Thirty years later the Northamptonshire architect and historian John Gotch noted how time seemed to stand still at Canons Ashby; on entering its portals one was immediately transported back two hundred years. The nature of this time-capsule was to prove Canons Ashby’s greatest asset and ironically too its greatest burden. By 1937 the current generation of Drydens were living in Zimbabwe; the house was rented out and rapidly descending into an irreparable state of decay. For many years the National Trust and others had been acutely aware of its dilemma. When the family advertised for a new tenant Gervase Jackson-Stops, the Architectural Advisor to the National Trust, knew the time had come to make a bid to save this unique piece of Elizabethan history, poetically described by Gotch as ‘less than a palace…and more than a manor-house’.
Occasionally in life a synergy of forces comes together fortuitous to a certain situation. So it was at Canons Ashby; when approached by the National Trust the Dryden family generously donated the house, lands and church to the Trust in 1980. The Trust was of course delighted, but similarly aware that without the necessary funds for repairs and endowment they would be unable to accept the gift. The newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was persuaded to give half its allocation for the entire year (£1.5 million) to this relatively unknown property as the basis of a restoration package. The building rapidly became a cause célèbre amongst country houses. Other donors stepped in: the Landmark Trust, the Department of the Environment and the Historic Buildings Trust. For Landmark this was a new partnership, a joint venture drawn up in 1983 with the National Trust which resulted in Landmark being granted a lease for the tower to use and maintain as a holiday let. John Cornforth writing in Country Life (1981) magnanimously suggested that the £100,000 offered to the National Trust by the Manifold Trust was ‘an act of great generosity as well as a psychological value, because it meant that the Trust would not be approaching other bodies and individuals with a completely empty bowl’.
The task however was immense. The estate was a wilderness of dead trees; the house was riddled with death-watch beetle, unsound roofs, bowing walls and a deeply unstable tower. The southern elevation, divided by the tower, was a particularly serious problem. Rodney Melville of the John Osborne Partnership of Leamington Spa was the appointed architect to the project, with the Linford Building Group, specialists in historic restoration, carrying out the delicate renovation work. Scaffolding had to be erected with incredible care; so fragile was the south wall that the slightest pressure could have brought it down. Later when a chute for the ancient garderobe (a medieval latrine) in the tower was discovered, the intended system of lightweight concrete beams, designed to hold up the tower, had to be radically revised to protect the chute. At peak times a team of over thirty Linford craftsmen worked on the restoration, some completing their apprenticeships within the building period. Canons Ashby opened to the public in April 1984 and was hailed as a restoration triumph setting an important precedent for generations of country houses to come. It was described at the time as ’arguably the most encouraging individual preservation package to have been worked out for a number of years’.
As an object of architectural history the tower holds the secrets of Elizabethan construction techniques and design influences; the first two floors of the tower are timber-framed and predate the upper floors, which are constructed of local stone and brick. The nature of window design during the period can also be seen in the tower. The arched Tudor window lights, with hood mouldings, which were common at the time of Henry VIII (1509-47) and earlier are the predominant window style. The tower also has examples of mullion windows with flat headers, without such arches, which became more popular as the century progressed. Both were commonly used throughout the period. The architectural historian Mark Girouard suggests it is a mistake to suggest the arched lights are earlier and the square heads later as many examples of both exist throughout the century. The one definitive change in style is the classical door-case to the tower, part of the programme of ‘modernisation’ (1708-10) of Edward Dryden (d.1717) which shows the definite shift in taste to the classicism of the early eighteenth century. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century inventories and the detailed drawings of the nineteenth-century antiquary Sir Henry Dryden (1818-99) considerably enhance the tower’s history. Henry Dryden’s highly accomplished architectural drawings are held by the Northamptonshire Record Office and were used extensively in the restoration of the house. Until the nineteenth century it appears the tower at Canons Ashby was used for sleeping accommodation – a piece of eighteenth-century children’s drawing is still preserved on its walls. Both local and national architectural history are therefore embedded within its walls.
The tower also can be read as history of the Dryden family itself. Its early origins connect to the history of the sixteenth-century Dryden family who inherited a farmhouse on the site, which was subsequently remodelled. It is highly unusual for a Northamptonshire house of this period to have a tower placed within an elevation; more normally in Elizabethan architecture a tower would be incorporated into an entrance gate or corner addition. Gotch recounts how in the sixteenth century John Dryden (d. 1584) came from Cumberland to marry a daughter of Sir John Cope who, shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, became possessed of the lands at Canons Ashby formerly belonging to the Black Canons of the order of St Augustine. John Dryden inherited through his wife an L shaped farmhouse (the present entrance range) which he gradually extended in a clockwise direction adding the staircase tower and south-west block. Architectural historians have suggested that it is this Cumbrian connection of the Drydens which is responsible for the nature of the tower. Its design is remarkably similar to the ‘pele’ towers, built on the Cumbrian and Scottish borders to repel invaders. Such towers were originally freestanding and were often later enlarged to incorporate wings and extensions.
The Elizabethan period was an important time architecturally for Northamptonshire. Mansions and manor houses of an astounding variety were built during this period, from the grand and opulent Kirby Hall (c1556) commissioned by Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley), Sir Thomas Tresham’s triangular Ruston Lodge (1593-7) illustrating the Elizabethan passion for symbolism, to the Elizabethan vernacular of Canons Ashby with its rich tapestry of style and additions. The exterior of the tower at Canons Ashby shows no traces of the newly fashionable Renaissance classicism; instead it follows the Tudor Gothic typical of the majority of English buildings during the sixteenth century.
Using the pattern books of the Italian architect and theorist Sebastian Serlio (1475-1554), and the ‘paynter and archytecte’ John Shute’s treatise on architecture, the first to be published in English, Elizabethan builders learnt the new way to dress a building using the classical orders. Symbolism was an important ingredient of Elizabethan architecture which used images to convey messages of status, value and history. The Elizabethans viewed their world in a way which was measured by their concept of creation and knowledge of the universe. It was a unique order formulated with the influence of Plato and the Bible, and one which affected every aspect of their lives including their architecture.
A tower believed to be built just before Elizabeth came to the throne, influenced by a family unconnected to Northamptonshire, but destined to become pivotal to the evolution of this important Elizabethan courtyard house, is a particularly special piece of architectural history. Its fortune has waxed and waned during the centuries; by the 1880s a tree was recorded as growing out of its structure.
In the twenty-first century visitors to the tower have the rather special experience of staying in a Landmark property which is part of a National Trust house and seeing for themselves the architectural, dynastic and social history of this unique building, described by Lawrence Rich, the National Trust’s Appeals Secretary as ‘one of the most romantic places in a county renowned for splendid houses’.