JANE Austen arrived at Stoneleigh Abbey, close to Kenilworth, Coventry and Warwick. on 6 August, 1806. She stayed for about 10 days along with her mother and sister Cassandra, and we know about the visit because Mrs Austen wrote a detailed description in a letter to her daughter-in-law, addressed from the Abbey and dated a week after their arrival.
“I had expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful,” she wrote. “The Avon runs near the house, amidst green meadows, bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.”
Mrs Austen was Cassandra Leigh before her marriage, sharing an ancestor with the first Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh who was ennobled in 1643 for supporting the Royalist cause against Cromwell. The Stoneleigh estate became the largest in Warwickshire, but its future was in question in 1806 when its then owner Mary Leigh died without children.
A possible inheritor was the Rev Thomas Leigh, of Adlestrop in Gloucestershire - and this news arrived just while Jane Austen, her mother and sister were visiting him. They all set off immediately for Stoneleigh.
Mrs Austen reported that the house was so large with its 45 front windows that “we cannot find our way about it” and she wrote that the family visited Kenilworth Castle “which afforded us much entertainment” and they planned to visit Warwick Castle from which she expected “still more”.
The Stoneleigh visit must have been a welcome diversion for the three women, whose continued living in Bath and financial security were uncertain following Mr Austen’s recent death. However, the Austen trio soon moved on, leaving their cousin to battle out his inhertiance claim. Jane never revisited, but Stoneleigh and its ancestral history does resurface in her novels. Some of her characters are named after Leigh family connections, such as Willoughby, Woodhouse, Wentworth and Osborne. In Mansfield Park the description of the fictitious Sotherton Court has many resonances of Stoneleigh Abbey, including details of the chapel, grounds and nearby village with almshouses, and Northanger Abbey is set in an old abbey which has become a country home, like Stoneleigh which was founded in 1154 by Cistercian monks.
Stoneleigh house and grounds are open to visitors, with frequent special Jane Austen tours.
In 1792, 14 years before Jane Austen’s visit to Stoneleigh, Mary Leigh who owned the abbey and much surrounding land presented Jane’s clergyman brother James with the living of Cubbington, a village near Leamington. The income, however, was insufficient to tempt James away from his Hampshire parish, so he hired a curate for Cubbington to do the job for him, a common practice at the time.
A website dedicated to exploring the places associated with Austen, and how those places the writing of her novels, including Hampshire, Kent London and the Midlands.