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Richard and Maud Basset founded the Augustinian Priory of St. John the Baptist in an area which was a minor Royal forest. According to Pevsner, this occurred between 1119 and 1125.  The name ‘Launde’ is Old French for ‘glade’ or ‘pasture’ and indicates a clearing in the woods. 

The landscape at Launde was a complicated one – reflecting the economic structure at the time.  It was a minor royal forest.  In 1235, the Abbot requested permission to create a deer park, as the forest was contracting in size.  In 1248 permission was awarded and the forest continued as a park until the dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century. 

Park Wood was the site of the park, which extended to West Wood.  This remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Earthwork banks to the west, north and south of the house may be associated with the medieval deer park. Some fishponds and a water ‘tank’ at the top of the hill above the priory date from the medieval period. 

In the period prior to the Dissolution, there is evidence that Thomas Cromwell had an interest in the priory and 1539, it was surrendered to the Dissolution Commissioners.  In April 1540, in his 'Remembrances', Cromwell made a note:  'Myself for Launde' but by June he had been imprisoned and was executed on 28 July 1540.  The possessions at Launde were listed as 'Manor of Launde with the site and precincts of the priory, desmesne lands, a watermill, tithes, etc, there.'

Perhaps surprisingly, his son, Gregory, was granted the property in 1541. Possibly his marriage to Elizabeth Seymour, sister of the deceased Queen Jane, meant that he retained royal favour.  In 1551, Gregory died and was buried in Launde Abbey Chapel.  Pevsner describes his monument as 'One of the purest monuments of the early Renaissance in England'. 

In 1586, the Whatborough map shows a U-shaped house, closed by a wall or fence. This was probably based on the layout of the former cloister.

Cromwells lived at Launde until the end of the 16th century and then, for the next three centuries, the house passed through the hands of various owners.  The first were the Smiths, followed by the Halfords. Pevsner states that the present house is early 17th century and it was probably built around 1611 for the then owner, William Halford.  There is also a mention of two rabbit warrens from this period.

In the early 18th century, the owners were the Clarkes. Estate details of 1728 mention an orchard, gardens, courtyards, one dovecote and nine fishponds – well-stocked and in good repair.

By the middle of the century, the estate was owned by the Simpsons.  A valuation 1765 describes it as: 'A large substantial house built chiefly of stone and slated, bow windows at the front.  A chapel adjoining to the house, good stables, coachhouse, a large barn, Dovehouse (again), very convenient out-houses all built of the same materials.  Valued at £300'. 

Earthworks to the west front of the house may represent the remains of a 17th-century formal garden.  (Alternatively, they may be the remains of earlier buildings associated with the Priory.)  There is a terrace which has been highlighted in an earthworks survey.  It has been suggested that avenues of trees and bushes, with formal ponds, may have extended from the house. 

There are other outlying earthworks, including a possible prospect mound and a windmill mound. 

The stable block was built during the mid-18th century: 'for eight horses with cottages for grooms at each end'.

By 1800, the garden was visited by the historian, John Nichols, when no traces of a formal garden remained.  Several illustrations show the front façade of the house, pre-dating the construction of the ha-ha.  Another engraving shows the chapel with an area of water in the location of the present-day sunken garden. 

In the early 19th century, the ha-ha, icehouse, kitchen garden wall and greenhouse were all constructed.

In 1828, Mary Finch Simpson married Edward Dawson (1802-1859) of Long Whatton, bringing the Launde Abbey estate to her husband.  In 1829, they engaged Thomas Rickman to add service rooms between the two back wings of the house.

The Dawsons continued to own the estate throughout the 19th century.  The garden was in its heyday during this period.  Mature trees in the garden, such as wellingtonia, copper beech and cedar of Lebanon appear to date from the second half of the 19th century.  There are believed to have been eight gardeners employed.  

Edward Dawson was obviously actively involved in the development of the garden and, in 1861, wrote to his brother: 'I am going to begin at once the terrace in front of the house, and I hope by the beginning of May to have it fit to put flowers in.  I am also going to move the drying ground next summer, to the place where the present garden is, and make a flower border similar to the south house…. I am busy moving evergreens now'.    

In 1865, a visitor, Laura de Lisle, records in her diary that she was playing 'croquet all the afternoon'. 

The Ordinance Survey map of 1904 highlights a number of interesting features:  there is a fountain in the area which had been a fishpond when John Nichols visited in 1800 (now a sunken garden).  In 1904 there were also trees recorded in this area.

There is a substantial network of paths throughout the garden, many no longer existing.

There is a circular structure between the house and the stable block (also shown on the 1884 OS map), possibly the dovecote mentioned in 18th-century documentation.  Alternatively, it might be a gas accumulator. 

There are a series of buildings to the north of the kitchen garden, occupying the same position at the glasshouses seen in the 1950 aerial photo.

