Spotlight: Wentworth Woodhouse

The Wentworths of Wentworth Woodhouse and the Earls Fitzwilliam

Wentworth Woodhouse was the principal Yorkshire seat of the Earls Fitzwilliams, and home to the Wentworths long before them.

The story of the Wentworth family of Wentworth comes into focus from the Thirteenth century during the reign of King Henry III, when records show a William of Wentworth taking possession of lands from the Canons of Bolton Abbey and marrying into the Woodhouse family.

The literal Wentworth and Woodhouse connection has been made many times, although more in speculation than certainty, nevertheless, by the early 16th Century, the Wentworths had been long-established in their Yorkshire base.

Thomas Wentworth Esq (1522-1587) and his wife Margaret (née Gascoigne, 1532-1574) are the first Wentworths whose images we can readily access, being portrayed in an intriguing engraving reproduced by Rev Dr Alfred Gatty in his extensive article, ‘Wentworth Woodhouse and its owners’, Published in Vol VI, Parts XXIII and XXIV of the Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, in 1881:

Engraving reproduced from an original once held at Wentworth, published in Rev Dr Afred Gatty’s 1881 article. Note the likely depiction of their home at Wentworth at the top right.

Their fine stone memorial can still be seen in the Old Church at Wentworth.

Monument to Thomas and Margaret Wentworth in Wentworth Old Church (Photo credit: Andrew Jones)

Their son and heir was Sir William Wentworth (1562-1614), created 1st Baronet of Wentworth Woodhouse in 1611. Sir William married Lady Anne Wentworth (née Atkinson, 1567-1611).

Wentworth family monuments at Wentworth Old Church. Right: William and Anne with their family depicted below. Left: Thomas, Earl of Strafford. Thomas is the largest child figure in the right-hand memorial. (Photo credit: Andrew Jones)

Following the rules of primogeniture, the first surviving male heir to Sir William Wentworth in the Baronetcy was Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641). Married three times and twiced widowed, his political career would bring him to national recognition. He began service under King James, at first defending Parliament against the King’s ministers’ calls for war taxes, but later serving under King Charles I, and becoming a privy counsellor in 1629, acting as a loyal bulwark and authoritarian proxy in Ireland and bringing him fame and notoriety.

Strafford became central to King Charles’ “Personal Rule” from 1629-40 when Parliament was not called for a whole decade. When the King faced rebellion in Scotland and needed new taxes to fund his soldiers, he was finally forced to call Parliament.

Strafford’s closeness to the King made him the target of Parliamentary intrigue and public attacks; ultimately it cost him his honours and his life as the country slid inexorably towards civil war (English Civil War, 1642-1651).

Detail of Portrait of Thomas Wentworth Earl of Strafford c.1636 artist unknown, but after Van Dyck. Held in Gainsborough Old Hall Collection

Loyally serving King Charles, Thomas Wentworth had rapidly acquired honours as his influence and power increased:

  • 1st Baron Wentworth of Wentworth Woodhouse,
  • 1st Baron Raby of Raby Castle,
  • 1st Viscount Wentworth,
  • and his most infamous title, Earl of Strafford.

Ireland

Strafford was also appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, the King’s representative in the Kingdom of Ireland, where he governed with an authoritarian streak, causing some to name him “Black Tom Tyrant”.

Creating powerful enemies in Parliament, an impeachment process was brought against him for High Treason at a time when the King badly needed Parliament’s support.

Although a formidable opponent in legal argument during the trial, Thomas Wentworth’s enemies successfully secured a Bill of Attainder against him, which the increasingly powerless King Charles eventually signed, despite supposedly having promised Stafford that “upon the word of a King, you shall not suffer in life, honour, or fortune“. Strafford himself had long seen the writing on the wall, and potential danger to the King’s own position with a newly activist Parliament.

Writing to the King at the end of his life, Strafford wrote:

“This bringeth me into a very great strait, there is before me the ruin of my children and family hitherto untouched, in all the branches of it with any foul crimes. Here is before me the many ills, which may befall your sacred person, and the whole kingdom, should yourself and parliament part less satisfied one with the other, than is necessary for the preservation both of King and people. Here are before me the things most valued, most feared, by mortal man, life or death.”

