We’ve all got heirlooms.
You know: those things of value; silver, or antique, or possibly porcelain; with a hallmark, or a or a Stieff emblem, or the words ‘Wedgewood’ stamped on the base; and every now and then, when the going gets tough, we say to ourselves: if the worst came to the worst, that would fetch a bit.
But we’d never sell. Not really. These things from part of our family folklore.
Still: sometimes, those family pieces have to go.
A more splendid and picturesque palace than Blickling Hall in North Norfolk, it would be hard to find. A Jacobean masterpiece, set like a jewel in the North Norfolk countryside, the real Falstaff is said to have lived there – Sir John Fastolf- and it has the dramatic distinction of being Anne Boleyn’s childhood home.
It is the stuff of fairy tales. A tower fit for imprisoning a princess, and grounds vast enough to accommodate even the tubbiest dragon; a great oak door straight out of folklore, and gardens to charm a wicked witch.
Yet, it is possible that Anne was not even born when the Boleyn family upped sticks from their Norfolk pad and went to Hever Castle in Kent.And the Boleyn’s house was knocked down, in the time of James I, to make way for this splendid confection of towers and bowers.
But walk round the house, built in to a side away from the pomp and splendour of the frontage,and you will find a strange proclamation on the wall.
“Mary Anne, Countess of Buckingham, daughter of Sir Thomas Drury…bequeathed her jewels toward the expense of erecting this front” it proclaims.
And that’s all there is: records tell us so little of the story behind the woman who sold her jewels. Or why she insisted a plaque be erected to the fact.
Mary Ann came into the world in June 1740 with a fine fortune of £50,000. Daughter of the High Sheriff of Essex and Northants, she married an Earl; John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire; lost her jewels to Blickling in 1769; had three daughters, Caroline, Harriet and Sophia; and died at the age of 29.
We know her husband was an industrious soul, a member of Parliament for Norwich who was engaged in diplomacy involving Russia, America and later Ireland as its Lord Lieutenant.
So: why? Why would a well-connected noblewoman sell her jewels to decorate her house? And moreover, why have the fact immortalised on its walls?
It is a puzzle I still have to unpick. Yesterday the house was closed by 4pm, and I could not ask a soul.
I would give a good many gems to find out the circumstances in which she gave up her heirlooms.