To the south of the walled garden is a substantial orchard area.  The aerial photos of the late 1940s show that this had declined considerably. 

During this period, John Shillaker was head gardener.  His daughter wrote in 1977: 'the gardens were beautiful in those days.  Father did a lot of carpet bedding and the greenhouses had peaches, grapes, melons and plants of all kinds'.

In 1886, Edward Finch Dawson (1836-1892) leased out Launde Abbey, furnished.  The property continued to be let at various times during the early decades of the 20th century. 

In 1932, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Tate left the Army and took Launde Abbey as a hunting and shooting box.  He wrote that he had three gardeners, so by this time, the gardens were obviously past their peak.  Launde was sub-let during the war years, during which time, paratroopers training for Arnhem also occupied part of the premises.

In 1946, the Dawsons put the house on the market and advertised it in Country Life. 

The sale details of 1946 describe 'well-wooded parkland…. Pleasure grounds, hard tennis court.  Walled kitchen garden, Orchard, Parkland. About 45 acres'.

In 1954, Launde was on the market again.  The sale particulars mention 'lawns, flower and rose beds and walled kitchen garden'.

In 1957 Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Coleman purchased Launde Abbey and presented it to the diocese of Leicester.  They paid for the necessary conversion works to make it into the Leicester Diocesan Retreat House and Conference Centre. 

In 1986, the stable block was converted for residential use.

  

Site timeline

1119 to 1125: Richard and Maud Basset founded the Augustinian Priory of St. John the Baptist in an area which was a minor Royal forest.

1235: The Abbot requested permission to create a deer park as the Forest was contracting in size.

1248: Permission was awarded and the park continued until the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

1539: Launde Priory was dissolved and the property was acquired by Thomas Cromwell for his personal use.

1541: Following Cromwell?s execution in 1540, Launde was granted to his son, Gregory, who began the process of transforming it from a priory to a gentleman?s country house.

1551: Gregory Cromwell and his wife, Elizabeth (sister to Jane Seymour) made Launde their home and Gregory was buried there in 1551.

1586: In the 'Whatborough' map commissioned by the Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, a sketch of Launde appears, showing a U-shaped arrangements of buildings, round a central courtyard, closed by a wall or fence. It is likely that this was re-working of the cloister and that many of the priory buildings were retained as part of the post-dissolution house.

1611: The house was owned by William Halford and was substantially remodeled at this time, forming a typical H-shape and using elements of the former priory buildings. The principal west front dates from this period.

1728: A rental schedule of the estate identifies 'The House, Stables and Coach House, Barns and two tenements, orchard and gardens, courtyards? chapelyard by estimation about 9 acres? with one dovecoat (sic) ? nine well-stocked fishponds in good repair?.'

1765: A valuation of the estate mentions 'A large substantial house, built chiefly of stone and slated, bow windows in ye front. A Chappell adjoining to ye house, Good Stables, Coachhouse, a Large Barn, Dovehouse, very convenient Out-houses all built of ye same materials. Valued at #300.'

1800: An illustration in John Nichols 'History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester' shows a fishpond in the location of the present-day sunken garden at the back of the house.

1828: Mary Finch Simpson, daughter of John Finch Simpson of Launde, married Edward Dawson of Long Whatton, bringing the Launde Estate to her new husband. The ha-ha, icehouse, walled kitchen garden and cast-iron framed glasshouse are all attributable to this period.

1829: Thomas Rickman added service rooms between the wings at the back of the house.

1866 to 1899: This period would appear to have been the heyday for the garden. Existing mature trees date from this time. There are believed to have been eight gardeners employed.

1904: An OS map shows a fountain in the sunken garden, which had been a fishpond in 1810. A geophysical and building survey (1989-1992) shows a circular feature in this location, possibly a flower bed which surrounded the fountain. A circular building appears in the location of the present day `Oxford and Cambridge? pavilion. This might have been the former Dovecot or, alternatively, a gas accumulator. The map shows a network of paths throughout the garden, which are no longer in existence. A substantial orchard area is shown, outside the walled garden.

1932: Launde was leased by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Tait as a hunting box. Only three gardeners were employed.

1947: Sale details appeared in Country Life, with a description of the garden: 'Pleasure grounds, hard tennis court, walled kitchen garden. Orchard. Parkland. About 45 acres with vacant possession'.

1948 to 1950: Various aerial photographs show the grounds in a poor state of maintenance - unsurprising in the post-war period.

1957: The last private owners of Launde presented it to the Diocese of Leicester to become a retreat house and conference centre.

