Very few people had heard of Apethorpe in 2004 when the government used a compulsory purchase order to take the Northamptonshire building into the care of the state. Two decades and several million pounds later, the house has been sold to new owners who will complete the restoration and open it to the public. Chris Catling asks: was it worth it?
It would be an understatement to say that Apethorpe had been overlooked, little studied, and poorly understood until around 15 years ago. Located south of the village of the same name, in a secluded stretch of countryside 7 miles south of Stamford and 5 miles north of Oundle, the house first came to the attention of field staff at the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England during their research for The Country Houses of Northamptonshire, published in 1996. At that stage, Apethorpe was already in an advanced state of decay, such that its true significance was all the more difficult to appreciate.
Wanis Mohammed Burweila, a Libyan businessman, had acquired the Apethorpe estate in 1982 with plans to turn it into a training college for Libyan and Arab students. In the wake of the tragic death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, however, shot dead outside the Libyan Embassy in 1984, Burweila left the UK, never to return. He continued to pay the wages of two caretakers, Peter Coxhead and George Kelley, fitfully for another decade, and when this money dried up altogether George Kelley continued his heroic efforts to protect the house from vandalism and organise emergency repairs, for which he was made an MBE in 2008.
Fighting for funds
At first, East Northamptonshire Council made efforts to press the absent Burweila to carry out essential repairs, serving first an Urgent Works Notice and then a full Repairs Notice on him in October 1996. English Heritage got involved in January 2000, in recognition of the national importance of the house. Then, in June 2002, as preparations for compulsory purchase got under way, the house was sold to a property development consortium that proposed to create apartments within the main house and build new properties in the grounds. Further Urgent Works Notices were served, but to no avail: far from repairs being carried out, the situation was made worse when stone slates were stripped from some of the roofs.
A public inquiry was held in February and March 2004 at which, having reviewed all the evidence, the inspector concluded that the future of the property was not secure under the consortium’s ownership, and that the Government – in the form of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport – was legally entitled to proceed to use its powers of compulsory purchase. The Lands Tribunal agreed a purchase price of £3.6m, and having paid this to Apethorpe’s owners, the Government handed over the freehold of the house to English Heritage in September 2004.
Thus ended ten years of statutory action to save Apethorpe, and thus began another decade of work to stabilise the house, at a further cost of around £8m. In November 2014, the house was sold to a sympathetic new owner, the French diplomat and businessman Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten, for the sum of £2.5m. Justifying the price, English Heritage stressed that there was a huge amount of work still to do, and that Baron von Pfetten was committed to spending the necessary millions needed to complete the restoration. This will be carried out under close supervision, and English Heritage will continue to organise public access to the state rooms and gardens on 50 days a year for the next 80 years.
Rescuing Apethorpe from dereliction has thus cost the taxpayer £9.1m. That is a tiny sum in the grand order of things – it would buy just over half of a Trident missile (£16.8m per missile) – but governments very rarely take enforcement action to rescue a historic house and fund a major repair programme. What was it about Apethorpe that made it an exceptional case?
Homes and castles
A substantial part of the surviving house at Apethorpe dates from the period 1470-1490. It was built by Guy Wolston, a rising star whose appointment in 1464 as Keeper of Fotheringhay Great Park and Constable of Fotheringhay Castle proved to be the making of him. Fotheringhay (2.6 miles to the south-east of Apethorpe) was one of Edward IV’s favourite residences – and the birthplace of his brother, later Richard III – and he spent considerable sums on building work there during 1463-1469. Wolston oversaw that work in his capacity as Constable, and he must have made a favourable impression because he was subsequently appointed to the important office of Gentleman Usher, one of the monarch’s most trusted servants, in the royal household. In 1468, he was rewarded by a Crown grant of the land at Apethorpe, on which he began to build his new residence in 1470.
This is a substantial building, with a typical plan of the time, constructed from local oolitic limestone and with roof slates from quarries around the nearby village of Collyweston (famous to this day as a source of limestone roofing material). The dais end of the Great Hall is lit by a handsome oriel window, and the rest of the hall is illuminated by an almost continuous bank of windows set high in the west and east walls. Remarkably, the elaborately decorated late 15th-century door to the hall has survived. It was moved to serve as a cupboard door elsewhere in the 19th century, but now stands in its original position.
Wolston built himself a solid and comfortable late medieval gentry house, but this is not what makes Apethorpe special. The overall style of hall and ancillary rooms is relatively plain, very much in the regional style of the time, and comparable in the carving of its door and window arches, buttresses, mouldings, and capitals to masonry that can be seen in a number of nearby churches. Rather, it is the work that was subsequently undertaken here by Sir Walter Mildmay (c.1520-1589), his son Sir Anthony Mildmay (c.1549-1617), and Sir Francis Fane (1580-1629), son-in-law of Sir Anthony, that made the house the favourite haunt of royalty.
Sir Walter Mildmay is best summed up as a diligent official who worked his way into favour with successive monarchs by his astute management of the royal finances. Huge amounts of money were slopping around following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, providing ample opportunity for corruption and negligence in the administration of the Crown estates. Under successive monarchs – Edward VI (who knighted Mildmay in 1547), Mary I, and Elizabeth I – Sir Walter diligently sorted out the hopelessly muddled royal finances and refilled the treasury coffers. As a reforming Chancellor of the Exchequer under Elizabeth I, he was handsomely rewarded with salaries, pensions, and emoluments eventually totalling £1,000 per annum, making him one of the most highly paid officials of his day.
His lasting accomplishment was the foundation of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which he did by purchasing the site of the dissolved house of the Dominicans on what is now St Andrew’s Street for £550. The queen granted him a licence to establish the new college on 11 January 1584, and conversion of the former priory buildings was completed in 1588. Perhaps he saw this as legacy enough: he never seems to have sought the peerage or earldom that would surely have been his had he asked. Historians have put this down to his humility and innate Puritanism; Mildmay’s daughter-in-law Grace described him as pious and prudent, ‘wise, eloquent, and methodical in all his speeches’, saying that he would not permit irreverent discussion of the queen or ‘matters of state’, nor blasphemy at his table, nor allow men to speak ill of others.
Mildmay kept table in various properties – he had a house in Hackney, another in Middlesex, and a country house at Danbury in Essex. He acquired Apethorpe in 1551, but only began to extend and embellish the earlier house in the 1560s. Yet, somewhat at odds with his reputation for humility, one of the ways in which he put his personal stamp on the house was through armorial embellishments to the gatehouse. To the south of the late medieval house, moreover, Mildmay added a new Great Chamber warmed by a floor-to-ceiling French Renaissance-style chimney piece, again carved with armorial reliefs, his motto Virtute non Vi (‘By virtue, not force’), his initials, and the date 1562.
Mildmay also placed two large tablets above the Great Hall fireplace, where they would be seen by every visitor, leaving them in no doubt as to the status of the owner. The circular tablet was carved with Mildmay’s coat-ofarms and motto, while the rectangular panel was inset with the lead lettering of a poem by Walter Haddon, one of Mildmay’s friends, with words appropriate to a place of hospitality and communal dining, enjoining the owner of the house to ‘be good to all’ and to ‘maintain the cause of right’.
Such hospitality would have been truly put to the test when Elizabeth I visited Apethorpe on her summer progress of 1566, dining with Mildmay and establishing the building’s status as a house suitable for royal entertainment. Almost 40 years later, on 27 April 1603, only a month after being proclaimed King of England, James I (1603-1625) visited Apethorpe as the guest of Mildmay’s son, Sir Anthony, on his journey south from Scotland to begin his new reign. This was James’s first visit, but he was to return many times, attracted partly by Sir Anthony’s well-documented generosity (the epitaph on his tomb in Apethorpe church says he was ‘bountifull and loved hospitallity’), partly by the excellence of the hunting in the nearby forest of Rockingham.
Having made annual journeys within his Scottish homeland, largely to hunt, since becoming King of Scots in 1567, James I continued the Elizabethan tradition of royal progresses in England, undertaking 23 such journeys during his 22-year reign. Hunting was a major incentive for such journeys, but the king also maximised the political and business benefits of such visits, so he was accompanied by a huge entourage of household officials, legal advisors, and foreign ambassadors, as well, in some years, as the households of his wife, Anne of Denmark, and his son, the Prince of Wales. Wherever he went, he was greeted by speeches, poems, masques, plays, and dances, as well as lavish feasts. Providing all this entertainment involved the members of various household departments, including the Yeomen of the Guard, the kitchen staff, the cupbearers, physicians, musicians, actors, and courtiers. The number of people descending on a house could thus be enormous.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Goneril objects to her father’s entourage of 100 and tells him first that he should reduce that number to 25, then argues that he has no need of any servants at all, since she has her own staff who will look after his needs. This is presented in the play as the final act of filial ingratitude that sends Lear mad with impotence and rage. What Goneril should have done, according to Elizabethan and Jacobean principles of hospitality, was to render the house keys to her father, offering up the residence. The visiting monarch was treated as the owner, rather than as a guest; members of the royal family outranked all potential hosts, and the staff of the royal household also outranked the host’s own servants.
