Haddon Hall: An Elizabethan Love Story That Shocked Society

by JoHarrington

When the heiress of Haddon Hall eloped with her lover, Elizabethan society held its collective breath. What would Sir George, Baron Vernon, do now?

It reads like a Derbyshire Romeo and Juliet story - two families, following two different religions in the hothouse of the Elizabethan aristocracy. But would it end the same?

Sir John Manners was the resourceful second son of the Earl of Rutland. Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall was the youngest daughter of Baron Vernon. One was Catholic and the other Protestant. Her father did not approve.

So the couple took it upon themselves to control their own destiny with a famous moonlit flit.

Packhorse Bridge Across the River Wye

As viewed from the grounds of Derbyshire's Haddon Hall, the route down those stairs and over that bridge has been a subject of romantic imaginings since 1563.

Sir George Vernon: The King of the Peak

A wealthy and influential Derbyshire landowner, Baron Vernon also had strong ties at court. But he had no male heir to his estate and titles.

Image:  Sir George Vernon and his wivesTudor aristocrats appear to stride larger than life from the history books, and Baron Vernon was no exception. 

Sir George was nicknamed The King of the Peak during his life-time, because of his lavish life-style and tyrannical discipline.  He seemed to own half of Derbyshire, at least as far as the Peak District was concerned; but also parts of Shropshire, Cheshire and Westmorland too. 

Those in favor with him would find themselves in the receiving hand of his great generosity.  They could be invited to huge, extravagant banquets and balls.  He never stinted on ordering the best of anything, but he had the wealth to support it.

Yet those without power, nor recourse to a voice, had much reason to fear Baron Vernon.  There are three separate occasions on record, where he ordered people hanged on charges amounting to mere accusation.  He didn't believe in trials for the little people.

Sir George was known in royal quarters too.  Henry VIII made him a baron; and he was present at the coronation of Edward VI.  There he added the 'Sir' to his name, when the boy king made him a knight of the realm. 

But Sir George was no friend to Catholic Mary Tudor.  When she attempted to enforce a loan of £100 from all the aristocrats in England, he refused to pay the money.  His seat at Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, remained resolutely Protestant, even as Queen Mary tried to return her nation back to Catholicism.

Thomas Bentham, Bishop of Coventry, and leader of the Protestant Underground during those times, called Baron Vernon, 'a great justice [in] religion as in all other things'.  It all paid off, once Queen Elizabeth I took the throne.  Now Sir George was considered a very loyal and noble subject in his staunch Protestantism.

Yet that unwavering, hardline stance posed a bit of a problem for his daughter.   Dorothy Vernon fell in love with a Catholic.

Margaret & Dorothy Vernon: The End of the Family Name

No Tudor nobleman wanted just daughters. King Henry VIII himself married six times in pursuit of a son to inherit all. But Baron Vernon had only girls.

Sir George Vernon had two daughters, but no male heir.  This was an issue from his point of view, as it meant that his family name died with him. 

When his wife Margaret Talboys died, in 1558, Baron Vernon quickly married a woman thirty years his junior.   But his hope that Matilda 'Maude' Longford would give him a son came to nothing. They had no children at all.  Thus Sir George had to resign himself to the fact that, though his bloodline would go on, it wouldn't be under the name of Vernon.

Contrary to the story later told in a myriad of movies, operettas and novels, his eldest daughter Margaret was married way before Dorothy's romantic drama.  She became the wife of Sir Thomas Stanley, the second son of the Earl of Derby, in 1553; and she was no longer living at Haddon Hall.

According to popular legend, it was during her engagement party when her little sister first met John Manners. This simply couldn't be true, unless we're to believe that Elizabethan nobles held such parties a decade after their wedding.

The reality would have been that Manners was no stranger to the house.  Sir George's father had died young, leaving his mother to remarry.  Her second husband was Sir Richard Manners, the brother of the Earl of Rutland.  Young John was his nephew, thus a kind of step-cousin to Sir George.  He would have been known at Haddon Hall all of his life.

But something happened in 1563; and that something led to Dorothy Vernon sneaking out of her home at night, and riding off over the packhorse bridge with her future husband.  It was not with Sir George's blessing.

What is a Maid to Say from Sullivan's Haddon Hall

This is Dorothy Vernon singing, as envisaged by Arthur Sullivan and performed by New York's Gilbert and Sullivan Society.
Arthur Sullivan: Haddon Hall

Possibly Arthur Sullivan s best opera, too long overshadowed by the Gilbert-libretto works. The only complete professional recording. With full libretto. the whole score is mast...

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The Elopement of Dorothy Vernon and Sir John Manners

This was quite a major scandal of the day. All of aristocratic society (and some commoners too) would have been talking about it for months!

It is said that Sir George Vernon detested the Earl of Rutland and his family, because they remained Catholic.  It is said that the Earl's second son John was not welcome in Haddon Hall.  It is further stated that Sir John Manners came anyway.

