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Before The Civil War - 2/2
The appearance of the house was, however, very different. The leaded windows had stone mullions and transoms, there were large external chimneystacks and a profusion of gables. The principal front faced south across the pool and was broadly symmetrical with a little court between the wings, closed in by a wall with an elaborate gateway. It was an irregular building that had clearly evolved slowly over time. To our eyes it would no doubt have been pleasant and quaint, but by the early 18th century it was considered an ‘eyesore’.
This was the house that confronted Sir John Coke when he purchased Sir Francis Needham’s freehold and leasehold estate at Melbourne in 1629 and made it his retirement home. Within a few months of obtaining the lease Sir John had planned substantial alterations, and in November 1629 he wrote out lengthy instructions with measurements and great attention to detail. He divided his directions under separate headings for the masons, carpenters, joiners, smiths, plumbers, glaziers, stonegetters and labourers, plasterers and pargeters, and obtained permission from the Earl of Huntingdon to quarry stone from the foundations of Melbourne Castle, which had been sold away from the Crown in 1604.
The alterations involved rebuilding the north range, including the Great Hall, an extension to the east wing and a new principal staircase there, and various other alterations. The work was all done in an extremely style appropriate to Sir John who has been labelled ‘the last Elizabethan’. Sir John ended his directions by ordering the house and its grounds to be measured and plotted, and the plan made as a result still survives. Among the features shown on it are the muniment room (then a dovecot), the important medieval aisled barn that is now part of the Visitor Centre, and the compact arrangement of the courtyards and gardens, with hedged alleys, grass plots, a kitchen garden and an orchard.
Sir John’s house and grounds were closely hemmed in on all sides by public roads. The road between the hall and the pool was the main highway from Melbourne to Ashby until it was diverted through the present Market Place and High Street in 1788. A steady stream of traffic must have used it to reach the mill, the fields, and the common, as well as places beyond the parish boundary.
A little lane to the east ran across the middle of the upper parterres of the present garden, and separated the grounds of Melbourne Hall from another large house called Blackwall Hall or the ‘nether hall’, which was apparently pulled down in the 1630s or ‘40s.
Sir John’s role as Secretary of State to Charles I for eleven years before the Civil War demanded that most of his time was spent in London. Fort part of this time Melbourne affairs were governed by his son Sir John Coke the Younger (1607-1650), who moved to Melbourne despite the drawbacks pointed out to him by his father. “You shal plant yourself in a town where there are manie beggers, most poore & but a few good livers”, he had warned, adding that the local folk would “ingage you into debates and sutes wherin little is to bee gotten but vexation & troble to no end”.
On a positive note, Sir John the Younger supervised some much-needed repairs of the parish church, but some of his relationships among the local population were indeed strained, not least those with the Earl of Huntingdon (Lord of the Manor of Melbourne) and Sir John Harpur of Calke. In 1638, the Cokes enclosed an area of common land Derby Hills, that was disputed with the Harpurs. An undisciplined mob of Royalist soldiers tore down and burnt the new fences on their way north, apparently encouraged by a £10 bribe from Sir John Harpur. They set fire to the Cokes’ new water mill on Derby Hills, and destroyed part of the mill dam. It clearly made no difference that the Cokes were themselves a Royalist family.
It was an ill omen for the future, betraying a civil unrest that was soon to erupt. In 1642 the Civil War broke out and the elder Sir John fled from the advancing Parliamentarians. The younger Sir John stayed until 1648 when he went into exile in France, where he died.
Melbourne Hall as it stands today shows what Sir John’s descendants have made of it in more peaceful times. The family surname has changed three times due to inheritance via the female line.