History of the 1620s House and Garden
Donington Le Heath Manor House is one of the oldest houses in Leicestershire and was built in around 1290.
The land was owned and given to Charley Priory by William de Sees in 1204 to help the passage of his soul through purgatory. The Priory then let out the house and grounds to tenants.
The present house was rebuilt by a lawyer named Robert de Herle in around 1290. One of his clients was John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, of Whitwick Castle.
It is uncertain whether the original manor house had a separate kitchen block, joined to the surviving chamber block by a great hall, or whether the building that survives was purpose-built as a private house by Robert.
Some of the 13th and early 14th century features from an 1856 drawing
After the death of Robert’s wife, Isabella, in c1320, the Manor House tenancy passed to the Pakeman and Digby families.
During the Wars of the Roses, the Digbys fought for the Lancastrians and lost four brothers at the Battle of Towton (1461). Although the house was technically owned by the Church, it was confiscated by the Yorkist King Edward IV.
Sir John Digby, who fought for Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth (1485), regained tenancy of the Manor.
In 1536, after the dissolution of Ulverscroft Priory, which then owned the Manor House, Henry VIII sold the Manor House to the Digby family.
The most famous Digby family member was Sir Everard Digby, who was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in the conspiracy to kidnap Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey following the intended blowing up of King James and Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot (1605).
Sir Everard’s uncle, John Digby, owned the house at the time of his execution.
In1614 James Digby, second son of John Digby, owned the house.
In 1618 Anna Digby (half-sister of James), married Thomas Swinglehurst of London. The modernisation of the house, by the addition of up-to-date mullioned windows and a new roof, may well be part of a marriage settlement or gift from the Digby family.
The earliest surviving pictures of the house. Left 1795 and right 1856.
Early in 1620, Thomas and Anne Swinglehurst owned the house and presumably lived in it but, later in the year they moved and sold the house back to the Digby Family – to either John or James.
By 1627 the land had been broken up into three parts. One part including a dovecote (and presumably the house), went to the Dilke Family of Maxstoke Castle, which contains ‘Sir Everard Digby’s dining table’.
In 1670 the owner, Thomas Harley, died, leaving the Manor House and a large area of land in a charitable trust. From 1670 to 1960 the Harley trust let out the Manor to many different tenant families. Because the rent went mostly to the charity, very little was changed in the house, preserving many 13th and 17th century features.
The Griffin Family and Friends at the house just before WW1
The empty house in the 1960s
In 1960 the house was sold to a local farmer, who raised pigs inside the house, accelerating its deterioration.
In 1963 the house was listed as an ancient monument.
In 1965 Leicestershire County Council bought the house and began a full restoration, which took seven years.