A tribute to the life and work of Brian Torode
HENRY STEPHENS OF CHAVENAGE – A TRAGIC CONVERT
By the Late John Fendley (1991)
The story of Chavenage manor, near Horsley, is a vignette of English social history. Before the Reformation it belonged to the Augustinian house at Bruton in Somerset. After the Dissolution it was granted to the ill-fated Sir Thomas Seymour, and in 1553 bought by the Stephens family. It was they who built the manor house which still survives, considerably modified and extended, which remained theirs for nearly four centuries. Apart from the Colonel Stephens who achieved some prominence in the Civil War they seemed to have led the quiet unobtrusive life of landed gentry. However, by chance we can piece together a sad and bizarre episode in their history. Documents survive which, though tantalisingly incomplete, give an insight into the tortured life of the convert Henry Hannes Willis Stephens, who inherited the manor in 1801, and tell of a desperate search for peace of mind.
Henry Stephens was born Henry Willis in 1775, son of the Reverend Henry Willis, who became Rector of Little Sodbury and Vicar of Wapley in Gloucestershire. He matriculated at Merton, Oxford, in 1791, and proceeded B.A. in 1795. He took the arms and style of the Stephens family when he inherited from the widow of a distant cousin who was last in the direct male line. For a time thereafter his life seems to have been unremarkable. He first comes to life in an extract from a letter that he wrote from Lisbon, probably made by his sister Temperance Jane Willis. The reference in it to the state of the Peninsular War suggests 1812 as its date. It deserves quotation as a vivid illustration of the eternal Englishman abroad. The Portuguese are very civil and accommodating but live like pigs: the people are such caricatures that he forgets his own ailments in observing them. Their cooking is a curious combination of baking, boiling and smoking. Drinks are expensive. The flies (or fleas) are very troublesome and seem to like the English better than their own dirty countrymen. His views of the Church in Portugal are staunchly Protestant.
‘The noise of their bells (is) incessant – if the devotion of the monks keeps pace with them they are very good indeed – the poor nuns look very interesting…… they seem intent upon their devotions – but I do suspect that their Eyes move, though their heads do not – I hope they cannot understand the rude jests of the soldiers, upon their misspent time, which they tell them might be better employ’d (probably the bowdlerised version of what Tommy Atkins said to the nun).’
His observation of the local women is more than that of Sterne than of a future religious:
‘A beggar neatly dress’d, cover’d with a long black veil of muslin. She appear’d to be young and handsome – said nothing – but held out a delicate hand – if it was a scheme it answer’d well for nobody could pass her unmov’d – but I do not think it was.’
Nevertheless the Church in Portugal must have had some impact on Henry Stephens. An inventory of plate at Chavenage made by his sister in 1813 includes an addition, ‘Items of Catholic significance, among them ‘1 large crucifix and three large altar plates. 1 thurible and chains. 1 shrine for the host, silver gilt’. How profound that impact was at the time we do not know, but in the summer of 1814 we find the name of Henry Stephens, in bold, confident, almost copperplate writing subscribed to the Oath of Allegiance.
Sadly, any peace that he found in the Church was short-lived. It soon became clear that he was a victim of what would now be called a persecution complex, with his sister Temperance Jane as its object. A letter of advice sent to her in June 1814 (the signature is illegible) suggests that if he tries to carry out his intention of sending for ‘Medical and Legal Gentlemen’ she should not resist. (Later correspondence suggests that they did come) They would instantly see and endeavour to persuade him that there is not the most distant foundation for his suspicions. Perhaps, the writer goes on, his complaint might then abate a little, though it could never be expected entirely to subside. Nor did it, and matters reached a climax later in the year.
In November, after making a perfectly rational will, leaving his estate after several bequests in trust for his nephew, the son of his sister Harriet, and making his neighbour Colonel Kingscote executor, he wrote to Kingscote that he had:
‘made up my mind to quit my Home this day ……. In the Hope of living out the Rest of my Days in Silence, Solitude, and Peace…… I request you to take what Steps you think right relating to the Property resigned by me’;
and Temperance wrote to Kingscote lamenting her brother’s going abroad ‘with only silent leave’. On the day that he went he annotated his sister’s inventory, ‘I may have forgotten some articles that I have taken away’. He always remained rational in practical matters.
