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William Sandys, who was Henry VIII's first Receiver in Furness, lived at Esthwaite Hall and is buried in Hawkshead church; his uncle, William, was Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII. His second son, also William, was his Bailiff and took over as Receiver when his father died - he lived at Colton Old Hall (Bouth) and Conishead Priory and has a tomb in Ulverston Parish church. They acquired huge swathes of property and were the first private iron-masters, beginning an industry that was later to play a key role in the economy and growth of the area. Another son, Edwin, became Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Archbishop of York.


The Sandys family originate from Burgh-on-Sands on the Solway from where they take their name (originally Sandes). One member of the family came over to Furness from Rottington Hall (St. Bees) in the early 15th century, proably in connection with iron production.

The William Sandys who became Henry VIII's Receiver in Furness was born at Esthwaite Hall around 1480. His grandfather, also called William and later Sir William, had married Margaret Rawson of Yorkshire - she happened to be the cousin of Thomas Rawlinson, the then Lord Abbot of Furness Abbey.

In 1535, two years before the Dissolution of Furness Abbey, Henry VIII appointed a Commissioner to itemise the income from rents and tithes of the Abbey – a sensible move if you are about to confiscate it all! We know from that survey that the Abbey controlled the only three water-powered iron furnaces in Furness at Cunsey, Force Mills and a third probably on the Leven, perhaps at Backbarrow. For centuries the monks had transported iron ore to the woodland bloomeries which were spread throughout Furness (a key pack-horse route was that from Marton, via Horlock - where an old pack-horse bridge still exists - to Lowick Bridge). By the time of the Dissolution, it appears the monks no longer had a direct interest in producing iron themselves and our William from Esthwaite, who was at that time a farmer, operated the Cunsey furnace, about a mile from his home at Esthwaite Hall, on a part-time basis. Although no revenue from bloomsmithies exist in the Abbey accounts, it is likely that he paid in kind i.e. provided the Abbey with enough iron to meet its needs.

At the Dissolution of Furness Abbey in 1537, Henry VIII granted the leases on all three main iron furnaces to William, in association with John Sawrey. An agreement confirms the leases for an annual rental of £20 for taking “wood and water” from "Byrkes, Ellers and Hassells" sufficient for the "Colingwoddes" necessary to operate them [does Byrkes = Birks near Force Mill, Ellers = Ellerside near Backbarrow and Hassels= Hazel Seat near Cunsey, confirming the site of the third furnace near Backbarrow?]. After Sawrey’s death he was granted full control of all three furnaces, but appears to have given up Force Mill later following complaints from Sawrey's widow.

This marked the start of a long association of the family with an iron industry that was to transform the economic prosperity of the area in later years, but marked a "privatisation" of iron-making that the former tenants of the Abbey did not like. Previously they were given the iron they needed by their feudal lords in return for services, but they now had to pay for it, as well as struggle to find enough wood for their own homes as large amounts were being consumed by the furnaces. In 1545 there is a record of half a ton of iron being offered to Dalton Castle by William Sandys for windows, hinges and flooring nails at a cost of £4.

In 1538, a year after the Dissolution of Furness Abbey, our William of Esthwaite was appointed King’s Particular Receiver for the Liberties of Furnace, collecting the rental and tithes on behalf of the Crown that would have previously gone to the Abbey. This marked a massive change in his prosperity – he replaced the Abbot as the most influential person in Furness! He was now in a position to benefit, as did so many others in high places, from gifts, cut-price purchases and bargain leases, as Henry sought to replenish his coffers from his confiscations.

By the time of his death in 1548 Receiver William had accumulated vast wealth which he willed to his male heirs. He now held Esthwaite Hall, Graythwaite Hall, Fieldhead, Waterside (Newby Bridge) and Colton Hall (Old Hall, Bouth) and their substantial holdings of land, Esthwaite Water (photo right) and its fishing, the fishing on the Crake, two iron furnaces, three corn mills, leases of Hawkshead Church, land in Brotherilkeld, and manors in Otterburn and Wakefield (amongst others)!

How did a tenant farmer and seasonal producer of iron find himself in a position to acquire, over a ten year period, holdings that covered much of High Furness and chunks of Yorkshire?

To answer that question we need to go back to his Grandfather, Sir William. After the death of his first wife, Margaret, Sir William married another Margaret from Kent and had several more children. It appears that a knighthood and political advancement had caused him to move to Hampshire. His second son by this second marriage was born about 1472 at The Vyne, Hampshire (now a large National Trust manor) and was also called William (by tradition of the time first sons were named after the grandfather, second sons after the father!).

The William from the Vyne was therefore the uncle of Sir William's grandson, our William from Esthwaite, although only about eight years his senior. To add to the confusion I'm afraid we shall need a fourth William to complete the story - William of Esthwaite's son William (second son, of course!).

