by Pamela Magill
Published December 2012
Widey Court, once the historic Mansion which King Charles I used as his headquarters during the siege of Plymouth in 1643 during the Civil War is no longer in existence. It was demolished in 1954. The site is now occupied by Widey Court Primary School, and although no trace of the house remains there is still much of the beautiful woodland around which comprised the Widey Estate and opposite the School can be seen Widey Grange originally the Dower House to Widey Court which was used to house relatives of the occupants of Widey Court.
The House, situated in the parish of Eggbuckland was known in ancient times as Wida, Wide or Widhi, because of the withy beds that used to grow from near a spring which still exists today. It appeared in the Domesday Book with the Saxon owner Wadelo and then passed ownership to Robert Albemarle, the Norman Lord. It was during 1590-91 that the place first appeared on record. Sir Francis Drake was starting to construct a leat to bring waters of Dartmoor to Plymouth and an account reads:
“Being the 24th April, Drake set in hand to build six grist mills, two at Widey and two at Eggbuckland. He finished before Michaelmas and after ground the corn”.
It was during the Civil War that Widey and its estate of 53 acres came into its own. King Charles I first appears to have been here in 1643 when five regiments of horse and nine of foot were stationed around Plymouth – Prince Maurice having his headquarters at Widey.
King Charles made Widey his headquarters against the besieged town of Plymouth. Every morning he rode from Widey to Mannamead accompanied by his Chief Officers, and was there received with a royal salute. Prince Maurice, the King’s nephew, set out from Widey to attack Plymouth in the Sabbath Day Fight ,an attack which was defeated at Freedom Fields and since commemorated by a tablet in Freedom Park and annually by the Old Plymouth Society.
Up until the time of the demolition of the house, the bed in which King Charles is reputed t have slept was still there. Apparently, under the terms of the lease, anyone who took the house had to preserve the bed. The bed in its time had been a magnificent four poster canopied bed, containing an effigy of King Charles himself. This bedroom was known as the “King’s Room” and from here there was supposed to have been a secret stairway leading to a courtyard. Also, in the hall was a moveable panel that led to two small rooms. From these, another( secret) stairway communicated with the cellars from where there were two tunnels. These led to outside the house.
At the time of the Civil War a Yeoman named Hele occupied the house. A Summons to “surrender” was sent to the citizens of Plymouth by King Charles and was inscribed “Given at our Court of Widey” and thereafter the House was always known as Widey Court.
After the King’s visit it was reported that Yeoman Hele planted a yew tree at Widey Court in memory of him and that he trimmed it into the form of a heart. Indeed, even today outside the Primary School there remains a yew tree although not trimmed in any special shape.
King Charles II is also supposed to have hidden in a stable in the part of Higher Widey during his escape from England.
During the time of the Commonwealth period, Widey passed into the hands of the Morshead family for many generations, until the St. Aubyn Estate purchased it in 1937. In 1941 the house was requisitioned, being used at first by the City Police. It was during this time that my Grandfather, Sergeant Benjamin Ernest Frowde, was sent to live at Widey with his wife Margaret and eight of their ten children. Widey was being used to train the War Reserve Policemen amongst other things. He lived there with his family for four very happy years and it is because of this that my interest in Widey was aroused. My Father and Mother had their wedding reception in one of the many oak panelled rooms and it seems to have been a marvellous place for anyone to have lived in.
There were approximately 32 rooms, all with heavy dark wooden doors; three staircases, the main one having oak panelling with treads at least five feet wide; one bathroom and two toilets. The house was lit by gas and all the windows had shutters that you closed at night. There were very high trees behind the courtyard and the rooks and wood pigeons made an awful lot of noise that could make it seem very spooky at times.
The main drive to Widey Lodge was tree lined, and in the spring, the banks on the right hand side, produced a mass of crocus which was beautiful to see. There was a Conservatory at each side of the front of the house where grape vines and moss roses flourished and on the main wall, Wisteria grew.
There were two cobbled courtyards and a cobbled path which went around the back of the house connecting up to the servants quarters. A kitchen (of which there were two) looked out on to the cobbled courtyard. There would seem to have been a mass of passages everywhere leading off from the main hallway, although the slate floors made everything feel cold. There were two indoor gardens, one being a Japanese garden. The large ballroom was on the left-hand side of the house and had large French windows from which could be seen beautiful plants and climbers growing outside.
The servants quarters were at the rear of the property, together with an old round summerhouse. At the front of the house was the top lawn that had a very large fishpond, which probably contained carp, and a fountain in the centre. Several steps took you down to the lower lawn where there was a beautiful Walnut tree. The whole house was set in beautiful parkland with Manadon woods just to one side. In these woods were several cottages and one of the ladies who lived there said that she had helped at the big house for Balls, etc. and had seen ladies arriving in carriages. Apparently, there was a royal blue carpet and the women would come down the oak staircase in beautiful gowns.
Ghost stories are often associated with houses and Widey Court is no exception to this. One such story was that once a year a carriage and pair, with a ‘Lady in Grey’ would drive across the front and all around the back of the house and then disappear.
A previous Headmaster of Widey Court Primary School, Mr. Geoff Burley, was very interested in the history of the House and grounds and was fortunate in obtaining the 171h Century doorway of Widey which now stands around the entrance of the School’s swimming pool.
In April 1985 four stone gate columns that had stood at the demolished Widey Lodge were re-erected with replica gates near the Manadon roundabout on the opening of the then new Parkway. “Widey Court Walk” was officially opened by the Lord Mayor of Plymouth on the 29th April 1985 and so there still remains a reminder of Widey left for all to see.
My grateful thanks to my Mother and some of my Aunts who had lived at Widey and have given me much information on this subject.