Dorothy Vernon was the apple of her father's eye.  Sweet, demure and innocent, she idolized him and would do whatever he said.

At least that's one version of the story.  The other being that Dorothy Vernon was a strong-willed lady who knew what she wanted and took it.  Particularly if he was the handsome son of an earl; and regardless of her father's views on the subject.

When Baron Vernon discovered that Sir John was hanging about the house and grounds, he had him chased away.  But where there's a will, there's a way; and where there's a costume ball, there's a disguise.

For some who tell this tale, it was an engagement party between Margaret Vernon and Sir Thomas Stanley, which formed the backdrop.  For others, it was merely a party.  One of thousands held by the sociable Baron Vernon.

Sir John Manners had been around for days, disguised as a worker on the estate.  Sir George barely looked in his direction.  But now the young noble donned a more lavish disguise and sneaked in amongst the guests.  He could get close enough to Dorothy to talk now.  A plan was hatched.

John went out first.  He took horses and hid them in woodland on the other side of the River Wye.  Then he raced back across the packhorse bridge and was waiting at the foot of the steps. 

Meanwhile Dorothy had stolen into her room and packed a bag.  She crept out, either through a window or down the inner staircase which still bears her name, then took to the shadows of the courtyard to reach the door at the rear of the gardens.

John was there.  He took her bag and they rushed down, across the lawns and over the packhorse bridge to freedom.  It took them all night to ride to Aylestone, in Leicestershire, where a priest was waiting.

They were married by morning.  Now all that was to be done was to wait to see what Sir George would do when he found out about it.  

Haddon Hall

This book was originally published prior to 1923, and represents a reproduction of an important historical work, maintaining the same format as the original work. While some pub...

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Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition include...

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What Sir George Did Next

The scandal would have spread like wildfire from all the guests at the party and across the country. Speculation would have been rife.

Baron Vernon was Protestant enough to have stood up to a Catholic Queen.  He was brutal enough to hang people on hearsay.  He was a Member of Parliament and a powerful man.  He was called the King of the Peak for his wealth, influence and huge parties.

As the gossip erupted, Elizabethan society would have been forgiven for imagining scenes like that later dramatized in Mary Pickford's movie.  He was going to kill her, wasn't he?  He was going to hunt Sir John Manners down and not be very nice about it at all.

Image:  Mary Pickford as Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall
Image: Mary Pickford as Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall

The reality was all a little anti-climactic for those who love drama.  But it was perfect for those with romance in their hearts.

Baron Vernon forgave them.  He accepted Sir John Manners as his son-in-law and bequeathed a portion of his wealth, including Haddon Hall, onto the happy couple.  By the time Sir George died two years later, they were all one big happy family.

As a little coda, when Sir John's nephew, the 7th Earl of Rutland, died without having had any children, the title switched to his cousin's line.   John and Dorothy's grandson, another John Manners, became the 8th Earl.  It's his descendants who hold the peerage to this day.

Perhaps the ghost of Baron Vernon smiles at that now, especially since they were all raised Protestant.

Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/14/2014

Ah! Thank you very much. :D

David Trutt on 01/13/2014

My web site contains my book that may be downloaded free of charge "Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall" which is the result of careful research and describes the "Elopement", how it began and what the probable cause of the legend is. To make a long story short, John Manners sister was married to the powerful Earl of Shrewsbury who coerced Sir George Vernon to allow the marriage. Sir George favored Dorothy's cousin John Vernon to keep the Vernon name alive. Go to www.haddon-hall.com

JoHarrington on 01/11/2014

Ah! So it was all fiction! That's quite amusing. What really happened?

David Trutt on 01/11/2014

An interesting compilation from many sources about the legend of the elopement of Dorothy Vernon. Real historical people, but the elopement story was made up by caretaker William Hage of Haddon Hall and told to author Allan Cunningham during a visit in 1822. This began the flood of poems, stories and novels throughout the nineteenth century.

JoHarrington on 04/07/2013

A modern day retelling,you mean? There were a couple of novels about it in the early 1900s. It was huge then!

LisaSanderson on 04/06/2013

What a lovely story! I hope that someone writes a new novel about it!

JoHarrington on 02/11/2013

It's well worth two visits, as you well know!

kate on 02/11/2013

ive been here, its a beautiful place. i wish i had known the story when i was there,. Im going to have to go back now

JoHarrington on 01/31/2013

There's certainly interest here. I'm looking forward to reading your article on it. :)

JeanBakula on 01/30/2013

I will review if there is interest. Merlin Stone discusses how women in Crete, and the Middle East, no less, could sign contracts, property ownership passed to the daughters, etc. It appears when Abraham came onto the scene, Christianity gave the power to the men. I knew as a Wiccan you would be interested!

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