Wentworths of Wentworth Woodhouse and the Earls Fitzwilliam
Wentworth Woodhouse was the Yorkshire seat of the Earls Fitzwilliams, and the Wentworths 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, though 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:
Their fine stone memorial can still be seen in the Old Church at Wentworth.
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).
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, twiced widowed, his life and political career which began under King James brought him fame and notoriety, firstly defending Parliament against the King’s ministers’ calls for war taxes, but later serving under King Charles I, becoming a privy counsellor (1629), loyal bulwark and authoritarian proxy in Ireland.
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 money from taxes to fund soldiers, he was forced to call Parliament. Strafford’s closeness to the King made him the target of Parliamentary attacks, and ultimately cost him his honours and his life as the country slid towards the English Civil War (1642-1651).
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.
Strafford became Lord Deputy of Ireland, the King’s representative in the Kingdom of Ireland, and ruled in the interests of the English Crown with an authoritarian streak which caused 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, 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 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, Stafford 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.
A few months after his father’s execution, King Charles I restored the honours which had been forfeit 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.
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.
Watson vs Wentworth? Wentworth vs Wentworth!
On his death in 1695 the 2nd Earl of Strafford did not leave the Wentworth estates to follow his main titles, instead he decided to pass them to 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 Thomas Wentworth, Baron Raby on not inheriting the traditional Strafford estates along with the remaining titles was very real, and echoed down several generations of Wentworths, spurring a sort of localised internecine rivalry which saw each side try to out-build and out-influence each other on neighbouring estates in South Yorkshire. The ‘Strafford’ Wentworths buying land at Stainborough near Barnsley, and building a fashionable mansion there and provocatively naming it Wentworth Castle. The Watson-Wentworth contingent responding in kind as their own fortunes rose, with the magnificent West and East fronts at Wentworth outgunning the Stainborough resources.
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 the same year.
His son, Charles Watson-Wentworth, was the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782). A distinguished political aristocrat, Rockingham was a firm 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.
The Fitzwilliam connection
Charles Watson-Wentworth’s sister Anne had married William, 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam of Milton, near Peterborough. In 1782 their son, the Marquess’s nephew, William Fitzwilliam, inherited his father’s title, as the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (in the Irish Peerage and 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam in the English Peerage).
In honour of his mother and the generosity of his uncle he changed his name to William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1748-1833).
The Rockingham Monument
He also 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 Earl and Countess Fitzwilliam celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1888.
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 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, became Earl in 1902 on the death of his grandfather.
They had 5 children, their youngest, a son, William Henry Lawrence Peter (1910-1948) became 8th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1943.
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. They 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 was Eric Wentworth-Fitzwilliam 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, the 10th Earl was declared to be Tom Wentworth-Fitzwilliam. With his unexpected death, at Wentworth, in 1979, the title 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, Wentworth and Malton in North Yorkshire, and 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 also controversial post-war political decisions permitted more extensive opencasting of the area of the park and wider estate, from 1947 until 1953. At its height, the diggers excavated the ground and gardens right up to the mansion, up to the back door of the West Front in fact.
At this time it was understandable that the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam family’s focus should shift to the smaller, less disturbed, peace of Milton, Peterborough, rather than remaining at Wentworth.
Following the death of the 7th Earl in 1943, the early death of the 8th Earl in 1948, and the short time before the 9th Earl’s death in 1952, the Death Duties on the Wentworth-Fitzwilliam Estates also took a heavy toll on the family’s ability to maintain multiple stately homes. In 1948 two major auction sales of house contents took place managed by Christie’s of London.
Apart from a suite of 26 rooms in the West Front at Wentworth, the remainder of the house and stable block was then given over to other purposes – there had been suggestions of government uses of the house, and even of the Fitzwilliams giving it to the National Trust (the Trust apparently did not accept at the time) but the then local authority, West Riding County Council came to the rescue in its post-war education expansion, creating the Lady Mabel College of Physical Education, agreeing a 50 year lease with the Estate late in 1947, extended to 250 years in 1968. The name Lady Mabel was initially chosen after Lady Mabel Smith, the sister of the late 7th Earl, but also a Council 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 accommodation and sports facilities in 1972-4 and adjusting the fabric of some rooms to meet the needs of teaching, catering and student accommodation.
In 1974 local government organisation 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, hence 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 scaled down operations at Wentworth focusing on Sheffield itself, the lease still being covered by Rotherham Council. In 1986 all educational departments left Wentworth for the final time and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council looked to sell out the remaining years on the lease. The following year to attract new uses the Fitzwilliam Estate agreed to extend the lease to include 83 acres of land around the house and 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 and some element of public access solution.
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 plans for heritage groups to save the house, it was sold privately to retired London architect Mr Clifford Newbold and his family. The Newbold’s committed substantial resources into restoration efforts and conservation reports and development survey work. Working with the Georgian Society and Heritage groups they also began a limited reopening of the house to pre-booked public tours and 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 for potential future plans for the house. The Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust was formed during this period. The process of selling the lease 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.
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 Carr
as the focus of the Trust moved to developing operations once the house was secured.
Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust is the current owner of the house, finally securing the purchase of the 80 leasehold site in March 2017. It currently has 19 staff, with 100 volunteers. The focus of the house’s income is in hosting events, catering, and as a location for film and television productions.
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)
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.