The Russells Of Corney House

By Dianne Duggan

Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 9 (2000)

Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford (reproduced in Journal 9 by kind permission of the Marquis ofTavistock and the Trustees of the Bedford Estate).

Francis Russell, Lord Russell of Thornhaugh, later 4th Earl of Bedford, once lived in a house in Chiswick on the banks of the Thames with his wife, Katherine, daughter of the 3rd Lord Chandos of Sudeley, and his young family. Since their marriage in 1608, they had lived at Corney House on Corney Reach. There they spent most of the early years of their marriage, and later their eight children (they had four boys, William, Francis, John and Edward, and four girls, Katherine, Anne, Margaret and Diana) must have enjoyed happy times in what was then an idyllic setting.

The Tudor house had stood there since the time of Henry VIII, and had a long garden which stretched down to steps, from which a boat could easily be taken to Westminster. The house had come into the possession of the Russells in 1542, when it was conveyed to Lord John Russell, afterwards 1st Earl of Bedford. Sir William Russell, a younger son of the 2nd earl, and the father of Francis the 4th earl, entertained an elderly Queen Elizabeth there in 1602. The following year he was created Lord Russell of Thornhaugh by James I, and when he died in 1613 his son, Francis, succeeded to the title.

Chiswick then, of course, was just a small village outside London, inhabited mainly by fishermen and boatmen and their families. Lord Russell was the landlord to many of the local residents, and a recently discovered document names some of his tenants in 1632 and 1633. These included many widows by the surnames of Arnold, Holland, Ansell, Longe, Bowler and Browne; this preponderance of women, who probably would have been poor, might indicate some benevolence on the earl’s part. Other tenants named were Richard Pauling, John Morgen, Thomas Londonn, a Mr Roberts, and William Early; their rents, for a period of time not stated, ranged from £3.15s to 2s 6d.

There was also, however, a cluster of houses belonging to or inhabited by wealthier residents, including Lord Poulet, Sir Stephen Leasure, a noted Parliamentarian and his wife, the Earl and Countess of Somerset, Robert and Frances Carr. Lord Russell seems to have been a committed parishioner, and the church records at St Nicholas’s Church show that throughout the 1620s he paid his parish rates. He also paid for the erection of a wall to surround the burial plot in the churchyard in 1623, to prevent the ‘bodies…therein buryed from violating of swine’. In 1629, together with the vicar William Walker, he set up a plaque inside the tower of the church as a memorial to a William Bordall who had erected the steeple in 1425.

Plague Years
A few years earlier, however, in 1625, he and his wife and family fled from Chiswick to Woburn Abbey, to escape the plague which had reached the village on the Thames from central London, and a few letters from himself and his wife to their dear friends the Leasures remain to give us a glimpse of life at that time. On 12 August, 1625, Katherine wrote: ‘To my dearly beloved friend the Lady Leasure…Sweet madam I have sent this messenger expressly to beg of you the remove from Chiswick in this most dangerous time which I find by Mr Sanders which write to me this day…for god sake remove to Northall [where the Russells also owned property] with speed and let me know your resolution and I will send to let my nurse know of your coming . . . Truly I am from my heart sad until I see you settled from this grievous infection. . . this with afflicted mind I end . . .  Yours to my last Katherine Russell’. An anxious post-script reads, ‘Mr Warwick hath forgotten my seeds . . . I know not what to do for my bird . . .  if Mr Warwick be safe let me desire to have some seeds sent me from him by this messenger’.

On 18 September that same year, Catherine again wrote to Lady Leasure in Chiswick inviting her and her husband to spend the winter at Woburn, but on this occasion the letter was ‘written by reason of an extreme toothache’ by her secretary.

Early in 1626 the family was able to return to Chiswick, as by now the infection had begun to subside. London was an exciting place to be at this time, for James I had died and Charles was to be crowned on 2 February. William Russell, at ten years old the eldest son of the Russells, was made a Knight of the Bath in the coronation celebrations. Then a little over a year later Edward, the 3rd Earl of Bedford died and Francis succeeded to the title and the vast estates of the Bedfords. Chenies, in Buckinghamshire, had been the chosen residence of the previous earls, but Francis Russell and his wife decided to make Woburn Abbey the principal residence of the Bedford family. Nonetheless, they were still required to attend London often, and there they stayed at Bedford House on the Strand. They often retreated to Chiswick though, and no doubt Corney House provided a welcome retreat for the family at a time when the Earl was not only developing Covent Garden adjacent to Bedford House (with the great Inigo Jones designing St Paul’s Church and the Piazza for his patron), but was also busy at the head of an association involved in the draining the great Level of the Fens between Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.

An oil painting of Corney House by Jacob Knyff, now in the Museum of London, shows members of a family and servants in the well kept garden on the banks of the Thames. Although painted a little after the mid 17th century, probably about fifteen years after Edward Russell, (4th son of Francis and later Earl of Orford), had sold the house, it serves well to illustrate the attractions of the Bedfords’ beloved home there.

