The history of the Royall house and its occupants.

By George S. T. Fuller.
[Read before Medford Historical Society, March 15, 1926.]

TALKS on old-time subjects are often more interesting to the speaker than they are to an audience, and yet I think I may be pardoned if I speak with enthusiastic pride of the house over which I have the honor to be curator at the present time, and as we recall the memories of Old Medford, and the treatment of the Hessian prisoners at the old Porter Tavern, I trust whatever I may say will not cause you to have that dry feeling so prevalent today.

However, it gives me pleasure to speak before the members of the Medford Historical Society on a subject that is so redolent of the times of one hundred and fifty years and more ago, and if I can tell you anything of interest not already known about the old Royall House, the pleasure will be mine.

Eloquently do these fine old houses of the past, charged with associations of Revolutionary days, in their silent dignity arrest our attention as we hurry by.

On our Main street stands one of the finest examples of old Colonial mansions, and we hear with pleasure the recent awakening of local authorities to their duty of withholding the destroying hand and the preservation of the grounds bordering on Main street of this historic and architectural treasure, the Royall House.

In relating the history of the Royall House and its occupants it will be well to go back to the early records [p. 2] and find how these lands came into possession of the white men.

Drake's History states that ‘Meadford in 1630 was formerly a part of Charlestown, that honored ancestor of all towns of the Mystic Valley. In 1754 Medford was sell of as a separate township from Charlestown.’

The title of the white man to the home of the Indians rested usually in a royal grant by turf and twig, and in the name of the English king, seldom consulting the aboriginal owner.

The territory round and about here had this royal authority, and more:—

First, in the grant of James I to the Plymouth Council of all lands between 40° and 48° north latitude and from sea to sea.

Second, by grant of the Plymouth Council, March 19, 1628, to the Massachusetts Bay Company.

Third, by royal charter of King Charles, March 14, to the Massachusetts Bay Company which confirmed the grant of 1628.

Fourth, a title not every colony could claim, a deed from an Indian sovereign.

Among the instructions from the Parent Company, written from England to Mr. John Endecott, is the following:—

‘If any of the savages pretend the right of inheritance to all or any of the lands granted in our patent, we pray you to endeavor to purchase their title, that we may avoid the least scruple of invasion.’

Under these instructions several deeds were received from the Indians, the one covering Medford lands being from Squa Sachem, who on the death of her husband, Sagamore John, became the chief of her tribe.

The deed reads in part as follows: ‘Wee Web-Cowit and Squa Sachem do sell unto the inhabitants of Charlestown all lands granted by the Court,’ closing with

Wee acknowledge to have received in full satisfaction [p. 3] twenty and one coates, nineteen fathoms of wampum and three bushels of come.

In witness whereof wee have here unto sett our hands this day the 15th of the seconed month 1639.


If all that has been written about this wild wilderness is true, it must have been a paradise to the sportsman, farmer and lover of nature, and yet the elements were very severe and many deaths ensued during the first few years.

Men left stately manors at home and took up life in this country, living in rude log cabins, felling trees and clearing ground, and never a backward look.

Probably the first white man who wandered over this part of the country was Myles Standish and his exploring party from Plymouth in 1621.

John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Company, took up his abode on what is now Winter Hill. He was granted six hundred acres in 2631 which was named by him ‘The Ten Hills Farm.’ The record reads: ‘Sept. 6, 1631 granted to Mr Governor 600 acres to be sett forth by metes & bounds, near his home in Mystic to be held by him and his heirs forever.’

The date of the building of the original portion of the Royall House is uncertain; some writers claim that as a farmhouse it was built in the early days of Winthrop's ownership, probably about 1637. It was a brick house, two and one-half stories in height, with dormer windows on the roof. When occupied by John Usher in 1690, a lean — to was added to give more room. Under the ownership of the Royalls the house assumed its present proportions. When purchased in 1732 by Isaac Royall the work of enlarging was put into the hands of his brother Jacob.

The plans were drawn in Antigua from a nobleman's house which Royall much admired and it was his wish to have an exact duplicate. [p. 4]

Shipbuilding being the industry of Medford, much skilled labor could be obtained, and by their handiwork and that of clever architects was produced the elegant paneling, rich cornices, fluted pilasters, doorways, and interior carvings, and the finest stairway to be found in New England—all being much admired in the present generation. The house has everything to commend it as a fine specimen of the architecture of its period. Writers spoke of it one hundred and seventy-five years ago as ‘the grandest house in the thirteen colonies.’ It won fame long before the Revolution for the strength and beauty of its construction on the outside and elaborate finish of the interior.

Beautiful grounds surrounded the house, enclosed as it was by a brick wall with an imposing gateway on the east side. An elm-shaded driveway led from old Boston road (now Main street) to the courtyard, which still shows its round paving stones. The large barn stood on what is now the corner of Royall and Florence streets. A wide, flower-bordered walk, with the favorite hedge of box, led up from Boston road under an avenue of trees to the entrance door of the house on the east side. West of the courtyard and separated from it by a garden wall was a large old-fashioned flower garden, conspicuous among the variety being hollyhocks and peonies.

