Robert Emmet Robinson etched into glass this declaration of love for his wife, Indiana Allen Henley Robinson, in December 1838. (Photo courtesy Preservation Virginia)
On Tuesday, I received the opportunity to stand in an old room and recite words of love and fatality transcribed from etchings in a window pane by a husband to his wife.
The place is Bacon’s Castle in Surry, slightly more than an hour's drive from Richmond, where one can arrive by taking the scenic and frequent-stop route to the towns of the Colonial Triangle. Here, too, is peanut and pork country. Layers of history drape invisible over the fields and tufts of forest noted by frequent historical markers. I’m a nerd, thus when traveling through such a landscape it’s tough for me to get anywhere. But with the able shepherding guidance of Preservation Virginia’s Lauren Gwaley, I traveled for the first time to Bacon’s Castle.
Yours truly in front of Bacon's Castle (Photo by Lauren Gwaley)
Preservation Virginia is also promoting an ongoing campaign to raise $350,000 toward continuing maintenance and announce the success of a matching grant of $88,000 by the Cabell Foundation. This’ll go toward needed roof repairs by Peter Post Restoration and extensive brick repainting. Bacon’s Castle turned 350 years old in 2015.
The oldest brick structure in Virginia rises from green fields, imposing, but not aloof, a place that resembles the character of a person who has seen and experienced much. A house "learns" as each successor resident adapts the structure and leaves idiosyncratic indications of their tenure. In the case of Bacon’s Castle, the marks of former residents include often elaborate notations etched into panes of glass and children’s graffiti.
A children’s drawing in an upstairs room — four layers of wallpaper hid these 19th century graffiti sketches of nearby farmsteads and neighbors or members of the household. (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Preservation Virginia provides stewardship for the 5,300-square-foot house that began in 1665 as planter and merchant Arthur Allen’s residence. He chose to construct a house far larger than his needs, apparently for the projection of power and, well, because he could.
Allen wanted his home to resemble an English laird’s estate and thus he created what today is the country’s single surviving example of high Jacobean style. Set down amid the wide farmer's vast fields of Surry, it must have appeared to his nearest neighbors like a UFO we might gander at.
For perspective, the year when Allen’s workers raised the brick walls in Surry, the bubonic plague erupted in London and before the disease ran its course, 68,000 died. Molière premiered two plays, while two years later the epic poem "Paradise Lost" received publication and assured the immortality of the blind poet John Milton. Isaac Newton graduated from Cambridge. Shakespeare was dead for 48 years, although poet, playwright and critic John Dryden yet lived and satirist Jonathan Swift was born two years later.
Yet the builder enjoyed his stately manor just four years before dying. His son, Allen II, inherited the estate. The son capitalized upon his more than 2,000 acres and
became a powerful member of the Colonial House of Burgesses. His position put him in the sights of danger during the armed uprising led by spoiled brat troublemaker Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon's amalgamation of small farmers, free blacks, indentured servants and others disgruntled about Berkeley's perceived neglect of the troubled western frontier sought to take matters into their own hands. Along the way, they murdered Pamunkey Indians who weren't guilty of anything. The threat of violence caused Allen II to dash to the Eastern Shore to join his friend and the man Bacon loved to hate, Royal Gov. William Berkeley. Other neighboring Surry planters joined the rebel alliance.
On Sept. 18, 1676, after burning Jamestown, 70 of Bacon’s vigilantes busted into the vacant Allen house and trashed the place.
The Baconites slaughtered the Allen livestock — rebels gotta eat, right? They gulped down Allen II's good wine and, in a display of anarchic glee, busted up stuff of which later archaeologists found the shards and pieces.
Then the next month, Bacon died of dysentery in Gloucester County having never once set foot in the great brick house of the Allens. His name, though, ever after overshadowed theirs. Bacon’s intentions and motivations remain, for some, open to discussion.
The subject of my visit wasn’t about this incidence of revolting homewreckers – quite the opposite.
I came to read the declaration of affection, and contemplation of mortality, scratched into various panes in 1838, 1840 and 1841 during the residency of physician Robert Emmet Robinson and his wife, Indiana Allen Henley Robinson, the last Allen to live in her family's ancestral seat.
The Robinsons dwelt there five years – an eyeblink of time by Bacon Castle’s chronology — before their permanent relocation to Petersburg. The old place went into foreclosure and auction.
The longest and most elegant written testimony of Robinson's love is dated December 1838. That pane was removed before the 1972 acquisition by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — Preservation Virginia's former name. After the APVA began working on renovations, a descendant came forward with the pane sandwiched between two other pieces of modern machined glass and framed. The original pane was blown glass and contains bubbles and imperfections.
Glass preservation expert E. Scott Taylor hadn’t ever seen such exquisite writing of this nature in glass. What instrument Robinson used is not exactly known; perhaps a diamond attached to a dowel, nor why he sought to inscribe this enduring accounting of love for Indiana in a window pane. Cutting initials and statements in window glass are well-known in old houses, but the Bacon’s Castle example is in a different category. Robinson referred to the glass as “a little tablet.”
Thou art a little tablet on which to inscribe a record of human happiness and yet these words may be found here even after both of us have been laid in the dust so uncertain is everything connected with human life. We are happy now, dearest Nan, enjoying all the blessings of health, prosperity and matured affection and confidence – let us make the most of these bright and sunny hours of happiness – let us cull all the beautiful flowers that now strew our paths and lay them at each others feet, and when called to another world which duty or affection demanded, and may hope for a happy reunion in a world where care and sorrow are never known, cheer the heart and brighten the sufferings of that one of us who by the death of the other may be left in this cheerless world desolate and alone.
Taylor removed the pane from the frame and glass sandwich. He replaced the frame using a durable epoxy that can be removed should another kind of sealant come along.
Preservation Virginia wanted to celebrate the completion of this renovation.
Tuesday morning was the first time the statements of love and life’s casualty were publicly read. And your humble servant received the honor. Role tape.
By the way, Indiana went first to death on July 9, 1841, likely through a carriage accident. She’s buried in Petersburg’s Blandford Cemetery. The inscription on the stone isn't credited; perhaps the grieving husband devised the sentiments. He seems to have lived into middle age.
Indiana Allen Henley
Consort of R.E. Robinson, M.D.
Born March 24, 1818
Died July 9, 1841
Thy sleep how calm, thy peace how pure. The world no more can thee molest.
Though dead to friends, thy soul survives in Faith’s unclouded clime of rest.
You can experience some of this romance on Valentine’s Day from 4 to 6 p.m, when Preservation Virginia hosts an event at Bacon's Castle, including wine-food pairings and a tour of the house for $30 per person. Space is limited. See details here.
(Image courtesy Preservation Virginia)