From Strafford to King Charles I, written from the Tower of London, 4th May 1641

The Act of Attainder led to Strafford’s public execution by beheading on 12th May 1641. This came to be seen as the beginning of the end for King Charles himself; in sacrificing his wisest advisor hoping to placate Parliament and save his own throne, he only delayed his own demise.

Rushworth

Title page of John Rushworth’s book on the Trial of the Earl of Strafford, published in 1680.

A few months after Strafford’s execution, King Charles I restored the honours which had been forfeited to the Earl of Strafford’s son William Wentworth (1626-1695), making him 1st Earl of Strafford of the second creation. After the Civil War, in 1662, the Earl succeeeded in reversing the Act of Attainder against his father, so the son then became the 2nd Earl of Strafford of the first creation.

Twice married, but dying without heir the Earldom of Strafford became extinct, but the title of Baron Raby was passed on through the nearest male heirs.

Monument to William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford and his wife Henrietta Maria in Wentworth Old Church (Photo credit: Andrew Jones)

At Wentworth today elements of the home the Earls of Strafford may have known remain hidden in the fabric of the current building which is largely a product of the eighteenth century. One decorative feature of the 17th century house is the Well Gate, a doorway re-sited and reused as a gateway to the rear court by the chapel.

The Well Gate, Wentworth, September 2018

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A brief Wentworth and Fitzwilliam family tree from the 16th to late 19th centuries, from Rev Alfred Gatty’s article ‘Wentworth Woodhouse and its owners’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol.VI, 1881, p.369

Watson vs Wentworth? Wentworth vs Wentworth!

On his death in 1695, the 2nd Earl of Strafford did not let his Wentworth estate follow his hereditary titles; rather he decided to pass them to his nephew, Thomas Watson, the son of his sister, Anne Watson (née Wentworth) and her husband Edward, 2nd Baron Rockingham (d.1691).

On inheriting the Wentworth estates, the young Thomas Watson changed his name to Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1665-1723), being known as ‘His Honour Wentworth’.

In contrast, through the male heirs, another Thomas Wentworth (1672-1739), the son of the 1st Earl of Strafford’s brother Sir William Wentworth, became 3rd Baron Raby and 4th Baronet. The snub felt by this Thomas Wentworth, (Baron Raby) on not inheriting the traditional Strafford estates alongside the remaining titles was very real, and echoed down several generations of Wentworths, spurring a localised rivalry which saw each side try to out-do the other; to out-build and out-influence each other on neighbouring estates in South Yorkshire.

Stainborough

The ‘Strafford’ Wentworths bought land at Stainborough near Barnsley, and built a fashionable mansion there, provocatively naming it Wentworth Castle. The Watson-Wentworth contingent responded in kind as their own fortunes rose, building the magnificent West and East fronts at Wentworth, ultimately outgunning the Stainborough Wentworths resources.

Wentworth rises

Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750), was created Baron Malton in 1728, Earl of Malton in 1733. In 1746 he inherited the family title Baron Rockingham from his cousin, but was also raised to the Marquess of Rockingham in the same year.

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Detail of portrait of Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham and his wife Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, in the Painted Drawing Room at Wentworth

His son, Charles Watson-Wentworth, was the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782). A distinguished political aristocrat, Rockingham was a staunch Whig and was twice Prime Minister, in 1765-66 and 1782 at the time of his death, making Wentworth Woodhouse a seat of great power and moment in Georgian England. It was also the period when many of the surviving follies in and around Wentworth Park came into being.

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Detail of the statue of the second Marquess of Rockingham, housed in he Rockingham Monument on the Wentworth Fitzwilliam Estate.

Part of the epitaph in the Rockingham Monument

The Fitzwilliam connection

The 2nd Marquess’s sister Anne had married William, 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam of Milton, near Peterborough. In 1782 their son, the 2nd Marquess’s nephew, William Fitzwilliam, inherited his father’s title, i.e. the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (in the Irish Peerage) and perhaps confusingly, also the 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam (in the English Peerage).

