The Wentworth Feud…

The dragon finial from the staircase in the newly restored Stainborough Castle in the grounds of Wentworth Castle David Marsh, April 2016

The dragon finial from the staircase in the newly restored Stainborough Castle in the grounds at Wentworth Castle
David Marsh, April 2016

It’s rare that family disputes give rise to anything positive but Wentworth Castle is the  exception that proves the rule.  The story might appear a bit confusing but it’s a pretty impressive piece of trying to outdo your rivals and led, in the next few decades, to the building of two magnificent houses, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle, and the creation of two magnificent gardens to match.

The  initial row was over the inheritance of the childless William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford in 1695, and in particular the Wentworth family seat at Wentworth Woodhouse.  From the next few generations  the two sides of the family competed for social status and political power.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Stafford (2nd Creation) Image Date: 2006 Period: 18th century Country: ENGLAND, UK Display Creator: RYSBRACK, Michael

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, as a Roman general, Michael Rysbrack, c.1740,-1st-Earl-of-Staff

But by the mid-20th century the Wentworth Castle estate, like so many others, had fallen into disrepair and in 1948 was split up.  The mansion became a teacher training college, the outbuildings were largely abandoned and, as the guide book says, “nature reclaimed the carefully planned vistas and the designed elegance of the gardens.”

Thomas Bardwell (1704-1767) TitleStainborough Castle, Folly in the Grounds of Wentworth Castle Date 1745 Government Art Collection

Stainborough Castle, Folly in the Grounds of Wentworth Castle
Thomas Bardwell, c.1750.   Government Art Collection

Read on to find out more about the early history of the gardens and landscape at Wentworth Castle, which I’ll continue in another post shortly, when you can take heart from the amazing restoration programme that has been underway since 2001.

by George Vertue, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, line engraving, 1715 (1714)

Sir Thomas Wentworth (later Earl of Strafford) by George Vertue, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, 1715, National Portrait Gallery

When the 2nd Earl of Strafford died in 1695 the title died with him, while his estate passed not to the  senior surviving male, his cousin Sir Thomas Wentworth, but through the female line, to his nephew Thomas Watson.  As was common at the time Watson changed his name to reflect his inheritance, becoming Thomas Watson-Wentworth.

The monument to Thomas Watson-Wentworth in York Minster

The monument to Thomas Watson-Wentworth in York Minster

.  All Sir Thomas got was the earldom’s secondary title of Lord Raby so, clearly disappointed to put it mildly, he decided to outshine in other ways. The first step, in 1708, was to purchase Stainborough Hall, only 6 miles from Wentworth Woodhouse for £14,150, and then in the words of a  local historian in the 1800’s: “he began to make such additions as would make it vie in importance and splendour with Wentworth Woodhouse, the seat of his ancestors and now of his obnoxious relative, Mr Watson Wentworth, only some five miles distant”. You can see “the additions” in Kip’s engraving [perhaps partly as planned] of 1714, below.

from Kenneth Lemmon's article in GH

from Kenneth Lemmon’s article in Garden History  [full reference at the end]

Having served with notable courage in the army under the Duke of Marlborough in the wars against Louis XIV,  Lord Raby was appointed envoy at the Prussian court in 1703 a post he held until 1711.  Whilst there he commissioned Johann von Bodt, a military architect who had lived in England, to design a new house for Stainborough. It was clearly a grudge dispute judging from his comments after had travelled to Italy to buy pictures to decorate it: ” I hope to have a better collection there than Mr. Watson.”

Of course to outdo his cousin required money, so he sought to gain more public offices and sinecures, and of course find a rich wife.

Stainborough, from Vitruvius Britannicus, 1715

Stainborough, from Vitruvius Britannicus, 1715

Agar, Charles d'; Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford; Parliamentary Art Collection;

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, Charles d’Agar, Parliamentary Art Collection;

Thomas’s ambitions were soon rewarded.  In honour of his service in Berlin, the title of Earl of Strafford was recreated for him in 1711, and a few months later he married  Anne Johnson, a wealthy mercantile heiress. The new countess was later to bring more than £50,000 to the marriage. The new earl was also raised to the Privy Council, and transferred from Berlin to become ambassador to the United Provinces [the Netherlands] where he became involved in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht that marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713.  Further lucrative posts and honours poured in – he was made master of Trinity House in 1713, First Lord of the Admiralty also in 1713 and a Lord Justice and Knight of the Garter in 1714.

