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Guest author essay: Sir Samuel Meyrick and Goodrich Court

Author: Rosalind Lowe (2003)

Today, Goodrich Castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Wye valley, but for 120 years it played second fiddle to Goodrich Court - which lay just upstream across the ancient road to the Goodrich ferry across the Wye. In 1950 the Court was demolished, but its exotic gatehouse still remains alongside the main A40 road at Pencraig, between Ross and Monmouth.

Goodrich Court was built between 1828 and 1831 by Dr (later Sir) Samuel Rush Meyrick to house his wonderful collection of arms and armour. Sir Samuel had fallen in love with Goodrich Castle in the early 1820s, and his heart's desire was to restore it as a medieval setting for his collection.

Unfortunately, the Lady of the Manor of Goodrich took a strong dislike to him, and refused to sell the castle at the right price. He resolved to build himself a new "castle" overlooking the old one. His avowed intention was to make Goodrich Court the first and best attraction to the middle- and upper-class tourists who flocked to admire the picturesque beauty of the Wye valley.

Sir Samuel came from good Herefordshire yeoman stock. His grandfather James left the village of Lucton near Leominster in the middle of the 18th century, to seek his fortune in London. Sir Samuel claimed (with no justification) that he was descended from a Welshman, an Elizabethan adventurer called Sir Gelly Meyrick, who died on the scaffold in 1601 because of his loyalty to the Earl of Essex.

Grandfather James was clever and unscrupulous, and made a fortune out of the business of being an agent for the army. His two eldest sons, James and John, carried on the family tradition, and by 1800 they were very rich men. Samuel (born in 1783) was John's only child to survive, and his father passed on to him his love of military ceremonial, archery and collecting antiquities including arms and armour.

Samuel was clever and studious, but he was also handsome, wilful and passionate. In 1803 he eloped to Wales with an even younger girl called Mary Parry. Her father had owned a small farm near Aberystwyth, but had gone to London after he had killed an intruder in his house. Samuel's father John cut him out of his will, and gave him a very small allowance. Fortunately, John did leave his estate to any children that Samuel might have, and Samuel's only child Llewelyn had been born a bare nine months after the runaway marriage.

Samuel was already writing, and his first book, The History of Cardiganshire, was published in 1808, illustrated with his own drawings. For a few years he became a civil lawyer working in the ecclesiastical and admiralty courts.

He became very interested in costume and armour, and his next book was a joint venture with Charles Hamilton Smith on the early inhabitants of Great Britain. Smith illustrated the book from Samuel's historical descriptions.

For a number of years Samuel had been collecting bits of armour and studying them. He had begun to advise theatre producers on correct period costume, and to help artists who wanted their pictures to look authentic. He took the opportunity to buy some good pieces of armour at a knock-down price, and the Meyrick collection began to attract attention. Many famous artists, as well as Sir Walter Scott and George IV, visited the Meyricks' house in Cadogan Place in London, and Samuel was asked to rearrange the armour at the Tower of London, and at Windsor Castle.

The book which made Samuel's reputation as an authority was called A Critical Inquiry into Antient Armour ..., published in 1824. It was a large three volume set, illustrated in colour from Samuel's own paintings, beautifully gilded.

In response to a suggestion from Sir Walter Scott, Samuel made drawings of all the best pieces in his collection, and these were engraved by Joseph Skelton. Samuel wrote the descriptions, and the catalogue was published in parts from 1826. Some of the last drawings to be published were those showing the collection as it was to be displayed in the new Goodrich Court - this was several years before it was built. The book was entitled Engraved Illustrations of Antient Arms and Armour ... from the collection at Goodrich Court.

Goodrich Court was built from stone quarried from the steep ground falling down to the river Wye below. Because Llewelyn had inherited his grandfather's money, the Court and the collection were always said to belong to him, not Samuel. The artist Thomas Willement painted all the heraldic stained glass in the main rooms, which were accurately furnished according to different historical periods.

The visitors started to pour in before the Court was even finished. Samuel was knighted in 1832 for his work at Windsor and the Tower of London. In 1834 he acted as High Sheriff for Herefordshire, when he revived the tradition of an escort of javelin men (clad in Elizabethan costume) accompanying the judge to the Assizes. Llewelyn died unmarried in 1837, so John Meyrick's money came to Samuel after all. He didn't spend, spend, spend - in fact, he was a very tight-fisted man. The Court was already full of treasures, as an old friend called Francis Douce had left him all his antiquities, including many of ivory.

Samuel's time at Goodrich was marred by ill-health and personal scandal, but he did publish one more great work. His account of his Welsh ancestry was accepted by most people, and he became involved in the Welsh cultural movement - although he didn't speak Welsh very well at all. He edited the work of a 16th century Welsh genealogist called Lewys Dwnn, and the job (and the book) proved to be very long and tedious. It was published in 1846, just two years before Samuel's death at the age of 64. He is buried in Goodrich churchyard in the same grave as his son, and next to his housekeeper.

He left Goodrich Court and the treasures to a distant cousin, Augustus W. H. Meyrick. In 1869, Augustus wanted to sell the Court, and the whole collection was exhibited at the new South Kensington museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum. At the end of three years, Augustus offered it as a whole to the government for £50,000. They turned him down, and the best pieces were sold. Many of the less important items were given to the British Museum. Luckily some of the buyers (such as William Burges the architect) left their pieces to the British Museum in turn. Many of the choice pieces of armour were bought by a French dealer, but they were purchased from him by Sir Richard Wallace, founder of the Wallace Collection. Many Meyrick items can be seen free of charge at the collection at Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, where a Meyrick research archive has been established.

Goodrich Court passed into the hands of the Moffatt family, who extended it greatly. You can still see the Moffatt stables on the road to Goodrich, and the village hall which they originally built as a Reading Room for the inhabitants. The outside of the inn called Ye Hostelrie was designed by Samuel, however, and he restored the ancient building called Y Crwys nearby.

During World War II Goodrich Court was occupied by a boys' public school from Essex called Felsted School. After they left Goodrich Court suffered the fate of many such big houses. First it was stripped of all its saleable fixtures and fittings, and then the fabric was sold, though not to America as many thought. The site of the building is now a nature reserve belonging to the Nature Trust.

If you would like to know more about Sir Samuel and his time in Goodrich, Sir Samuel Meyrick and Goodrich Court by Rosalind Lowe was published in May 2003 by Logaston Press. ISBN 1-873837-88-1

© Rosalind Lowe, 2003