The Legend

Osgyth (or Osyth) (died c.700 AD) was an English saint. Born in Quarrendon, Buckinghamshire (at that time part of Mercia), she was the daughter of Frithwald, a sub-king of Mercia in Surrey, and was the niece of St Edith of Aylesbury and Saint Edburga of Bicester. Her mother was Wilburga, the daughter of the pagan King Penda of Mercia.
Raised in a convent in Warwickshire under the direction of Saint Modwen, her ambition was to become an abbess, but she was too important as a dynastic pawn to be set aside.
Forced by her father into a dynastic marriage with Sighere, King of Essex, she did her dynastic duty and produced him a son. While her husband ran off to hunt down a beautiful white stag, Osgyth persuaded two local bishops to accept her vows as a nun. Then, eventually, perhaps after Sighere's death, she established a convent at Chich, in Essex, where she ruled as first abbess.
Her death was accounted a martyrdom by some, but Bede makes no mention of Saint Osgyth. The 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris repeats some of the legend that had accrued around her name. The site of her martyrdom became transferred to the holy spring at Quarrendon. The holy spring at Quarrendon, mentioned in the time of Osgyth's aunts, now became associated with her legend, in which Osgyth stood up after her execution, picking up her head like Saint Denis in Paris, and other cephalophoric martyrs and walked with it in her hands, to the door of a local convent, before collapsing there. 


An Exceptional Collection of Historic Buildings

St Osyth Priory has a long and fascinating history which dates back over many centuries. The Augustinian Abbey was founded shortly after 1120 by Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London, and significant elements from these monastic buildings survive, principally the late 15th century Gatehouse and the Bishop’s Lodgings added for Abbot John Vyntoner in 1527. The Abbey was dissolved on July 28, 1539 and passed first to Thomas Cromwell and then to Princess Mary. In 1553 the estate was granted by the Crown to Thomas, 1st Lord Darcy (1506-58), for the sum of £3,947. Lord Darcy was a courtier and administrator, who rose to become Lord Chamberlain of the household under Edward VI. Darcy and his successors transformed the Abbey, demolishing the church, which probably stood to the north-east of the Gatehouse, and extending Abbot Vyntoner’s domestic accommodation into a substantial house. The Abbot’s Tower and the Clock Tower and its attached ruined ranges, with their distinctive chequered walling, survive from the period of the 1st Lord Darcy. Whilst the brick range, linking the two towers, was added by Lord Darcy’s son, John, 2nd Lord Darcy, in around 1600. Queen Elizabeth I visited St Osyth Priory twice on her royal progress; in July 1561 and again in August 1579. 

The property was inherited in 1639 by Elizabeth Darcy, daughter of the 3rd Lord Darcy, who married Sir Thomas Savage, afterwards Earl Rivers and Viscount Colchester. Lady Savage inherited Melford Hall in Suffolk on her husband’s death in 1635 and St Osyth Priory from her father in 1639, and in 1641 she was created Countess Rivers in her own right. 

Lady Savage was a staunch Catholic and Royalist with the result that she suffered cruel depredations upon her property in the Civil War. In 1642, the rabble sacked her house at St Osyth, chased her to Melford and sacked that too. All the furnishings were stolen or destroyed, and the deer in the park carried off. Lady Savage escaped to London and was forced to compound for her lands, to the extent of being reduced to the debtor’s prison, where she died in 1650.


The severely damaged house was allowed to decay and remained un-inhabited for the next half-century. Thomas, 3rd Earl Rivers, purchased Marbury Hall near Macclesfield in Cheshire in 1684; he and his brother Richard, the 4th Earl, who succeeded him in 1694, preferred to reside here rather than at St Osyth’s Priory.

The Savage family continued to own St Osyth Priory with its 6,800 acre estate until 1714, when the Hon. Richard Savage bequeathed it to his natural daughter, Bessy, wife of Frederic Nassau de Zuylestein, 3rd Earl of Rochford (1682-1738). The 3rd Earl, who eventually took possession of the estate in 1721, made St Osyth’s Priory his main seat in England and began to restore the property. He added a new house to the west of the Bishop’s Lodgings, which he partially restored, allowing most of the remainder of the property to continue to decay. His son, the 4th Earl (1717-81), who inherited in 1738, added a two-storey range - the surviving 18th Century House - which linked his father's new house to the Bishop's Lodging. A courtier and diplomat, the 4th Earl ran up huge debts and was forced to sell off parts of the estate in 1775. The 4th Earl died childless in 1781 and the reduced St Osyth estate passed to his natural son, Frederic Nassau, whilst the title passed to his nephew. On Frederic’s death on 3 July 1845 the estate passed to his eldest son, William Frederic Nassau. He left the property, on his death in 1857, to his two daughters, Elizabeth Kirby and Eliza Brandreth who put the property up for auction in 1858. The contents were sold in April and the estate was auctioned in August; the estate fetched £211,685 in total. 

Charles Brandreth (husband of Eliza), purchased St Osyth Priory itself, though not the estate, for £12,000. He demolished most of the Georgian house in 1859. St Osyth’s Priory was briefly lived in by the Brandreths, though in 1862 it was leased to Hyman Allenby for a year. Eventually, in 1863, Mr (later Sir) John H Johnson, a London corn merchant, purchased the property. In the 1860s he remodelled the Bishop’s Lodging, and added an extensive kitchen range. Later he re-fitted the range attached to the Clock Tower and created the Chapel. When Johnson died in 1909 the property was inherited by his adopted daughter, Lady Mabel Cowley (nee Watts), and, when she died in 1920, the house and its remaining estate was again put up for sale. The property was then purchased by General Kincaid-Smith. 

The house was requisitioned during the Second World War and then sold in 1948 to the Loyal and Ancient Order of Shepherds who founded a convalescent home here. Their alterations were largely confined to the Victorian service range. In 1954 Mr Somerset de Chair, a popular novelist and MP, purchased the property, allowing the convalescent home to remain in the main building for many years (closed 1980), and converting the Gatehouse into a separate residence, as described by Mark Girouard in Country Life in 1958. De Chair developed the gardens and opened the property to the public. He also gradually sold off parts of the estate and allowed large scale gravel extraction to disfigure much of the surrounding landscape. After his marriage in 1974 to Lady Juliet Wentworth Fitzwilliam, the Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, which she had inherited, was displayed here. On de Chair’s death in 1995 the property was put up for sale by his widow, and it was eventually purchased by the present owners, the Sargeant family, in 1999.