However Strafford was not popular with everyone. Marlborough thought him ‘both impertinent and insignificant’ whilst Jonathan Swift described him as being ‘infinitely proud and wholly illiterate.’  Certainly he seems to have been considered arrogant with seemingly unbridled ambition. He allied himself with the court party under Queen Anne, but failed to see that there would be wholesale changes on her death.    As a result he fell rapidly from grace when the Hanoverians came to the throne in 1714, and never held office again.  Thereafter he retired to his estates and  gave his support to James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, but also to build and garden, the classic consolation of enforced retirement in Georgian England.

The Latitude of this Seat, taken by Mr Gordon, June 21st 1731 The Design of the Principal Front of Wentworth House in Yorkshire, the seat of the Rt. Hon. Thomas Lord Malton, Baron Malton, in the County of York,

The Latitude of this Seat, taken by Mr Gordon, June 21st 1731
The Design of the Principal Front of Wentworth House in Yorkshire, the seat of the Rt. Hon. Thomas Lord Malton, Baron Malton, in the County of York,

Engraving of the west front by John Cole c.1728 (Bodleian Library)

Engraving of the older west front of Wentworth Woodhouse by John Cole c.1728 (Bodleian Library) from

While all this was going on his rival, Thomas Watson-Wentworth kept his cool, although his son and heir also Thomas, was less restrained. As a rising Whig politician, as soon as he inherited in 1723 he too began to spend lavishly on his estate.  He also did so in style. The old Wentworth Woodhouse, already substantial, was given a large new Palladian wing. Large is actually a bit of  an understatement, as, at 606 feet, it has the largest frontage of any country house in Britain.  By 1734 Watson-Wentworth had become Earl of Malton, finally catching up with his cousin in terms of status.  But it took until 1746 to overtake him, when as a reward for his loyalty during the Jacobite rebellion, his earldom was upgraded and he became Marquis of Rockingham.

Wentworth Woodhouse remains an awe-inspiring sight, and is still the largest private house in Europe. After being leased by the family in 1948, like Wentworth Castle, it too became a training college before being sold by them in 1989. After one failed attempt at restoration it was eventually bought by Clifford Newbold, a retired architect, who began an extensive restoration programme and opened the house to the public. Earlier this year it was bought from his heirs by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.  For more information see:

Bardwell, Thomas; Wentworth Castle Estate, Barnsley, South Yorkshire; Barnsley Museum and Heritage Service;

The view east from Wentworth Castle, Thomas Bardwell, Barnsley Museum and Heritage Service;

So what was the Earl of Strafford doing that made his cousin steam and then almost go head to head in competition?  The Kip print [c.1724]  a few paragraphs earlier,  the painting above, and Badeslade print of 1739 below might give you some idea.

Stainborough and Wentworth Castle [i.e. Stainborough Hall], Yorks (W.R.): bird's-eye view of entrance front, from T. Badeslade & J. Rocque's 'Vitruvius Brittanicus, volume the fourth', London 1739

Stainborough and Wentworth Castle [i.e. Stainborough Hall], Yorks: bird’s-eye view of entrance front, from T. Badeslade & J. Rocque’s ‘Vitruvius Brittanicus, volume the fourth’, London 1739

detail of the cascade in the front court

detail of the cascade in the front court


detail of a parterre

Firstly, the new house , started in 1710,  was finished in 1713 and according to local legend had an inscription placed in the foundations reading: “Tommy Malton I’ll let you see I can build as fine a house as thee”.  Next, he chose the leading designer, James Gibbs, to do the interiors. It was to be on a grand scale so that “It might make his Great Honour [Thomas Watson-Wentworth] burst with envy and his Little Honour [his son], pine and die”.  Then, while that was going on he turned his attention to laying out the gardens and for this, like so many other great landowners of his day,  he called in George London, the royal gardener.

detail of one of the wildernesses

detail of one of the wildernesses


London designed a series of formal gardens and waterworks around the new house, and probably advised on laying out the parkland and wider landscape. These gardens were fashionably geometric in design and included all the usual features of the time. Avenues marched across the parkland, there were ha-has, wildernesses, parterres, and a bowling green , as well as several garden buildings notably a mock mediaeval castle.

david Marsh, April 2016

David Marsh, April 2016

Before he died in 1739, nearly 30 years after acquiring the estate,  Strafford had planted an impressive forest garden as suggested by garden writers like Stephen Switzer, Batty Langley and of course London and Wise.  The avenues were mainly planted with native trees but the garden also included many exotics from the Mediterranean and North America such as maples, tulip trees, cypresses and cedars of Lebanon. An orangery in the Walled Garden, built in 1728, contained citrus, pomegranates, tuberoses and even sugar cane.