Unrequited Love
Just recently, a touching tale of unrequited love, which had its origin at Corney House sometime in 1629 (or shortly after), has emerged from the mists of time. Mairie Cruise O’Brien, whilst researching a 17th-century Gaelic poet named Pierce Ferriter, came across a love poem written by him about a certain Meg Russell, a ‘foreign princess’, a ‘London-woman’, whom he apparently loved from ‘afar’, never being in a position to declare his feelings for her. Mairie researched further, and found that in 1629 the poet was in the retinue of Richard Boyle, the Earl of Cork, a novus homo who was apparently living at Chiswick in a house lent by the then 4th Earl of Bedford, while the two were conducting business deals.

Boyle was also after the hand of one of the Russell daughters for his son Dungarvan which, should it have come about, would have been a great match for the ambitious earl from Dingle. Boyle’s hopes were dashed in 1631, however, when the Countess of Bedford declared herself unwilling ‘to adventure a daughter upon an Irish fortune’, and not long afterwards young Meg became Lady Carlisle. During the time the Irish party was in Chiswick, however, the Gaelic poet (who had a wife back in Ireland) was apparently often in the Earl’s train when he went to call upon the Russells at Corney House, and there he lost his heart to the very young Margaret Russell, who although only eleven in 1629, was of an age when matches were arranged. Pierce, many years later, poured out his feelings when he wrote: ‘Meg Russell, foreign princess. A conspicuous star of noble family. A golden apple, set too far from me. The sun and glory of foreign women.’ Later in the poem he wrote: ‘What I offered her freely she did not accept, yet she stole it; Odd that her noble complexion stoops to theft. She does not accept stolen property.’

Jeremiah Wiffen, biographer of the Russell family, wrote that although Margaret’s features conveyed ‘somewhat less strength of character’ than her sister Anne, this disparity was more than compensated by an ‘ineffable sweetness of her eyes, and the contour of her lips, which breathed an unaffected air of half-angelic goodness’. Pierce Ferriter, no doubt, fell for this ‘half-angelic goodness’ but, of course, would have had no illusions about any future with Meg Russell. The daughters of the 4th Earl and Countess of Bedford were destined to marry well; Katherine married Robert Greville, Lord Brooke, Anne married George, Lord Bristol, and Diana married Francis, Lord Newport. Little Meg, who was widowed twice, subsequently became the Countess of Manchester, and lastly the Countess of Warwick.

Lover and Marriage
Yet another Russell love story had its beginnings on the banks of the Thames in Chiswick, for in 1625 the notorious Earl and Countess of Somerset came to live in the district, having purchased nearby Chiswick House from Sir Edward Wardour. The Somersets’ notoriety stems from the fact that the Countess, Frances Carr, had arranged – and indeed later confessed to – the murder, by poison, of Sir Thomas Overbury, who had opposed her divorce from her husband, Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex. Imprisoned for some years in the Tower, she there gave birth to a daughter, Anne, by her second husband, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. The two were finally pardoned by James I, and they made their home outside London in Chiswick. There, when little Anne became a neighbour and childhood playmate of William, Lord Russell (later 5th Earl and 1st Duke of Bedford), the seeds of love were sown.

Francis, the 4th Earl, strongly opposed the proposed match in the 1630s, but eventually, worn down by the young couple’s insistence and the approval of the marriage by Charles I, he allowed William to marry the twenty year old Anne Carr in 1637. It is said that Anne did not learn of her parents’ infamous background and of her birth in the Tower until the year she died, 1684. The elderly Countess found a pamphlet concerning the tale, and fainted upon reading the sordid details surrounding her birth, a quite understandable reaction to such an amazing story.

An Untimely Death
In 1641 the 4th Earl of Bedford died of smallpox at the age of 48, an untimely death not least because of his wisdom and tolerance and the part he was playing in mediating between Charles I and the popular Parliamentary party. A man with a sincere regard for the principles of religious liberty, he had recognised the claims of the Scottish Covenanters who regarded him as an ally. At the same time Bedford’s attitude towards the king was no less moderate, and he had been one of the 12 peers who in 1640 had requested in all ‘humility and faithfullness’ that Charles call a Parliament, an action which resulted in at least some negotiation with the ‘rebels’. Bedford, a few months later, mediated to try to prevent the condemnation of the king’s personal friend, the Earl of Strafford, by the Parliamentary party and many of the discontented Lords, but at the very moment when his wise counsel seemed most necessary to the King, the Earl fell sick with smallpox.

His widow kept Corney House until her death, very probably staying there often with her children and grandchildren, and the memories of her happy married life; she died in 1657. Edward, her youngest son inherited the house, and although he soon sold the mansion to a William Gomeldon, he remodelled or built for himself a house on Chiswick Mall, a few hundred yards from St Nicholas Church. The classically-designed Bedford House is still there today, a monument to that happy and tight-knit family who lived and loved in Chiswick in the 17th century.

Sources consulted: J H Wiffen, Memoirs of the House of Russell, 1833; M Gilbert, Chiswick: Old and New, 1932; papers relating to the Russell family mainly at Woburn Abbey; guidebook to The Parish Church of St Nicholas Chiswick. The author would like to thank Mairie Cruise O’Brien, author of Sairseal Agus Dill, Dublin, 1999.

Dianne Duggan was born in Australia, and lived for many years in the Far East. She completed an Open University degree in Humanities a few years ago, and then did a Master of Arts at Oxford Brookes University in Art Historical Studies in 1995. She is now doing a Research Degree in Architectural History at the Courtauld Institute, University of London.

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