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.
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.”
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.
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.
. 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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: