‘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.

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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]