Rose Martin reviews a new book that looks inside some of Britain’s great country houses of the landed gentry and aristocracy which have been continually occupied by the same family for generations.
It’s no surprise that the introduction to this latest book by James Peill has a foreword by Julian Fellowes, a writer who has made a career out of the Big House drama, in particular, sketching out the life and times of upstairs and down in the highly successful, Downton Abbey television series.
Published by Thames and Hudson in large format paperback, (£18.95) and lavishly illustrated, Peill has again worked with photographer, James Fennell on The English country House, in a book that includes a hand-picked ensemble of beautiful, ancient and handsome country homes.
Some are open to the public and earn their keep, some are large, rambling aristocratic homes, like Badminton and Goodwood, but others are lower-scale, landed gentry houses that have not been photographed or published before and which bear the hallmarks of cherished, long-lived-in dwelling places.
The distinction with this work, (which follows on the successful theme created with The Irish Country House), is that the 10 chosen properties have been continually occupied by the same family since their original construction and in some cases, that period extends to over a thousand years.
They each have stories to tell, and those stories often chime with the ups and downs of English history and English literature, from the original moated Norman keeps that defended invaded territory, to the Grand Tour-stuffed mansions of Dukes and Duchesses where royalty were often entertained.
And in one particular case, Madresfield Court, it was chosen as a safe hideout for George V, QueenElizabeth and the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during the Second World War.
Set in the midlands, it was judged a redoubt against a German invasion in Britain’s darkest house and was en route to Liverpool and an escape by sea, if the country fell.
Madresfield, ancestral seat of the Lygon family, was earmarked as a shadow capital for the fleeing establishment and Royal refugees.
‘Mad’ as it’s known to the family, is perhaps the highlight of this book, as its dark stained Tudor framing and ornate brickwork marks it out as one of the most attractively-aged of country houses, albeit, not the most ancient in this book.
Despite its mass, (the roof covers two acres), it is perhaps, the more human-sized of the Grand duca; residences and Peill describes it as one of the most romantic country houses in England.
It has a long and interesting history — taking it’s name from Mower’s Field, it’s set in the Malvern Hills and has been passed by inheritance for nearly 1,000 years through the Lygon family.
Originally a daub and wattle structure built by the Norman deBracy family, they settled in Worcestershire in 1086, after the Domesday Book, and built the most common form of defended home at the time — a Norman motte and bailey.
That moat still exists in the considerably exalted dwelling shown on the book’s pages, while deBracy’s were subsumed into the Lygon lineage and the house was rebuilt and enlarged in the 16th century and later, in the 19th century when the original medieval house was obliterated in favour of a rambling, neo-Gothic mansion that Peill admits has elements “that could have come out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
“Indeed”, he says, “you might expect Rapunzel to let down her hair at any moment.”
In the 20th century, a series of misfortunate events catapulted the house and the Lygon line into notoriety when the seventh Earl, known as Boom, was forced to flee abroad by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster.
Despite fathering seven children with Westminster’s sister, (who termed his indiscretions with footmen and staff as ‘burglary’), the Earl was forced to flee abroad under pain of exposure and arrest and his wife returned to her family home, leaving six children at Madresfield.
A bully and narrow-minded playboy, according to Jane Mulvagh, author of Madresfield: The Real Brideshead, Westminster’s last letter to the seventh Earl was curt and to the point: “Dear Bugger-in-Law, You got what you deserved.”
The six remaining Lygon children were fiercely loyal to their father and took turns in visiting him abroad, from Germany to New South Wales to Antibes, but didn’t miss out on the opportunity to abuse the priviledge of a free gaff.
‘Mad’ became a party house and amongst its regular habitues was Evelyn Waugh, a fellow-student of Hugh Lygon’s at Oxford, who it is also said, was his lover.
The seventh Earl, Boom, inspired Lord Marchmain, and Hugh Lygon was the model for Sebastian Flyte. Like Flyte, he was an alcoholic and died in Bavaria in 1936, having never reconciled himself. apparently, to being a chip off the old block.
Elements of Madresfield appear in Black Mischief and in A Handful of Dust, too and an earlier ancestor’s 17-year legal battle for an inheritance is said to have been picked up by Dickens and used in Bleak House.
Either way, the earldom died out in 1979, but the great-niece of the last earl continues the Lygon family succession at Madresfield.
Each house in this book has variations on a similar theme and Peill defty draws a distinction between landed gentry and aristocracy — those gentlefolk familiar from Jane Austen’s novels who never pushed too far about their station, but who nonetheless presided over massive acreage and created fine dwellings and maintained fine lifestyles on the proceeds of those estates.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved