The Romans were amongst the first recorded visitors to what is Yaxley Hall. They left behind a mound, close to the A140 Roman Road, which is now a scheduled ancient monument within the grounds. The name "Yaxley" means Cuckoo Woods in Old English, so we can be sure the Anglo-Saxons were later here too. The first mention of a building on the site is in the Domesday Book. For a long time there was a priory on the site, although this was replaced by a Hall before the Reformation. The current building dates back to the 1500s, although it has been built on to, developed and changed over the years since then.
For some 300 years Yaxley Hall was in the hands of just two families. The first of these were the Yaxleys themselves, who were a Catholic family aligned with other notable Norfolk Catholics such as the Howards and Bedingfields. The Yaxleys appeared on the list of recusants, but despite being persecuted for their faith, remained true to it. There are rumours of a priest hole at the Hall, although none has been found in modern times.
During the 18th century the owners carried out a particularly unusual and interesting set of alterations in the "Gothick" style (also known as the Strawberry Hill style of architecture). This fanciful and playful style of architecture was considered quite cutting edge at the time, but few examples of it have survived anywhere in the country. The remodelling led to the addition of the castellations on the front façade and the insertion of a splendid and intricate Gothick window.
The Hall remained in the hands of the Earl's descendants up until the 20th century, when Lord Henniker acquired the property and added it to his substantial Suffolk land holdings. It was remodelled by Lord Henniker to serve as a base for the typical Edwardian country weekend for guests and shooting parties. The fanciful Gothick window was removed in 1905 as part of these works. Disaster struck in 1922 when two of the five wings of the Hall were destroyed in a terrible fire which made the national press. A wayward Italian butler was blamed, but the exact circumstances remain unclear.
The Hall, now reduced in size, passed into the hands of Blanche Broadwood (of the piano family), who lived here for forty years. The modernist architect Sir Basil Spence (of Coventry Cathedral fame) also lived here for a brief period in the 1970s and is buried nearby in Thornham Magna. A gazebo, called the "Teahouse of the August Moon", is one of his last works and stands in the kitchen garden.
The current owner, Dominic Richards, acquired the Hall after viewing it in the winter of 2001. He immediately began his sensitive redesign and refurbishment of the building, which has brought luxury and contemporary style to Yaxley Hall, whilst fully respecting the history of the ancient building. In 2006, Dominic reinstated the lost Gothick window. Hand made by local craftsman Simon Pyke, and glazed in leaded panels by Devlin Plummer, the return of a Gothick window to Yaxley marks an important milestone in returning the Hall to its former glory. It was unveiled by the chairman of Suffolk County Council, Charles Michell, after a lunch held at the Hall.
In 2006 Yaxley Hall was described by The Daily Telegraph as "prepared for another Golden Age". Dominic's on-going plans include the restoration of the entire two lost wings of the Hall at some point in the future.
Some 300 years ago, an English nobleman, the Earl of Scarsdale, bought Yaxley Hall for his mistress. It has been suggested that the mistress had a daughter by another man and that the girl was treated badly by the couple. After their death, she was forced to rely on the charity of distant relatives, and lived on at the property for many decades. In her 80s she suffered a terrible fall down some stairs at the Hall, broke both her legs, and suffered a painful death. Her name was Henrietta.
Presumably because of the way Henrietta had been treated by her family, she did not wish to be buried with them at Yaxley Church. Instead, her Will said she must be buried in a mausoleum in the grounds of the Hall. A subsequent owner did not like this arrangement and had Henrietta's body moved to the family vault in the Church. From that point onwards, Henrietta's ghost was regularly to be seen at the Hall – a pale woman wearing a bonnet, whose parchment coloured face would appear at the windows at night, looking in to observe what was going on.
In the 1890s the owners of the Hall carried out renovations. They found a doll hidden between two walls, wearing a bonnet. Both its legs were broken. The owners swore that the doll moved positions on its own overnight.
In 1905, the contents of the Hall were sold, including a portrait of Henrietta. At once the spirit left the Hall and it became clear it was haunting not the place, but this painting. Henrietta's ghost visited the home of each subsequent owner of the picture over the years that followed.
In 2005 Dominic received a call from Bonham's auctioneers. Henrietta's haunted portrait was for sale. His first attempt to buy it was not successful. It was instead sold to a collector in America. A few days later an old lady telephoned the Hall. She said she was a spiritualist, who had been speaking to Henrietta since the 1950s. She said she was glad that Henrietta was coming home. When the medium heard that the portrait was instead going to the USA, she said, "Well, we will have to see about that." Within days the auctioneers again called Dominic. The sale had fallen through – would he like to buy the portrait?
Dominic did not dare hesitate, and with the generous help of his parents, Henrietta's portrait was soon returned to the Hall. It was exactly 100 years since it had left. The painting features her with a pale grey face, wearing a bonnet, and was hung exactly where the medium advised. Each day Dominic politely greets her "Good morning, Miss Nelson". Her expression changes from time to time – mostly she smiles and she is obviously content finally to be back at Yaxley. Her ghostly face has never once appeared at a window since her return.
Henrietta died in 1816, a year before Jane Austen. At this time a woman with no independent means and dubious birth had very limited options, both in life and in marriage. Henrietta remained a spinster unto her death. However, within a short time of the portrait's return to Yaxley in 2005, the first enquiry for a wedding at the Hall was received. Dominic is convinced Henrietta's spirit is determined that couples should have the opportunity to marry, which was denied to her during her lifetime.
Countless couples have since walked past her portrait, moments before publically declaring their love for one another at their wedding at Yaxley Hall. Dominic believes that Henrietta blesses each of them, and that there can be few more auspicious beginnings to a long, happy, and prosperous life together.