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Thorndon Hall and its park have seen many changes over the centuries both in name and in ownership. With its earliest records going back to the last days of the Anglo Saxon Kings then passing  from one powerful and wealthy family to another there are plenty of tales and secrets hidden in the fabric of the estate. This history of Thorndon has been put together to try and create a comprehensive collection of these stories and articles to give a full picture of the house and estate over the ages as well as trying to give a bit of a background to the characters that have either owned or lived at the house throughout its history. 

If you have any information that you feel has been missed out, or could be clarified or corrected please feel free to contact me and I will endeavour to do my best in correcting or including it in the site. If you have any old photographs of the house and park, especially those before it was renovated into apartments then I would be most grateful if you could supply me with a copy for the gallery.

I have broken down the history into key periods and stages. The earliest records around the time of the Domesday Survey, the rebuilding and creation of a lodge in the 15th century, the expansion and development into a grand country seat by the Petre family through to the remodelling and eventual relocation to where the building stands now.


1086 - 1573 Anglo Saxon Kings and the Domesday Survey

Official records of Thorndon date back to just before William the Conqueror's Domesday Survey of 1086, although there would have been settlements here dating back much further. 

Records indicate that the estate was held by two freemen during the reign of Edward the Confessor (one of the last Anglo Saxon Kings of England)  possibly Edmund, son of Algot then Robert FitzWimarc  and later by his son Suan (Swein or Sweyn) of Essex by the time of the 1086

The Manor of West Horndon was then held by Robert FitzWimarc the Sweyn of Essex, a great territorial lord and kinsman of Edward the Confessor and William of Normandy (the Conqueror) who held many manorial estates and built Rayleigh Castle.

East & West Horndon & Horndon on the Hill were historically known as Horninduna, Torninduna and Horndon. Horndon is the only name that survives today and Thorndon Park seems to get its name from an amalgamation of them all. These were recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086, when William the Conqueror, having successfully invaded England and defeated King Harold on the south coast near Hastings decided to carry out the most complete tax/asset survey in history. Two books were produced one going into considerable detail covering the area of East Anglia, and the other, the rest of the kingdom. Torninduna is in the little book.

The Fitz-Lewis Family

Later Thorndon was passed to the Thany, Brianzon, Drokensford, Neville families and then to John Fitz-Lewis a merchant from South Wales who was granted a licence from King Henry V that permitted the owner:

 ' to empark 300 acres, to surround his lodge within this park with walls and to crenellate and embattle the lodge'.


John Walker map of Old Thorndon Hall circa 1598

The site of this lodge is within the present day ruin wood to the west of Old Hall Pond. From subsequent surveys of the ruins we know that the house was moated with some bastion fortifications and that it was considerable extended in the middle of the 15th century.

John Fitz-Lewis and his successors remained in ownership of the West Horndon estate until 1526 when the heiress of the estate married John Mordaunt, a member of the wealthy family from Turvey in Bedfordshire (Some accounts state that  in a tragic turn of events both bride and groom died when the hall caught fire on the wedding night although we are researching for evidence of this). The house did have the occasional fire, as many did of the time and was later left a partial ruin until the 3rd Lord Mordaunt sold the estate to his family friends the Petres of Ingatestone in 1573.

1573-1762 The Petre Family

Sir John Petre - 1st Baron of Writtle

In 1573 Sir John Petre (later to become the 1st Lord Petre) whose father Sir William Petre had been secretary of state and held high office positions under the Kings Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queens Mary and Elizabeth, moved into the house previously built by John Mordaunt and over the next 20 years rebuilt and improved the estate turning it into a fine Elizabethan mansion and the family's principle seat. As a result much of the old fortified house and moat was demolished and filled in. This can be seen in the John Walker map of 1598 above.

The Visit of Duke Cosmo of Tuscany

Duke Cosmo of Tuscany included Thorndon Hall in his tour of England in 1669 and included it in his records held in Italy. There are only two known illustrations of the old hall. These are shown below.

Illustration of Old Thorndon Hall 1669 from Duke Cosmo's visit

West Horndon / Thorndon Hall was the main family residence for the Petres until the 6th Baron decided to move back to the ancestral home at Ingatestone. His grandson the 8th Baron (Robert) would later move the family back to West Horndon in the 1730s following his dream to develop a botanical estate to rival any seen in England.

Alternative view of Thorndon Old Hall

The Botanical Grand Plan

Robert Petre (8th Baron) (1713-1742) was a keen botanist, horticulturalist and landscape designer of his day. He first got a taste for plants when looking after his grandmother's gardens at Thorndon. When he inherited a sizable fortune from his father on maturity he laid out grand plans with the help of Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni for the improvement and expansion of West Horndon into a house more in line with the fashions of the day. He also and commissioned Sieur Bourginion in 1733 to landscape the estate and design a water garden around the enlarged Old Hall lake.


The plans involved a complete remodelling of the existing hall updating the exterior from its Elizabethan mix to a more structured and symmetrical Palladian style that was very much the fashion of the time. He ordered a  grand portico of 6 columns that was imported from Italy in 1742 and drawings were put together for demolition and remodelling of the existing house to fit in with the fashions.

