EAST HERTFORDSHIRE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOCIETY TRANSATIONS 1911
HIGH DOWN, PIRTON
High Down, marked on old maps “High Down House” was built by Sir Thomas Docwra, elected Lord Grand Prior of the Knights of St John Baptist of Jerusalem, in England by bull of the Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson, dated Rhodes, August 6, 1501. Sir Thomas built High Down in 1504, the same year in which he finished the Priory at Clerkenwell and built its south gateway. He was the elder son of Richard Docwra, of Bradeville, co York, and of Alice, daughter of Thomas Greene, of Gressingham, co York.
High Down in built of local chalk or clunch, dug from the south-west side of the hill where is now a chalk-pit by Wellbury Cottages, on the roadside from Hitchin to Hexton. Old, thin bricks are to be seen at some of the corners of the house and in the doorways of the interior. The roof is tiled. The chimneys have been repaired in their original shapes so far as is known. The foundations were laid in the excavated side of the hilltop, the farthest point of a spur of the Chiltern Hills : 51 degrees, 57’40”, long, 0 degrees 20’0”, at a sea level 421:374, one mile to the south of Pirton Church. Some of the walls are 4 feet in thickness. The hill bears the name of “Prior’s Hill”, and the field to the north-west, immediately opposite the courtyard entrance, that of “Chapel Close”.
The chief entrance was through the gateway and courtyard. One side of the courtyard is formed by the house, a second by rooms connected with the house, a third by the stable lofts and rooms, and the fourth by a brick wall.
The basement is composed of two rooms in the front, looking north-east, kitchen and servants hall; four cellars and a central passage hall. The rough-hewn oak roof-tree stands at the head of the staircases. The house is supplied with water from springs in the clay top of the hill brought to the corner of the kitchen through several old conduit wells whose quaint, vaulted roofs show their age. In the same corner is the opening to a subterranean passage, said to have connected High Down with the Old Hall at Pirton built by Thomas Docwra, great-grandnephew of Sir Thomas the Prior, in 1609. He bought the Manor of Pirton in 1611, from Edward Marrow (Clutterbuck, 111, 121). This passage may have been a secret hiding place. In the large kitchen chimney is a space in which a man could be easily hidden. In the kitchen is an elaborate charcoal-fed appliance for cooking.
The staircase leads from the courtyard door into the middle of the hall that runs the length of the house on the first floor, parallel with the two chief rooms at the front, north-east of the house. This hall ends in a square porch and door, now used as the front door. It has, like its fellow opening from the courtyard, the original bolts, lock and place for the bar. The porch has no cellar under it. The door opened on to a bowling green. The outline of a second bowling green is easily noticeable in the meadow above. The two front rooms and the hall are panelled with oak. In the larger window seat in the drawing-room the late Mr Birket Foster, R.A., made many of his woodcuts. At the end of the drawing room is a small room with a mullioned window looking into the yard. Drawing and dining-rooms are connected by a double door. A third sitting room, at the foot of the staircase, has the only oriel window, looking into the yard. The rest of this floor is occupied by two pantries and a coal-cellar, probably originally one room. The cellar has a stone mullioned window. On the next floor many of the rooms connect one with the other in one there is a rough-hewn beam and an old fireplace. The only alterations, so far as is known, was the cutting off from two rooms a low passage, the adding of a back staircase into the pantry and the filling in of the hatch into the powdering-room.
Though the rooms appear in most cases to be unceiled there is roof-room to shelter one hundred men with ease, as the gables are double gables. Mantelpieces and grates have been fixed in front of the original stone fire-places.
Over the porch-room, the haunted room is a small roof-chamber that was discovered in 1878 by a bricklayer falling through the tiles. To his relief he found a floor beneath him. It was very much perished. In one of the inner corners the remains of a turret stair were seen. The small window over the front doorway had been closed up. It was reopened and the room is used as a box-room, access to it being through a trap-door.
A cavalier of the name of Goring, when wounded sought and obtained shelter in the house. After some time his whereabouts being suspected, the house was to be searched. He was hidden in the hollow of the large wych elm outside the gateway of late years the tree has lost two large branches and small boughs. He was discovered by Cromwell’s soldiers dragged down and murdered at the foot of the tree, whence he rides headless, on a white palfrey on the night of June 15, to the site of the cell in the grounds of Hitchin Priory.
At High Down, George IV, when Prince Regent, kept some of his racehorses. He often came with Beau Brummel to see them and held high revel in the dining-room. On one occasion he broke the windows by throwing at them the bottles as they were emptied.
High Down is the birth place of the late Frederick Peter Delme-Radcliffe, Esq. The family were residing at High Down whilst alterations were made at Hitchin Priory. He put up kennels and kept hounds where the tarred farm buildings, near the dovecot, now stand.
