We discover Paycocke’s House and Gardens’ fascinating 500-year-old history

PUBLISHED: 10:53 09 October 2018 | UPDATED: 10:59 09 October 2018

View of the exterior of Paycocke's on the street front. An early c16th town house built by the wealthy wool merchant John Paycocke on the occasion of his son Thomas's marriage.

View of the exterior of Paycocke's on the street front. An early c16th town house built by the wealthy wool merchant John Paycocke on the occasion of his son Thomas's marriage.

©National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus

Paycocke’s House and Gardens, now owned by The National Trust, is one of the county’s most precious historic sites and 2018 marks 500 years since the death of the man who gave the house its name. Ruth McKegney tells the tale of this Coggeshall jewel

Nestled in the heart of the beautiful and historic village of Coggeshall is a house with over 500 years of history. Paycocke’s House and Gardens is the former home of wealthy cloth merchant, Thomas Paycocke.

Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most attractive half-timbered houses of England’, Paycocke’s House has a rich and turbulent history.

Saved from destruction in the early 1900s, the house is now owned by The National Trust and is a fascinating example of the wealth generated in East Anglia by the cloth trade in the 16th century.

The story of Thomas Paycocke himself is a true story of rags to riches. Although the Paycocke family were involved in the cloth trade in Coggeshall, much of Thomas’ wealth was built from a series of lucky events including his marriage to Margaret (the daughter of Thomas Horrold), the subsequent death of his father in law, custody of Margaret’s sisters and the death of his own father in 1506.

Close up detail of a wooden door plaque reading the name Thomas at Paycocke's House and Garden, Colchester, EssexClose up detail of a wooden door plaque reading the name Thomas at Paycocke's House and Garden, Colchester, Essex

When Thomas’s father died, he left a large quantity of property to his wife and children. Thomas was left ‘my house lying and bielded in the West strete of Coggeshall’, which is what we know as Paycocke’s House today. Sections of Paycocke’s date back to 1420, and it is thought that Thomas had the front, half-timbered wing which faces onto the road today built onto the original 1420 range.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas’ death, and Paycocke’s is housing an exhibition on his life, and death, with particular reference to his extraordinary will, which still survives to this day.

Louise Poole, house steward at Paycocke’s House, explains: “Tudor wills are so fascinating because they provide a unique insight into a life and times, so without a will we would have very little understanding or solid documentary evidence of characters such as Thomas.

“His will gives all sorts of clues about his world, such as the status of women and the wealth which he accumulated in the cloth trade – it’s totally engaging.”

View of the exterior at Paycocke's House and Garden, Essex. Built around 1500 for Thomas Paycocke, the house is a grand example of the wealth generated in East Anglia by the cloth trade in the 16th century.View of the exterior at Paycocke's House and Garden, Essex. Built around 1500 for Thomas Paycocke, the house is a grand example of the wealth generated in East Anglia by the cloth trade in the 16th century.

The status of women is a particularly interesting aspect of Thomas’ will. At the time of his death, his second wife, Anne, was pregnant with their first child. His will states that his estate was to be handed down to his heir, but only to his male heir.

Anne gave birth to a daughter, and so Thomas’ estate was instead passed to his nephew, John Paycocke, instead of to his direct descendant. This would have been by no means uncommon, and instead would have likely been expected of Thomas.

Thomas was generous in his bequests, displaying once again quite how solvent his wealth was with a number of workers and employees under his establishment. There were various ‘cloth towns’ across Suffolk and Essex, and Coggeshall itself gained fame for its undyed ‘white’ broadcloth, sometimes referred to as Coggeshall White.

Thomas himself was entrepreneurial and worked through an organised production called ‘putting-out’ where work could be completed in the workers own premises. As a result, Paycocke’s House itself was left to be what we believe to have been a space to entertain, and to impress.

View of the timber beamed Hall and Staircase at Paycockes.View of the timber beamed Hall and Staircase at Paycockes.

The ornate carvings with Thomas’ and his wife’s initials in the ceiling of the great hall at Paycocke’s would certainly have been impressive and lavish displays of wealth are visible throughout the property.

The garden also played an important part in the history of the house. Originally an industrial yard, it evolved into a beautiful arts and crafts garden. Since coming under the care of The National Trust, the team of volunteers have lovingly restored the gardens to celebrate this history of the house through medieval dye plants, historic roses and Edwardian fuchsias.

“The garden is the best kept secret at Paycocke’s,” adds Louise. “It’s a tranquil space that has something special for every season. It provides fresh flowers for the displays in the house and produce is often sold in the house.

‘We are almost entirely run by volunteers from the local and surrounding areas. The passion and dedication of our volunteers is a constant delight and to see the daily enthusiasm with which they go about their tasks is an inspiration. It is something which is definitely recognised and appreciated by our visitors.”

Close detail of the timber carving (original figure) on the front of the house.Close detail of the timber carving (original figure) on the front of the house.

Alongside the Paycocke 500th exhibition, there are various other events taking place until the house closes for winter at the end of October.

On September 1 and 2 there will be the Tudor re-enactment group, the Companye of Merrie Folke, demonstrating the lead up to the death of Thomas, and how Tudor life dealt with illness and imminent death.

The event will be in conjunction with the exhibition and will take place during opening times inside Paycocke’s House.

Find out more

Paycocke’s House and Gardens is open seven days a week from 11am to 5pm, from March to October. Details can be found at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/paycockes-house-and-garden.

If you are interested in volunteering at Paycocke’s or any other National Trust properties, or for other ways to support the trust, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/join-and-get-involved

For more information on The National Trust in Essex please click here

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