Earl Fitzwilliam (2nd in English and 4th in Irish Peerage), portrait by Hugh Thompson, Cutlers Hall Sheffield

In honour of his mother and the generosity of his uncle he changed his name to William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1748-1833).

Arms from William Faden’s map dedicated to William Wentworth-William, Earl Fitzwilliam, Viscount and Baron Milton, in 1805

The Rockingham Monument

The 4th Earl Fitzwilliam built a great monument to his uncle, known as the Rockingham Monument or the Mausoleum:

His son and heir, Charles William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1786-1857) – known as Viscount Milton when young – became the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1833 (i.e. 5th Earl in the Irish Peerage, and 3rd Earl in the English Peerage) on the death of his father. Charles married Mary daughter of the 1st Baron Dundas. Their children included:

  • William Charles Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, Viscount Milton (1812-1835) who died young.
  • William Thomas Spencer Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam (1815-1902)
  • George (1817-1874) – from whose line, via his own son George, Charles (1866-1935), the 10th and final Earl would emerge in the shape of William Thomas George Fitzwilliam (‘Tom’) (1904-1979).

William Thomas Spencer Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 6th Earl (from 1857 to 1902) married lady Frances Harriet Douglas the daughter of the 17th Earl of Morton. She died in 1895. Both long-lived, the 6th Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1888.

William Thomas Spencer Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 6th Earl Fitzwilliam
Their children included:

  • William (Viscount Milton)
    • married Laura Maria Teresa daughter of the Lord Charles Beauclerc. Their children included William Charles De Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872-1943) the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam.
  • William Charles, whose son Eric Spencer Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1883-1952) would become the 9th Earl Fitzwilliam when the immediate male line died out after the 7th Earl’s son.
  • Among their other children was Mabel Florence Harriet (1870 to 1951). Known as Lady Mabel Smith after marriage, she would influence the survival of Wentworth through some dark days.

William Charles De Meuron Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam (1872-1943) married Lady Maud Dundas, daughter of the 1st Marquess of Zetland (died 1967). A very active and youthful head, he became Earl in 1902 on the death of his grandfather.


They had 5 children, their youngest, a son, William Henry Lawrence Peter (1910-1948) who became 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1943 on the death of his father.

Image of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam celebrating the christening of his son Peter (the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam)The 8th Earl Fitzwilliam, known as Peter, married Olive Dorothea Plunket (died in 1975), but his early death in a light aeroplane crash in 1948 meant that the title went back to the next nearest male descendant.

The 8th Earl had a daughter, Juliet Dorothea Maud Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (born 1935, now Lady Juliet Tadgell) who inherited many family objects and artworks, and part of her father’s estate. She would also become one of the first Trustees in the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust, dedicated to saving Wentworth which she had known as a home from childhood.
After the 8th Earl, the 9th Earl was Eric Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (apparently known as ‘bottle and bottle Eric’), who died in 1952 without issue. Once again the title had to find the next nearest surviving male heir. After a courtroom argument between two brothers, Toby and Tom over legitimacy, the 10th Earl Fitzwilliam was declared to be Tom Wentworth-Fitzwilliam.

Portrait of the 10th and last Earl Fitzwilliam (d.1979)

With his unexpected death at Wentworth in 1979, the Earldom finally became extinct, and stewardship of the Milton and Wentworth estates passed to his step-daughter, Elizabeth Anne Marie Gabrielle Fitzalan Howard (1934-1997), later remarried as Lady Hastings. Her son, Sir Philip Vyvyan Naylor-Leyland (born 1953) inherited the estates at Milton, Peterborough, at Wentworth and also at Malton in North Yorkshire, and he is also one of the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust trustees.

