The history of Abbey House Manor, Malmesbury

Our history

Open on the second Saturday of every month

10:00am - 4:00pm

May to October

Although the main house dates from the 1500s, it was built on 13th-century foundations, and even prior to this, there are records of buildings on the site as early as the 11th century. But the house's history stretches back even further still.

Monks working at Malmesbury Abbey would have lived here, at a time when the Abbey was one of the leading European seats of learning. The first 'King of all England', Aethelstan, was buried in Malmesbury Abbey in 939 AD. His remains were lost during the reformation and are rumoured to be in our gardens and you can see his empty tomb in Malmesbury Abbey

In 1539, the Abbey was sold to a local clothier, William Stumpe, who was one of England’s most successful entrepreneurs at the time of Henry VIII. He made his fortune as a producer of woollen cloth and Malmesbury was his key manufacturing centre. Stumpe gave a large part of the Abbey to the town as a parish church and reserved much of the rest of the site as the setting for a family home.

Although we can’t say for certain, it’s likely that Stumpe began to build Abbey House in the 1540s with original features. The lower parts of the 13th-century building survive in the undercroft, and the walls and arches in the garden incorporate fragments of 12th-century carved stone, reused from the Abbey. Stumpe was a keen gardener who lived with a French clergyman called Oliver Bowseke, known for his gardening expertise. William Stumpe died in 1552 and the building work was completed by his son, Sir James Stumpe, who inherited his father’s huge fortune. James Stumpe and his wife, Lady Isabel Stumpe, lived at Abbey House until his death in 1563.

Following the death of Sir James Stumpe, the estate was inherited by his daughter, Elizabeth, who, within days of her father’s funeral, married a courtier and favourite of Elizabeth I called Sir Henry Knyvett. Elizabeth and Henry found Abbey House too small and by the 1570s had moved out to Charlton Park just outside Malmesbury. By the early 1590s, John Stumpe, a grandson of William Stumpe, moved to Abbey House with his wife, Anne who had an angry dispute with Knyvett’s second wife, Lady Mary Knyvett. Both women wanted to be seen personally as ‘the first lady of Malmesbury’. As part of their dispute, Henry and Mary Knyvett accused Anne Stumpe of using witchcraft to harm them. Anne, in response, claimed that the Knyvetts were intent on driving her out of Malmesbury through a campaign of violent intimidation. In 1595, Anne accused Lady Mary of instructing one of her servants to kill her as she stood in a gallery window at Abbey House. The servant shot three times but missed his target.

By the early 1600s, Abbey House was part of a large portfolio of property in the town known as the Manor of Malmesbury. The lordship of the Manor, and the ownership of Abbey House, belonged in the early seventeenth century to the Danvers family who were well known both locally and nationally. John Danvers, who was also the MP for Malmesbury, signed the Death Warrant of King Charles.

By the time of the English Civil War of the 1640s, a royalist named Thomas Ivie was living at Abbey House. Ivie was away for much of the decade working in the Far East but his sister, Mary Ivie, was living at Abbey House. In 1644, the town was captured by a parliamentarian army commanded by Nicholas Devereux who commandeered Abbey House as his headquarters. One of Devereux’s senior officers called Marmaduke Pudsey fell in love with Mary Ivie and, despite their political differences, they were married at Malmesbury Abbey in September 1644.

Ivie retired, returned to England and married Theodosia Garrett in 1649. They had a turbulent relationship - Theodosia refused to move to Abbey House and wanted to live in London. They separated and she successfully sued him for maintenance payments. Ivie responded in 1654 by publishing a pamphlet denouncing his wife, titled Alimony Arraign’d. This is the first-ever recorded use in the English language of the word ‘alimony’ to mean payments made to a separated or divorced spouse. Thomas accused Theodosia of using witchcraft against him, but the couple were reconciled in 1660 and Theodosia came to live at Abbey House during the 1660s. They argued again in about 1670 and Theodosia left Malmesbury for good. Thomas accused Theodosia of forging bonds promising money to her relatives and used his will to disinherit her.