The William that grew up at the Vyne moved in the court circles of Henry VII, becoming a friend of Prince Henry (later Henry VIII). He was knighted in 1518 after serving the King in Spain, Flanders and northern France and in 1519 was one of the Commissioners who arranged the protracted and costly meeting with Francois I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1523 he became Lord Sandys, 1st Baron of Vyne and in 1526 he was appointed Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII, a post he held until 1535. He was thus at the heart of politics in Tudor England.

When Henry was looking for someone to collect monies from his newly acquired but very remote Furness estates, the presence there of William of the Vyne's family, and in particular his nephew William of Esthwaite, must have been known to the King. We know that William of Esthwaite, despite the distance from London, did move in court circles and that he "rejoiced in his day in the favour of Princes" is recorded on his tombstone in Hawkshead Church.

So, probably through his uncle’s influence, William of Esthwaite became King’s Receiver. He was married to Margaret Dixon of Witherslack and had sons George, William, Edwin, Christopher, Myles, and Anthony and two daughters Margaret and Barbara.

William’s second son, our fourth William, became Bailiff to his father’s King’s Receivership, enforcing payment of rents from those reluctant or unable to pay; documentary evidence suggests that they were both greedy and ruthless and it is no surprise that neither William was very popular with the King’s tenants. Although only the second son, he inherited much of his father’s wealth in 1548, including Colton Hall where he lived, because his elder brother George had been killed fighting the Scots at Musselborough in 1547. He also took over as King's Receiver and enjoyed a further ten years of prosperity and opportunity to milk the system.

Later, Bailiff William bought from Edward VI (Henry VIII’s heir) the confiscated Conishead Priory and and its vast estates and properties. This was a remarkable purchase for someone whose father had been just a small-scale farmer. He moved from Colton Hall to the Priory, but he eventually made himself such an unpopular landlord in Low Furness that he was murdered by his tenants during an affray in 1558 (the first year of the reign of Elizabeth I) on the front lawn at Conishead Priory (photo left!). His body was thrown into the tide on Morecambe Bay and never recovered. His empty “tomb” was placed, much later, in Ulverston Parish Church by his descendants, the Bradylls.

Receiver William had made provision in his will that Bailiff William should inherit most of the estate, but with provision for reversion to the other children if his line failed. That happened with the death of Bailiff William’s only son, Francis, without children. To cut a long story short, Christopher acquired Graythwaite Hall, Anthony acquired Esthwaite Hall and Otterburn and Wakefield, Myles moved to Buckinghamshire, and Edwin received nothing! Barbara later came to inherit Conishead Priory and its estates through a reversion of Bailiff William’s will and passed it down to the Bradyll family (Colonel Thomas Bradyll later knocked it down and built a “Gothic” paradise -as in the photo - making himself bankrupt in the process). Thus, much of Furness was carved up between the Sandys family.

Colton Hall and adjoining farm and some tenements in Coniston passed first to Francis’ wife Jane, along with the fisheries, the two iron furnaces and the three corn mills. The Hall eventually passed to Christopher’s grandson (Christopher, by custom again!) and remained in his direct line of descent for many generations.

In 1564 the furnaces had to be surrendered by the family when Elizabeth I banned the commercial bloomsmithies because of their drain on the woodlands, but the family were later able to purchase the land out right in 1613 when James I started selling off the lands confiscated from the Abbey.

There are records of an Adam Sandys, of Old Hall in Bouth, who in 1662 left an estate at Cowridding in trust for "a preaching schoolmaster that is sound in doctrine, in life and conversation", who was "to teach scholars within Colton and to officiate at the parochial chapel". At this time Adam was the chief supplier of charcoal in the region - he supplied Margaret Fell of Swarthmoor Hall with charcoal for the Force Forge bloomery which she had inherited on the death of Judge Fell in 1658. The bloomery made spindles, axes, hammers and nails for use on the Swarthmoor Estate. At the same time, a Sandys owned property at Well Head on Fountain Street in Ulverston and in 1661 established a shop there selling charcoal (9.5 tons a year!) and possibly items made from iron. This would make Well Head one of the earliest shops in Ulverston, if not the first. Adam Sandys, the Fells and the Bradylls of Conishead were prominent supporters of the Parliamentarians during the Civl War of 1642. It is interesting to note that opposition to the Royalists and the old land-owning nobility came from the "new rich" - people whose fortunes had been made in commerce as a result of Henry's decision to dissolve the monasteries and sell off their assets!

Sometime after 1680 a Myles Sandys was involved as the landowner when Cunsey and Backbarrow started producing iron again and became the first two sites in the area to have a blast furnace in 1712.

By the 1760’s the Sandys family living at Colton Hall were now involved in trade (possibly even the slave trade) – Samuel Sandys was a wealthy shipowner who employed George Romney, the famous Dalton-born portrait artist, to paint his portrait and one of his married daughter Mary, and her child (Mrs Salisbury and Child 1767 – in Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison Univ. Sackville, Canada). By 1781 a Sandys was a partner in the company that established Ulverston's first cotton mill (Lund Beck mill, later Low mill), later becoming the Randall and Porter tannery. By a neat co-incidence, this was on the site of an iron bloomery which the monks of Conishead operated by Charter for over three hundred years from their foundation to the Dissolution. During rebuilding work in 1911 pear-shaped clays were found, thought to be moulds for iron spades.

