The Manor House at Grace Dieu
On 25 July 1833, Ambrose Lisle March Phillipps de Lisle married Laura Mary Clifford in the Church of St James, Spanish Place, London. On his marriage Ambrose had received a settlement of £1200 per annum and the Manor of Grace Dieu made to him by his father Charles March Phillipps of Garendon Park.
Grace Dieu received its name from the Priory founded by Roesia de Verdun, c. 1240, and dedicated to Our Lady, ‘de Gratia Dei’, or in the Norman French of the period, Grace Dieu, and it is still so called to the present day. The Priory was dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII, and the picturesque remains near the school are greatly admired even today.
During the years 1833 to 1834 Ambrose de Lisle built a splendid manor house at Grace Dieu; it was designed by William Railton in the Tudor-Gothic style. A small chapel was attached. But in 1837 Augustus Welby Pugin visited Grace Dieu; he was very impressed by what he saw, and greatly enlarged the house and chapel. Later, Sir Banister Fletcher, whose grand stair-case still stands, also enlarged the house.
Grace Dieu Manor faces south and east. The windows are Perpendicular style, mullioned and transomed with arched lights. Acres of lawns, gardens, trees – the cedars of Lebanon were famous – surrounded the manor house which had a fine view of the rocks and wooded slopes of Charnwood Forest.
Life at Grace Dieu in the 1840’s was gracious, civilized and cultured. A constant stream of visitors came and were received with a welcome, hospitality and urbanity not excelled by any other great house in Leicestershire. Among the distinguished visitors were Dr (later Cardinal) Newman, Beresford Hope, Dr Ignaz von Döllinger, the Comte de Montalembert, Cardinal Manning, Lord and Lady Fielding and, above all, John, Sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury, a very dear friend of the de Lisles and the wealthiest patron of Catholicism in England at that time.
Ambrose and Laura had sixteen children, nine sons and seven daughters. Unlike most Victorian families, the de Lisle children had great freedom and were encouraged to invite the guests of their parents to share in their games. Laura de Lisle ran a little school for the children of the tenants, and when Dr Luigi Gentili was chaplain, he encouraged her to take a deep and lively interest in the spiritual and temporal welfare of all the tenants of the Grace Dieu estate.
For thirty years Ambrose de Lisle and his family lived here at Grace Dieu. It was at Grace Dieu that the “Second Spring of Catholic re-emergence”, as Cardinal Newman called it, had such a wonderful flowering…. “there is a glorious work going on” as de Lisle wrote to Lord Shrewsbury.
In short, Grace Dieu was a great centre of religious, intellectual and spiritual life – quite unique in the East Midlands.
“Communities are lost and empires die. And things of holy use unhallowed lie, They perish – but the intellect may raise From airy words alone a pile that ne’er decays.” (‘Ode to Grace Dieu’, Wordsworth)
The chapel stands at the heart of Grace Dieu, spiritually as well as visually.
Designed by Railton it had a Rood-screen, the first to be erected in England since the general destruction of Roods ordered by Elizabeth I. It was the brain-child of Father John Lythgoe, S.J. When Pugin saw it, he fell into de Lisle’s arms: it was “so wonderfully to his taste.” Pugin greatly enlarged the chapel and adorned it with some of his finest work: it was often called “Pugin’s gem.”
Lord Shrewsbury gave the figure of Christ Crucified for the Rood: this Christ was treasured as the Rood of Sion Abbey founded by King Henry V in 1415. Pugin made statues of the Blessed Virgin and St John, and added a full complement of Gothic Revival furnishings. There is, of course, no east window; the chapel is oriented according to the universal and honoured traditions of Catholic antiquity. There were flanking side altars of St Joseph and St Philomena, the first altars to be dedicated to these saints in England. The three altars were richly decorated: painted and gilded and outstandingly beautiful. There are four windows on the south side, two lights in each window, and erected in memory of John, XVI Earl of Shrewsbury. The
west window has three lights and was erected in memory of the wife of de Lisle’s eldest son Charles who had died tragically in 1871. Legend has it that her ghost still haunts the manor house!
