Our Bonkers Aristocracy…..

It’s often struck me, when visiting National Trust-type places in the UK, that our aristocratic families do seem to have more than their fair share of oddballs adorning the genealogical tree (or maybe it’s just that having money allows them to put their strange ideas into action?)….. The Wentworths of Wentworth Castle and Wentworth Woodhouse certainly had their moments….

Wentworth Castle Gardens are a new addition to the National Trust this year, brought to my attention by an article in the latest National Trust magazine. Now, I don’t normally go out of my way to visit gardens, but in this case the article described a family dispute and another family property nearby, Wentworth Woodhouse. I looked that one up online and realised that I’d seen it more than once on TV. It never used to be open to the public but, having been bought by a charitable trust in 2017, it now is – so I devised a plan to visit both properties on Sunday.

The story begins in 1695 with the death of William Wentworth, the 2nd Earl of Strafford. William had no children, and his nearest male relative, Thomas Wentworth (1672 – 1739) was apparently rubbing his hands together in anticipation of his inheritance. Surprise! William left the lot to another relative, Thomas Watson (1665-1723).

To modern eyes, this doesn’t actually seem that strange. Thomas Wentworth, although the nearest male relative on the male line, was the eldest son of a cousin of the 2nd Earl whereas Thomas Watson was his nephew (the son of his sister Anne, who had married Edward Watson, 2nd Baron Rockingham). Nowadays we’d say that Thomas Watson was the closer relative. You can imagine the consternation back then though (“inherited through the female line?!?!”).

So, Thomas Watson got the family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, and the loot, and Thomas Wentworth got bitter and twisted. In 1708 he bought the neighbouring Stainborough Hall (I say neighbouring but they weren’t exactly able to shout over the garden fence – it took the best part of half an hour to drive from one property to the other) for £14,150 and set out to create a country estate to rival that of “the vermin” (as he once referred to Thomas Watson) at Wentworth Woodhouse.

He created a Union Jack garden in the grounds (all the rage at the time, this being just a few years after the union). It did seem to be a bit too far from the house (or any other suitably elevated point) to be able to look down on it and get the full effect though:

Next on Thomas’ shopping list was, of course, a fake castle in the grounds to give the impression that his family had lived on that site since the year dot!

He now named the mansion Wentworth Castle and the fake castle was named Stainborough Castle……

The main house is occupied nowadays by Northern College and isn’t open to the public. The gardens seemed very popular with locals accompanied by children and/or dogs.

They’re pleasant enough, but you wouldn’t really drive a huge distance to see them. My main reason for visiting was to get this half of the story before visiting Wentworth Woodhouse in the afternoon.

As I mentioned, I’d seen Wentworth Woodhouse on TV (though I can’t remember which programmes – probably something about English country houses in decline). It’s the house with the longest facade in Britain: 606 feet, or twice that of Buckingham Palace:

Ah, a nice bit of scaffolding. That reminds me of the time we were given the task of photographing a particular church in Mainz (a long story), which when we finally got there ended up having to be an interior shot and a shot of the completely unidentifiable building behind copious amounts of scaffolding….

I’ll tell you the two strange things I discovered about this place first:

1) At the time when Thomas Wentworth was throwing his hissy fit over not inheriting, buying the mansion next door etc, the only house on this site was a much smaller one dating back to the 1630s (parts of which are still there but buried in the more recent structure). So he wasn’t missing out on the mega-mansion we see today.

2) Thomas Watson, who did inherit Wentworth Woodhouse, also seems to have been a bit odd. In the 1720s, he started building a huge Baroque mansion on the site of the original house. By the 1730s (when the house still wasn’t finished), Baroque was out of fashion and Palladian architecture was all the rage. Did he rethink his building project and have the place restyled? Erm, nope. He started a second mansion, this time in the Palladian style, slap bang behind the first. Sort of back-to-back mansions….. As you do…

Visits are by guided tour only. The Wentworth Tour shows you some of the state rooms in the central part of the Palladian mansion and the Clifford Tour takes you to part of the original 1630s house, now incorporated into the main structure, and part of the Baroque mansion.

