BRADGATE PARK – A Historical Gem
This former Medieval Deer Park was created from the wild and extensive Charnwood Forest and first enclosed as a hunting park over 750 years ago. No record exists of the exact date when the Park was enclosed but it was certainly before 1240. Herds of red and fallow deer still graze in Bradgate Park today.
For many centuries, it formed part of the Leicestershire Estates of the Grey family and the Earls of Stamford. Even now, though only six miles from the centre of Leicester, certain areas look much as it must have done in the Middle Ages.
Today this unique area extends to some 830 acres and is a location rich in history and natural history. It combines extensive sweeps of parkland within a spectacular landscape of huge areas of grass, bracken covered slopes, rock outcrops (which include some of the oldest rocks in England), areas of marsh, network of paths and concessionary horse tracks, veteran trees and small woodlands, nationally famous herds of red & fallow deer and the incised valley of the River Lin – which today outfalls into the adjoining Cropston Reservoir.
Other notable features of the Park include the Ruins of Bradgate House – a Tudor mansion (built in the early 16th century) and which was the birthplace and early home of Lady Jane Grey (9 days Queen of England in 1553) and a well known folly known as “Old John Tower” (built around 1784 and standing nearly 700 feet above sea level).
At the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066) when William the Conqueror came to England, Bradgate was part of the waste of Charnwood Forest. It would have been a wild stretch of wooded country, crisscrossed by ancient tracks. These may have been made by the Saxons, Romans and even Druids.
Charnwood was never uniformly forested and the area eventually chosen for enclosure would have been open woodland with much scrub, gorse, bracken, and rock outcrops and suitable for the “chase” and would have become an area reserved for hunting – both for sport and to provide food. The population of the Forest was sparse and it was inhabited by wild boar, red deer and even wolves.
By 1241 Bradgate was enclosed, with a wooden fence, as a deer park and in due course contained both red and fallow deer. At that time the Park was much smaller than the area we know today and its boundaries were progressively extended over the centuries.
In the medieval period Bradgate Park belonged to the Manor of Groby and by 1445 the Estate was owned by the Grey family, influential nobles in Medieval and Tudor England, who married into the Royal family. Sir John Grey of Groby married Elizabeth Woodville and upon his death, she married Edward IV. Sir Thomas Grey, her eldest son by her first marriage (and created first Marquis of Dorset in 1475) started to build Bradgate House (one of the first unfortified brick-built great country houses in England) around 1499. The first phase of construction (contemporary with Hampton Court) was completed by his son, in about 1520. Further additions were made over the following century.
Henry Grey, the grandson of Sir Thomas, was created Duke of Suffolk in 1551 and he and his wife, Lady Frances Brandon had three daughters, Jane, Katherine and Mary. These children, on their mother’s side, were related to Henry VIII, being the grandchildren of Princess Mary, Henry’s younger sister. Lady Jane, the eldest daughter, was born at Bradgate in October 1537 and spent the greater part of her short life there.
In May 1553, Jane Grey married Lord Guilford Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland. Following the death of her cousin, Edward VI, she was proclaimed Queen of England, on 9th July 1553, only to lose the crown nine days later – having been overthrown by Mary I. She was executed for treason early the next year, on 12th February 1554. Legend says that the foresters at Bradgate “beheaded” Oak trees in the Park as a mark of respect. Pollarded Oaks, of a great age, are still to be seen at Bradgate today.
Jane’s father was also executed in the same year and the Estate passed to the crown. In 1563 the family regained favour and Groby manor including Bradgate, was restored to Jane’s uncle, Lord John Grey of Pirgo.
In the 17th Century, the Greys, through marriage, became associated with the Stamford family and Bradgate House continued to be occupied until the death of the 2nd Earl of Stamford in 1719. Afterwards, it fell into disrepair, by 1790 was a ruin, and has since crumbled away to its present remains.
In 1928, the Leicestershire Estate of the Earls of Stamford, of which Bradgate formed part, was sold by the then owner, Mrs. Grey (niece of the 7th Earl of Stamford). The late Mr. Charles Bennion, a local industrialist, purchased Bradgate Park from Mrs. Grey and presented it, in trust, so that it might be preserved in its natural state for the quiet enjoyment of the people of Leicestershire.
Since 1928, other land has either been donated to or purchased by the Trust. One important donation was Swithland Wood, which was generously given by the Rotary Club of Leicester in 1931.
Today, the Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood Country Park Estate totals 1,263 acres and is administered, as an independent Registered Charity, by a Committee of Management known as the “Bradgate Park Trust”.
The greater part of the Estate is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Estate, which welcomes approaching 900,000 visitors a year, was designated a Country Park by the Countryside Commission in 1970.
The former slate quarry in Swithland Wood
A wide range of publications giving more information on Bradgate Park, its history, the Grey Family and general visitor information are on sale at the Visitor Centre and Country Park Shop.
