The Hall as it stands today was built in the late sixteenth century – with the remains of a 15th century Great Hall – and is reputed to be the oldest dated house built entirely of brick in Shropshire. A ‘date-stone’ of 1580 can clearly be seen on the front of the house from the Moat Lawn.
From the 14th century until 1926, the historic estate belonged to the Cressett family – Shropshire landowners and royalist courtiers – and their descendants. The Cressett direct line died out with the death of Elizabeth Cressett in 1792 after which the estate passed through various branches of the Pelham Cressett and Thursby Pelham family (which included two prime ministers).
The site of the Hall is ancient. It is recorded in the Domesday Book and in nearby fields there are the remains of a second century Roman settlement. The surrounding land is also the site of a deserted medieval village, traces of which remain as earthworks. A tiny Norman church, dedicated to St Michael, stands nearby and is maintained by the The Churches Conservation Trust.
Parts of the Hall date to 1380 and are the remains of an earlier manor which belonged to the de Upton family. In the thirteenth century, the de Uptons were Verderers of the Royal Forest of Morfe and Knights and suitors to Holgate Castle, and the last of their line married into the Cressett family in the 14th century.
In the mid fifteenth century, Hugh Cressett, a Lancastrian, was a Royal Commissioner along the Welsh March, the Constable of Mortimer Castle and on the Duke of Exeter’s Council. He also served as a Member of Parliament and as the Sheriff of Shropshire. His son Robert was a Yorkist lawyer who played an adventurous part in the Wars of the Roses. He is frequently mentioned in the Commissions of Array and was pardoned at the Devil’s Parliament in December 1459 for rebellion after the Yorkists were defeated at Ludlow.
There is a long-standing tradition that the young Edward V, son of King Edward IV, and one of famed ‘Princes in the Tower’, stayed at the early manor in April 1483 on his fateful and hurried journey from Ludlow to the Tower of London. He had been anointed king at Ludlow Castle but for the coronation to be recognised he needed to be crowned in Westminster Abbey. The tradition is backed up by Cressett family reports. Hugh Cressett was well known to Edward IV and the remote position of the fortified manor of Upton Cressett made it an ideal safehouse. Upton Cressett is seventeen miles from Ludlow – exactly a day’s march – and the royal party would have stayed at Upton Cressett before crossing the River Severn at Bridgnorth.
The Tudors & The Sixteenth Century
Robert Cressett’s son, Thomas, was imprisoned by Henry VII in the Marshalsea, probably for conspiracy, but he escaped in 1503 and was pardoned in 1505. He did, however, supply soldiers for Henry VIII’s French Wars of 1512-13 and the family were reconciled to the Tudor Throne.
During the reign of Elizabeth 1, Richard Cressett built the Gatehouse and, in 1580, encased the the medieval manor house in brick. He also made a substantial contribution to the Armada Fund in 1588 – the second largest in the county.
The Civil War & The Seventeenth Century
Edward Cressett succeeded Richard in 1601. Edward was a distinguished Royalist and served on the King’s Council of War before being killed in battle at Bridgnorth in 1645. His son, Sir Francis Cressett (below), later became Steward and Treasurer to Charles I, and was one of the men who tried to rescue the King from Carisbrooke Castle in 1648. It is recorded that a troop of ’60 royal horse’ was garrisoned at the house and that Prince Rupert hid at Upton Cressett while escaping from the Parliamentary forces. Edward’s other son, Richard, inherited the estate. In 1648 information was laid against him as “having been in arms against Parliament”.
The Hanoverian Succession & The Eighteenth Century
During the reigns of William and Mary and Queen Anne, Edward Cressett’s grandson, James Cressett, was Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Hanover and played an active part in the preparations for the Hanoverian Succession. Another descendent, also named James Cressett, became confidant and secretary to Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, and held the post of tutor and was later Treasurer and Secretary to the young George III.
In the early eighteenth century Robert Cressett decided to build a new Baroque mansion at Cound Hall near Shrewsbury, which became the principal seat of the family. The last of the Cressetts, Elizabeth, died in the late eighteenth century, but the estate remained in the Thursby-Pelham branch of the family until 1926.
During most of the 20th century, especially after both World Wars, the story of Upton Cressett was one decline, neglect and finally abandonment. There is a photograph of the derelict Gatehouse almost entirely covered in ivy taken on holiday in August 1909 by the Scottish philosopher and mathematician John Edward Steggall.
John Betjeman and David Piper at Upton Cressett
Whilst deserted for decades, the Hall and Gatehouse and Norman church of St Michael remained of considerable interest to architectural historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner. In the summer of 1938, the poet John Betjeman visited Upton Cressett with the artist John Piper whilst researching their Shell Guide To Shropshire (Faber & Faber). Because of the War, their guide-book – the first of the post-war Shell guides – was not published until 1951.
A series of remarkable black and white photographs of their visit taken by John Piper can be seen in the Tate on-line John Piper archive. In the photographs, taken in what must have been the late afternoon or early evening from the light, it appears that the Hall (with all its tall Elizabethan brick chimneys still intact) has become a farm-house and The Gatehouse is being used to house agricultural machinery.
In the introduction to his Shell Guide, Betjeman writes that ‘the particular beauties of Shropshire appear in the most unexpected places, such as Hawkstone Park, Tong, Bromfield and Upton Cressett’. Inside the guide, Betjeman writes that Upton Cressett is ‘best approached on foot, horse or bicycle; only so can its peace and various landscape be appreciated. The road to it stops at what was once the manor of Upton Cresset…An orchard surrounds the disappeared Tudor brick gatehouse with towers at its corners and stone dressings to the windows’. The church of St. Michael was also photographed by John Piper with Betjeman writing of its ‘rich Norman chancel arch and south door, and a little late Flemish glass’.
Several years after the Shropshire Shell Guide was published in 1951, Nikolaus Pevsner visited Upton Cressett in the late 1950s for his Shropshire edition of The Buildings of England. Despite its derelict and overgrown state, he described it as a ‘remarkable Tudor house of brick’ that deserved more academic study.