Firle Place, East Sussex

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Firle Place, East Sussex


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


One of the Gage family ended his life as a grandee of Spain after vainly attempting to buy the throne of Poland, and another gave the family name to the greengage variety of plum. Or so the stories go. General Thomas Gage (1721-87) was certainly the British commander-in-chief in North America at the outbreak of the American War of Independence. He brought his beautiful American wife home and Firle Place draws many American visitors today, Any misgivings they may feet about a place linked with someone on the `wrong' side seem to be swept instantly away by the immemorial charm of the Georgian house with its park, attendant village and stumpy-towered church below the South Downs.

The Gages have been at West Firle since shortly before America was discovered. William Gage from Gloucestershire married the heiress of the Bolneys of Firle and in 1487, according to tradition, they began to build the original Tudor mansion. Their only son, Sir John Gage (1479-1556), in his teens when his fattier died, was put in charge of the Duke of Buckingham, who trained him for life as a soldier and at court, where the young man became the lifelong friend of Henry VIII. Tears stood in the royal eyes when they parted once after a tiff, but they soon made up and Gage was the king's loyal henchman. Given the Garter in 1532, he was later Constable of the Tower of London. He commanded the English invasion of Scotland which led to the battle of Solway Moss and the death of James V of Scotland in 1542,

Sir John was by all accounts a tough egg. The fact that he was a staunch Roman Catholic did not stop him profiting from the dissolution of the monasteries, but after Henry VIII's death he fell out with the contenders for power under Edward VI. This did him no harm with the future `Bloody' Mary and after she came to the throne, he was one of her inner circle of advisers, As Constable of the Tower, he presided over the execution of Lady Jane Grey and when the young Princess Elizabeth was sent to the Tower in 1555, she was treated kindly at first, until Sir John intervened, curtailed her privileges and stopped her regular promenades on the battlements. He died at Firle, leaving a will inscribed on an enormous roll which mentions his forty feather beds and ,mine own tent for the field with the timber for the same' as well as a field kitchen and a timber and canvas stable.

Sir John was followed at Firle by his son, Sir Edward Gage (died 1568), another staunch Roman Catholic who has been called `the least engaging' Gage. As High Sheriff of Sussex, he burned thirteen men and four women as Protestants in Lewes. He arrested one of them in 1554 in a house in Brighthelmstone, a Flemish brewer named Carver, who was burned alive in a barrel in Lewes High Street, screaming vengefully at the goggling spectators that the tables would be turned and they would all burn in hell for eternity. Lewes today is the only place left in Britain where the pope is burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day.

Subsequent generations of Gages remained faithful Roman Catholics and suffered for it in their turn, if not as drastically. They paid heavy fines as recusants, but no objection seems to have been raised to their creation of a Gage chapel in the parish church, with effigies of Sir John and his wife, and brasses of other Catholic Gages.

The Gages bought a baronetcy from James I and a century or so later, in 1730, Sir William Gage (1695-1744), 7th Baronet, finally conformed to the Church of England the was MP for Seaford and a prominent figure in the history of Sussex cricket. He took his own teams to play in Lewes and Chichester and in 1735 he captained the Gentlemen of Sussex against the Gentlemen of Kent at Sevenoaks.

Sir William never married and on his death Firle went to a cousin, Thomas Gage (died 1754), who had also renounced his ancestral Catholicism, though he returned to it before his death. He married a rich Gloucestershire heiress, Benedicta Hall, of Highmeadow in the Forest of Dean. …

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