Who Owned Almost All of England?


Have you ever hauled a wheelbarrow filled with dirt?
Then can you imagine hiring enough workmen to haul away 23,500 cubic yards of soil and rock with wheelbarrows as did the owners of the great house Stowe?
Can you imagine being the owner of the great house Longleat and having 91,000 trees planted at one time?*
Can you imagine having an entire village relocated to improve your view shed as was done at Castle Howard and Chatsworth?
If you can imagine these things, you would fit in comfortably with many aristocratic lords, such as the 7th Duke of Westminster who in 2016 owned London properties valued at $13 billion. This wealth had its origins in the vast tracts of land owned by a small number of men.
In the 1880s–just prior to Winston Churchill’s birth–sixty peers each owned 50,000 acres of land; fourteen owned in excess of 100,000 acres each.*** The estate of William Cavendish, the 7th Duke of Devonshire, extended to nearly 200,000 acres. But the 2nd Duke of Sutherland trumped all other peers by owning a stunning 1.3 million acres.** If you consider that the United Kingdom is about 6 million acres in size, it’s startling to see that about sixty men owned 5 million of those acres—5/6 of the entire country.
So if you own practically the entire country, what do you do with it? Certainly you govern it, which we will explore a bit later.
But another thing you do is party on an epic scale—all over the country.


Next: How To Party Like A Noble

Photo credit for Castle Howard: Nancy Parrish

*Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Anchor Books,
2010; p 310.
**Cannadine, David. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. New York:
Vintage Books, 1999; pp. 710-711.
***Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War,
1890-1914. The Library of America, 1962; 2012; p. 595W

How to get a gift of 2,700 acres and a palace with a 7-acre roof

Blenheim Palace has a roof that covers seven acres.  And it was a gift.  Really.

How does that happen?

First, you need shrewd, well-placed ancestors.

In 1677 Winston Churchill’s ancestor, the dashing John Churchill, had wanted to take 17-year-old Sarah Jennings as a lover; but clever Sara outmaneuvered him and got him to marry her.  Sarah Churchill then instinctively–and some said brutally–navigated the intrigues of court to keep her husband at the forefront of royal attention.  Her most astute political move was to link her fortunes to Princess Anne.
Anne constantly battled her sister and brother-in-law–King William and Queen Mary–to secure an allowance or some modest independence, and Sarah always lobbied on Anne’s side. When Anne finally became Queen, she raised John Churchill to the highest and most exclusive order of the peerage, the rank of Duke of Marlborough. Then, in 1705 when John defeated the French and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim in Bavaria (which insured that Britain then dominated Europe), Queen Anne naturally turned to Sarah for ways to thank John for his service.


Here Sarah played her winning card.  She guided her royal friend Anne to bestow upon her husband the gift of a country house and 2,700 acres in Oxfordshire. The resulting gift took nearly thirty years to build, employed over 1,500 workman, and became–because of its breathtaking scale–the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace. To the eventual horror of Anne and the British government, it also ballooned to over five times the initial estimated cost and ultimately estranged the Marlboroughs from Queen Anne.
But the gift had been given. A later royal ruler, King George III, would look down from a hilltop towards the palace and remark with a mixture of awe and royal chagrin, “We have nothing to equal this.”*
Blenheim Palace became an emphatic statement of Churchillian power and wealth–and showed especial scorn for the French whom John had defeated. A massive Arch of Triumph marked the entrance into the grounds. Atop the entrance pediment stood a statue of Britannia and beneath her cringed two chained French captives. One lower roof supported an English lion devouring the French rooster. The south portico contained a 30-ton marble bust of French King Louis XIV that Marlborough had looted–and the 1st Duke always pointedly sat with his back to this bust. Each feature of the palace was expensive and calculated to awe the viewer.
Where St. Donat’s had towers for sighting the enemy and crenellations to protect archers, Blenheim’s tower housed a clock and decorative battlements. These vestiges of a military architectural style now signaled an unassailable class structure. The 320 rooms in the interior elaborated on that theme. Blenheim’s entrance hall soared to over four stories. The library, stocked with rare first editions and artwork, exceeded half the length of a football field. Later Dukes added a Temple of Diana, a 134-foot Column of Victory honoring the first Duke, and great works of art ranging from Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna to Van Dyck’s equestrian painting of Charles I.


