Although the present house front dated from 1893, Middle Aston has a long uninterrupted history of owners and tenants back to Doomsday. There have been at least three houses on or around this site, and possibly more if we take the Middle Ages into consideration. From the 12th to 16th Century the manor was held by succession, but as it passed invariably through the female line, the family names changed frequently. In the middle of the 21st Century the manor was in the hands of the Brympton family who held estates in Berkshire and Wiltshire which were clearly of greater importance.
By a series of complicated legal settlements part of the manor passed to Eva Brympton around 1400 when she married William Stokes, who was clever enough to secure the whole living of Middle Aston and pass it on to his son John in 1427. There was undoubtedly a manor house here at the time as John Stokes was a Knight of the Shire in the 15th Century, representing Oxfordshire in Parliament. What proportions it attained is unknown since no building from that period survives.
In 1459 John died without issue and the manor passed to the Dyneley family who were related to the Stokes through John’s sister. When a Dyneley heiress married Sir John Baker in 1558, Middle Aston went with her as part of the settlement. Sir John was one of those clever young men who rose to prominence under Henry V111, survived the reigns of Mary and Edward without loss of honour, and died in office as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the reign of Elizabeth. His main seat was Sissinghurst in Kent, so Middle Aston passed to his younger son, John. Much of the ‘greatness’ of the manor belongs to this period with the building of those features that remain today – the Ice-House, the Granary and the Bailiff’s House, part of which is incorporated into the present building. The ‘Baker’ manor, if it may so be termed, was a long low traditional Tudor building set around a courtyard more or less in the centre of the lawns, which are in front of the present house.
Sir Richard Baker, who inherited in 1606, suffered an unfortunate end to his career; he agreed to stand surety to his father-in-law, Sir George Mainwaring, in the sum of £8,000, which Sir George had borrowed from Sir Robert Jason. When Sir George defaulted, Sir Richard Baker was forced to hand Middle Aston to Jason. A ruined man, he retired to the debtors’ prison at the Fleet, where he wrote his ‘Chronicles of the Kings of England’: a book which, in the following century, was to be found in most great country houses along with the Bible and Shakespeare.
The Jason family sold Middle Aston to a prosperous London Alderman, Sir Richard Hawkins, in 1678. Almost immediately Hawkins refronted the East Wing, adding an extra storey, and planted an avenue of lime trees, a few of which remain at the side of the front lawn.
In 1714 the house was sold to Sir Francis Page who went on to become a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas. He acquired an infamous reputation as a ‘hanging judge’ and local legend suggests that the widows of the hundred men he hanged pursued him in the form of owls up and down the large pond.
Modern historians tend to take the Pages reputation less dramatically, sensing its origins in his unwise zeal in condemning Richard Savage, man of letters and darling of society, who once acquitted, turned his pen against his accuser, and encouraged his literary coterie to do likewise. Thus, you may read of Page in Pope’s ‘Dunciad’ or Fieldings ‘Tom Jones’, to give only 2 of the best-known examples.
Page lives on, not least in the precincts of the church at Steeple Aston, where he built a massive monument to his wife and himself. Sadly, one suspects that this reflects his childless state since he went to great lengths to ensure that his successor should take the name of Page. Accordingly, his nephew, Francis Bourne, became Francis Page on inheriting. Francis Page the second by judicious conveyancing managed to acquire for himself all the land in Middle Aston, thus creating an ‘Estate’.
He then followed current fashion by having one of the most foremost landscape Architects of the day design the Park. William Kent’s most enduring monument probably remains Rousham, a few miles down the road, which he completed in 1738, and which retains all of the features of his style: irregular planting, wide expanses of grass, the use of the ‘ha-ha’ and deliberate contrast between shady walks and classical vistas.
Kent’s work around the country – particularly at Stowe, Kensington and Blenheim – was eclipsed by his younger contemporary, ‘Capability’ Brown, although Rousham was never ‘improved’ in his manner. Little now remains of Kent’s influence on Middle Aston, although it is known that he installed a ‘ha-ha’ to link the countryside to his garden, replaced the medieval terraces with a concrete lawn and created a ‘natural’ lake from two square medieval fishponds. Many of the more unusual trees – Cedar, Sequoia, Turkey Oak, Medlar, Mulberry, and Ginka Biloba – also date from Kent’s transformation of the Estate around 1750.
Page, who was MP for Oxford University for some thirty years, survived until the turn of the 19th Century, and although the Estate passed to Sir George Wheate, a nephew of the original Sir Francis’s wife, it was used merely to pay off his debts, and was thus sold to Sir Clement Cotterell-Dormer, owner of Rousham House. Having no use for the Manor at Middle Aston, he pulled it down, leaving only a farmhouse and the outbuildings. At the end of the century a descendant of Sir Clements, Captain Dormer, decided to build the present house, which not only incorporated the farmhouse but also linked up with the wrought-iron railing and gate across the lake were added after the 1st World War. On either side were planted chestnuts grown from conkers he picked up from the battlefield of Verdun.
The House was substantially extended into the current look in 1890 and has become a conference venue for conferences corporate and events since the mid 1960’s. In 1969 Middle Aston House became a Training and Conference Centre owned by Spillers and Dalgety. A management buy-out in 1991 was followed by the business being sold in 1995 to the Pera Group. It was later sold and is now independently owned, keeping its business activity as a Training and Conference centre.
Remains of history
Over the years there has been reference to the owls around the grounds, now only the bird bath remains.