Beyond the flower garden was an extensive fruit orchard with many hundreds of trees, in the center of which, on a double-terraced mound, stood the summer house, an octagonal structure of no mean design, with its Ionic columns, arched windows and carvings. Its lantern-shaped roof and eight more glass windows were surmounted by a carved figure representing Winged Mercury, which served as a weather-vane.

Five years were spent in the construction of the house, the slave quarters in the yard and other needed buildings for the family coach, horses, etc. We can realize the strong foundation on which the house stands, [p. 5] with three brick walls on the north, south and east sides, and a fourth brick wall running through the centre of the house eighteen inches wide. The north and east sides are covered with clapboards, giving the passer-by the impression that it is built of wood. The west side is clapboarded under boards which were cut to represent stone and further ornamented with hand-hewn fluted columns and a beautiful doorway in the centre, with fluted pillars at the sides and a curved arch at the top. The door opens onto the courtyard. The east side of the house was designed to represent four marble pillars extending from the ground to the roof of the three-storied mansion, while its entrance doorway is made to represent cut-marble blocks, and the corners of house are quoined to look like stone work.

Having viewed the exterior of the house, we use the brass knocker of lion design and gain admittance to the lower hall, running through the entire width of the house, finished with a high paneled wainscot on one side and the beautiful white stairway on the other. The stairs and balustrade lead to the second floor and the balusters are carved in three patterns for each tread, while the newel post combines all three with a spiral on the outside and is particularly graceful. At the foot of the stairs is a broad arch with carved ornaments.

Leading from the hall to the left is the dining-room, its dark-beamed ceiling giving it a warm and homelike appearance and the white paneled walls giving a cheerful tone. The old china closets with their treasures of other days need more than a passing glance.

Across the hall from this room are the east and west parlors, showing furniture of Colonial days. On the wall near the door is a copy in oil painting of Isaac Royall, Jr., the original of which was drawn by Robert Feke in 1741 and hangs in Langdell Hall at Harvard College, having been given them by young Isaac. In the west parlor are seen the deep recessed window seats framed by beautiful arches which suggest a still more [p. 6] ancient architecture. The panelled walls are wonderful in themselves, several panels being of extreme width, one of them being of white pine forty-three inches wide.

As we look at the massive front door, our eye is attracted by the hand-made strap hinges of the H. and L. variety, quaint reminders of the days when they were believed to be instrumental in keeping out witches, because they formed the initials of ‘Holy Lord.’ We also notice the cross on the doors, said to be an additional protection. As we go up the easy stairway we enjoy the broad treads which were built on the plan that a tread must be twice the width of the riser.

Over the west parlor is the marble chamber, so-called, on account of its Corinthian columns surmounted by carvings of exquisite beauty. In its prime this room was beautifully furnished, and with its high four-posted bedstead and other furniture in 1740 was valued at over three hundred pounds.

Every room in the house had fireplaces with tiles in different colors and designs brought from Holland. The ‘blue room’ on the second floor was so called from the color of its blue scriptural tiles. On the third floor the spinning garret is of noteworthy interest, reminding us of days when clothing for the household was spun and woven in the home. Over all is the great attic, with its heavy beams still holding up the roof, most of them seven and eight inches square, and it might well be the home of spooks, as the name of Hobgoblin Hall was given it by the generals of the Revolutionary War—at that time being used as headquarters at the request of George Washington.

Slave quarters.

The Slave Quarters, which housed Isaac Royall's retinue of servants, twenty-seven in number, may still be seen in the yard and in a good state of preservation. The out-kitchen of brick with its latch-string always out, still shows the massive fireplace, ten feet across its beam, [p. 7] and brick oven where the food was cooked and carried to the home dining room to be served.

Isaac Royall, Sr., died in 1739. The title then passed to Isaac Royall, Jr.

When the estate was appraised in 1740, it was valued: House at 50,000 pounds and land at 37,000 pounds, making a total of 87,000 pounds, and well may it be said that the owner was one of the richest men, if not the richest man, in the Colonies.

Such was the home of Col. Isaac Royall, a man more sinned against than sinning, in the opinion of many writers.

Royall family.

Isaac Royall's ancestors were genuine Colonists and shared the trials and tribulations of the people of those days. The name of Royall appears in the early records and has been perpetuated in various localities.

William Royall of England was granted a tract of land in Salem in 1629. A son, William, Jr., was born in 1640.

Isaac Royall, Sr., whose wealth built and made famous our Royall House in Medford, was his grandson, born in Yarmouth on Casco Bay, Maine, in 1672. At the early age of three years his parent (William, Jr.) moved to Dorchester, Mass., because of continuous troubles with the Indians in Maine.

Young Isaac, as he grew older, developed a love for the sea and took frequent trips from Dorchester to the West Indies, where he finally married and made a home, amassing great wealth as a planter and merchant.