But there was more to Strafford’s gardening than merely nice planting and an impressive and expansive layout. The gardens at Stainborough were an early display of political gardening, the art of employing garden features to make a point about your beliefs and ideology. Just as Thomas Tresham had done by employing Catholic symbolism at Lyveden, readable in one way by those in the know, but not objectionable to those who were not, so Strafford designed a garden to display his Stuart allegiance to those in the know, but capable of being read as patriotic by everyone else.

The Union Jack Garden , 2014 from the guidebook to the gardens.

The Union Jack Garden , 2014 from the guidebook to the gardens.


Pix: Shaun Flannery/ COPYRIGHT PICTURE>>SHAUN FLANNERY>01302-570814>> 12th September 2007.........Union Jack garden at Wentworth Castle, Stainborough, Barnsley. Pictured are gardner Sam Carr & Paul Johnson, Fund Raising & Promotions Officer for Wentworth Castle Trust.

.Union Jack garden at Wentworth Castle after clearance, Stainborough, Barnsley, 2007
Shaun Flannery/

The pair of Union Jack gardens are “very unusual, perhaps even unique,” according to Andy Wimble, English Heritage Regional Landscape Architect. Planted in 1713, they combine the saltire of St Andrew with the cross of St George to commemorate the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland. This was one of the great moments in the reign of Queen Anne, Strafford’s patroness, and in the years of his disgrace after her death, the gardens were symbolic of his continuing support for the Stuart cause.

They were planted with oaks, yew, holly, laurel and other plants, many kept closely clipped. Later owners added shrubs like rhododendrons and magnolias. With the decline of the estate in the 20th century the gardens became overgrown, but in 2005 the Trust oversaw  a complete renovation at a cost of £290,000. It was part of a £15 million first phase of the restoration of the entire estate, £10.5 million of which came from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Queen Anne Monument, david Marsh, April 2016

The Queen Anne Monument, David Marsh, April 2016

Stafford’s devotion to Queen Anne is also shown by an impressive obelisk constructed in 1734, twenty years after her death. The inscription records the earl’s achievements in her service, but significantly does not name either her successor, George I,  nor the then king, George II but merely talks of the earl’s potential role as a regent under “The Successor” who was of course the Old Pretender.

Today though the most prominent feature on the landscape, as it was then, is Stainborough Castle which was begun in 1726.  This a vast artificial mediaeval building,  with a high gatehouse,  a 220 yard long boundary wall and  four small towers.  These were named after his children, helping reinforce his family connections with the landscape and its history, despite not being ensconced in the  ancestral home six miles away.

Detail of the earl and his family, by Gawen Hamilton, from the guidebook to the gardens

Detail of a painting of Strafford and his family, by Gawen Hamilton,from the guidebook to the gardens

The mock castle stood on a rise, which was, unlike today,  kept deliberately unplanted so that the towers would be clearly visible for miles around, but equally which gave uninterrupted views over the surrounding parkland and landscape which he was improving at the same time.

This Gothick folly was designed by Alexander Pope and Lord Bathurst and was built in 1721. Although built as a sham ruin, it is now the real thing, its condition having deteriorated over the years. Photographer:Henry Taunt Date Taken:

Alfred’s Hall, designed by Alexander Pope and Lord Bathurst & built in 1721. photo by Henry Taunt, 1883


David Marsh, April 2016

Stainborough is one of the very earliest of these mock castles. Stafford’s cousin Lord Bathurst, a patron of Switzer, had built Alfred’s Hall in Cirencester Park  a few years earlier  in 1721 but Michael Charlesworth makes the point that  Stainborough “is the first – probably the only – time when an eighteenth- century landowner attempted to follow the lineaments of an ancient fortification in raising a garden building.” [Full reference at the end]. Stafford even had an inscription put on the gateway to emphasis its antiquity:  ‘Rebuilt in 1730.’

Sadly the castle, despite its recent restoration is in a worse state than when it was built. Mining subsidence in the 1960s caused the folly to fall into a semi-ruinous state,  and two of its four original large  towers were damaged so badly that they were taken down. However the rest has been splendidly restored and reopened.

Just after Stainborough Castle was completed the name of the house itself was changed from Stainborough Hall to Wentworth Castle, echoing perhaps a similar family naming at Castle Howard. It was the earl’s wish that after his death, his memorial statue  [see image at the beginning] should be put in the middle of the castle courtyard, once again reaffirming his family’s links with the locality.   Unfortunately for security reasons it has been  moved closer to the house.

detail of the cascade in the front court

detail of the cascade in the front court

The vehemence  between the two branches can be seen clearly when Strafford bought the neighbouring Rockley estate in 1723 with all the negotiations being carried on in cypher to outwit his “obnoxious relative” who held the mortgage, and using using the codeword “vermin” to denote his cousin.

