‘On behalf of a grateful nation’: country houses given to military leaders

Nations have always found ways to reward those subjects who have rendered some greater or lesser service.  In earlier centuries, this often took the form of positions at Court which came with a salary, prestige, and unrivalled opportunities to feather one’s nest.  Titles have also always been popular, ranging from a baronetcy for those who have hosted the monarch for a weekend, to dukedoms and earldoms for the upper echelons of Court and on the battlefield – and it’s this latter category who have also enjoyed that rare gift of an entire country estate, in recognition of their services.  Such largesse is now unthinkable but the practice of rewarding military leaders in this way only fell from favour perhaps later than might be imagined.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Image: Blenheim Palace via flickr)

The grandest and most spectacular of these gifts is Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire – though the intrigues for both monarch, recipient, recipient’s wife, and architect make it something of a mixed blessing.  The recipient was certainly worthy of such a grand prize; John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough had risen through numerous victories to elevate and secure Britain’s place in the world, defeated the ambitions of various European leaders, and created the peace which ushered in the Georgian era.  These glorious victories provoked such a feeling of patriotic pride that even his critics praised him.  So how to reward such a man for such remarkable achievements?

Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Great Hall and Eastern Corridor, Blenheim Palace (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Blenheim Palace was to represent many things – explicitly a national monument to the defeat of Louis XIV’s plans for European domination at the Battle of Blindheim in 1704, the considerations of it as a house were somewhat secondary. It embodied the idea that whereas previously the glory of the nation was demonstrated through the palaces of the Monarchy, Blenheim was the first which sought to do this though a private individual.  However, Marlborough’s close ties with Queen Anne would inevitably mean the prestige would reflect onto her and the nation. Work started in 1705 and, writing in 1709, the architect of the house, Sir John Vanbrugh stated,

‘Tho’ ordered to be a Dwelling house for the Duke of Marlborough and his posterity [it was] at the same time by all the world esteemed and looked on as a publick edifice, raised for a Monument of the Queen’s glory.’

The Queen had already resolved to gift the estate at Woodstock but the agreement on paying for the construction of the house was a murkier affair.  Royal patronage could cut both ways as the Marlboroughs and Vanbrugh found out.

Vanbrugh was the ideal choice for a building of this nature.  His background in theatre design gave him an understanding of dramatic effect and his relative inexperience and lack of formal training meant his imagination was bolder than others.  The commission at Blenheim required such a mind; the resulting spectacular building was a monument to power and prestige, incorporating military forms and details to reflect the occasion, but was also one of the most complete expressions of English Baroque.  Yet despite his fabulous wealth, the Duke was determined that the state would show its gratitude by paying for the construction, though he had originally intended the budget to be no more than £40,000 (approx £5m).  Wren had estimated £90,000 – £100,000, however the final cost totalled nearly £300,000 (approx £38m) for which the Treasury eventually was liable (proving that for government projects it was ever thus!).

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Castle Howard)

Such overruns were to be expected where the intention had been to build something like Castle Howard – only bigger. However, the Duchess opposed such a scheme saying: ‘I never liked any building so much for the show and vanity, as for its usefulness and convenience.‘ With such an attitude, friction with Vanbrugh was inevitable. Political changes hadn’t helped; a new government and Treasurer in 1710 slowed payments to almost nothing.  In 1711, the Duchess also fell out quite acrimoniously with her childhood friend, the Queen, leading, in part, to the Duke losing his official posts and the Marlborough’s going into self-imposed exile.  The accession of George I in 1714 brought them back into favour and work progressed again, though constant conflict between the Duchess and Vanbrugh led to his resignation in November 1716, saying: “You have your end Madam, for I will never trouble you more.  Unless the Duke of Marlborough recovers so far [he had suffered a stroke in 1716], to shelter me from such intolerable Treatment.‘ Work proceeded under Vanbrugh’s right-hand man, Nicholas Hawksmoor, to the original plans, with the family taking up residence in 1719, and work largely complete by 1725. Sadly though, the Duke never got to see this, having died in 1722; his monument incomplete, his reputation assailed, and his architect grievously estranged from his masterpiece.

It seems only some of the lessons of Blenheim had been remembered by the time the next gift was proposed for an equally illustrious general, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.  Again, a superb leader who had defeated plans for European domination, Wellington – the Iron Duke – was certainly worthy of such a reward. Rather than receiving a direct gift from the monarch, it was decided that the nation would provide £600,000 (approx £38m) for the purchase of an estate and the building of a suitable house. Rather than just provide the money, in 1817, Parliamentary trustees were appointed to oversee the purchase.  The Duke knew his limitations and called upon the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt (son of James Wyatt) who promptly, even before a site had been found, drew up plans for a ‘Waterloo Palace’ which, in his words, would have “…a very magnificent & imposing effect” without “the monstrous expense of a Fabrick extended to the dimensions of Blenheim [or] Castle Howard“.  Despite his professed aim, this would have been an enormous house; designed around three sides of a courtyard, it featured two flanking pavilions, with the main house centred on a huge domed hall, with suites of grand rooms surrounding it.  Perhaps of particular interest was the severely Neo-Classical decoration, with few of the architectural flourishes which distinguish Blenheim.  This might have reflected the notably austere Duke’s taste but even this plan was rejected.

Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Stratfield Saye, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Given the Duke’s preference to be near London, the house and estate chosen was Stratfield Saye in Hampshire, after rejecting Uppark in Sussex due to the poor land, and was bought from the Pitt family for £263,000; a significant portion of the funds available. Though this may have been a factor in the eventual rejection of the plans in 1817, another was that the Duke was in the process of spending £40,000 anonymously purchasing Apsley House in London, for the use of his almost bankrupt brother who had previously lived there with his soon-to-be-ex wife.  That house also required significant work and, faced with the need to maintain two houses, the Duke abandoned the plans for the new palace, and concentrated on updating and modernising the existing house at Stratfield Saye.  Both houses are still lived in by the Wellesley family, though Apsley is now part-owned by English Heritage and open to the public – and absolutely worth a visit if in London.

Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)
Bemersyde House, Scotland (Image: Kevin Rae / Geograph)

We may think the practice of the nation buying a country seat for a military leader was the product of the more deferential Georgian and Victorian eras when such actions by government would be less subject to widespread scrutiny, but the latest example occurred in the 1920s.   Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, was a controversial figure as commander of British forces in WWI. Although he won, the horrendous loss of life left him with battered reputation which has only recently been revised. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, we, the victors, did feel grateful and Haig was created the 1st Earl Haig (with a subsidiary viscountcy and a subsidiary barony), given the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, plus £100,000 (though he had asked for £250,000) to enable him to live in the manner befitting a senior peer.  Haig chose Bemersyde House in the Scottish Borders, originally built in 1535 as a pele tower, to become, as it still is, the seat of the Haig family, the purchase funded by the grateful taxpayer.

Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Cefntilla Court, Monmouthshire (Image: Knight Frank)

It wasn’t only the ultimate leaders who could benefit from public largesse, though in the case of Cefntilla Court, Wales, the gift missed the mark by a generation.  Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, was the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man who was later blamed (then exonerated) for the huge losses resulting from the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  Lord Raglan’s health suffered from the stress of the campaign and he died whilst on duty in June 1855.  However, such was the admiration for the man that a ‘Raglan Memorial Committee’ was formed and by 1858 was able to present Cefntilla Court, as commemorated by a plaque at the house which reads:

This house with 238 acres of land was purchased by 1623 of the friends, admirers and comrades in arms of the late Field Marshal Lord Raglan GCB and presented by them to his son and his heirs for ever in a lasting memorial of affectionate regard and respect.

Sadly, it seems that ‘for ever’ is a shorter time than they imagined as the house and estate are now for sale following a strange inheritance whereby the 5th Lord Raglan wrote his younger brother, now the 6th Lord Raglan, and the brother’s son, out of his will.  The house was instead left to another nephew, Henry van Moyland, who currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a recruitment consultant. With no deep ties to the estate, he has chosen to sell, splitting the title and estate for the first time since the gift was bestowed.  Legally, there is nothing to be done but it does seem regrettable that the whim of one Lord Raglan should lead to such an outcome, especially as it was the express intention of the donors that it should remain in the family.

That said, it is remarkable that three out of the four houses featured here are still owned by the families who were given them – a continuous link to the thanks of the nation as expressed through architecture and prestige. Though it may not happen now, or again in the future, such gifts are another part of the rich tapestry of our country house history.