Isaac Royall, Jr., was born in Antigua in 1719, and a sister, Penelope, in 1724. The father realizing that his children could not receive the education in Antigua that he desired, sought for them his native land and placed them in a school in Dorchester. He then looked about the country for a suitable site for a home. The Mystic river and its adjacent lands appealed to his fancy, and in June,

1732, he purchased five hundred acres of the Ten Hills [p. 8] farm land and began the erection of the Royall House —which appears today on the exterior identically the same as it did when completed after five years of faithful labor, neither time nor money being spared to make the house one of beauty and grandeur.

The hospitality of the Royall House was known far and wide, and we may be sure that the cellaret would be amply supplied and the hearty old-time greeting dealt out with no niggardly hand.

Isaac Royall, at the age of sixty-seven, died in his beautiful home in Medford, June 7, 1739, and was buried in the family tomb in Dorchester cemetery at Upham's Corner. Isaac Royall, Jr., then fell heir to his father's estate, at the age of twenty years. A few years later he married Elizabeth McIntosh of Surinam, South America. For many years the mansion was the rallying place of social life, and no one of importance thought of passing by without stopping to pay their respects to Colonel Royall and family. He was actively interested in the Colonies, a member of the Provincial Militia, and in 1761 was made Brigadier General, the first of that title among Americans.

From 1743 to 1752 he served as Deputy to the General Court and regularly returned his salary to the town for the poor. For twenty-two years he was a member of the Governor's Council. Sixteen years he served as Chairman of the Selectmen of Charlestown, and when his estate was set off to Medford he held the same offices. In 1763 he was appointed on a committee of three to purchase by subscription the first fire engine in Medford, named ‘The Grasshopper,’ which was sold in 1848 for $20.00.

Although many of his friends were Loyalists, he was a member of the People's Church, King's Chapel, in Boston, and a pew owner of our own First Parish Church in Medford, to which he gave a number of pieces of communion silver. It is now in custody of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, the whole valued at $10,000. [p. 9] By will he left property to Harvard College, which, when sold, founded the Harvard Law School, at his request, and was called the ‘Royall Professorship of Law.’

There was also a clause in his will that provided for a hospital for the poor and infirm of Medford or Cambridge, the poor of Medford to have the preference.

Much has been said about his leaving Medford at the opening of the Revolutionary War. These were the conditions which led him to take the step which he later regretted: On Sunday morning, April 16, 1775, he went to church at King's Chapel, Boston, as usual. At the close of the service General Gage of the British army placed an officer at the church door to inform those who had homes outside the limits of Boston that they would not be allowed to return to their homes until after the uprising of the Colonies had been subdued.

Thus by force of circumstances he was kept from his home. He remained a week around Boston and then boarded a vessel going to Halifax and later went to England, where he died in 1781, after trying for several years to be allowed to return to his home in Medford.

He was held in high esteem by the townspeople. The Committee of Safety were his friends and he probably would never have been disturbed had he remained at home, but the reputation of a previous occupant of the older part of the house was held against him. The house, while occupied by John Usher, was a favorite place of assembly for the Tories and Loyalists of Boston.

The estate was confiscated in 1775 by the Colonies but was not sold. Gen. John Stark of New Hampshire, who commanded the New Hampshire troops in this section, occupied the house until after the Evacuation of Boston. Generals Lee and Sullivan were also stationed here during the war, and there is no doubt that at times General Washington made his headquarters here. From a look-out on the roof between the huge [p. 10] chimneys Mollie Stark watched the Evacuation of Boston, March 17, 1776.

Occupants of the Royall House since the Revolutionary War were, in 1778, Colonel Cary of Charlestown, at a rental of two hundred pounds per year.

On account of Isaac Royall being an absentee from the Colony, his estate was held by the Colony until disposed of in 1804.

In 1779 the General Court ordered all confiscated estates to be sold, but Royall's was not on the list, and later on the estate was turned back to the heirs for $1.00.

In 1790 William Woodbridge kept a boarding and day school in the house, having at one time forty-two boys and ninety-six girls.

The estate was sold by the heirs in 1804 to Robert Fletcher for 16,000 pounds. It then passed into the hands of William Welsh of Boston, who in 1810 sold it to Francis Cabot Lowell, and two years later it was sold to Jacob Tidd for $9,000. After the death of Mr. Tidd his widow, who was a sister of William Dawes, lived here for fifty years, up to the time of the Civil War in 1860, since which time it has been occupied by various families until 1905, when the Royall House Association was organized. Much credit is due to the Sarah Bradlee Fulton Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, for their conception and active interest to preserve the house. The association purchased the mansion with its slave quarters and three-fourths of an acre of land surrounding it.

Old trees planted by the Royalls still shade the roof and peonies blossom in the flower beds.

Few houses can boast of such a succession of eminent owners, and not many have stood for nearly two centuries with so few changes in appearance.

The mellowing shrine of Medford's memories,
The Royall House broods silent in the sun
Like an old mother, with ripe heart of love,
Dreaming of future and of days long done.

[p. 11] Still echo in her, melodies of yore—
The throbbing tramp of eager patriot feet,
The thud of loom, the whir of spinning wheel,
The song of women, children's voices sweet.

Today to tramping feet, to wheels of toil,
She listens tranquil in her life's new lease,
And to the future links her old refrain
Of love and hospitality and peace.

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