Stately house, part III: Hardwick

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how my three favorite houses have handled this.  For Wollaton, see here for Longleat, see here.  Finally, I look at Hardwick Hall.

Hardwick Hall

Oh, Hardwick, how I love thee.  Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall, was built by one of the most fascinating and successful women of the Elizabethan period, Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury.  Bess famously married and was widowed four times, each time becoming richer than the last.  She, along with her last husband George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, played jailor/host to Mary Queen of Scots from February 1569 until Mary’s death in 1587.


Hardwick Hall represents the pinnacle of a building career that lasted decades and included Old Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth, along with buildings at Bolsover, Sheffield, Tutbury and Worksop.  My friend Robert Smythson provided the plans for the building, but the idea of Hardwick was probably swirling in Bess’s active mind for years, waiting for the right moment when she finally had freedom and control over her fortune.

Bess, Builder of Hardwick

Bess rose from relative obscurity to become one of the best known and richest women in England.  Her six children were the beginning of her legacy, which continues today through the lined of the Dukes of Devonshire, Somerset, and Norfolk, as well as the Earl of Pembroke.  Her granddaughter Arbella, the daughter of Bess’s daughter Elizabeth and Charles Stuart, had a significant claim to the throne following Queen Elizabeth I, but was ultimately pushed aside in favor of King James I.

Upon Bess’s death, Hardwick was left to her second and favorite son William, while her eldest son Henry inherited Chatsworth.  Several generations later, Chatsworth became the principal residence for the Cavendish family.  This meant that Hardwick Hall remained largely unoccupied since the 17th century and remains mostly unaltered or updated.  The interior of Hardwick Hall remains one of the best examples of Elizabethan architecture and style.

Care of Hardwick Hall was taken over by the National Trust in 1959, and since then the Trust has worked to maintain and conserve the treasures both within and without this beautiful house, while keeping it open for visitors.  The National Trust is a non-profit, charity organization tasked with the job of “keeping places special for ever, for everyone.”  The National Trust manages and maintains over 500 houses, buildings, gardens, and areas of interest and natural beauty across Great Britain.

Old Hardwick Hall


Interestingly, Hardwick Hall was built just steps from Bess’s childhood home of Old Hardwick Hall.  Over the years, Bess  added on and modified this building until she abandoned it in favor of starting afresh with the new Hall.  Old Hardwick Hall is owned and managed by English Heritage, another charity which oversees many historical sites in Britain.  Chatsworth, the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, is still privately owned by Bess’s descendants and is also open for public viewing.



One of my favorite views


This series has looked at three different houses, all with different solutions to the same problem: that of affording the upkeep of a great estate in today’s economy.  In two cases, Wollaton and Hardwick, the families chose a different house for their primary residence and gave others to charities or local government to rid themselves of the burden.  Only Longleat remains in private family ownership.  But all three are open to visitors who want to explore the past and share their history.  If you get the chance to visit any of these, or any one of the many historical homes open in Great Britain, I urge you to take it.   Whether you, like me, go to see the houses themselves, or the art and tapestries they contain, or the formal gardens surrounding them, I think you will agree that they are a beautiful piece of history.

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Stately house, part II: Longleat

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how my three favorite houses have handled this.  For Wollaton, see here.  Next up: Longleat

Longleat was built by the ambitious Sir John Thynne.  He began converting an existing priory in 1540 and did not stop tinkering with the building until his death in 1580.  The building that stands today is actually considered the fourth Longleat, replacing an earlier building that caught fire in April of 1567.  In 1568, a stonemason named Robert Smythson joined the workforce at Longleat and, although probably not responsible for the final design of the building, he learned all the skills and vision he would need to continue his career at Wollaton, Hardwick, and other locations.

The story of Sir John Thynne and the building of Longleat is a story in itself, and one that I am hoping to tell in fictional form.  For now, let’s concern ourselves with the current state of Longleat and how it affords to maintain itself.  Longleat has been continuously owned by the Thynne family since its construction and almost continuously occupied by the family.

The Thynne family has been successful; the original Sir John rising from a steward of Lord Protector Edward Seymour, 1st Duke Somerset, and surviving Somerset’s disgrace and eventual execution for treason.  Throughout the following generations, the family has risen with a succession of titles, first the 1st Baronet of Kempsford, quickly followed by 1st Viscount Weymouth, to Marquess of Bath.

Currently, Longleat is home to Alexander, 7th Marquess of Bath, his son Ceawlin, current Viscount Weymouth, and grandson John.  In the last few generations, the family has taken steps to ensure there will be Thynne’s at Longleat for years to come.

In 1946, Henry Thynne became the 6th Marquess of Bath, inheriting the Longleat estate along with £700,000 death duties or inheritance taxes.  Over the next few years he struggled to maintain the house and estate which cost more to run than it earned.  He decided to fix up the house and then open it to the public.  In April 1949, Longleat became the first privately-owned stately home to admit the public on a regular basis.  Rooms were converted to a gift shop and café, and members of the family acted as tour guides and parking attendants.  By the end of the first year, over 135,000 people had paid to visit the house.