People associated with this site

Architect: Thomas Rickman the Elder (born 08/07/1776 died 04/01/1841)

Features

icehouse

Feature created: 1800 to 1820

Probably early 19th century. Brick. Built into the natural slope above the lake, with now roofless west-facing entrance passage and outer retaining walls. Segmentally arched opening to earth-covered chamber with high threshold now damaged. The domed cavity-walled brick chamber is egg-shaped inside and about 14 foot in diameter.
The icehouse is no longer part of the Launde Estate and is on a neighbouring property.

Designation status: English Heritage Listed Building Designation Grade II Designation Reference 190577

greenhouse

Feature created: 1790 to 1830

Late 18th to early 19th century. Brick plinth with stone coping, cast-iron and glass. Long lean-to roof now of plastic corrugated sheeting. At the lowest point at the front there are 20 small sections, each of 10 panes with cast-iron glazing bars. The sides and partition walls have multiple narrow uprights with overlap-
ping panes between. Part-glazed doors. Interior: the main struts of the roof frame remain and are supported on very slender cast-iron columns. Brick benches and planters and stone and tile floors. Three niches in the main garden wall which retains its hypocaust heating tunnels at this point.

Designation status: English Heritage Listed Building Designation Grade II Designation Reference 190575

bothy

There are two remaining bothies on the outside north wall of the kitchen garden. They originally extended further along the wall but were demolished in the late 20th century, as there were badger setts beneath them. The listing of the glasshouse inside the kitchen garden states that the bothies are not of special architectural interest.

dovecote

This no longer exists, but is mentioned twice in estate papers, once in 1728 and again in 1765. The 1884 and 1904 Ordinance Survey maps show a circular structure to the south of the service courtyard. In the Historic Building Assessment produced by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services in 2005, it is suggested that this is about the right size to be a gas accumulator, providing lighting for the house, but that a dovecote might be an alternative interpretation of this circular structure. The assessment suggests that a position closer to the stable block would be more usual, and the circular form is a characteristic typical of medieval dovecotes, in which case, earlier documentary references might be expected.

pavilion

Feature created: 1920 to 1939

The Oxford and Cambridge, a wooden building dating from the 1920s or 1930s, was originally a changing room for the tennis court. During the 1950s it provided accommodation for two ordinands training for the priesthood ? one from Oxford, one from Cambridge. This gave it the name that is used today. It is currently situated near to the south-west corner of the house and is used as a garden store. It is to be moved to a secluded position, near to the Walled Garden, where, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, it will be converted to become a self-contained hermitage for visitors to the Abbey.

fishpond

Fishponds are mentioned at various times throughout the history of Launde. In 1728, there were nine 'well-stocked and in good repair'.
John Nichols? description of the engravings in his history of 1800 states that ?in both a very fine piece of water is particularly shewn, which has a pleasing effect when approaching this place from Withcote?.
Currently, there are a series of ponds to the north-east of the house. Some were previous infilled but `restored? in the late 20th century. There is a pond and well to the west of the stable block, with evidence of other infilled fishponds to the north and west. The sunken garden immediately to the rear of the house occupies the site of yet another infilled pond.

tennis lawn

This no longer exists but was located between the house and the stables. Aerial photographs show its position and that it still existed in the 1940s. It is not known when it was removed.

stable block

Feature created: 1740 to 1760

Mid-18th century. Very finely coursed ironstone, almost ashlar work, the hipped roof of Swithland slate to the front slopes, Welsh slate behind. Outer single-storey hipped wings, the main range two storied with central pedimented gable, containing shallow segmental arch with voussoirs and 6-light sash window above. String course emphasises gable which has clock in apex. Four bays to each side, with outer 4-light wood mullioned and transomed windows with single opening lights. Inner doors with overlight. Upper 6-light sash windows. All openings have stone lintels. End bays, behind the low projecting wings, are cottages entered from rear. That to south has a rear wing with two 2-light casement windows to each floor, and inner doorway. Rear windows are largely
concrete splayed openings with iron glazing bars but to each side of the door is a larger 9-light wood mullioned and transomed window. One upper loading door to each side. In 1986, the stable block was converted for residential use.

Designation status: English Heritage Listed Building Designation Grade II Designation Reference 190575

ha-ha

Feature created: 1800 to 1830

Ha-ha and urns: early 19th century. Coursed ironstone rubble with brick coping, forming a curving terrace in front of the house, and capped by a series of ornamental stone urns.
The University of Leicester Archaeological Services has carried out (2007) an archaeological evaluation of the ha-ha, to inform restoration plans. This revealed that the western range of the priory lay further to the west than had originally been thought ? approximately on the line of the ha-ha. The ha-ha ditch was found to be relatively shallow and not as silted as had been expected.

Designation status: English Heritage Listed Building Designation Grade II Designation Reference 190573

Plantings

Fine mature trees in garden to rear of house include Sequoia gigantea (wellingtonia), Cedrus libani (cedar of Lebanon), Fagus sylvatica purpurea (copper beech).

Planted: 1860 to 1890