Decline of the ‘Big House’: finding new uses

During the Second World War Wentworth Woodhouse was requisitioned. Given its size it was used for a number of purposes for the Northern Command, but also served as the Intelligence Corps Depot from 1942 until 1946.
Wartime exigencies for fuel led to some opencast coal mining in parts of Wentworth Park, but it was controversial post-war political decisions that permitted more extensive opencasting of large areas of the park and wider estate, from 1947 until 1953. At its height, the diggers excavated the grounds and gardens at Wentworth right up to the mansion, up to the back door of the West Front in fact.
At that time it was understandable that the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family’s focus should shift to the smaller but less disturbed, relative tranquility of Milton, in Peterborough, rather than remaining amongst the wreckage and ruination at Wentworth.

Following the death of the 7th Earl in 1943, and the unexpectedly sudden death of the 8th Earl in 1948, there was a very short gap until the 9th Earl’s death in 1952, so Death Duties on the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam Estates took a heavy toll on the family’s ability to maintain multiple ageing stately homes.

In 1948 two major auction sales of Wentworth Woodhouse’s contents took place, managed by Christie’s of London. Afterwards, apart from a suite of 26 rooms in the West Front at Wentworth, the remainder of the house and stable block were given over to other uses. There had been suggestions of government uses for the house, and even of the Fitzwilliams giving it to the National Trust (the Trust apparently did not accept it at the time), but the then local authority, West Riding County Council eventually came to the rescue with its post-war education expansion, creating the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education, at Wentworth and agreeing a 50 year lease with the Estate late in 1947. This was later extended to 250 years in 1968. The name Lady Mabel was initially chosen after Lady Mabel Smith, the sister of the late 7th Earl Fitzwilliam, who was also a WRCC Alderman.

After a delay in occupying the house until 1950 due to urgent repairs, the College ran the house from that time until 1977, adding additional student accommodation and sports facilities in 1972-4, and adjusting the fabric of some rooms to meet the needs of contemporary teaching and catering.

In 1974 local government reorganisation in England meant that the responsibility for the college shifted from the former West Riding County Council to the Local Education Authority of Rotherham Borough. The focus of the college shifted from women-only physical education to include men and mature students on other courses of study, so the name was changed to Lady Mabel College of Education.

In 1977, during a period of rationalisation, the College was merged with Sheffield City Polytechnic, which began to scale down operations at Wentworth, focusing on Sheffield itself, although the former West Riding County Council lease was still being covered by Rotherham Council.

In 1986 all educational departments left Wentworth for the final time and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council looked for ways to sell off the remaining years on the lease. The following year, in order to attract new uses and buyers, the Fitzwilliam Estate agreed to augment the lease to include 83 acres of land around the mansion, and subsequently various proposals for converting the house into a hotel and conference venue were explored. However the plans came to nothing as the Estate preferred a heritage solution with some element of public access.

In 1989 the lease was ultimately purchased for private use by Mr Wensley Haydon Baillie, a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur. Financial difficulties in the mid 1990s led to a Swiss Bank taking possession of the lease.

Amidst talk of plans for heritage groups to save the house, it was sold privately to retired London architect Mr Clifford Newbold and his family who moved to live at Wentworth. The Newbolds committed substantial resources into restoration efforts, commissioning conservation reports and future development survey work.

Working with the Georgian Society and heritage groups, they also began a limited re-opening of the house for pre-booked public tours, and held a number of commercial events.

Mr and Mrs Newbold passed away in 2015 leaving a positive legacy at Wentworth and having worked with heritage campaigners on future plans for the house. The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust was formed during this period.

The process of selling the lease again, and of raising funds and awareness began before 2015 but would take two further years, including some near-misses – when the house was reportedly almost sold to a Hong Kong property company – before being saved.