From the courtyard gateway, a road passed through an avenue of elms towards Tingley Wood and branched off to the north-west. It is marked by oaks and beeches many of which have fallen lately. Entering Wood Lane it turned to the left into the Ickneild Way at the foot of Beacon Hill; to the right it led down to Pirton and the Old Hall. The Daphne, of which there is a considerable quantity in the immediate neighbourhood of the house, marks these lines in the hedgerows. At the repeal of the window tax, 1851, a large number of windows were reopened at High Down. The exterior of the house is interesting for its gables, barge-boards, stone mullioned windows, tiled roof, bricked corners, and the carved escutcheons of the Docwra family of which there are five. That of the builder, Sit Thomas Docwra, is over a room looking into the garden: a chevron engrailed Argent between three plates, each charged with a pallet Gules, a chief of the Order of Knights Hospitallers ; above the coat “Thomas Docwra Miles”, the date, 1504, on either side and the motto “SANE + BORO” below the coat. It was borne by Sir Thomas Docwra, Knight (Miles). The arms and motto show that he was Lord Prior in England of the great priest-military Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, sovereigns of Rhodes and Malta ; instituted about the year 1092, suppressed in England 1559. The arms of the Order were : Gules, a cross Argent. “The Grand Masters quartered the arms of the Order with their personal arms, but the Knights bore its arms on a chief above their personal arms” (see Woodward & Burnett’s Heraldry, vol ii, p. 527). “The motto ‘Sane Baro’ , spelt Bore in English, ‘a Baron indeed,’ is the official motto of the Lord Priors of the order (see the Elvins Handbook of Mottos the following passage from Mill’s History of the Crusades, vol. ii, p. 298, note, may perhaps help to explain the motto: “The Knights (of St John) were of high consequence, for in the time of Edward IV the Priors was the first lay Baron and had a seat in Parliament.” An interesting feature of the motto is that the words “SANE” and “BORO” are separated by an eight-pointed or Maltese cross, a very characteristic device of the Order, though the older and simpler form of the cross was always borne on the arms.
The identity of this Sir Thomas Docwra is established by the Pedigree, Harl. Soc. Publications, vol. xxii, p. 139, in which he is described as “a Prior of St John’s”. He died in 1527.
Of the two coats over the front door, the higher is that of Thomas Docwra, of Putteridge, Esq. J.P. for forty years : High Sheriff of Herts 1581. He died in 1602 at the age of 84, at Putteridge Bury, “by him built”. He was buried in Lilley Church. He was a great-nephew and heir of the Lord Prior. Impaled with his arms – a chevron engrailed Argent, between three plates, each charged with a pallet Gules – are those of his wife, Mildred Hales, of Canterbury, daughter of ——– of Kent, and sister of John Hales, of Coventry, Esq., Clerk of the Hansper. She died at Putteridge, October 18 1596, aged over 70 years. Arms: Hales – Gules three broad arrows erect, points downwards, two and one, Or feathered and barbed Argent. Above the coat is the motto “En Dieu est tout”, and below, the names “Thomas Docwra, Mildred Hales”.
On the garden front of the house is the coat of Thomas Docwra, of Putteridge, Esq., J.P., Sheriff of Herts, 1606, great-grand-nephew of the Lord Prior, and son and heir of Thomas Docwra and Mildred Hales. Impaled with his arms are those of his first wife, Hellen Horsey, daughter of George Horsey, of Digswell, Herts, and of his wife, daughter of Sir Rafe Sadler, Knight, Arms : Azure, three horses’ heads coupled in armour, Or, Horsey, differenced by a crescent. The daughter of this marriage, Jane, married Sir Henry Pakenham, Knight.
The lower carving over the front door is the coat of this same Thomas Docwra, impaled with that of his second wife, Jane Periam, daughter and coheiress of Sir William Periam, Knight, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer 1593-1603. Widow of Thomas Poyntz, only son of Sir Gabriell Poyntz, Knight. Arms: Periam – Gules a herron engrailed between three leopards faces or above the coat is the date 1599, and below it Thomas Docwra, Jane Periam.
Over the gateway, the coat dated 1613, is that of Thomas Docwra, Esq., J.P., of Putteridge. Impaled with his arms are those of Jane, his second wife. Her name, Jane Periam, is to be seen over the sinister side of the shield. Ist and 4th, Periam as above; 2nd, branch Argent, a chevron Azure, between three pears pendant Gules; 3rd Hone Argent, two bars wavy, between three billets fessways Sable. “As the Thomas Docwra, J.P.s of Putteridge, were not Knights, observe that the cross is omitted from the coats of arms.”
This Thomas Docwra, great-grandnephew of the Prior, died March 6, 1620, in the 72nd year of his age, at Putteridge, and was buried in Lilley Church. There is a handsome tomb to his memory.
Jane Periam died March 15, 1645, aged 73 years, after being a widow twenty-five years. She was buried in Pirton Church, where there is a monument to her memory. The epitaph was “by herself composed”, as was evidently that to her husband at Lilley.
Frances, elder daughter of Thomas Docwra and Mildred Hales, his wife, married Peter Tavener, of Hexton. He died April 6, 1601. His wife survived him thirty-five years and died at the age of 79 in 1636. They were buried at Hexton, where there is a monument to their memory. Edward Docwra of Hitchin was the youngest son of Thomas Docwra and Mildred Hales. He married Elizabeth Carpenter. His monument is in Hitchin Church, where he was buried.