The history of Jerningham family titles is complicated by two factors. The first is not that unusual; the titles of Baronet and Lord Stafford frequently passed to childless individuals. The second is more so; for large parts of the eighteenth century the senior members of the family spent long periods abroad. The political situation following the Glorious Revolution drew them to the Jacobite cause, and this meant exile in France. Of course the fact that they could practice their religion freely in Europe was strong driver in this respect.
This was a Catholic family, whose rise to prominence was a direct result of their adherence to their faith. Henry Jerningham were given the large Manor of Costessey, which had previously belonged to the Crown, by a grateful Queen Mary Tudor. When her brother Edward VI died in 1553 there were some in the country who would rather have virtually anyone come the throne rather than the staunch Catholic Mary Tudor. The name of Lady Jane Grey was put forward as the new Protestant queen. Her claim to the throne was not a very good one, and it was up to Mary and her co-conspirators to defeat her from their hideout at Kenninghall in Norfolk. Among those of the local Catholic gentry who rallied to her cause was Henry Jerningham. He had been born in 1509 in Somerleyton in Suffolk. Both his parents had served Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon, and Henry himself had served Princess Mary, with the title of Seamster.
Once she had seized the throne he was made Privy Councillor, Vice-Chamberlain of the Household and Knight of the Bath by the new queen. He was given the Manor of Costessey in 1555. He was made an executor of her will when she died in 1558, but he was removed by Queen Elizabeth, who did not want a Catholic involved at Court. Nevertheless, the Protestant Queen remained on good terms with the Jerninghams, and called at Costessey Hall on her visit to Norwich in 1578. Henry Jerningham had retired to his estates in East Anglia and in 1564 he completed the building of the new Hall at Costessey. The building included a Roman Catholic chapel which could be concealed from prying eyes. He was buried in St Edmund’s church in Costessey when he died in 1572.
His son Henry was not a knight and lived at Wingfield in Suffolk until his mother died at the end of 1583, when he moved to Costessey Hall. He had retained the older spelling of his surname, Jernigan. He too was a staunch Catholic, but his sons were removed to Westminster by Queen Elizabeth’s court where they were brought up as Protestants. The eldest of his sons (also called Henry) inherited Costessey in 1619. He finally converted to Catholicism shortly before his death in 1646. From 1621 the Jernigans were Baronets, the hereditary title of Knighthood created by James I in 1611. The family kept their heads down during the Commonwealth, although their continuing Protestant connections made life slightly more comfortable for them, even if the reformed faith never took hold of the family.
The 3rd Baronet Francis Jernigan was delighted when the Catholic James II became king in 1685, but this feeling did not last long. When James fled the country in 1688 as a result of the Glorious Revolution the Baronet left England for France. His second son, the young George Jerningham eventually became James II’s Comptroller of the Household in exile at Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris. Sir Frederick returned to Costessey after James Stuart’s death in 1701, but for over thirty years his younger son George was involved with the plots of the Jacobites to invade England and restore the Stuarts to the throne. He was deeply involved in James III’s expedition of 1706, when only bad weather and the English fleet prevented him landing in Scotland.
When Sir Frederick died in 1730 his son John became Baronet, but continued to live in the place he had made home, Painswick in Gloucestershire. Sir John died without issue in 1737, and his brother George became the 5th Baronet. He had returned to England 1733. It was through his marriage to Marie Plowden (b. 1704), one year after returning home, that the Jerninghams were able to claim the Stafford earldom. Perhaps to reflect their new status, the Jernigans were in future to be known once more as Jeringhams. When Maria’s father, the Earl of Stafford, died without a male heir, the Jerningham family inherited extensive lands in Staffordshire and elsewhere in the West Midlands. The re-establishment of the Barony was more involved, and Sir George’s grandson was eventually created Earl Stafford in 1824.
Sir George died in 1774 and was succeeded by his son Sir William. He was a very agreeable companion; Parson Woodforde dined with him and his wife at Weston Longville Hall, and found him friendly and talkative, but rather daunting on account of his superior social status. Sir George’s wife was born on the continent and educated in France, and their daughter Charlotte was being educated in Paris as the French Revolution broke out. The Jerninghams began to build on the Costessey estate, erecting the ‘Mary’s Tower’ in 1791; with the passing of the Catholic Relief Act in 1790 Sir William built an impressive Gothic chapel to replace the secret chapel of the Penal years. The Napoleonic Wars were still going on when Sir William died in 1809, and the first service to be held in the newly consecrated chapel was his Requiem Mass.
One of Sir William’s brothers, known as the ‘Chevalier’ Charles, became a naturalised French citizen and army officer until the Revolution and the rise of Napoleon interrupted his career. Another brother was Edward, a writer of some fame during his time, and who earned an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography for his verse and plays. He was the author of several publications including The Rise and Progress of Scandinavian Poetry (1784) and his plays were produced at Drury Lane. He was influential among the writers of the day and a friend of Horace Walpole. He was a dutiful son who looked after his widowed mother until her death. Despite a flirtatious lifestyle he remained unmarried. In spite of a thorough schooling in Catholic theology at Douai he became an Anglican.
The eldest of Sir William’s sons was called George; he, before inheriting the Baronetcy and Costessey Hall, spent much of his life in London. By the time he had been Lord of the Manor in Costessey for ten years his wife had built a large school (now known as St Augustine’s) to take 120 Catholic pupils from the surrounding area. This was to be run entirely at her husband’s expense.
After a lengthy lawsuit he gained the Stafford Barony in 1824. He next turned his attention to improving the Tudor Hall, egged on by his forceful wife. The Stafford Knot now began to appear around Costessey. After his death in 1851 his son, Henry Valentine Stafford Jerningham, continued the development of the house. In less than fifty years it had been transformed from modest Tudor Manor to a Victorian mansion. All was not as it seemed however; many of the rooms were filled higglety-piggelty with expensive but ill-assorted furniture. The Jerninghams appeared quite unable to manage so grand a house.
This was especially the case after 1884, when Lord Stafford (Sir Henry Valentine Jerningham) died without issue. He was succeeded by Sir Augustus, but he was a certified lunatic. The Commissioners in Lunacy administered the estate on his behalf. Before his mental problems became so severe that he was committed to an asylum at the age of 30 in 1860, he had married and had a number of children. All his sons pre-deceased him, and when Sir Augustus died in Brighton in 1892 he was succeeded by his brother Sir Fitzherbert Stafford-Jerningham; although not a lunatic, he was certainly an eccentric. He hardly ever left Costessey Park, on the grounds that his brother had been taken away never to return, and he did not want the same thing to happen to him.
Sir Fitzherbert, the last Lord Stafford to live at Costessey, was unmarried and on his death in 1913 he had expected to leave the entire estate to a single heir. However, as the Baronetcy could not descend through the female line, the estate was split up. The new Lord Stafford already had his hone in Swynnerton in Staffordshire, and had no use for the property in Costessey. The contents of the Hall were auctioned off in December 1913, but before the house could be sold the Great War had broken out. It was requisitioned by the War Office and used by the Army until the Armistice. When hostilities ended it proved impossible to sell the Hall as a going concern, and it was disposed of for demolition.