Saving Wentworth


The Trust was formed with the help of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and consists of a group of heritage experts and the heirs of the Fitzwilliam Wentworth estate. The Trust was also supported local MP John Healey, for Wentworth and Dearne, and the noted heritage advocate Robert Jenrick, MP for Newark. The main trustees initially consisted of:

  • The Duke of Devonshire KCVO CBE DL
  • Lady Juliet Tadgell
  • Sir Philip Vyvian Naylor-Leyland Bt
  • Mr Timothy John Cooke OBE
  • Mr Martin Drury CBE
  • Mrs Julie Ann Kenny CBE DL
  • Mr John Merlin Waterson CBE

Lady Tadgell stood down in 2018, with a number of new operational trustees joining, including:

  • Mr James Berry
  • Ms Rachel Cowper
  • Mr Keith Knight
  • Mr Simon Carras

The focus of the Trust moved to developing commercially sustainable operations at Wentworth once the house was secured.
Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust is the current owner of the house, finally securing the purchase of the site in March 2017. It currently has 52 paid staff roles, with well over 100 volunteers regularly engaged. The focus of the house’s income is in hosting events, catering, and as a location for film and television productions and the trust have ambitious future plans for the site in their Master Plan:

www.wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk/development/master-plan

Treasury support

In the 2016 Autumn Statement, Wednesday 23rd November 2016, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon. Phillip Hammond gave a special mention to Wentworth Woodhouse,

“£7.6 million will be provided for urgent repairs at Wentworth Woodhouse, subject to approval of a sustainable business case for the Grade I listed country house.”
HM Treasury, Autumn Statement 2016. Presented to Parliament by the Chancellor of the Exchequer by Command of Her Majesty. November 2016, (Cm 9362)

See video: https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/0863b144-1aac-448b-8a3d-0dd8a0b1d986?in=13:05:05&out=13:06:35

On Monday 15th October 2018 Sarah McLeod CEO and Chair, Julie Kenny, Chair of WWPT attended a special reception at the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 11 Downing Street, to present the masterplan for the future of house.

Having secured funds for emergency repairs based on extensive survey work, consultation with Rotherham MBC, and Historic England, two phases of repair and restoration work commenced, under the watchful eyes of lead consultants and project architects Donald Insall Associates:

Phase 1 (Planning ref: RB2018/0348) of the emergency repairs, with costs over £360,000, coveree the Bedlam wing of the East Palladian front, and also the Riding School and Stable Block, where gutters were cleared, rainwater goods repaired and renewed, and damaged chimney stacks rebuilt. Led by contractors Aura Conservation, the focus of the roof work was to repair or replace rotten timbers and re-slate the roof with Cumberland slate (as was originally used).

Phase 2 (Planning ref: RB2018/1968) commenced in November 2018
and gathered steam in 2019, with 19 large stone urns being taken down from the roof in late April for inspection/assessment. Phase 2 continued the roof repair works of Phase 1, but on a giant scale: vast swathes of the roof over the principal state rooms of the East front, and the portico, the Long Gallery roof and also the North pavillion tower were to be tackled.

This phase, delivered by the Woodhead Group, and worth £4.4M included a huge £1.1M visitor-accessible scaffold structure, planned and built by Lyndon SGB to protect the roof during renewal works by roofers Martin Brooks, with Jericho Joinery and Heritage Masonry Contracts providing repair and renewal of roof fixtures, balusters and statuary. This huge temporary roof structure allowed for public rooftop tours over the course of 18 months of work, originally planned to be completed by October 2020.

Coronavirus and cornicing

As Phase 2 works continued on the Portico, the condition of the stonework in the East front’s central cornice work was found to be very poor, with falling sandstone and crumbling limestone due to water damage over many years. The cost of repairing and replacing over 90 metres of cornice was put at £368,719.

At a height of 18 metres, the cornice proved a difficult challenge and one for which there were no funds available in the core roof repair budget. In order to avoid further delay and additional costs, this sum had to be raised quickly before the giant roof scaffold came down.

In March 2020, Historic England once more stepped into the breach with a £224,000 Grant for Urgent Repairs. The remaining amount required was successfully funded by additional grants including:

  • Freshgate Trust Foundation (£10,000)
  • The Leche Trust (£5,000)
  • The Liz and Terry Bramall Foundation (£70,000)
  • and an anonymous donor (£50,000)

This great news came just as the nation was struck by the onset of the Coronavirus lockdown. Due to the enormous scale of the site, some roof and other repairs were able to continue in April, 6 weeks after the shutdown was first announced in March 2020, with contractors observing social distancing requirements.