Not satisfied with simply creating an imposing structure, each succeeding Duke shaped the landscape as well. The grounds of the estate were encircled by a dry stone wall that ran for nearly nine miles. In the 1760s the 4th Duke employed landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown to reshape the grounds to create an even more aesthetic context for the great house. Virtually unfettered, Brown dammed a river, created a lake, constructed a series of cascades, and diverted a stream. With the Duke’s permission, Brown took a 30-room brick building near the stream,  flooded it, submerged the lower stories until the height of the building seemed pleasing and proportional to the surrounding landscape–and used it as a bridge.


But Marlboroughs were far from the only nobles to take the land, architecture, and art as their sovereign birthright to shape for the family’s glory.

Next Time: What families owned most of England?


*Martin, Ralph G. Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 1854-1895.
Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969; p. 61.

**Image courtesy of Framepool.com

A Real Castle

While constructing San Simeon Castle, William Randolph Hearst instructed his English agent to purchase some nonspecific castle somewhere in the United Kingdom.

While visiting the construction site of his fabulous San Simeon Castle, William Randolph Hearst sent his English agent, Alice Head, a brief telegram initiating the purchase of some nonspecific castle somewhere in the United Kingdom. What could possibly draw his interest to a generic English castle when he was already assembling a castle over which he had entire design approval; at a beloved coastal location near the center of his California business operations; with a size and structure that would quite comfortably house his European art, furniture, and architectural collections?
The provocative magazine that fired Hearst’s imagination was the very genteel Country Life, a quintessentially English magazine for aristocratic readers. In the 1920s Country Life was THE great judge of upper class English taste. The magazine often opened with the “Girls in Pearls” feature: the studio portrait of a debutante whose marriage had recently been announced. Then, within the magazine itself, nobles could read elegant gossip about their fox hunts, their yachting competitions at Cowes, their parties, and their grouse-hunting in Scotland. A favorable profile of a great country house or garden in this magazine could make or break a family’s worthiness to be part of the highest social sphere in England.

The April 2, 1921, issue of Country Life included an article about a remarkable collection of medieval arms housed in the Welsh castle St. Donat’s. The article would have remained just a fusty description had the author Francis Henry Cripps-Day not pointed out the one cultural treasure that William Randolph Hearst did not possess and had not even understood before. It was a prize that would be beyond the reach of most men in the world–and, hence, became an irresistible quest for Hearst and men like him. As Cripps-Day passionately rose to champion the cause of armorial collecting, he wrote the lines that caused Hearst to stop and reorder his passions.  Cripps-Day firmly stated that the arms in St. Donat’s were magnificent because they provided “the actual and personal setting to the scene which the imagination is trying to reconstruct.”

What did that mean?
Hearst had certainly collected warehouses full of historical and artistic objects that were the envy of many great museums. But the context–”the actual and personal setting” at Hearst Castle–of these treasures, he had to admit, was new and a mixture of many architectural styles.   His California castle La Cuesta Encantata was–by Cripps-Day’s standards–a second best mixture.  Only  genuine objects in their original setting had the highest value; and Hearst’s American castle, no matter how wonderfully designed, would  always be inauthentic: a faint echo rather than a powerful authority.
In mulling over this article, Hearst apparently felt a metaphorical gauntlet hurled down before him–and he picked it up.  He would no longer just be a collector of armor, furniture, paintings, and sculpture: he would buy authenticity itself.
So, regardless of his stated indifference as to a specific castle and despite his
businessman’s instinct to look for the best bargain, Hearst trained his sights on that very castle in the west of Wales about which he had read: St. Donat’s.

Next time:  Americans’ bittersweet love affair with Old Wealth and England.


Photo credit:  St. Donats Castle courtesy of Wedding Day Wales