Sulgrave Manor, a symbol of connection

Posted 20th February 2024

Laura Malpas pays a visit to the ancestral home of George Washington, nestled in the Northamptonshire countryside

If you grew up in Northamptonshire, there is a chance is that you may have visited Sulgrave Manor on a school visit. It has a fine reputation for education, as well as being a wonderful place for history lovers to explore. It’s a quintessentially English country house, but is more than that, it’s also home to a unique relationship. This month I’m visiting the tranquil Sulgrave Manor as the team prepare for the coming season.

The village of Sulgrave was already an ancient settlement well before the Manor was built. There is evidence of local Bronze Age activity, including a Bowl Burial between 4000 and 5000 years old. Located on Castle Hill to the west of the village, more recent settlements included a fine Saxon timber hall surrounded by an earth ringwork rampart. This was superseded by a Norman stone-built hall following the Conquest. In the mid 12th century, the manor was given to the Cluniac Priory of St Andrew in Northampton, and the Church of St James the Lesser was built mid 14th century.

The story of Lawrence Washington, the builder of the Manor House, begins further north in Warton, Lancashire. In 1529, Lawrence came to Northamptonshire in the employ of Sir William Parr, uncle to Queen Katharine Parr. However, he soon saw that his cousin John Spencer of Althorp was making very good money in the wool trade, and took the opportunity to marry Elizabeth Gough, the young widow of a Northampton wool merchant. Lawrence’s future was secured as he successfully took over the business. Mayor of Northampton twice, after the death of Elizabeth in childbirth, he married Amy Tomson, another wealthy widow and acquired the lease to the Manor of Sulgrave, buying it outright following the dissolution of the monasteries.

Lawrence and Amy’s family expanded as fast as their wool business, so they set about building a home to accommodate their eleven children. The Elizabethan manor house was completed around 1560. As is usual with a house of this age there have been many alterations over the years, but the southern parts of the house are quite intact with many original features. My favourite is the unusual pargetting, decorative plasterwork modelling the royal arms and the family heraldic devices at the entrance to the house.

The Manor stayed with the Washington family until 1610, when it was sold to their cousin, Lawrence Makepeace.

The Washington family now found themselves on the wrong side of politics. During the English Civil Wars, the Royalist family supported and fought for King Charles I, and their fortunes suffered. Fearing for his future, in 1656 John Washington the great-great grandson of Lawrence Washington, the builder of Sulgrave Manor decided to leave the shores of England for a future in the New World. 76 years later, John’s great grandson George Washington was born, eventually becoming the first President of the United States of America. Although he was a direct descendent, George himself never visited England and his ancestral home.

In the later part of the 17th century, the Manor was acquired by the Hodges family, and in the 18th century, John Hodges did much to consolidate the estate and rebuild the house by adding another wing. However, his descendants were less scrupulous, and the buildings became quite dilapidated. In 1860, the estate passed to an offshoot of the famous Sitwell family of nearby Weston Hall. It remained in their possession until 1914 when they decided to sell. And the role of this once handsome but now crumbling house was to change forever.

1914 marked the centenary of the Treaty of Ghent, signifying a century of peaceful relations between the USA and the UK, and there was a desire to celebrate and mark this ’special relationship’. Sulgrave Manor, ancestral home to the first American President was seen as the perfect symbol of shared histories and priorities.

The British public raised funds to purchase and restore the house and garden with the aim of presenting it to the people of both countries as a symbol of everlasting friendship. Following the outbreak of war plans were delayed, but further funds were raised by concerned public subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic after the conflict.
This ensured the long overdue restoration of the house under the direction of Sir Reginald Blomfeld, a highly regarded architect and garden designer. The refurbishment began, and on 21st June 1921, the house was formally opened and dedicated to all the peoples of the UK and the USA. The Mayor of Northampton was a special guest of honour, a significant choice due to his ancestor – the original builder of Sulgrave Manor, Lawrence Washington.

The long-term future of Sulgrave Manor was greatly assisted by the foresight of a group of American ladies, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Their purpose was, and still is, to “promote appreciation of the people, places and events” which led to the formation of the USA. They recognised that the upkeep of the Manor required long term financial support, so in 1924 they raised an incredible fund of $112,000 with 35,000 subscribers to create a funding base for the future. This relationship continues to this day and the Dames are still actively fundraising and supporting the Sulgrave Manor Trust.

Today a visit to Sulgrave Manor gives you the opportunity to learn about and explore the house and visit an exhibition sharing stories of the people who built, lived and worked there. After an introductory chat, you can explore the house at your own speed and experience the contrast between the Elizabethan parts of the house and the 18th century extension. My favourite part of most houses is usually the kitchen, and here it’s wonderfully atmospheric and well furnished. I also love the modern New Elizabethan embroideries. Made over ten years by volunteers in the USA and UK, they are all handstitched using 16th century methods, and feature symbols of Anglo-American friendship, dancing lords, ladies and Native Americans, and animals and flowers from both sides of the Atlantic.

The gardens are a joy too. There’s a small but enthusiastic team who care for the grounds and they have exciting plans for 2024. It’s a lovely place to meet with friends and share a picnic in the peaceful surroundings before exploring the history. It feels like that’s the right thing to do at this place which has been dedicated to the promotion of international friendship. It’s more than just a charming quintessentially English manor house, it’s a symbol of optimism for the future of collaboration and mutual understanding between Nations.

For more information including opening times, please visit If you enjoy walking, there’s two delightful walks which explore the village of Sulgrave including a visit to the Manor at walks 26 and 174.

The Northamptonshire Heritage Forum has something for everyone interested in learning more about our county’s history. If you would like more information, or are interested in joining the Forum and supporting its work, please visit