The 8th Baron Petre was a keen botanist and imported many specimens from the Americas via John Bartram and JF Gronovius to source unusual plants and trees for the Thorndon Estate including the first ever Camellia grown in Britain. Part of the plans that he did complete were his collection of colossal hot-houses (stoves)  said to be some of the largest in the country to the East of the main house where the Baron successfully cultivated Pineapples, Bananas, Guavas, Papayas and Limes.

A Camellia

Between 1740 and 1742 over 60,000 trees of over 50 different species were cultivated and planted (many on the main drives were already established and substantial in size requiring special equipment move them into place) at Thorndon some of which still survive throughout the estate.

The dream and vision to completely remodel the house and estate was never full realised. The family was hit by the smallpox epidemic which took the lives of 30 of the Petre family including the 8th Baron at the young age of 29 leaving his son and heir the 9th Baron only a few months old. The estate plan was put on hold and Thorndon Hall and Park was nursed while the young Baron grew up, accumulating a vast fortune at the same time. By the time of his maturity the house and estate had largely been neglected and had fallen from its grand status. (WALPOLE VISIT) A fire in 17?? left much of the house in a ruinous and run down state.

As a result the 9th Baron on taking over control of the family estates decided to take the revolutionary decision of completely relocating the house and building a state of the art brand new Palladian mansion at the top of the slope about 1 mile and a half to the north of the old hall.

1762-1878 Thorndon New Hall

James Paine (1717-1789) was given the commission to design a grand new seat for the Baron. Paine was a very popular architect of the time and had carried out numerous designs for many of the great families, many of them Catholic. The plans were put forward and the building started in 1763 for about 7 years. The interiors were designed by another famous interior architect Samuel Wyatt. Although we do not have any images of his work at Thorndon there are many examples in houses around today to show the opulence and level of his designs.

James Paine's South Elevation (Note the two proposed wings that were not built)

The North Elevation and main entrance

Cross Section of the new house

Ground Floor Plan Showing Chapel and Kitchens in East Pavilion and Stables in West

Piano Nobile or 1st and principle Floor with access to balcony

Mezzanine floor of Main House (2nd Floor)

Attic Floor of main house and 2nd floor for the pavillions

Designed by James Paine in 1764 at a cost of over 250,000 the new house was built in 6 years and used the grand Italian portico from the old hall on its new south facade.

Capability Brown

To match the new house a new landscape had to be designed. The fashion was very much for a natural wild look rather than the ornamental regimented French and Italian styles of before. Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was  commissioned at a cost of 5000 to redesign the grounds (along with Richard Woods) away from the ornate Bourginion plan to a more natural sweeping landscape. Some of his work is still visible (such as New Hall Pond) and some of the older designs from Bourginions plans were merged into the plans (Calvary hill and Octagon Plantation).

The estate was now at its height with over 1000 acres of parkland, deer parks and two lakes. But all this expenditure stretched the previously overflowing family assets and left the Baron almost broke.

1773 Map of Essex showing the Thorndon Park Estate at its greatest (Before Capability Browns Landscaping). 
Note the 2 mile driveway from Shenfield Common

BREADALBANE HOUSE - 21 Park Lane (Architect - James Paine) Lord Petre commissioned this house at the same time as New Thorndon Hall for his London address. The Petres have been linked to vaious addresses in Mayfair and Hyde Park Gardens.


London home (Breadalbane House) attacked (?) and the rioters march to Warley to target the new house at Thorndon. Luckily held back by the King's army at Warley Barracks.

A Royal Visit from King George III and Queen Isabella - Inspection of Warley Barracks during Napoleonic Wars

The Thorndon Hunt - Now the Essex Union Hunt

Marengo - Napoleon's war horse comes to Thorndon

Napoleon Crossing the Alps - Jacques-Louis David 1800

At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Lord William Petre (11th Baron 1793 to 1850) is said to have captured Marengo, the grey Arabian horse of Napoleon I of France, although in talking with his decendent the current Lord Petre he does not believe that his ancestor would have been at the battle being a Catholic. However whether or not the Baron was present at the battlefield it is believed that he acquired the horse and brought it back to the Thorndon Hall,  later selling it to Lieutenant-Colonel Angerstein of the Grenadier Guards for stud. Marengo lived on for another 11 years and died at the age of 38. The horse's skeleton was preserved and is now on display at the National Army Museum in Chelsea, London. Marengo is believed to be the horse in the painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps and is known to have carried the Emperor in the Battles of Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt, Wagram and Waterloo.

Thorndon Park Deer  - Exported to populate New Zealand

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The Great Fire of 1878

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Thorndon's Renaissance

1920 - Thorndon Park Golf Club - Henry (Harry) Shapland Colt (designer)

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1939-45 - Italian Prisoner of War Camp

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1944 - Monty's 7th Armoured Division 'Desert Rats' Preparation for the D-Day Normandy landings based at Thorndon Park (Marshalling area S5)

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Old Thorndon Hall - Jennifer C Ward
Garden History Society - Occasional Paper No. 2 (1970)
A History of Brentwood & South Weald - Victoria Country History of Essex - Gladys A Ward
British History Online
Essex Archives