted to Henry Bourchier, the Earl of Essex.

At last, in 1469, it appeared to have a permanent home with George, Archbishop of York.

In the 15th century, Pendley was described as a great town; at that time there was no great mansion house in existence.

There were 13 ploughs, as well as many tradesmen, such as tailors, shoemakers and cardmakers.

However, when Edward IV fled to Flanders in 1470, Henry IV came back to the throne and re-instated Sir Robert Whittingham, who laid this town area to pasture and built his house at the western end.

By this time, his daughter and heiress, Margaret, had married John Verney and she succeeded to Pendley.

Their son, Ralph, inherited the Manor and was subsequently knighted.

A succession of his heirs held the manor until 1547, when Edmund Verney fell out of favour with Queen Mary and was ordered to keep to his house.

Edmund Verney died in 1558, without any heirs, so the manor came to his third brother, who died survived by his second wife. She had persuaded him before his death to divide the inheritance between her son, Edmund, and her stepson, Sir Francis.

The latter sold his share and went abroad, where he lived a dissipated life in company with pirates until his death in Messina in 1615.

In 1606-7, the rest of the Pendley manor was sold by Mary Verney to the Anderson family, who occupied the Manor for the next four generations. In Daniel Defoe’s writings, it was described as “a delightful retirement to a man who wants to deceive life in an habitation which has all the charms nature can give, with a large common rounded by a wood behind.”

Sir William Harcourt, the next name to be associated with the estate, abandoned the manor in the 19th century as a protest against the building of the railway.

The old manor house stood partly in Tring and partly in Aldbury Parish, a little to the east of the present house; however, it burnt down in 1835.

The Harcourt family demolished the ruins and auctioned the site.

In 1872, a successful local landowner, Joseph Grout Williams, commissioned architect John Lion to build a new Tudor-style house. This was home to the Williams family from 1875 until his death just after the Second World War, when the manor was used by the Women’s Land Army. Then Joseph’s nephew, Dorian Williams, the racehorse owner and television presenter, helped turn Pendley into an Adult Education Centre.

Two years later, in 1947, Dorian founded the first of the outdoor Pendley Shakespeare Festivals. He held an open day for local groups selling their wares and a local drama group, who presented a few scenes from Shakespeare in the gardens.

This proved so popular that the next year saw the full production of Henry VIII. Dorian himself acted in the plays, and rode his own horse in Richard III. He loved to include animals in the productions, a tradition that continues today.

Thus began the popular series of open air productions for which Pendley is now famous.

Over time, changes were made to the stage and grounds, including a floodlit production. By 1964, around 30,000 people had attended more than 70 productions.

The Manor now boasts the impressive Glade Stage, Formal Stage, Rose Garden and Garden Stage.

The festival celebrated its 50th anniversary with a stunning firework display and 63 years on, the festival is still going strong. It attracts audiences from around the world, thereby introducing them to this stunning house and grounds.

Auditions have now taken place for this year’s productions of Romeo and Juliet, which runs from July 31 to August 4 and Much Ado About Nothing from August 7 to 11.

The Manor was eventually sold to an independent hotelier, who, after sympathetic refurbishment in 1988, re-opened it as a Country House Hotel. In 1991, there was the addition of the Harcourt ballroom, meeting rooms and 73 large bedrooms. In 2001, a swimming pool and spa were constructed. It also has a restaurant where meals before the plays are served at festival times.

It is not surprising that with its long history, many tales handed down, and no doubt lots of family secrets, Pendley Manor keeps its place as one of the many splendid grand houses still remaining in Dacorum.