Edwin Sandys - engravingThe situation of Receiver William’s third son Edwin is interesting. He was left out of the will although named as an executor of it and charged with maintaining family harmony! He was regarded as being a very intelligent child and had been educated at Furness Abbey and St. John’s College, Cambridge, taking holy orders. By the time of the death of Edward VI in 1553 he had risen to become Vice-chancellor of Cambridge University where he gave zealous sermons in favour of Church reform and succession by the Protestant Lady Jane Grey! On Edward's death Catholic Mary had Edwin put in the Tower, then in the infamous Marchalsea prison. Before he could be burnt at the stake, like so many of the other martyrs, he fled the country. Recently married, he was joined in Germany by his wife and infant son, but both died there of the plague.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, he was summoned back and quickly rose within the new Protestant church. He was involved in the revision of the liturgies and translation of the "Bishop's Bible" for the new Reformed Church and became Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of York. He married again and had nine children, but in those turbulent times when there were old scores to settle he became involved in many disputes and much legal wrangling. Indeed, he was discovered with a woman in his bedroom at an inn in Doncaster by the innkeeper's wife and blackmailed for a while, but when the demands became excessive he brought the matter to the Star Chamber and showed that it had all been a plot by one of his adversaries, Sir Robert Stapleton!

Remembering his roots, he paid for the extension of Hawkshead church (photo below), to include a Sandys chapel to house a monument to his parents William and Margaret. The lengthy Latin inscription on the tomb says "He an Esquire who rejoiced in his day in the favour of Princes", before going on to extol the virtues and considerable successes of son Edwin who was providing the monument!! Carved effigies on the tomb portray William as a Knight with sword and dagger and a lion at his feet (in photo below and drawing above) and Margaret dressed in costume of the period with a pug dog at her feet. Edwin supported and consecrated Colton Church (Bailiff William also had the bells from Conishead Priory moved to Colton). Edwin believed passionately in education and founded Hawkshead Grammar School . He left estates in Yorkshire in trust to pay for its upkeep, thereby providing an education for another William …who went on to write a “Guide to the English Lakes” and a bit of poetry, although Wordsworth actually opposed many of the developments (like the railway to Windermere) that created the tourism industry which, ironically, he helped to start and is so vital to the economy of the area today!

When the first Sandes rode his horse over the old Roman road of Hardknott and Wrynose between his ancestral home at St. Bees and Hawkshead, he could never have imagined that his immediate heirs would have played such key roles in Tudor England, in the decline of the Abbey of Furness and the redistribution of its vast wealth, in the start of an iron industry that was to be vital to the area for over 300 years and in the development of a new branch of the Christian Church! Trudging the road over Hardknott on his horse in all weathers to earn his living, he would probably have thought it ludicrous that people would have the time to travel purely for pleasure and visit the Lakes to see daffodils or climb mountains!

Nothing but a few stone walls remain of the Cunsey furnace, the Backbarrow blast furnace is a shameful ruin awaiting restoration, but all the Halls have been rebuilt over the years and put to new uses:

The current Graythwaite Hall is an unusual mansion dating from about 1660 (with later additions) and landscaped gardens by Thomas Mawson (open to the public in summer). Many of the old buildings and barns on the estate have survived and been converted to upmarket holiday accommodation. Still in use and in the hands of the Sandys family, after almost 500 years, is an estate of some 6000 acres including the Graythwaite woodlands and Esthwaite Water (local inhabitants disputed this around 1900 but Colonel Sandys was able to establish his claim to it and the lake remains in private hands).

Old Hall Farm, Bouth


Esthwaite Hall is recently restored and used as a B & B, but in the last few years a micro-brewery has been developed on the site in an old barn making traditional “Old Hall” beer, amongst others.

Colton Hall, now called Old Hall Farm (see photo left), had become delapidated but the main residence has recently been renovated. The farm is home to a growing private collection of traditional breeds and old farm machinery, which is being used to farm the surrounding fields by traditional methods.

Colton Church, consecrated in 1578 by Archbishop Sandys, occupies a commanding position above the village with glorious views. It survives in its original 16th century form, being built about the time of the Reformation. The Church has an old, probably 14th century, bell from Conishead Priory and a very interesting mix of stained glass, including a First World War memorial depicting St. George and St. Alban by Henry Holliday, an unusual depiction of Joseph's Dream and a modern telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Outside there is a Holy Well used by the monks of Furness Abbey, a 1674 sundial, and a horsing stone if you arrive by horse! These mounting steps cost twelve shillings to build in 1767.

Conishead Priory has come full circle and is again a religious house, being home to a Buddhist Institute, a beautiful Temple (see photo below), a carefully restored Hall and delightful gardens containing many old and new trees of species from all over the world.