Sales particulars: ‘Cefntilla Court‘ [£2m, 350-acres – Knight Frank]

More details: ‘The disinheritance of Lord Raglan’s nephew and future title holder causes split in family‘ [Wales Online]

27 thoughts on “‘On behalf of a grateful nation’: country houses given to military leaders

  1. Paul Dawson March 23, 2012 / 10:49

    A very interesting article. However, you may wish to do some futher research on Field Marshall Montgomery as I believe he also received a grant to purchase a house after world war 2. My recollection is that he lived in this house in Hampshire until he died in 1976. I don’t know if any other military figures from this period also received grants to purchase houses.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat March 23, 2012 / 17:09

      Thanks Paul. I didn’t come across any references to WWII military leaders getting similar rewards but I’d be fascinated and grateful if anyone can find examples. Montgomery Mountbatten lived (as his family still do) at Broadlands in Hampshire – a beautiful house in the middle of a 5,000-acre estate. The house has been closed for refurbishment (but re-opening this summer) so they seem to have taken most of the information on the history of the house off their website but will investigate further.


    • Peter Hall March 29, 2012 / 12:06

      Monty was shabbily treated. He only got a Viscountcy while Alexander got an Earldom. The former was a soldier while the latter was a politician. In fact Montgomery was quite hard up after the war and did not recieve any substantial financial grants despite being the architect of the North African campaign and the D-Day invasion. He used to have to queue up every week for his pension.

  2. handedon March 23, 2012 / 13:27

    The Times last weekend had a detailed article highlighting concern over the wholesale flogging-off of the Raglan collection: ‘In terms of military history, the collection is one of the most important in private hands. Until now it has been little known, and there has been very little time to organise a rescue.’ Barring a miracle, Christie’s will oversee its dispersal on 4 April:

  3. visitinghousesandgardens March 23, 2012 / 17:04

    one thing that I wondered about when visiting Stratfield Saye is under what circumstances the property was ‘purchased’ for the Duke – were the Pitts looking to sell or where they forced to sell? Did you come across anything in, say, Hansard, when researching this post? Many thanks for passing any info on if you did…

  4. Angus March 23, 2012 / 18:02

    Matthew – its the Mountbatten family who live at Broadlands not Monty’s.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat March 25, 2012 / 14:04

      Angus – many thanks, now corrected. Your comment (and a couple of emails) highlighted my folly of attempting a quick reply as I was rushing to catch a train for the weekend! I shan’t do that again – the audience for this blog is far too knowledgeable for that.


    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat March 25, 2012 / 14:20

      Hi Andrew – thanks, I thought you might find other examples. I did a quick check for Horatio but as he himself had purchased Merton Place and his early death in battle precluded such a reward to him directly, I missed that the government had stepped in to create a tribute, but awarded to his family; a very similar situation to Cefntilla Court. Thanks again – and if anyone is aware of any others, please do post in the comments.


  5. Squire Andrew March 25, 2012 / 04:27

    Thanks for an interesting article. The details concerning the inheritance of Cefntilla Court are not quite right, however. The present Lord Raglan is the brother of the deceased lord (who had no children), and it is is son who will inherit the title and was expected to inherit the estate.

    • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat March 26, 2012 / 22:59

      Thanks Squire Andrew – the text has now been updated.


  6. James Canning March 25, 2012 / 19:34

    Great piece. And I was disheartened that Lord Raglan’s house and its contents are being sold rather than kept intact for future generations.

  7. Andrew March 27, 2012 / 14:44

    And now Bettina Harden, the former chairman of the Gateway Gardens Trust, is leading a campaign to keep the essential parts of the Cefntilla Court collection together, with her Raglan Rescue website. Good luck!

    • James Canning March 27, 2012 / 18:36

      Bravo, Bettina Harden!