Later, the animals were added.  In the mid 1960s, the 6th Marquess of Bath began conversations with an animal trainer named Jimmy Chipperfield.  In 1966, the Safari Park at Longleat opened, which has grown and increased over the past fifty years.  Longleat is now a popular tourist destination complete with train and boat rides, multiple animal exhibits, one of the largest hedge mazes in the world, and many other attractions.

The Lions of Longleat

Interestingly, Sir John’s family crest includes a red lion with a knot in his tail.  Sir John was knighted on September 10, 1547, following the Battle of Pinkie, by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.  The lion is the symbol of Scotland, whom the English defeated in the Battle of Pinkie, and Sir John adopted the symbol of a defeated lion for his crest.  So, lions have long been associated with the Thynnes of Longleat.



I think the original Sir John Thynne would have approved of these changes.  Surprised certainly, but I think he would have approved.  Above all else, Sir John was a survivor and a man who would do what was required to keep his house.  That his descendants have found a way for Longleat to not only survive, but thrive, I think would have pleased him.

Longleat's hedge maze

If you find yourself in Wiltshire, take some time to visit Longleat.  Whether you lose yourself in the maze, watching the lemurs, or touring the house itself, you will enjoy yourself.   I know I did.

         Some of Longleat's current residents   


Thynne family tree

Longleat: The Story of an English Country House, by David Burnett, 2009 The Dovecote Press



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Stately house, part I: Wollaton Hall

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how this has been handled by my three favorite houses.  First up: Wollaton Hall.

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham

Wollaton Hall was built in Nottingham between 1580 and 1588 for Sir Francis Willoughby.  The building was designed and built by master mason Robert Smythson, who remained in the Willoughby family employ for the rest of his life, settling in Wollaton Village and eventually acting as the bailiff for Sir Francis and his heirs.


The Willoughby's no longer live at Wollaton and have not done so since 1881. The descendents of the original Sir Francis Willoughby now live in Birdsall House in North Yorkshire. 

In fact, Wollaton Hall has not been used as a private residence for much of it's 430 year history.  Upon completion of the new Hall and until his death, Sir Francis remained living at Wollaton Old Hall, using the new building only for special occassions.  His heir and son-in-law preferred the family residence at Middleton.  Another Sir Francis Willoughby, the great-great grandson of the builder decided to live at Wollaton upon receiving the title and inheritance, only to die two years later.  

Much of what we know of the early history of Wollaton can be traced to the writings of this Sir Francis's sister, Cassandra Willoughby, later the Duchess of Chandros.  She lived at Wollaton from 1686 until 1713 and spent her time transcribing documents and writing a family history.

Cassandra and Francis's brother Thomas inherited the estate after Francis' death and was elevated to Baron Middleton in 1711 or 1712.  Eventually, in 1781, Thomas's grandson, Henry, inherited the title of 5th Baron Middleton from his Uncle.  Henry's parents were Thomas Willoughby, younger son of the 1st Baron Middleton and Elizabeth Sotheby of Birdsall Manor in Yorkshire (yes, connected to those Sothebys).  At this point, the Willoughby holdings consisted of  Wollaton Hall, Middleton Hall, in Staffordshire, and Birdsall House.

By 1881, Birdsall was the preferred residence for the Willoughby family and Wollaton Hall remained vacant.  In the 1920s, facing heavy death duties, or inheritance taxes, the 10th Baron agreed to sell the Wollaton estate to Nottingham Corporation.  The sale became final under the auspices of the 11th Baron for the sum of 200,000 pounds.  The following year the Corporation sold off part of the estate to housing developments, keeping the Hall and immediate grounds for public use.

Wollaton Hall, now the Nottingham Natural History Museum

In 1926 Wollaton Hall reopened its doors as a National History Museum and has remained that ever since.  Parts of the building can be toured as a historical building, along side the natural history exhibits.  Builder Sir Francis's great grandson was a well known naturalist, and I think he would have been pleased with this turn of events.  The original Sir Francis? I'm not so sure.  

Elizabethan Great Hall ceiling with dinosaur


When we visited, we shared the space with a special exhibit of the Dinosaurs from China. What would the original builder, that proud and eccentric man, have thought of the huge skeletons of ancient beasts standing in his Great Hall? 




The Willoughby family retains ownership and residence in Birdsall House, which, like others in the original article is available for private hire for weddings and other events.  Middleton Hall was sold in the 1920s as well, first to a private owner and later to a corporation.  It is currently owned by a charitable trust.  Middleton Hall has it's own rich history and is open for visitors and events.

In summary, the Willoughby family is associated with three great houses.  Only one of them is still lived in and privately owned.  All three are open to the public in some manner, whether for private event hire or a general visit.  Stay tuned for the story of Longleat and Hardwick.



Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family, by Pamela Marshall, Nottingham Civic Society, 1999

The Middleton Collection at the University of Nottingham, 

Wollaton website

Birdsall House website

Middleton Hall website

Posted in England, Robert Smythson, Wollaton Hall | 1 Comment

A day apart

On Saturday I joined a group of about fifteen writers for a writers’ retreat.  A day to join others of my tribe for a day of quiet focused work in a beautiful serene setting without the normal interruptions and distractions.  We were encouraged to work in unplugged silence, gathering only at set times of the day.

It was one of the best days ever!  That morning I had my quiet time, working through Romans Ch 3.  My Bible study asked me to define Faith, and read the great hall of the faithful in Hebrews ch 11.  This is what I came up with, what I felt God place on my heart:

Faith is showing up to do your share of the work, trusting God to do show up and do His.  Faith is Noah building the ark, Abraham moving to an unknown place, and David standing in front of Goliath.  Faith is my showing up at the page, at the retreat, trusting that God will meet me there.

As I entered the morning session of quiet work, I prayed for God to meet me there with words, images, and pictures.  I prayed for knots to unravel, paths to straighten and for mountains to move to clear sightlines.  And then I got to work.  I showed up and did my part.  And trusted that God would do his.  He did.

The retreat center had a religious affiliation; the group of writers did not.  The center had a labyrinth, and I walked it, as did many of my co-retreaters.  A sign suggested the walk to the center involve consciously emptying your mind, releasing worries or problems, then pausing in the center to receive what God had for you, before making your way back out focusing on integrating what you have received into your life.

Labyrinth at Still Waters Retreat Center, Austin, TX.

I walked the labyrinth with a specific question in mind and felt a clear answer given to me.  I found myself tempted to look ahead along the path several times, to follow the path with my eyes quickly before my feet reached it slowly.  Each time, God pulled my attention back to my feet.  I just want to know where I’m going, I said.  Trust me, trust the path, He replied. 

I walked slowly, observing the pebbles and small stones that covered the surface, like all the people who cover the Earth and walk in the way of God.  Some are bigger than other and make themselves more noticeable.  Others are small and nestle in with other stones, seemingly content to be one among many.  All take up space and serve a valuable purpose. 

Grasses sprouted up, tickling my ankles, making their presence known.  Walk on, I felt I was being told.  Sometimes we must stop and clear the path of these distractions, but many times we can walk past, noticing them, but not allowing them to hinder our progress.  Weeds grow and they, too, are part of God’s Kingdom, and can co-exist without hindering.

For the most part, I spent my day with my own words.  Just once, I opened a book I had brought and took a peek.  Among the first words I read were “writing is an act of faith.”  Message received, I went back to my own words.

At the end of the retreat, we all came back together and shared what the day had meant to us.  Several of the participants mentioned the labyrinth and the solutions it had brought or the peace it had shared with them.  One writer wondered aloud about the mystery of this place.  A non-believer, she was experiencing the peace of God without knowing what or who it was.

The day brought me peace and clarity.  I was reminded to put one foot in front of the other and walk in faith, not worrying or trying to look ahead.  Trust the one whose path it is.  He will guide you home. 

Show up.  Do your share of the work.  Have faith and trust God to do His part.

Thanks be to God for His bountiful gifts.


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Falling into Productivity

It’s almost time…….

I love the start of the school year, the kids returning to a full-time schedule of being somewhere else, the long hours alone in the quiet house, just me and the cat begging for food.  After the mad morning scramble of getting everyone out the door with a packed lunch and the 40-minute walk to the lake and back, it’s time to settle in and wrestle with words.

It’s an exciting time of year for us writers.  As soon as September starts, we start getting antsy for November.  NaNoWriMo is coming and we’re ready.  Ready for the long hours of typing, the write-ins, the comradery, the victory of completing a 50,000 word original piece of writing.

I have spent the past several weeks pingponging between two projects.  I’m plotting and prepping for this year’s NaNo, doing character sketches and outlining.  This year, I’ve been part of a group that’s been following the book 90 Day Novel by Alan Watt.

I’m also hard at work on my other work-in-progress, which I started during last year’s NaNo.  As amazing as this summer was, I got very little writing done.  In the spring I polished and reworked the first half of this manuscript, but the second half needed a lot of work.  I’m in the middle of that work now.  Almost every day I am improving it, slowly making it better.  It’s good to have a deadline.  However far I get by October 31st is the end of the 2nd draft.  On November 1st I will be switching gears and writing furiously on the new project.

I’ve recently taken some steps to increase my commitment to my writing.  Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a full day writer’s retreat.  It feels selfish and wrong to give up a Saturday to pursue something for myself, and leave the chauffeuring and homework managing to my hubby.  I’m doing it anyway.

Other projects intrude, some welcome like fixing up the kids’ bathroom, others not so welcome.  The days the writing goes well are some of the best days, and I love to string a few of them together.  There is still a lot of work to do, but each time I do the work, I make it better.  One step at a time.

Write on…..


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