In the park below the castle a canalised serpentine ‘river’ was created, along with a menagerie and elaborate waterworks and a series of cascades. More were installed beside the house – all now sadly gone. There is no proper description or plan of them but there are references in letters from his cousin Lord Bathurst, amongst others.  “I thought the cascade in the court very handsome until I saw that in the Menagerie, which exceeds it very much and is as handsome and agreeable as ever I saw. It was the more surprizing to me because I did not expect it and did not think your lordship had such a command of water there, or that there was so large a fall.”  Similarly Lord Berkeley of Stratton wrote in October 1730: “I fancy I hear the cascades. No place is worth anything without wood and water; these I find Stainborow abounds in”.

The earl was continuing to build right up until his death in 1739. There were other  parkland buildings, now long gone, including Constantine’s Well built in 1732 and a Fishing Temple of 1739 on the Serpentine  River.

Constantine's well, image taken from the Guidebook

Constantine’s well, image taken from the Guidebook

The Fishing Temple, image taken from the guidebook

The Fishing Temple, image taken from the guidebook

He had the parkland separated from the gardens by early examples of ha-has. He may also have planned an Ionic temple in the grounds but within sight of the house, which may have been intended as his own mausoleum, although archival research has shown it was built later by his son.

The Blackamoor, now sited in the Victorian conservatory David Marsh April 2016

The Blackamoor, now sited in the Victorian conservatory
David Marsh April 2016

There is one more ‘souvenir’ of the first Earl’s work at Wentworth Castle, although it is now installed in the magnificent Victorian conservatory attached to the back of the house. This is the Blackamoor statue, made by John Nost II around 1725. It symbolised the commercial value of Africa to Europeans, particularly of course from the slave trade. Stafford was typical of his contemporaries in having investments in companies and enterprises that transported slaves and the products of slave labour. His wife’s father had been a shipping magnate and his fortune too, which the early eventually inherited, came from dealings with Africa and slavery.  One of the articles of the Treaty of Utrecht which Strafford helped negotiate gave Britain control of the Asiento de Negros which had previously belonged to Spain.  This was a monopoly contract that allowed the transportation of 4,800 slaves a year for 30 years and he benefitted directly from it.


the statue of the blackmail stripped back to its lead base during restoration

the statue of the blackmail stripped back to its lead base during restoration

Statues of Blackamoors became the most popular of all the lead statues made for Georgian gardens. A grim thought indeed.  However, by the 1780s the figure of the kneeling African became the symbol of the anti-slavery movement – a suitable reversal of meaning – so perhaps many of these statues were destroyed or melted down following the abolition of slavery and in more enlightened times.  The example at Wentworth was restored in 2010, with a decision being taken to restore as much humanity to the figure as possible, and using accurate skin pigmentation.

If you are interested in following this up further a good place to start is the work of Patrick Eyres in  The Blackamoor and the Georgian Garden, the 2012 issue of the  New Arcadian Journal, obtainable from:

The Blackamoor & The Georgian Garden

Patrick Eyres with the blackamoor in the restored conservatory image from

Patrick Eyres with the blackamoor in the restored conservatory
image from

Thomas Wentworth, 3rd Earl of Strafford (1672–1739), Diplomat Paul Carl Leygebe (1664–1730) Governemnt Art Collection

Thomas Wentworth, 3rd Earl of Strafford (1672–1739), Diplomat
Paul Carl Leygebe (1664–1730)
Governemnt Art Collection

The Earl died in 1739 and was succeeded by his son William who had a very different take on gardening… more about that in another post soon.  In the meanwhile if you want to know more about the early days at both Wentworth Castle and Wentworth Woodhouse, a good place to start is Michael Charlesworth’s article “The Wentworths: Family and Political Rivalry in the English Landscape Garden”, in Garden History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 120-137.  There is also an early article in Garden History by Kenneth Lemmon “Wentworth Castle: A Forgotten Landscape” in  Vol. 3, No. 3 (Summer, 1975), pp. 50-57.  The guidebook for Wentworth Castle Gardens is excellent and I confess to using it liberally in this post. The two houses also have their own websites:

Painted drawing room

Home Page

The Queen Anne Monument, photo early 1900s from one of the noticeboards in the grounds

The Queen Anne Monument, photo early 1900s from one of the noticeboards in the grounds

About The Gardens Trust

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3 Responses to The Wentworth Feud…

  1. Mrs J Popley says:

    Brilliant piece – gave me even more information about the two families. Thanks very much.

  2. Pingback: The Great Wentworth Feud - Wentworth Castle

  3. A fascinating piece. Family rivalry always makes for good copy, and good gossip.

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