Rhoddy Wood and The Friends of Holland Park explore the life of Sir Walter Cope, the builder and first owner of 'Cope's Castle' – also known as Holland House – which provides the backdrop to our theatre.
We know him as the builder and first owner of ‘Cope’s Castle’, the name by which Holland House was first known. Many of us also know that he came from a family of small country landowners or gentlemen farmers whose names appear sporadically in local records from 1397 as MPs and holders of county and court offices.
Walter was a third son, but fortunate connections helped him to come to London where he gained employment, first with William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I and later with his son, Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State to James I. We think you will be interested to hear what some of this work involved.
Walter held various posts, such as official of the Court of Wards and the Courts Feodary of Oxfordshire, the equivalent of todays’ civil service. Promotion was by way of being appointed to further posts, which all operated under the system of the day – with the holder expecting to take a slice of all monies that passed through his hands. The Cecils at the top of the tree also followed this system.
Some posts were extremely valuable, allowing Walter to buy the four Kensington Manors and then build his house on the land. He also became personal assistant to Robert Cecil, managing improvements to buildings and grounds at Theobalds, the Cecil home in Hertfordshire.
He was the preferred route for anyone wanting to get a message to Cecil. He could put a request to Cecil and place it in a favourable but balanced light, although the decision always remained Cecil’s. For instance Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned in the Tower, asked Cope for help in getting permission for his wife to visit him there.
There was also a young diplomat, Dudley Carleton, who was living abroad after being implicated in the gunpowder plot but had a friend, John Chamberlain, in London who spoke frequently to Walter Cope on Carleton’s behalf over five years, until Carlton was eventually rehabilitated. Chamberlain wrote in many ways disparagingly of Walter (five years was too long?) but even he was impressed by ‘The sincerity of Cope’s determination to eschew all corruption’.
Walter was a fixer for the two Cecils, arranging whatever his boss wanted, which was often to please the king or queen, thus earning them kudos. What could give more pleasure than theatrical entertainment?
A letter survives from Walter to Robert Cecil:
‘I have sent and been all this morning hunting for players, jugglers and such kind of creatures, but find them hard to find. Wherefore leaving notes for them to seek me, Burbage is come and says there is no new play that the Queen has not seen; but they have revived an old one called Love’s Labour Lost, which for wit and mirth he says will please her exceedingly. And this is appointed to be played tomorrow night at my Lord of Southampton’s unless you send a writ to remove the corpus cum causa to your house in the Strand. Burbage is my messenger ready attending your pleasure.’
There is arrogance here in the reference to ‘such kind of creatures’ and designating Shakespeare’s manager as Walter’s ‘messenger’. This reflects the general view of actors at that period, and it could be safe to assume that those beneath Walter in the social hierarchy found courtiers irritating and snobbish. Nevertheless, a good fixer could be invaluable oil in society.
Intermingled with his public life were private strands. He appears to have been a loving husband and father but a poor judge of investments, which combined with his extravagant building meant he died in debt. He gave books to Thomas Bodley of the Bodlean Library.
He had a great interest in antiquities and was renowned across Europe for his collection or ‘cabinet’ described as ‘the most important wonder cabinet in Renaissance England’. It is thought that this influenced John Tradescant the Elder, whose own cabinet became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. Perhaps of especial interest to us today is that Tradescant planted exotic trees in the grounds of Cope’s Castle.
This article is mostly based on research conducted by William Cope of Pennsylvania who is descended from our Walter Cope’s great-grandfather. We encountered William when he ordered copies of the Families and Pleasure Grounds of Holland House and we noticed his name. We are very grateful to him, and all mistakes are mine.
This article is shared with thanks to Rhoddy Wood and The Friends of Holland Park.