A history in portraits
Lady Abigail Webster, née Jordan (c.1651–1704)
Abigail Jordan married Sir Godfrey Webster in 1672. She was the daughter and co-heir of Thomas Jordan. On their marriage they acquired a medieval manor house at Nelmes, near Hornchurch, Essex, which had been rebuilt in the 16th century. It had previously been the home of a Lord Mayor of London.
Sir Thomas Webster, 1st Baronet (1679–1751)
This portrait of a mature Thomas Webster was painted about 1725.
Throughout the early 18th century, Thomas served in various political roles. He married Jane Cheeke, the daughter of a prosperous soap maker, with whom he had five children.
In 1719 Jane inherited a great deal of wealth from her father and maternal grandfather, Henry Whistler. By 1721 Thomas was in possession of a large amount of money and property.
However, as the years passed, many of these properties were sold off to pay his debts.
Lady Elizabeth Webster, née Vassall (1770–1845)
In 1780 the family estate passed to Sir Whistler’s nephew Godfrey Webster (1749–1836), 4th Baronet. Six years later he married 15-year-old Elizabeth Vassall, heir to the West Indian Vassall fortune.
Godfrey had hoped to take back Battle Abbey from Lady Martha as his family seat, but she refused to move. It was by now in a ruinous state.
Elizabeth was furious that they had to live in a smaller, rented house in Battle.
She began to send across to the abbey in the mornings to enquire ‘If the old hag was dead’. She then resorted to ‘devising ghostly apparitions, rattling of chains and other eerie noises’ calculated to scare Dame Martha, who:
‘Used to listen with perfect unconcern, and then, turning round to the invisible dramatis personae, say quietly, “Come, that will do. I hear you well enough, and I know well what you want. But I tell you, once and for all, I won’t go.”’
Elizabeth gave her husband an heir, also named Godfrey, but the couple soon grew apart. Elizabeth began to spend a lot of time in Europe, only occasionally accompanied by her husband.
She had several extramarital affairs resulting in two other children. Eventually, in July 1796, Sir Godfrey started divorce proceedings.
Elizabeth had to give up her whole fortune and children, receiving a mere £800 a year. Luckily Lord Holland, the father of her illegitimate daughter, loved Elizabeth and married her.
Humiliated by the scandal, Sir Godfrey fell into drinking and gambling, and lost all the money he had gained through marriage. In 1799 he had to write to his own steward at Battle asking for a loan.
He was now suffering from acute syphilis. In a state of depression, he shot himself on 3 June 1800.
Lady Charlotte Webster, née Adamson (1795–1867)
Charlotte was the daughter of Robert Adamson of Westmeath, Ireland. She married Godfrey Webster, 5th Baronet (son of Godfrey and Elizabeth), in 1814.
Unfortunately her husband’s gambling and lavish spending on the abbey ate deeply into the family fortunes. He had to lead an itinerant life between London and his estates, selling off more and more, including the muniments of Battle Abbey (a collection of documents relating to its history).
In 1819 Sir Godfrey moved abroad to escape his creditors. He returned in 1823.
Charlotte and Godfrey’s marriage was not a happy one, and they formally separated in 1828.
When Godfrey died in 1836 he left such a small fraction of his original fortune to Charlotte and his children that his sons all had to seek employment to survive.
Sir Godfrey’s mistress, Ann Robinson, chased them through the courts for years to claim the £200 he had promised her annually for life.
By 1858, under the ownership of Sir Augustus Webster, the estate had to be sold.
For a brief period, the abbey was owned by the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland. However, it returned to the Webster family’s ownership in 1901 and remained in their hands until 1975.
The former abbot's lodging has been leased to a school since 1922, and the site as a whole is cared for by English Heritage.
Rowena Willard-Wright, Rose Arkle