The turbulent history of St Osyth Priory
PUBLISHED: 12:02 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:10 20 February 2018
Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office traces the ups and downs of St Osyth Priory, which takes its name from a ghostly walk by a saintly figure
St Osyth’s Priory was once one of the largest monasteries in Essex. Its impressive medieval gatehouse, with its fine decorative flint work, survives today. In later centuries it was a lavish private home, although it has suffered periods of abandonment and neglect.
The priory was founded in the manor of Chich in about 1121 by the Bishop of London, Richard de Belmeis. Over time, the local place name of Chich would come to be largely replaced by the name St Osyth.
The priory was dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, and to St Osyth. St Osyth was believed to be a daughter of an English king, Frithwald, who having been married against her will, took vows as a nun and founded a nunnery at Chich.
The story goes that when a party of Danes invaded the Essex coast, Osyth was beheaded for refusing to abandon her Christianity, but after her execution she arose and walked to the church at Chich, carrying her head in her hands.
The abbey was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury in late 1303 and it seems he was unimpressed with what he found. The canons were sent a list of complaints and injunctions, instructing them to confine their conversation to religion and avoid gossip, to only leave the confines of the abbey with a brother canon, to maintain uniformity of clothing, not to diminish resources set aside for the poor and not to use abbey funds to entertain their friends in town.
The abbey was dissolved in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Reformation. An inventory was made of the abbey’s jewels, plate, furniture and other possessions. Among these was ‘the skull of Seynt Osithes closyed in sylver parcel gylte’.
In 1553 the estate was sold to Thomas, Lord Darcy, a courtier and administrator under Edward VI. Darcy and his successors demolished the abbey church and extended the domestic accommodation into a substantial house.
In 1639 the house was inherited by Elizabeth Savage, née Darcy, a Catholic and a Royalist. As Charles I’s rule collapsed and the country descended into Civil War, fuelled by a fear of Catholic conspiracies, Elizabeth was ruined. In August 1642 her house at St Osyth was mobbed and plundered. When Elizabeth died in 1651 she was said to be bankrupt.
After her death, St Osyth remained in the Savage family but they lived elsewhere. In 1714, the Hon Richard Savage bequeathed it to his illegitimate daughter Bessy, wife of Frederick Nassau de Zuylestein, 3rd Earl of Rochford.
Nassau made St Osyth his main seat in England and began a restoration. This work was continued by his son, the 4th earl, who ran up huge debts and sold parts of the estate in 1775.
When the 4th earl died in 1781 without legitimate children, his title passed to his nephew, but St Osyth went to his illegitimate son, Frederic Nassau. The house was later inherited by the 4th earl’s granddaughters, Elizabeth Kirby and Eliza Brandreth. They auctioned off the estate and the contents of the house in 1858. The house itself was bought by Eliza’s husband, Charles.
The next purchaser was John H Johnson, a London corn merchant, who bought the house in 1863 and remodelled the Bishop’s Lodging, added an extensive kitchen range, refitted the range attached to the clock tower and created a chapel.
When Johnson died in 1909, St Osyth was inherited by his adopted daughter, Lady Mabel Cowley. When Mabel died in 1920, the house was bought by General Kincaid-Smith.
The house was requisitioned during World War II, then in 1948 sold to the Loyal and Ancient Order of Shepherds, who founded a convalescent home there. In 1954 St Osyth was bought by novelist and MP Somerset de Chair, who allowed the convalescent home to remain and converted the gatehouse into a separate residence.
He also developed the gardens and opened the property to the public. De Chair died in 1995 and in 1999 the property was bought by the present owners, the Sargeant family, who are working on a programme of restoration.