Left: Henry Adams’s Harvard Graduation photograph. 1858. Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, On deposit from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Gift of Arthur S. Eldredge, 2.2002.2052. Right: The Older Adams c. 1885. Source: Courtesy of Harvard University Archives via Wikipedia. Photograph by William Notman.[Click on images to enlarge them.]

The letter James received was from Henry Brooks Adams, then a teacher of history at Harvard University. Adams wrote to the effect that if ever James received an invitation to stay at Wenlock Abbey and Priory, the Shropshire residence of the wealthy barrister and landowner Charles George Milnes Gaskell (1842-1919) and his wife Lady Catherine, he must accept. Why was Adams so insistent? Who was Charles Milnes Gaskell?

Henry Adams's friendship with Gaskell, then a Cambridge undergraduate at Trinity College, began at nine o'clock on the morning of 27 April 1863, when both were invited to breakfast, in Brook Street, Mayfair, with Sir Henry Holland, Queen Victoria's physician (Education 204). Adams was then (from 1861 until 1868) Private Secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, US minister to Britain.

Gaskell was the elder son of James Milnes Gaskell (1810-1873) who was Conservative MP for the borough of Wenlock from 1832 until 1868, and a distant cousin of Richard Monckton Milnes. The elder Gaskell entered the House of Commons at the age of twenty-two. His political career had been enhanced and promoted by his marriage in 1832 to Mary Williams Wynn (d.1869), second daughter of fellow MP, the Rt. Hon. Charles Williams Wynn (1775-1850) who represented Montgomeryshire, in central Wales, from 1799 until his death. The wealthy and powerful Williams Wynn family had owned large estates in Wales and Shropshire for generations; their main residence was Wynnstay Hall, near Ruabon (Rhiwabon in Welsh), a small town half-way between Wrexham and Llangollen, but geographically and psychologically close to the Shropshire border. Both Members of Parliament (father-in-law and young son-in-law) are depicted in the huge and historic painting by Sir George Hayter entitled The House of Commons 1833 commemorating the passing of the first Reform Bill of 1832 and the first session of the new House of Commons on 5 February 1833.

The Gaskell parents showed Adams immense kindness, considering him a member of their family and an excellent friend for their son, Charles, "perhaps a less dangerous friend than some Englishman might be" (Education 206). Mary Milnes Gaskell, whom Adams regarded as "one of the most intelligent and sympathetic women in England" (206), looked after him like a son. As the Anglo-American friendship developed – Gaskell was addressed familiarly as "Gask" or "Carlo", "Caro amico mio", "My dear Karl", "My dear Carlo" – Adams was invited to their Yorkshire residence, Thornes House, near Wakefield, and also became a frequent guest at their Shropshire residence, customarily known as Wenlock Abbey, although technically a Priory. The property had belonged to the Williams Wynn family from whom James Milnes Gaskell purchased it in 1857 and indeed rescued it from ruin (Wenlock Abbey 9-26). The new owners set about restoring first of all the decaying fifteenth-century Prior's lodging – for their own living accommodation – that had been used as a farmhouse. In addition, they had a London home at 12, Stratford Place, in a quiet cul-de-sac of mainly eighteenth-century houses just off Oxford Street, on the north side.

Adams was invited to Wenlock Abbey in the early autumn of 1864: he signed the Visitors' Book on 2 October, for the first, but not the last time. In his Autobiography, he recalls the impact of his first taste of Shropshire when he "drove about Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin with her [Mary Milnes Gaskell], learning the loveliness of this exquisite country, and its stores of curious antiquity". "It was", he continued, "a new and charming existence; an experience greatly to be envied – ideal repose and rural Shakespearian peace" (Education 207).

View of the Wrekin from Wenlock Edge. Photograph 2005 by the author.

The immediacy of that experience was shared in letters to his older brother, Charles Francis Adams (1835-1915), then a Colonel in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Adams was a prolific and engaging letter writer and almost immediately after returning from Wenlock on 6 October 1864, wrote enthusiastically to his brother about his "very enjoyable" visit (Samuels 69). The twenty-six-year-old American provides a valuable insight into life at the old Abbey, that Henry James was to complement thirteen years later in 1877. Here are his first impressions of parts of the interior – the Great Hall and Adams's bedroom with a spiral staircase:

God only knows how old the Abbot's house is, in which they are as it were picnicking before going to their Yorkshire place for the winter. Such a curious edifice I never saw, and the winds of Heaven permeated freely the roof, not to speak of the leaden windows. We three, Mrs Gaskell, Gask and I, dined in a room where the Abbot or the Prior used to feast his guests; a hall on whose timber roof, and great oak rafters, the wood fire threw a red shadow forty feet above our heads. I slept in a room whose walls were all stone, three feet thick, with barred, square Gothic windows and diamond panes; and at my head a small oak door opened upon a winding staircase in the wall, long since closed up at the bottom, and whose purpose is lost. [69]

The Abbot's House. Photograph by the author 2005.

