From Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales, Their Legendary Lore and Popular History, by John Timbs, re-edited, revised, and enlarged by Alexander Gunn, Volume II.; Frederick Warne and Co.; London; pp. 68-70.
Bisham, anciently Bisteham or Bustleham, the most interesting house in Berkshire, is situated about four and a half miles north of Maidenhead, and one mile from Great Marlow, in Bucks, from which it is separated by the river Thames.
The manor was given by William the Conqueror to Henry de Ferrars, whose grandson, Robert, Earl Ferrars, gave it in the reign of King Stephen to the Knights Templars, who are said to have had a preceptory there. After the suppression of that order, it was successively in the possession of Thomas Earl of Lancaster, Hugh le Despencer, and Eubulo L’Estrange. In 1335 it was granted by Edward III. to William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, who two years afterwards procured a royal licence for founding a monastery at Bisham and endowing it with lands of 300l. per annum.
Within the walls of this convent were interred William, Earl of Salisbury, son of the founder, who distinguished himself at the battle of Poictiers; John, Earl of Salisbury, who, confederating against King Henry IV., was slain at Cirencester in 1401; Thomas, Earl of Salisbury, the famous hero of Henry V.’s reign, who lost his life at the siege of Orleans in 1428; Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury and Warwick, who was beheaded at York in 1460, for his 69 adherence to the house of Lancaster; Richard Neville, the great Earl of Warwick and Salisbury, and his brother John, Marquis of Montague, who both fell at the battle of Barnet, 1470; and the unfortunate Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, son of the Duke of Clarence, who, bred up from his cradle in prison, was beheaded in 1499, for attempting to taste the sweets of liberty. Most of the above-mentioned illustrious characters had splendid monuments in the conventual church; but these were all destroyed after the dissolution of the abbey, without regard to the rank or famed exploits of the deceased — not even excepting the tomb of Salisbury, “The mirror of all martial men, who in thirteen battles overcame, and first trained Henry V. to the wars.”
King Edward VI. granted the site of Bisham Abbey to his father’s repudiated wife Anne of Cleves, who having surrendered it to the Crown again in 1552, it was then given up to Sir Philip Hobby. This personage was the last English Papal Legate at Rome, where he died, and his brother, Sir Thomas, was ambassador in France, where he died also. The widow of the latter had both their bodies brought back to Bisham, and raised a magnificent monument to their memory. This monument, still to be seen in the church, was inscribed with three epitaphs, in Greek, Latin, and English respectively, and all of them composed by the widow herself — the most learned lady of the period. One of her epitaphs concludes with the lines —
“ Give me, O God ! a husband like unto Thomas ;
Or else restore me to my beloved Thomas. ”
This prayer had its answer in her marriage, after the lapse of a year, with Sir Thomas Russel.
In this ancient house the princess Elizabeth, who was committed to the care of the two sisters of Lady Hobby, resided during part of three years, and at this time the bow window in the council chamber was constructed for her pleasure, and a daïs erected sixteen inches above the floor. This portion of the great Princess’s life does not appear to have been spent unhappily, judging from the welcome she gave to Sir Thomas when he first went to Court after she became Queen. “If I had a prisoner whom I wanted to be most carefully watched,” said the Queen, “I should entrust him to your charge ; if I had a prisoner whom I wished to be most tenderly treated, I should entrust him to your care.”
The Rev. Sir Philip Hobby, Bart., the last heir male of the family, 70 died in 1766, when this estate went to the Mills in Hampsire, who were connected with the Hobbys by marriage. Bisham Abbey is now the seat of George Vansittart, Esq.
“The scenery of this beautiful spot is well known from the pictures of De Wint and other water-colour artists, who have portrayed the broad sweep of the transparent river, the gigantic trees, the church and the abbey, with its mossy roof, projecting oriels, and tall tower, in every effect of cloud or sunshine.”
Of the building as it at present stands, the octagonal tower, the hall, and the pointed doorway are part of the original foundation of Stephen. The rest of the building, which is a fine specimen of the Tudor style, was built by the Hobbys.
The hall, which was beautifully restored in 1859, has a fine ancient lancet widow of three lights at one end, and a dark oak gallery at the other. “Here is a picture of Lady Hobby, with a very white face and hands, dressed in the coif, weeds, and wimple then allowed to a baronet’s widow. In this dress she is still supposed to haunt a bedroom, where she appears with a self-supported basin moving before her, in which she is perpetually trying to wash her hands. The legend is that because her child, William Hobby, could not write without making blots, she beat him to death. It is remarkable that twenty years ago, in altering the window shutter, a quantity of children’s copy-books of the time of Elizabeth were discovered, pushed into the rubble between the joists of the floor, and that one of these was a copy-book which answered exactly to the story, as if the child could not write a single line without a blot.”
Behind the tapestry in one of the bedrooms a secret room was discovered with a fireplace, the chimney of which is curiously connected with that of the hall, for the sake of concealing the smoke.
According to tradition, Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, was going to the Crusades. He came with all his train for last prayers at the abbey he had founded; and his daughter, then at the convent at Marlow, came hither with all her nuns to meet him. A squire who had been in love with her before, seized the opportunity for elopement, and they escaped in a boat, but were taken at Marlow. She was sent back to her convent and he was shut up in the tower, whence he tried to escape by means of a rope which he made from his clothes torn into shreds. The rope broke and he was dreadfully injured, and was taken into the abbey, where he afterwards became a monk.