The Webster Family and Battle Abbey

English Heritage

A history in portraits

Battle Abbey, Battlefield and School
Battle in East Sussex is, of course, most famous as the site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – the most famous battle in English history. 

In 1071, to atone for the blood shed at the Battle of Hastings, the victorious William the Conqueror founded an abbey on the spot where he had defeated King Harold of England on 14 October 1066.

Despite the unsuitable location on top of a narrow, waterless ridge, and objections from the first monks, William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church be placed in the exact place where Harold had been killed.

Battle Abbey was one of the richest monasteries in England, and thrived for over 400 years. However, this did not protect it from Henry VIII’s Suppression (or Dissolution) of the Monasteries.

After the abbey’s suppression in 1538, Henry VIII gave the abbey and much of its land to his friend Sir Anthony Browne. The church and parts of the cloister were demolished and the abbot’s lodging was adapted to serve as a country house.

In 1721 Browne's descendants sold the estate to Sir Thomas Webster. Apart from a period in the late 19th century, it remained in his family until 1976.

The Webster Family
A group of portraits that still hangs at Battle Abbey charts the many generations of the Webster family. This is one of the lesser known but fascinating chapters of the abbey’s history. It was a time that saw warring factions not out on the battlefield, but instead within one family. 

Sir Godfrey Webster (1650–1720)

In about 1663 Godfrey was apprenticed to his uncle Peter Webster, a merchant and prominent member of the Clothworkers’ Company. Godfrey himself was admitted to the company in 1670.

Godfrey originally had a house in the heart of the City of London, in Fenchurch, where wealthy merchants lived. He later bought other properties there and in the docklands by the Thames.

He was elected a freeman of the City and became master of the Clothworkers’ Company in 1695.

Godfrey was rich enough to be able to provide a loan to William III after the Revolution of 1688–9. In return the king gave him the lucrative contract to supply clothing to the army and hemp to the navy.

He was knighted in 1708 by Queen Anne. By this time he had amassed a large fortune.

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)

Thomas was the eldest son of Sir Godfrey and Abigail Webster. It was Thomas who would eventually bring Battle Abbey into the Webster family.

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.

When Thomas acquired Battle Place (as it was then known), it was in a poor state of repair. But by the 1730s the house had been refurbished for his family and was renamed Battle Abbey.

Sir Whistler Webster, 2nd Baronet (1709–1779)

This portrait depicts Whistler Webster, son of Thomas Webster, at the age of 15.

Whistler was born at a time when the Webster family could safely be described as landed gentry.

He was prevented from marrying his first love, Miss Elizabeth Byde, as she did not meet the approval of his great-grandfather, Henry Whistler, who controlled the Whistler inheritance.

Whistler Webster is depicted here in his later years. By this time he was a Member of Parliament for East Grinstead, Sussex.

Sir Whistler came into the estate at Battle in 1751, at the age of 41.

By this time the abbey was in a general state of neglect, and Sir Whistler did little to improve its condition. He was responsible for demolishing several of the abbey buildings.

Lady Martha Whistler Webster (1729–1810)

Sir Whistler Webster stepped down as an MP in the 1760s. In 1766, at the age of 58, he married Martha Nairn, the daughter of the Dean of Battle. She was 21 years younger than Whistler.

The couple had no children, and the abbey was left to Martha on Whistler’s death.

She was to live another 31 years, and firmly resisted all attempts to dislodge her from the abbey. Her period of residence saw the abbey at its most neglected.

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.

The capture of the behemoth Battle of Hastings painting is the largest Art Camera capture to date. At over 9 meters wide, the painting required specialist set up and an overnight session to ensure every minute detail was able to be brought to life.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Rowena Willard-Wright, Rose Arkle

Visit 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield

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