Shortly before Christmas in that year the Consul at Havre de Grace (as Le Havre was then known) wrote to his acquaintance Mr. Walker of Gloucester about an alleged Gloucestershire figure that he had encountered. He had received a letter from a stranger requesting an interview. His manner was mysterious and he soon burst into floods of tears.
‘I am poisoned! And I beg, Sir, that you’ll instantly afford me assistance and protection.’
‘Pray, my good friend, who is guilty of such a diabolical crime?’
‘I was attempted to have been poisoned by my own relations long before I left England. They have obtained possession of my property, but are not contented, and I am afraid never will, till they force me into my grave.’
The Consul soon had little doubt that his visitor was deranged. He identified himself as Henry Stephens of Chavenage, a property near Tetbury worth £1800 to £2000 a year. He was surviving on £4000 in notes that he had with him which he refused to hand over for safe keeping. The Consul’s credulity was now far stretched, but Stephens was later able to convince him about the money and presumably Mr. Walker overcame his doubts that a Henry Stephens did exist.
Poor Temperance Jane’s alarm at this must have been great, but as nothing to her feelings when in the following July she again heard from the Consular Service, this time in Tenerife. The Consul there wrote to her:-
‘Accident has only within these last few days brought to my knowledge that you are the sister of Henry Stephens, and I feel it my duty to acquaint you that your Brother, who seems to be under an habitual morbid melancholy, has withdrawn himself (I fear without the knowledge of his friends) into a distant and secluded Convent of Dominican Friars on this Island. I have hitherto refused my sanction to his wish of assuming the Habit and taking the Sacerdotal Vows, and for making over to the Convent all the property that he has with him, which, report says, is considerable. But should determination on his part be contrary to the wishes of his friends, my opposition may eventually be in vain, with the interference of the Secretary of State, and should be immediately applied to’.
Temperance’s reaction appears in a letter to Colonel Kingscote telling him that she had recently heard from Henry, after he had arrived in his convent, and had replied assuring him that as far as was within her power she would not let anyone disappoint his hopes of remaining there. In fact, both she and Kingscote showed kindness and generosity to Henry throughout. Her agitation and distress are obvious in her letter:-
‘…… therefore I had no alternative, and the bitter task alone remained, to me, of telling the Colonel that as I was too well assur’d, that my Brother could not be happy here, from experience (unless it pleas’d Heaven to restore his health of mind) I submitted to his remaining there, as more promising of anything like comfort to him, to promote whose welfare, in every sense of the word, there is no suffering that I would not, God knows, undergo’.
But, even as she wrote, Henry was already despondent. There survives a copy of a little book, ‘Reflections on Monsieur Varillas’, by his ancestor Sir Edward Hannes. Who was Queen Anne’s physician – one of the most forgotten works of religious controversy so beloved of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – which he must have had with him at Tenerife. In it he has written:-
‘Henry Hannes Willis Stephens, great Grandson of Sr Ed Hannes, took the habit of a lay brother in the Convent of Guimar, Isle of Teneriffe (sic). July 8 Festival of St. Elizabeth, 1815 H+S’.
But the country gentleman would not – beneath it he lists his lordships of the manor and proudly announces himself the owner of Chavenage; and likewise the expatriate Englishman:-
‘Oh when shall I visit the Land of my Birth / The loveliest land on the face of the earth HS 1815’.
It is hardly surprising that he did not stay long at Tenerife. Less than a year later, in 1816, he wrote to Colonel Kingscote from an address in Bordeaux. He has now lost his fortune and has barely enough for existence. He had no wish to retain his estate and will sign any deed to that effect. All he wants to do is to avoid former acquaintance: nothing short of extreme necessity will induce me to return to England.
Return to England, he did, however, and the subsequent spate of letters to Kingscote all came from London addresses. They leave no doubt that he was completely unbalanced.
‘Driven by the same relentless Persecution from every Place where I had hoped to rest I am returned to my native Country in the hope of at least procuring such Means as may enable me to live abroad in security from Poison – my first wish being for the Retirement of a Convent, although the Deserts of Teneriffe could not protect me from the Enemies who invisibly pursue me – so unjustly – and for Reasons entirely unknown to me.’
