Essex is a county steeped in history.
With its locality to London and the Thames, the county has been an epicentre of English history more than once.
Colchester was once famously the Roman capital of the country, and the oldest wooden church in the world sits not far from Brentwood.
But up in the north-west of the county stands a stately home so grand it has been given the highest level of protection from Historic England.
Audley End House, near Saffron Walden, Essex, is Grade I listed.
That means it has the same protected status level as Tower Bridge and Liverpool Cathedral.
It was built in the 17th Century, and was so esteemed even then that Member of Parliament and famous plague diarist Samuel Pepys recorded his visit to the building back in 1667.
Here’s the history of a stately home near Saffron Walden that is possibly the most important building in Essex.
Audley End House
Audley End House was built in the 17th Century as a ‘prodigy house’.
These are basically grand homes built by noble and rich families at the time which couldn’t be called palaces because they weren’t home to royalty.
But in every other sense of the word, they were a palace, on par with any other home in the country in terms of beauty, space and price.
It replaced a monastery, which was first converted into the Audley Inn.
This building would become owned by King Henry VIII, and would often be frequented by him as well as his daughter Elizabeth I during her reign.
Eventually, the Inn was knocked down by its owner in the 1600s, Thomas Howard the 1st Earl of Suffolk.
He built the mansion to entertain King James I, much of which is in the same state it is today.
However, the money used to build the home exceeded £200,000, or more than £55m today.
Part of this money was thought to have belonged to James I himself, and the Howard family were arrested for embezzlement and sent to the Tower of London.
A hefty fee secured their release, but Thomas Howard was disgraced and died in Audley End House later on in the century.
Charles II bought the house, enabling it to briefly become a Royal Palace in the late 1600s, but it was eventually returned to the Earl of Suffolk’s decedents.
It was passed through generations and frequently sold between noble families until it fell into the hands of the Braybrooke family in the 19th Century.
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The building had an interesting history in the 20th Century, when it was offered up to the British military to help with the Dunkirk evacuations in 1941.
It was initially turned down because of the lack of facilities in the building.
However, later on in the war it was requisitioned for military training and storage, much like other stately homes across England.
After the war in 1948 it sold to the Ministry of Works, who would become English Heritage, who own it to this day.
What did Samuel Pepys say?
The famous diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned Audley End several times in his diary.
Samuel Pepys was an early Member of Parliament for Harwich between 1685 and 1689, as well as the administrator of the navy of England.
He became famous for his diary, which kept an in depth recollection of life in England in the 1600s.
It captured events like the Great Fire of London and the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the city.
However, it also captured lighter moments, like his visits to Audley End home.
His first visit to the house captured in his diary was in February 1660, where he appeared to have a great time admiring the property, as well as drinking and playing a musical instrument called a flageolette.
Pepys wrote: “We set up our horses, and took the master of the house to shew (show) us Audley End House, who took us on foot through the park, and so to the house, where the housekeeper shewed (showed) us all the house, in which the stateliness of the ceilings, chimney-pieces, and form of the whole was exceedingly worth seeing.
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“He took us into the cellar, where we drank most admirable drink, a health to the King. Here I played on my flageolette, there being an excellent echo.”
On October 8, 1667, he returned to Audley End on horse back with a number of other noblemen at the time, and his opinions of the building in this state seemed to have changed.
He wrote: “The house indeed do appear very fine” but criticised the appearance of the house’s ceilings and staircases adding: “Particularly the ceilings are not so good as I always took them to be…and though the figure of the house without be very extraordinary good, yet the stayre-case (staircase) is exceeding poor.”
The house today
The house stands today a few miles from Saffron Walden, and is so established that the nearby Audley End train station is named after it.
The current building and gardens are thought to be much smaller than they were in the building’s heydey, after a series of demolitions in the 1700s, but are still an absolutely gorgeous sight.
Today, the building is open to the public to visit, with many rooms and wings inside the building still in immaculate condition.
Most of the rooms inside today look as they did when they were redesigned by the third Lord Braybrooke in the 1820s.
The House and its gardens have been used as locations in Netflix’s The Crown, as well as episodes of shows like Flog It! and Antiques Roadshow.
The gardens are often transformed to hold music events, with artists like James Blunt and Van Morrison set to play there later this year.
However, for much of the year, the house remains a tourist attraction with an immense amount of history.