In the sanctuary there is a fine brass over the vault of Reginald de Lisle, the young son of Ambrose and Laura who died at the early age of five years and eight months. Once over the High Altar, and now on the north wall, is the beautiful Byzantine style icon of Our Lady, ‘Mater Divinae Gratiae’, given to de Lisle by his friend and admirer, Cardinal Placido Zurla.
On the north side of the chapel Pugin built and designed the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary. The altar stands under a graceful baldachino or ciborium designed by Pugin who always considered it his best effort. The ciborium stands upon four decorated, pointed arches which are supported by four graceful columns richly clustered. The north windows are very beautiful, traceried, three light windows and filled with some of Hardman’s best glass.
A large crypt runs the length of the nave. It has a stone altar dedicated to St Edward the Confessor. In it three of de Lisle’s sons, one daughter, his daughter-in-law Fanny, and two grand-children were buried.
When Father Ambrose St John, Newman’s dearest friend, visited Grace Dieu in 1874, he wrote to Laura de Lisle: “I almost wish I had not seen Gracedieu chapel… so exquisitely beautiful it was, breathing an atmosphere of prayer and peace.”
The liturgical re-ordering of churches which took place in the 1960’s did not leave Grace Dieu chapel unscathed. Indeed, even earlier, the sanctuary had been truncated: the Rood-screen, the lateral altars, the stalls, the beautiful painted altar, the pulpit, and the font have all gone. Nevertheless, the chapel at Grace Dieu still remains a beautiful and prayerful place with an atmosphere all of its own: “Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta caeli: et vocabitur aula Dei.” (Gen. 28, 17)
Wordsworth’s words “… but the intellect may raise From airy words alone a pile that ne’er decays” were quite literally fulfilled for a second time in May 1933 when the Rosminian Fathers opened Grace Dieu as a Preparatory School for Ratcliffe College.
The school began in a humble way with eight boys, a small staff and with Father Francis O’Malley as Headmaster, a notable artist and follower of Eric Gill. Through the first years the number of boys continued to grow; those early years were very happy and carefree. In the beautiful and historic surroundings of the manor house and grounds boys and staff seemed to live a perfect Arcadian life. In the summer terms the Squire and Mrs de Lisle used to invite the school to afternoon tea at Garendon. This was always a special occasion, and it is pleasant to record the great interest which the de Lisle family showed to the fledgling school.
During the war years the school grew in numbers: Grace Dieu was a safe and desirable place for parents to send their boys in those grim years. The war hardly seemed to touch the life of the school: the chief problem seemed to be the meagre sweet ration!
From its very beginning the discipline and general ordering of the school were inspired by the educational ideals of Father Antonio Rosmini, the saintly Founder of the Rosminians, a man of the most extraordinary gifts and energy. The Headmasters were men of vision, and this is typified by the outstanding example of Father Robert Bell who was twelve years on the staff, five as Headmaster (1963-68). It was the living presence of Christ in the community of boys, staff and parents who tried to love God and each other – this is the real measure of Grace Dieu as a school.
In 1983 Grace Dieu celebrated its Golden Jubilee. Then the school had just about 130 boys, nearly all boarders, from 9+ to 13+. The following years show a marvellous expansion and success. In September 1988 the Junior School was established for ages seven to nine and so successful was it that in 1991 the Infant School was born for ages five to seven. Later a Pre-Prep Department was also established for little children aged from three to five. The school opened its doors to girls and their arrival gave the school a powerful and feminine touch which has added greatly to the life of the school in all its many facets.
Since then Grace Dieu has gone on every year from strength to strength. Yet, despite the increase in numbers, the old charm still remains. One generation gives place to another, but the spirit, the ethos, of what really makes Grace Dieu remains. The life of the school, its whole existence, is deeply rooted in the Gospel, and the caring, family atmosphere, the ‘genius loci’ inherited from the de Lisle family and those who have gone before us. It is impossible not to be captivated by the mysterious, indefinable thing that is Grace Dieu.
“I am the flame of beauty
And I burn that all may see Beauty.” (Lionel Johnson)