Adams was a most congenial guest whose lively conversation almost competed with that of the jackdaws who had taken up permanent residence in the ruins:

The daws in the early morning, woke me up by their infernal chattering around the ruins, and in the evening we sat in the dusk in the Abbot's own room of state, and there I held forth in grand after-dinner eloquence, all my social, religious and philosophical theories, even in the very holy-of-holies of what was once the heart of a religious community.

He was also a practical guest who assisted with the ongoing excavation of the ruins and participated in the discovery of some ancient tiles: ‘Wherever we stepped out of the house, we were at once among the ruins of the Abbey. We dug in the cloisters and we hammered in the cellars. We excavated tiles bearing coats of arms five hundred years old, and we laid bare the passages and floors that had been three centuries under ground’ (69).

Gaskell and Adams explored the Shropshire countryside and got to know some of the local farmers and their rustic dwellings, probably some of Milnes Gaskell's tenants: "Then we rambled over the Shropshire hills, looking in on farmers in their old kitchens, with flitches of bacon hanging from the roof, and seats in the chimney corners, and clean brick floors, and an ancient blunderbuss by the fire-place' (69). They visited some of the large estates in the vicinity (perhaps Attingham Park renowned for its deer and pheasants, or Willey Park) and "drove through the most fascinating parks and long ancient avenues, with the sun shining on the deer and the pheasants, and the 'rabbit fondling his own harmless face'" (A reference to Tennyson's "Aylmer's Field," 1864). Near Attingham Park and Hall, the Roman settlement of Uriconium (Wroxeter) provided the picturesque setting for their gastronomic picnic "in the ruins of what was once the baths" where they "ate partridge and drank Château Léoville, where once a great city flourished, of which not one line of record remains, but with which a civilisation perished in this country" (Samuels 69). But they were also sipping their top-of-the-range Bordeaux wine on ground that had once been a great Roman vineyard.

In 1864, the two Members of Parliament for the borough of Wenlock were James Milnes Gaskell and George Cecil Weld Forester (1807-1886), the second son of the first Lord Forester, was elected MP for Wenlock in 1828, a position he held for 46 years and became "Father of the House". Forester's country house was Willey Hall – about three miles east of Much Wenlock – an impressive early nineteenth-century mansion designed in the neo-classical style by the English architect Lewis Wyatt, with landscaped parkland, lakes and pools. The relationship between the two MPs was close – they had known each other for many years – and it is not inconceivable that Adams was invited to Willey Hall. Perhaps that was what he had in mind when he wrote to his brother: "Then we dined with a neighboring MP whose wife was eccentric in her aspirates and asked me if I didn't like that style" (69).

Adams was delighted with his Shropshire stay where he had enjoyed the Gaskells' "rather sensual and intellectual style". The visit was, he told his brother, "a species of quiet success, so curiously different from the usual stiffness of English society, that I shall always feel a regard for the old barn, though it was as cold a place as one wants to be near" (70).

In the summer of 1870, that same Abbey provided an oasis of calm and stability away from Paris and the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war. Adams took refuge in its profound peace and found comfort in the timelessness of the surroundings: "Only the few remaining monks, undisturbed by the brutalities of Henry VIII – three or four young Englishmen – survived there, with Milnes Gaskell acting as Prior" (Education 290-91). It was much older than the medieval period: its roots went back millions of years to the age of the pteraspis, the primitive fish that inhabited the area and whose fossils remain in the stone that built the Abbey. In a passage that seems to draw on James's impressions, Adams recalled in his autobiography:

The August sun was warm; the calm of the Abbey was ten times secular; not a discordant sound – hardly a sound of any sort except the cawing of the ancient rookery at sunset – broke the stillness; and, after the excitement of the last month, one felt a palpable haze of peace brooding over the Edge and the Welsh Marches. Since the reign of Pteraspis, nothing had greatly changed; nothing except the monks. Lying on the turf, the ground littered with newspapers, the monks studied the war correspondence. [291]

A photograph taken in July 1873 depicts a group of guests – Lady Pollington, Lady Cunliffe, the honeymoon couple Marian (Clover) and Henry Adams, Sir Robert Cunliffe, Lord Pollington – with Charles Milnes Gaskell and his faithful hound Venus in the centre, in a romantic, picturesque setting before the ruined chapter house of Wenlock Priory (Wenlock Abbey 122-25). Clover Adams wrote engagingly to her father on 23 July about the house party and her enjoyment at being there: "Lady Cunliffe and I sketch in the ruins and gossip and wind up the day with 5 o'clock tea in my room, which is the pleasantest in the house, I think – stone walls with a fireplace eight feet wide cut out of it, furniture and floor black oak, white roses flattening their cheeks against the mullion windows" (133-34)

This setting is the subject of Whymper's sketch in which he depicts a farmer, smoking a pipe and resting against one of the arches, as he guards his flock of sheep grazing among the ruins. This sketch, signed in the bottom right-hand corner by Whymper (the initial is indistinct), was one of the illustrations in Mandell Creighton's The Story of Some English Shires, published in 1897.

Chapter House, Wenlock Abbey, by Whymper. Mandell Creighton, The Story of Some Shires, 1897.