After the death of Thomas Ivie in 1674, the lease on Abbey House transferred to his nephew, Thomas Stumpe. As a teenager, he had been on a trip with his uncle to the River Amazon where he was captured by an indigenous cannibal tribe. His captors considered eating young Thomas but the tribal queen intervened and spared his life. Thomas lived with Amazonian Indians for several years before escaping on a passing Portuguese boat and returning to Wiltshire. The biographer and archaeologist John Aubrey knew Stumpe and recounted his amazing adventures in South America in his book, The Natural History of Wiltshire. Thomas Stumpe lived at Abbey House for the last years of his life and died in 1698. He is commemorated by a fine monument in Malmesbury Abbey.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the Manor was owned by the Wharton family. Thomas Wharton and his son, Philip Wharton, had reputations for wild living and Philip was one of the founders of the original Hellfire Club. Sir John Rushout bought the Manor, including Abbey House, from the Whartons in 1743. Abbey House and the Manor belonged to members of the Rushout family for 150 years until, in 1896, Lady Elizabeth Rushout broke up the Manor and sold off Abbey House.

Many different families leased Abbey House from the Rushout family between 1743 and 1896. Thomas Hill, a Malmesbury butcher, was the tenant in 1746. In 1786 Thomas Smith, a brewer, took over the lease. The Smith family kept the tenancy for many years and sub-let separate apartments to four different households. By 1841, a widow called Millicent Deverall was in residence and then in 1857, a successful surgeon named Joseph Jennings took over the lease and moved into Abbey House. Almost forty years later Dr Jennings was able to buy the property when, in 1896, Malmesbury Manor was broken up and sold off.

A wealthy young couple called Elliott and Eva Mackirdy, who was known in the town for her snobbery, bought Abbey House and the gardens in 1906. They decided to extend the property and rebuilt the eastern end of the building. This major extension was undertaken by the architect, Harold Brakspear before the First World War, and was completed in the 1920s.

In 1968, Eva Mackirdy sold Abbey House to a group of Anglican nuns who were members of the Community of St Andrew. They used the property as a retirement home for elderly sisters and their guests until 1990.

In 1994, Ian & Barbara Pollard, who previously owned Hazelbury Manor in Wiltshire, bought Abbey House and transformed it into a house with extensive gardens which they opened to the public in 1996. Not only were the pair fantastic gardeners, but they became famous as ‘The Naked Gardeners’ with their love of naturism and for hosting ‘Clothes Optional Days’.

In Autumn 2021, Kim and Whit Hanks, founders of Whim Hospitality, Camp Lucy and Tillie’s Restaurant in Dripping Springs, Texas purchased the house and gardens, following their purchase of The Old Bell Hotel in April 2021. Prior to this, Kim and Whit were regular visitors to Malmesbury, their Hanks family ancestral home since before 1500. During their family research, they discovered Mark Pleydell Hanks was living at Abbey House when it was a private manor house in 1841 and Henry Garlick Hanks lived in a section of what is now The Old Bell Hotel, with his wife Susan in the 1860s. Pioneering Malmesbury industrialist, Walter Hanks, operated a mill below The Old Bell Hotel on the River Avon in the late 1100s.

Fast forward to today, and Abbey House Manor gardens have reopened to the public after popular demand. Our much-loved garden is in a season of replanting and you will learn the methodology behind this approach when you visit. This year, we’re excited to have Freya Langford from Graduate Gardeners join us as our Head Gardener to help rejuvenate the gardens during the open days from May to October. This is just the beginning of our restorative journey, but with over 1,300 years of history and something new to discover each day, it's a must-see spot. As for Abbey House Manor, Kim and Whit have exciting plans to restore the house into a luxury hotel, subject to receiving permission.

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