Haddon Hall has not so much a pedigree as a Jacob's ladder of history stretching from the present day into the mists of antiquity. The first authentic trace we have of it is in the time of William the Conqueror, when it was already a sorry ruin. William bestowed the ruin and the estate on his son William Peverel, a transaction which has given us world-wide associations with Peverel of the Peak. Part of the dwelling then erected on the ruins of the Saxon building still remains. Haddon Hall, as we know it now, is a glorious Tudor building standing on a hill, and dominating the country for many miles, and of course it has a room in which Queen Elizabeth slept; no self-respecting English country house is without one. The property was brought into the Vernon family by Avice de Avenell, in about the year I I50.
He married first Margaret, daughter of Sir Gilbert Taylebois,knt., and by her he had two daughters - Margaret and Dorothy. Of Margaret we do not hear much, because she grew up and married well amid a cloud of lawyers and settlements, as any well brought up young lady should.
But of Dorothy plenty is to be heard. First of all, there was her hair. It was reddish, and fell in great masses to the ground itself. Her eyes, too, were very lovely. She was her father's favourite, and rode hawking with him, and by the time she was fifteen, which, in I560, was quite a marriageable age, suitors were already thronging about her. The beautiful heiress of Sir George Vernon might have been supposed to have everything she wanted, but apparently the trouble was that she had rather more, for her father had married again, a daughter of Sir Ralph Longford, and by the effect on the daughters of the household one can only suppose that she was at any rate lacking in tact. Margaret's wedding was hurried on, Dorothy's behaviour became odd and abstracted, and even Sir George did not leave off wearing a gold rosary in which Dorothy had twined some of her dead mother's hair.
It is now time for the entrance of the hero, and in all respects he is satisfactory. He was good-looking, of an extremely ancient family, with Royal blood in his veins; he was a younger son, a Protestant, whereas the Vernons were Catholics, poor, and in every way charming and ineligible. The difference in religion was alone enough tomake impossible any thought of a marriage between a Manners and a Vernon. But what would you have, when a girl with red hair down to her heels goes hawking, and a younger son with beautiful manners meets her? Of course he fell in love. There was never an inaccessible girl yet with anything approaching good looks who was not fallen in love with by all the people who could not ever hope to marry her.
But John Manners did not intend to give up without a trial. Still in strict accordance with the accepted rules of romantic fiction, he disguised himself as a woodman; and took service with Sir George Vernon's chief forester. In this way he frequently saw Dorothy, but we do not know how he first began to press his suit.
Sir George loved both hawking and hunting. The woods round Haddon were rich in game, and Dorothy was probably frequently with her father before she met the young woodman. She was always with him afterwards. But even this device can hardly account for the rapidity with which matters progressed. They must have had some sort of go-between to carry letters, and tradition murmurs of an aged nurse, who loved Dorothy and hated her stepmother.
Meanwhile things at home were getting worse. Margaret's approaching marriage flung everybody into confusion. Even Haddon Hall is not large enough to hold an engaged couple without inconvenience to the other inhabitants ; and when the daughter of the King of the Peak married, it was an event for the whole of the country-side.
Lady Vernon, who very probably disliked Dorothy because she was her father's favourite, finding Margaret too important a person to be bullied, made her younger stepdaughter's life more and more uncomfortable. Dorothy was an amiable girl, and very lovable, but she had plenty of spirit of her own, and, besides, she was in love. Another thing began to trouble her also. She was beset with suitors, many of whom were so unimpeachably eligible that it was enough to make any girl dislike them. Her father began to talk about marrying her, too, as soon as Margaret was Lady Stanley. Lady Vernon pushed the project with all her power, for she was only anxious to have Haddon freed of both her stepdaughters.
Unfortunately, tradition and history alike fail us ; we can only suppose that in so thoroughgoing a romantic story the chief suitor must have been bald, elderly, and almost disgustingly rich. Anybody but a rather heavy father would have known what was going to happen, although everything seemed fairly smooth on the surface. Sir George, doubtless, felt that when Margaret was married he would really have time to look after Dorothy's affairs, and try to find out why she gave such a definite "No" to all her suitors.
At last Margaret's wedding-day came, and the whole country-side got up early and prepared to make as much noise as it could for as long a time as possible, for those were the days when tenants shouted themselves hoarse whenever anything happened in their landlord's family. According to custom, the festivities of the day ended with a great ball.
The whole county was there. Sir George was at the height of his good spirits, exercising the proverbial hospitality which had made him King of the Peak. Dorothy was dancing, with rather pale cheeks, her white satin frock billowing about her as she rose and sank in the movements of the dance.
Now, according to all the romantic stories that have ever been written, her lover should have been there, and he was. No longer dressed as a woodman, but in the guise of a minstrel, with a harp hung over his shoulder, we are told that he stood at the end of the hall biding his time. Growing bold, he even broke out into song, praising Dorothy's beauty, to the great delight of all the guests. If ever a man ought to have been on the look-out, it was Sir George, after that, for when an unknown minstrel appears in your hall singing praises of your daughter, it is quite time to look after her. But Sir George was busy among his guests.
At last the moment approached when the health of the bride and bridegroom was to be drunk, and then indeed there was noise, and stamping of feet, and clinking of glasses. And meanwhile, scurrying up the stairs into the dark part of the house, ran Dorothy, with frightened eyes and hasty breath. Over the rich dress she flung a cloak ; the glorious hair was hidden beneath a hood, and in this guise she looked out of a window and saw her lover waiting for her below.
The guests in the great hall were too busy dancing to take any note of a horse's hoof-beat dying away in the distance, but when Sir George called for Dorothy one can imagine the scene of confusion that took place ; how the old nurse, if she had any sense at all, was discovered fast asleep in bed ; how everyone searched high and low, and at last found the open window and a little silver-heeled shoe that had stuck in a grating when Dorothy made her leap into her lover's arms. Half the Midlands were scoured in search of the runaways, but by this time they were safe at Aylestone, in Leicestershire. Anywhere in Derbyshire the clergymen would have recognised Dorothy, but Aylestone was a Rutland manor, and under Rutland influence.
So far as we can find out, Sir George, when he found that the pair were actually married, felt, like a sensible man, that nothing further could be done, and the two were told that they might return and have a proper wedding feast, which they doubtless did. And, after this, so far as one can tell, they settled down to a respectable and humdrum life. The elopement in itself, perhaps, was romance enough.
Dorothy Vernon's Walk, Haddon Hall. This ancient and magnificent Tudor dwelling is immortalised as the scene of the romantic love story and elopement of the beautiful Dorothy Vernon with a scion of the house of Rutland. Photo, Photochrom Co.