He is being persecuted by a great Personage – Woe to those who make use of such Authority for such horrid Purposes as Murder! Would Colonel Kingscote please intercede with Earl Bathurst and the Duke of Beaufort on his behalf? The persecution stems, in part, from his own ungrateful family who have only received benefits from him. He has no faith in the offers of help mysteriously made by a stranger. He has returned to England to seek justice and hopes to find it there – neither the Prince Regent nor any of the Royal Family are dealers in Poison. He wants a convent in France, Spain or Portugal – or in Constantinople, where he has heard there are several. Or Mont St. Michel, a convent of strict confinement in Normandy, might meet his needs – anywhere far from the world, where he has no wish to mix though at present partaking of its amusements without enjoying them (what kind of life could he have been living in London?). Could Colonel Kingscote please get him letters of introduction to the appropriate Consuls?
Yet a thread of business-like sanity runs through the same correspondence. Kingscote (who by now must have had more than enough*) was having trouble over Chavenage – the tenancy, the shooting rights, the education of the heir. Stephens thinks that the tenant was well selected by Kingscote: he is sure that he has done all he can and begs him to continue as trustee. He hopes that there will be no further trouble about the game – Kingscote’s suggestions would save the cost of a gamekeeper. And thank you for the offer of game, but he doesn’t need any at present. These are not the aberrations of a madman.
Colonel Kingscote’s draft replies survive. They are all considerate and kind. He told Henry to try and find the convent he wanted, and he would do all he could to get him there, and keep quiet about it. Perhaps he succeeded. The last we know of Henry’s life is in a letter written in 1817 to Temperance Jane by one Phil. Combauld. It seems that Henry found his way back to Tenerife –
‘My letter to your Brother has produced an answer and it only remains to write to the Consul at Teneriffe to deliver up the things to Father Prior (a disposal which the Consul rather wished to avoid as thinking the articles too good for such use) and to inform Col. Kingscote that he may have the Chavenage property back again whenever he pleases …… It is ……. Some comfort to see that he is perfect master of his mind on matters of business …… The packet to Teneriffe will go next Tuesday’.
We have no more documentary evidence of Henry Stephens until his death. His sister, Temperance, preserved a few shreds of conifer from Pere la Chaise cemetery in Paris ‘where the remains of my dearest brother Henry Hannes Willis Stephens are laid.’ A scrap of paper survives indicating that his last address was the Hotel Meurice in the Rue St Honore. A brief notice in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ tells us a little more:
‘March 22, 1821, at Paris, where he had been resident for the last two years, of an inflammation of the lungs, aged 46, H.H.W. Stephens, esq., late of Chavenage-house in the County of Gloucester’.
So it would seem that he had again abandoned the religious life. A minor mystery remains. The Rev. W.H. Silvester Davies in his ‘Notes on Chavenage and the Stephens family’ (1899) notes that Henry Stephens ‘became a monk and died at La Trappe, Normandy, in 1822’. This is certainly wrong, but it is just possible that Henry’s wanderings took him to yet another would-be refuge, and that Mr. Davies picked up a distorted version of what happened. We shall probably never know.
In her note on her brother’s death Temperance Jane Willis added a few lines of verse. Their quality leaves much to be desired but their sentiment is unexceptionable:
‘ ’Tis religion that must give/sweetest pleasure while we live / ‘Tis religion must supply / Solid comfort when we die / And after Death our days shall be / As lasting Eternity’.
We must hope that they reflect a peace that Henry Stephen’s unhappy life found at last.
*And to little effect. The heir died in 1823. Chavenage then passed to his sister, and soon afterwards went out of the Stephens family’s possession.
I am grateful to Richard Barton for suggesting the subject of this article and for laying its foundations. Its un-published sources are in the Gloucestershire Record Office Q/Rnc (Roman Catholics’ oaths of allegiance); D1023/F11 and 12; D547a/F40 to 42 (Stephens of Beverstone), and D421/C2 to 4 (Kingscote of Kingscote).
Gloucestershire and North Avon Catholic History Society, Issue No. 18, Summer 1991, Pages 5-12.