Guest blogger – Amicia de Moubray: ‘White knights – the 20th-century castle rescuers’

The castle is often part of the imagination of many children; for the boys as a scene of battles, for the girls usually as a romantic backdrop.  As adults, this love of castles can take many forms but for those with a real passion and deep pockets, the castle can also become a home.  As part of my initiative to broaden the contributors to this blog, Amicia de Moubray, contributor to magazines such as Country Life and The Architect’s Journal as well as an author on books on interiors, has drawn from her latest book, ‘Twentieth Century Castles in Britain‘, to look at the bold men and women who realised that childhood dream of creating or restoring a castle.


For those of a heightened romantic persuasion the chance to rescue a ruined castle and bring it back to life after centuries of woeful neglect is the ultimate fantasy.

Detail of aerial view of Castle Drogo, Devon, showing the spectacular location (Image: National Trust on Dartmoor) - click for complete image
Detail of aerial view of Castle Drogo, Devon, showing the spectacular location (Image: National Trust on Dartmoor) – click for complete image

At the beginning of the twentieth century wealthy Americans along with an ever burgeoning steady stream of new British millionaires were in hot pursuit of decaying castles to restore.  They were both drawn to a deeply nostalgic vision of an older England far removed from their industrial or mercantile past.  The prospect of living in a castle drenched in history is immensely attractive.  It offers both a beguiling form of escapism and a tangible link with the past.  Some arriviste English tycoons opted to build new edifices such as Julius Drewe who commissioned Sir Edwin Lutyens to design Castle Drogo in Devon. But others like Lord Armstrong at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland settled for imposing their stamp on existing historic structures.

Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex (Image: Herstmonceux Castle)
Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex (Image: Herstmonceux Castle)

The magazine Country Life established in 1897, played an important role in the story of the castle in Britain in the 20th-century.  This was mainly because of the patronage of Edward Hudson, who himself employed Lutyens to restore Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland for his summer residence and also nearly bought Lympne Castle in Kent.  Hudson promoted a gentle picturesque image of old England through the pages of his magazine.  Then, as now, architectural enthusiasts pored over the magazine’s enticing property advertisements eagerly alighting on slumbering forlorn castles ripe for renovation.    And there were plenty.  Nowhere was this trend more evident than in the south-east of England, where in the early years of the twentieth century five decrepit ancient castles – Leeds, Hever, Saltwood, Allington (all in Kent) and Herstmonceux (in Sussex) were sold to new owners who took great delight in restoring them with swaggering Edwardian panache, giving them a new lease of life.

Interestingly the restoration of four of the five castles was financed by American money (Herstmonceux being the exception) to the horror of commentators who were mourning the death of the old social order:  ‘The power of the purse of American millionaires also tends greatly to the vanishing of much that is English – the treasures of English art, rare pictures and books, and even of houses’, lamented P.H. Ditchfield in ‘Vanishing England’ published in 1911.

Luckily for the castle enthusiasts who wanted to combine the joys of living in a medieval dream with a smart life in London, the proximity of Kent and Sussex to the capital meant that castles abounded within striking distance of the metropolis.

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex (Image: National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex (Image: National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus)

The heady allure of a castle is magnetic.  Lord Curzon was utterly bewitched by Bodiam Castle from the moment he first saw it and Sir Martin Conway described seeing Allington Castle for the first time with his wife as ‘The beauty of it was overwhelming, it took our breath away and for the moment we were speechless’.  It is easy to understand how they poured money into making them habitable again. Adam Nicolson encapsulates the sentiments of many a would-be castle-restorer when summing up his grandmother Vita Sackville-West’s restoration of Sissinghurst Castle:  ‘there was a chance here to revitalize a one-great but deeply neglected place, to take a ruin and make it flower’.

Amongst the most lavish restorations was Lady Baillie’s transformation of ramshackle Leeds Castle into a smart Jazz Age country house boasting a sprung ebony dance floor for dancing in the Saloon, six new bathrooms, each clad from top to bottom in a different coloured marble, two En-Tout-Cas tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course and a large swimming pool complete with a wave machine.  Dozens of local builders were employed as well as several French and Italian craftsmen imported by the interior designer, Armand Albert Rateau (1882-1938). The foreign workers travelled weekly from London by train in a special Southern Railway coach emblazoned ‘Leeds Castle’ only.

Leeds Castle, Kent (Image: Sarah Dawson - Sez_D via flickr) - click to see complete image
Leeds Castle, Kent (Image: Sarah Dawson – Sez_D via flickr) – click to see complete image

‘WANT BUY CASTLE IN ENGLAND’ read the terse wire the American newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst sent to his English agent, Alice Head in August 1925.

Interestingly Randolph Hearst rejected Leeds Castle after Alice Head wired him ‘…quite unique as antiquity but needs expenditure large sum to make it habitable not a bath in place only lighting oil lamps servants quarters down dungeons…. could be made fit to live in by spending about four thousand’.  This would no doubt have resulted in a spartan sort of abode as Lady Baillie is reported to have envisaged spending £100,000 on Leeds.

Hearst eventually settled for the remote St. Donat’s in Glamorganshire.  The plus side was that the castle had already been sensitively restored a few years earlier by Morgan Williams, a noted Welsh antiquarian.

St Donat's Castle, Glamorganshire, Wales (Image: The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)
St Donat’s Castle, Glamorganshire, Wales (Image: The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales)

In true bombastic American tycoon manner, Hearst transformed the castle into a plutocrat’s palace, overlaid with romantic connotations, in which to entertain his international guests who included Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, the Mountbattens and Ivor Novello.  The thirty-two new bathrooms put such demand on the existing reservoir that a water main was laid from Bridgend some 9 miles distant.  The engineer from the South Wales Electricity Power Company was astonished to be asked for connections for all manner of cutting-edge electrical gadgets including electric clocks and private hairdressing apparatus. His other clients in the area were still wary of electricity, limiting themselves to a solitary light in the middle of rooms.

Alas, Hearst was only to visit St. Donat’s five times for a total occupation just short of four months.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened to all these castles if these wealth folk had not come to their rescue.  Would they now be in the ownership of English Heritage conserved as manicured ruins?

We must salute the valiant castle restorers and thank them for making the architectural history of the castle in the twentieth century a gripping tale.

Text by Amicia de Moubray, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.


Amicia’s superb book: ‘Twentieth Century Castles in Britain‘ [Amazon]

You can follow her on Twitter too: ‘ademoubray

Many of the castles mentioned are open to the public so are well worth a visit.

Previous guest blog: ‘Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

3 thoughts on “Guest blogger – Amicia de Moubray: ‘White knights – the 20th-century castle rescuers’

  1. Jim May 14, 2013 / 09:04

    It is interesting to speculate how many more castles would be restored to their former glory if the governing bodies of this country were not stuck in their ‘ruins’ mindset.

  2. James Canning May 15, 2013 / 00:15

    Brilliant article!

  3. Jennie Goodman May 18, 2013 / 16:24

    Very enjoyable article.. but then The Country Seat blog is always fabulous! Thank you.

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