Ashburnham House

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Coordinates: 51°29′55″N 0°7′42″W / 51.49861°N 0.12833°W / 51.49861; -0.12833

View of Ashburnham House, 1880

Ashburnham House is an extended seventeenth-century house on Little Dean's Yard in Westminster, London, United Kingdom, and since 1882 has been part of Westminster School. It is occasionally open to the public, when its staircase and front drawing room in particular can be seen to be superb.

There has been a building on the site since the 11th century. The current house incorporates remains of the medieval Prior's House, and its garden is the site of the monks' refectory, and some of the earliest sittings of the House of Commons: one instance in which they met in the refectory was to impeach Piers Gaveston, in the time of Edward II.[1]

The current Ashburnham House took its present form around the time of the Restoration when it was leased by Charles Ashburnham, a friend of Charles II.[2] It subsequently became a London seat for the family that became the Earls of Ashburnham. As the staircase has the characteristics of work by Inigo Jones or his pupil John Webb the design of the house was for many years attributed to them. Now however the house as a whole is attributed to architect William Samwell.[3]

The Ashburnham family lived in the house until John, 1st Earl Ashburnham sold the lease to the crown in 1730.[4] It became the repository for the Cotton library of historic manuscripts (originally assembled by Sir Robert Cotton), to which was later added the Old Royal Library; and also a residence for the keeper of the king's libraries, Richard Bentley. These books and manuscripts now form the heart of the collections of the British Library. A fire in Ashburnham House on 23 October 1731 damaged many items: a contemporary records Bentley leaping from a window with the priceless Codex Alexandrinus under one arm. The manuscript of Beowulf was among those that suffered damage, a fact reported in The Gentleman's Magazine.[5]

In 1739 the Dean and Chapter bought the property from the Crown for ₤500.[6]

The house was the object of a scandalous legal and parliamentary battle between the canons of Westminster Abbey and Westminster School for twenty years after the Clarendon Commission recommended that Westminster Abbey surrender it to the School upon the demise of its current occupant, the redoubtable sub-dean The Reverend Lord John Thynne, who lived there with his equally formidable wife and nine children. The Dean and Chapter attempted to evade their obligations under the Public Schools Act, by purportedly using their control of the School's Governing Body to sell out the school's statutory right for the benefit of the Canons. Even after this was defeated by a debate in Parliament, Lord John survived until 1881, once surprising the headmaster looking over his garden wall with the words "Not Dead Yet, Dr. Gow!"

The house was the original location of Westminster's first day-house, also known as Ashburnham House, from when it was founded until it moved in 1951 to 5 Dean's Yard.

During the Second World War, the library was used as a communications station for the Royal Air Force, the ground floor as the American officers' "Churchill Club", and a senior conference facility for secret military purposes.

In 1969, it was used as one of the locations for the The Magic Christian (film).

See also[edit]

Ashburnham Place


  1. ^ 'Westminster Abbey: Chapter House, cloister and Deanery', Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), pp. 450-462. URL: Date accessed: 2 January 2010.
  2. ^ Stourton. Page 27.
  3. ^ Stourton. Page 27.
  4. ^ Stourton. Page 29.
  5. ^ "Beowulf: Ashburnham House Fire"
  6. ^ Stourton. Page 29.


  • Stourton, James (2012). Great Houses of London (Hardback). London: Frances Lincoln. ISBN 978-0-7112-3366-9.