First up the Palladian mansion. This is the one with the massively long frontage…. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a Palladian mansion:

There’s no original furniture here. The death of three earls in quick succession between 1943 and 1952 together with the post-war nationalisation of the coal industry (on which much of the family’s wealth was based) put a dent in the family finances, and much of it was sold off.

The Palladian mansion was leased from the late 1940s to the late 1980s to a college which trained young ladies to be PE teachers. After the war, the government brought in open cast coalmining and the lawns were dug up to within 16 feet of the Jacobean side of the mansion (a suspected “two fingers to the aristocracy” from the new labour government) but the grounds on the Palladian side were spared, supposedly after the headmistress exclaimed “oh, but where will my girls play lacrosse” to the appropriate government official…..

We needn’t feel too sorry for the family as they still had the Jacobean mansion (albeit with a two storey spoil heap out front):

The entire property was sold in the late 1980s (after the college left) and again in the late 1990s. It was bought by a charitable trust for £7 million in 2017 following the death of the previous owner. They got a lot of rooms for £7 million – but also a lot of outstanding repairs to be done. First on the list is the roof (literally acres of it).

Owners had continued to live in the Baroque part right into the 21st century, so some redecoration has happened there. The Baroque house wins the “which mansion would you have?” contest for me purely on account of the long gallery:

I could live quite happily in that room (though it’d need a few more bookcases!). I suppose if you were that rich, though, you wouldn’t have to pick a mansion. You could just get up in the morning and decide if you were identifying as Baroque or Palladian that day….

Thankfully, the recent occupants didn’t paint over everything:

The rug in the photo above has a story to tell. It’s 250 years old and is on loan from the daughter of Peter, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam (the family are Fitzwilliam by this point as the estate has once again been inherited by a nephew on the female line, hence another change in surname). Apparently she has quite a collection of family possessions which she’ll be happy to loan back to Wentworth Woodhouse once the roof is fixed and suitable security is in place.

Peter, the 8th Earl, was killed in a plane crash in France in 1948 along with Kathleen Cavendish (aka Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK). She’d married one English aristocrat, been widowed during the war, and had then taken up with Peter, who was (so they say) in the process of trying to divorce his alcoholic wife in order to remarry. Hmmmm. I wonder if she considered Wentworth Woodhouse a step up or a step down from Chatsworth?

As for his daughter Lady Juliet who loaned the rug, she is…. wait for it…. the mother in law of Jacob Rees Mogg. This titbit elicited sharp intakes of breath from all of the Brits in the tour group, and looks of complete incomprehension from the foreigners. We didn’t have time to explain……

Monday took me to the small town of Bolsover and to Bolsover Castle:

Started by Sir Charles Cavendish in 1612, the castle is most closely associated with his son William Cavendish. Charles and William were the son / grandson respectively of Bess of Hardwick, so they’re also closely linked to the Chatsworth brigade.

Bolsover Castle was basically a place you went with visitors, not a main home. The “Little Castle” was fitted out at great expense by William Cavendish. He even sent his architect off to Italy to look for inspiration (which resulted in the amazing fireplaces, among other features):

The two ranges of buildings below are the Riding House on the left and what was the state apartments on the right:

My bit of trivia for Monday was that William Cavendish, grandson of Bess of Hardwick and later Duke of Newcastle, is considered the father of modern dressage, having been very much into what back then was called manège. The Riding House contains not only stables but also an area in which he could train his horses indoors:

Finally, here’s the man himself depicted in a book he authored on the subject of manège:

Doesn’t he just look the part?

So there you have it, a quick overview of my first couple of days’ travels. I’m planning a couple of aristocrat-free days next to recover!

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