Adams was well aware of James's desire for rest and for the continent. But, an astute judge of character, he also sensed that Gaskell and James would be compatible companions with interests in common and that the relationship would be beneficial: and so it proved, for they were to become lifelong friends. Adams also knew of James's fascination for inhabited medieval castles and abbeys, and his overriding concern was for him to experience such things at first hand: Wenlock Abbey was the ideal place and presented an exceptional, indeed unique, opportunity. James was in a quandary, for he barely knew Gaskell. He "had seen next to nothing of Gaskell & his wife in town", had had "but 10 minutes' talk" with him, and "had but admiringly looked upon" Lady Catherine, for he had "been unable to accept their invitation to dinner", James explained in a letter to Adams (Monteiro 41). James had first met Gaskell and his wife, whom he described as "a very old-English beauty" (Monteiro 40), in late May or early June 1877, at the home of Francis Turner Palgrave (1824-1897), the English poet and critic better known today as the editor of the Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language (1861). Palgrave was Gaskell's brother-in-law, having married his sister Cecil Grenville Milnes in 1862.

Gaskell followed this up with an abortive visit to James who was not at home when he called, as James explained to Adams in his letter of 5 June 1877: "Gaskell called on me 2 days since (I didn't see him), and shall return his visit to day & hope to see something of him" (40).

Adams prepared the ground for the invitation by writing to Charles Milnes Gaskell on 22 June 1877:

Harry James writes me that you called on him of which I am glad, for I like him though I don't read his books. Some people admire them. If you ask him to Wenlock, you will I doubt not, find him much after your own taste. He would appreciate Wenlock, which is quite after his theory of life and imagination, so I hope you will try him. [Quoted 40n]

Henry James with his brother William by Marie Leon. This is a bromide print from the early 1900s, measuring 7 7/8 in. x 5 7/8 in. (or 201 mm x 150 mm). © National Portrait Gallery London, given by the Royal Historical Society in 1952 (accession no. NPG x18720).

James explained to his brother William the somewhat unusual circumstances of the invitation, "to go down for three days to Wenlock Abbey". He was on the point of declining, "when, by an odd chance, came a letter from Adams saying – 'If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don't for the world fail to go'; and adding other remarks, of a most attractive kind: the upshot of which has been that I have accepted the invitation, and go on the 12th, to stay to the 16th" (Life 2.123).


James prepared for the visit by consulting Murray's Handbook for Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire (1870): the entry relating to Much Wenlock concentrated on the Abbey. "It is", James wrote to his brother William, "according to Murray's Shropshire, a very exquisite place: a medieval Abbey, half ruined, half preserved and restored" (2.123). The reputation, authority and reliability of all the series of Handbooks were based on the name of Murray, the well-established family firm in Albemarle Street, London. It was generally assumed that the author was John Murray: however, research in the Murray archives has since shed light on the identity of many of the contributors. That first Handbook for Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire was compiled by the Welsh-born industrialist George Phillips Bevan (1830-1889) and the history writer William Edward Flaherty (1807-1878; see Lister 104, 124). Bevan and Flaherty relied to some extent on existing accounts by John Henry Parker (1808-1884), the Oxford historian, friend of Ruskin, and author of Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England: from Richard II to Henry VIII (1859); and on the work of Edward Blore (1787-1879), the English architect and draughtsman who sketched Wenlock Abbey. They also consulted Archaeologia Cambrensis, the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association.

Clearly this was no ordinary abbey. In an exceptional setting of thirty acres were the monastic ruins of St Milburga's Abbey and a Cluniac Priory, deep in the heart of the Shropshire countryside. The chapter house, a fine example of Norman architecture, featured chevron mouldings and rows of intersecting arches (sketched by Ruskin in 1850). The 100ft.-long two-storey secular building, the late fifteenth-century Prior's Lodge or Lodging, with a very high, sloping, oak roof, "light and elegant open cloister extending the whole length and communicating with the rooms on either floor", abutted at an angle the twelfth-century infirmary. The guidebook revealed parts of the private residence of the then owner James Milnes Gaskell. Glimpses were afforded of the kitchen and bakehouse, and unusual or even unique features such as the garde-robe (privy), the private oratory with an altar "open underneath for the reception of relics" and stone reading-desk "rudely carved with Norman foliage" (the "Wenlock lectern" now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), the abbot's Hall "a fine room of 3 bays, lighted by 4 windows of 2 lights each, on the 1st floor, over which is now the kitchen" and abbot's parlour.

A well-crafted invitation in the form of "a gracious note from Lady Catherine" (Monteiro 2.125), Adams's persuasion and influence, and an evocative Murray's Handbook sufficed to attract James to the little market town of Much Wenlock with a population of around 1500, to experience life in an unusual country house inaccessible to the general public, as were most British country houses at the time. So for five days James turned his back on London and headed, for the first time, to Shropshire, the rich agricultural county on the border with Wales. It was to provide material for one of his travel sketches, "Abbeys and Castles", first published in Lippincott's Magazine in October 1877, and later in Portraits of Places in 1883.

Last modified 12 March 2020