LEICESTERSHIRE YEOMANRY WAR MEMORIAL
The background to this striking landmark, those whom it commemorates and the date of the next Service are explained in a separate section under “Visitor Information”.
Information on how Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood became a Country Park and background details to the generosity of the gifts of Mr. Charles Bennion and the Rotary Club of Leicester are given in a separate section under “Visitor Information.”
Model of Lady Jane Grey in the Visitor Centre display
BRADGATE HOUSE AND GREY FAMILY
The Ruins of this former magnificent Tudor house are reminiscent of Hampton Court. Bradgate House was, in 1537, the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey, the future nine days Queen of England. Lady Jane was the eldest of three daughters of Henry Grey, Third Marquis of Dorset and later Duke of Suffolk and of his wife, Lady Frances Brandon who was the daughter of Princess Mary, youngest sister of Henry VIII. Lady Jane spent the greater part of her short life at Bradgate.
Bradgate House was one of the earliest unfortified mansions to be built in England and one of the finest brick houses of its period.
It was started by Thomas Grey, 1st Marquis of Dorset, in about 1499 and after he died, completed by his son, also Thomas, by 1520. Further additions were made some 20 years later and also in the 1600’s.
The completed house consisted of two main storeys with attics and was about 200 feet in length from east to west with two wings joined by a Great Hall and parlour on the north side. It was built of bricks, made nearby in the Park, together with sandstone corner stones on the towers, doorways and window openings.
The west wing was occupied by the great kitchen, bakery and servants’ quarters. The east wing contained the Chapel and the family apartments.
The house suffered damage when the first wife of the 2nd Earl of Stamford set fire to the north-west Tower but it was repaired in time for the visit, in 1696, of William III.
Bradgate House ceased to be lived in after the death of the 2nd Earl in 1719. By 1790 it was in ruin and slowly falling into decay through neglect and vandalism. In recent years the decay has been arrested and the Ruins are now preserved by the Bradgate Park Trust.
Fallow deer grazing in front of the Ruins of Bradgate House
Today the outline of this once magnificent house can still clearly be seen. The dwarf remains of walls, ruined towers - including Lady Jane Grey’s Tower, cellars, drainage channels, kitchen fireplace, bread ovens and much more. The only building that remains entire is the Chapel. However, it has been much defaced and altered over the years. It does, however, contain a fine alabaster tomb, a memorial to Sir Henry Grey, (who was created Baron, First Lord Grey of Groby by James I in 1603) and his wife, Anne Windsor. Sir Henry Grey was cousin of Lady Jane Grey and grandfather to another Henry Grey who was created First Earl of Stamford in 1628.
Adjacent to the House Ruins is the site of the famous Tilt Yard (used for Jousting), subsequently altered to a formal garden and now grassed over.
The Ruins of Bradgate House are situated in the centre of the Park, alongside the tarmac carriageway. For opening times, see separate page on the “Ruins”.
SWITHLAND WOOD – A special area of Ancient Woodland.
This extensive area of beautiful Woodland – continuously wooded for very many centuries and with parts being a remnant of the original Charnwood Forest Oak Woods. Swithland Wood is managed as part of the Bradgate Country Park Estate.
This attractive Ancient Wood consists principally of mature Oak along with Birch, Small-leaved Lime and Alder trees with hazel coppice, which support a rich and varied flora and fauna, including a wide ranging bird population, great variety of butterflies and moths and wonderful diverse array of wild flowers and ferns.
The great richness of Swithland Wood’s flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi means that it ranks highly amongst nationally important woodland areas.
Virtually all of the 146 acres are open to visitors to walk through and enjoy this special area of Woodland. There is an extensive network of waymarked footpaths and bridleways throughout the Wood and car parks on both the North and South boundaries.
The Wood contains outcrops of interesting late Precambrian rocks – over 500 million years old. These blue/grey to green rocks were used as roofing slate and building stone in Roman times. Quarrying was re-established by 1260 and continued on a small scale for the next few centuries. Stone and slate were used on many important Leicestershire buildings as well as being made into headstones, sundials, sinks and fireplaces. More industrial extraction of slate took place in the 1800’s with large and deep Slate Pits being formed both on the north boundary of the Wood and at the Great Pit in the centre of the Wood. Extraction was abandoned in 1887 when the Great Pit had reached a depth of some 190 feet. The abandoned quarries quickly flooded, creating attractive tree-surrounded features. Sub Aqua Diving permitted, by authorised Clubs, in the centre Quarry by prior arrangements.
The Annual "Bluebell Service" is held in Swithland Wood in Spring to celebrate the spectacular spring displays of Bluebells which carpet parts of the Wood. The Service is held just to the north of the former quarry in the centre of the Wood.
Ths year's service - Sunday 28th April 2012 at 3pm. All welcome.
See also Flora, Fauna & Geology section.