  8. Michael Thaw April 2, 2012 / 15:20

    If I recall correctlt Camperdown House was given to Admiral Lord Duncan. M

    • Andrew April 4, 2012 / 08:00

      Thanks, Michael. According to the Camperdown Park and Friends of Camperdown House websites, Admiral Adam Duncan (1st Viscount Duncan, 1731-1804) already owned the Lundie estate, being purchased in 1682 by his great grandfather Alexander Duncan, with it being renamed Camperdown Park in the 1820s when the present house was built by the Admiral’s son, Robert Haldane-Duncan (1st Earl of Camperdown in 1831, 1785–1859), using the £3,000 per year pension awarded to the Admiral and his next two heirs. So technically, the house and estate were not given directly to the Admiral by the Nation, but the family did use the government pension, the largest ever awarded by the British government at the time, which ran approximately 1797-1867 (£210,000), to eventually fund the construction of the house. The titles became extinct in 1933 with the death of the 4th Earl of Camperdown (5th Viscount Duncan), and the house was sold in 1946 to the Corporation of Dundee (now Dundee City Council).

  9. Andrew April 3, 2012 / 08:00

    Christie’s ‘Raglan Collection’ auction from the contents of Cefntilla Court, due to be held tomorrow (4 April), has now been postponed/stopped by a court injunction issued last Friday (30 March), requested by the 6th Baron Raglan and his family. This may relate to the 6th Baron and his son wanting the 5th Baron’s will to be re-assessed, as it inconsistently left the estate to another nephew, Henry van Moyland, rather than to the son of the current 6th Baron Raglan. Even if the legal action fails, lets hope the public attention may help Henry van Moyland realise the importance of the collection, and keeping the key pieces together in responsible hands, and may encourage him to donate or offer them for sale to a British museum at a reasonable price. All that is needed is the time to raise the money and the willingness to negotiate a sale. That is the least he can do, considering that his new wealth originated from a generous gift to his great-great-grandfather. It’s time to repay the favour!

    • Andrew April 6, 2012 / 13:31

      And the Cefntilla Court house sale through Knight Frank has also been withdrawn, with the High Court injunction to be reviewed in May.

    • James Canning April 7, 2012 / 00:02

      Very interesting. Would the new Lord Raglan prefer to keep the house and contents, if that were possible? Or perhaps his son would wish to do so?

      • Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat April 7, 2012 / 10:19

        I wonder if they are trying to engineer the inheritance as it should have been – the house and collection coming to Lord Raglan (or his son) assuming they can come to some financial arrangement with van Moyland. The house is on for £2m and the collection was estimated to total £750,000 (though that seems on the low side), so perhaps if they can raise the money then perhaps they can ensure this important collection stays together.

        Perhaps the house and collection could be bought in its entirety by a museum (perhaps with help from HLF) and the house opened to the public but with Lord Raglan in residence (a similar arrangement to some National Trust houses)? So anyone have approximately £3m going spare?


      • James Canning April 8, 2012 / 00:47

        Matthew — Maybe a Russian tycoon with an interest in the Crimean War?

      • Andrew April 7, 2012 / 14:35

        James, the original plan was for the former (5th) Lord Raglan to leave his estate, not to his younger brother the current (6th) Lord Raglan which would soon attract further inheritance tax, but to the 6th Lord Raglan’s son, the future 7th Lord Raglan. However, there was a ‘falling out’ between the 5th Lord Raglan and the future 7th Lord Raglan in the year before his death, such that the estate was instead left to the 5th Lord Raglan’s sister’s son (Henry van Moyland). I gather that the current legal action will focus on the probable overriding intent of the 5th Lord Raglan that the estate and collection should remain together in the family’s hands, and not be broken up and sold off. This issue could be nullified if van Moyland decided not to sell the house and contents. However, if van Moyland is intent on selling, then the court could overturn the will and hand the estate to the future 7th Lord Raglan, if his intention is to preserve the estate. The only problem is that if this dispute develops into a lengthy High Court battle, millions could go in legal fees, on top of the 5th Lord Raglan’s inheritance tax, resulting in the sale of the bulk of the estate in any case. Arbitration may be the best solution.

      • James Canning April 8, 2012 / 00:41

        Thanks, Andrew. And very interesting. Might be a good time for a financial angel to appear on the scene, to facilitate a compromise.

  10. Harry June 26, 2012 / 17:38

    I recently visited Lyme Park in Cheshire and was astounded to find out that the house was given to the Leigh family for helping the Black Prince onto his horse and also for cutting a frenchman’s arm off in order to claim a captured battle standard. There are in fact many heraldic devices displaying an amputated arm holding a flag moulded into the ornate plasterwork!

  11. Freddie June 29, 2012 / 04:36

    Earl Haig was given a house after the First World War by a grateful nation.

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