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Author delves deep into the history of a famous West Berkshire family

AN Upper Basildon author recently gave a talk on his new book at Donnington Grove.

After 35 years, Clive Williams has published his comprehensive history of the Craven family.

The history of the former prominent Newbury landowning family spans centuries, with ties to Germany, Bohemia and the US.

Clive Williams
Clive Williams

About 43 people attended the event and were enlightened by Mr Williams' passionate talk on the extraordinary rise and fall of the Cravens.

Mr Williams, 84, first had the idea for his book in 1987 when he was invited to attend a twinning expedition between Berkshire and Franconia, a region of Bavaria in Germany.

While it didn't immediately materialise, it introduced Mr Williams to an array of interesting contacts. One was the principal of the College of Agriculture for Franconia, who gave Mr Williams a tour of the college’s 18th century baroque dwellings and his first exposure to the Craven family. It was here he learned that the college was once the summer residence of the Duke of Ansbach, who is said to have built a villa on the site for his mistress Lady Elizabeth Craven.

Clive Williams with fellow historian Penelope Stokes, author of 'Craven County: The Story of Hamstead Marshall'
Clive Williams with fellow historian Penelope Stokes, author of 'Craven County: The Story of Hamstead Marshall'
The Cravens
The Cravens

It was not until 2020 that Mr Williams returned to the topic. He discussed some of the key family members, including William Craven (1608-1697) who served in the Thirty Years’ War and supported his brother-in-law Charles I during the English Civil War.

He became close to Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the daughter of King James I.

Her husband was defeated at the Battle of White Mountain in November 1620, when the Hapsburg monarchy crushed a revolt led by Protestant Bohemian nobles. Her short reign led her to become remembered as the Winter Queen'.

Legend has it that Lord Craven built Ashdown House as a refuge for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, but she died before its completion.

Elizabeth Craven (1580-1624) amassed an immense personal fortune through her late husband's money-lending business, making her the richest woman in England in 1620 and a multi-millionaire by today's standards. She was a young widow caring for five children at the time.

The Cravens acquired more than 70,000 acres of land throughout England, with 20,000 acres in Berkshire. They procured residences at Hamstead Park and Benham Park in West Berkshire, Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire and Brandenburgh House in Fulham. Craven Cottage, the present base of Fulham Football Club, is named after a cottage originally built near the site in 1780 by the sixth Baron Craven.

The Cravens’ failure to settle their land proved to be their undoing, claims Mr Williams. They depended on income generated by their land to sustain their lifestyle, the value of which decreased over time.

“The families who survive today settled their land when death duty and tax first started. In 1870, the Benyons had around 10,000 acres and the Cravens had 20,000 acres,” said Mr Williams. “Today, the Benyons have 15,000 acres and the Cravens have nothing.”

The Cravens also attracted a streak of bad fortune with a number of Earls dying in quick succession, spawning rumours the family was cursed. Crippling death duties and high upkeep costs of their various estates led to the family’s gradual demise. In 1984, the Cravens sold their last big landholding at Hamstead Marshall.

Mr Williams has located surviving descendants, including the ninth earl of Craven – who lives in a three-bedroomed house in Sussex.

Mr Williams' work is supported by 140 maps and illustrations.

Research assistant Pauline Wiltshire with Clive Williams
Research assistant Pauline Wiltshire with Clive Williams

Mr William’s research assistant Pauline Wiltshire, 74, said: “I enjoyed every aspect in helping Clive with his book. The trips out to find where the Cravens lived was the highlight for me, especially to Scotland to meet Rupert Craven (the current 96-year-old heir to the Earldom). When asked how I coped with lockdown, I say I helped research a fascinating family called the Cravens with my friend Clive.”

The book is priced £30, plus £3.50 postage. Please email Mr Williams on clivewilliams@gmx.co.uk for further information.

Visitors were treated to tea and scones after the talk, followed by book signings.

Mr Williams thanks everyone who attended and to their London based printer Blissetts, who produced 200 copies of the book.

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