James I was in the habit of making frequent visits to houses that he liked, and Apethorpe was definitely one of the most favoured. In a group of 30 houses that James enjoyed visiting regularly, Apethorpe was the third most used, playing host to the king eleven times, with him typically staying for two or three nights. On one such occasion – 5 August 1612 – James I entertained the Venetian ambassador at Apethorpe; he describes supping with the king ‘in a delicious garden’, while being entertained by ‘a concert of voices and instruments’, surrounded by a large crowd of ‘the nobility and gentry’.
Back at Apethorpe in August 1614, James I was introduced to George Villiers (1592-1628), who quickly became the king’s favourite. By 1623, as Duke of Buckingham, he was the highest-ranking British subject outside the royal family. That rapid rise was due in part to the intimate personal relationship between Villiers and the king, but Villiers found equal favour with Charles I, so the man with ‘the face of an angel’ must also have been a very effective royal servant. In any event, Apethorpe must have held an even more special place in the affections of James I after 1614, for when Sir Anthony Mildmay died on 11 September 1617, far from ending his association with Apethorpe, James I asked the new owners – Sir Anthony Mildmay’s only child Mary (1583- 1640) and her husband Sir Francis Fane (1580-1629) – to carry out a significant programme of improvements to the park and house.
It was this remodelling, undertaken at the king’s express command and partly paid for by the monarch, that transformed Apethorpe from an oldfashioned house, largely untouched since the 1560s, into a Jacobean prodigy house. James I, now 56 years of age, was increasingly infirm and often seriously ill with a combination of arthritis, gout, and kidney stones, so the work was carried out rapidly in the hope that the king would live to see the fruit of his investment. In May 1622, James I gave the formal order to Sir Francis Fane to ‘new build and enlarge his house at Abthorpe [sic] … for the more comodious enterteynment of his Ma[jesty] and his company’. In order to facilitate the works, the king donated 100 oak trees from Rockingham Forest, and ordered a further 100 to be sold at a ‘reasonable’ price.
Money was no object to an ambitious man on the make like Sir Francis, keen to use his country home to further his status, and the work was completed over three building seasons. This consisted of an impressive new range of buildings enclosing the eastern side of the courtyard, with two arcaded loggias on the ground floor: one facing into the courtyard, and one into the new walled garden. A long gallery was constructed on the first floor, and an attic and roof walk above.
Entertaining al frisco
It says something about the character of the entertainment at Apethorpe that the rather dingy and lowceilinged cellar at the southern end of the new range seems to have been at least as popular with guests as the airy and well-lit loggias and gallery above. Called the ‘frisco’ (a unique room name that has not been traced in any other English house inventories, perhaps derived from the Italian fresco, ‘fresh’), this grotto seems to have functioned as a club, pub, or drinking den, to judge from a poem written in 1650 by a later owner of Apethorpe, Mildmay Fane. The poem, written on the occasion of the birthday of the exiled king, Charles II, is replete with references to wine and is described as a place ‘to dispell all cares’. A similar cellar, described as a ‘rocke or grotto where the king did regale himself privately’, existed under London’s Banqueting House, and when this was excavated in 1969 the space was found to be full of broken glass from 17th-century bottles, glasses, and clay pipes.
James I was famously anti-smoking, but he was a heavy drinker, and the existence of the ‘frisco’ conjures up a portrait of the king in his less formal moments, ‘slumming it’ in the cellar in preference to being on display in the state rooms that Sir Francis Fane built above. On these were lavished the attentions of the best masons, carpenters, plasterers, and painters of their day. The finer grained cream-coloured oolite used in the construction of the new wing was quarried at Kings Cliffe, a mile north of Apethorpe, where the humps and bumps are still visible today. Even finer grained stone was used for the elaborately carved fireplaces, while Collyweston once again supplied the roof slates.
More than 800 individual masons’ marks have been found at Apethorpe, giving us a sense of how busy the workshops there were during this three-year period. The marks have also enabled archaeologists at Historic England to identify the master mason Thomas Thorpe and some members of his workforce, and to establish where else they worked, and hence some of the influences on Apethorpe’s design.
The entire ensemble was drawn together externally by updating the appearance of some of the existing buildings, replacing the parapets and gables so as to unify the old and new work. A near life-sized statue of James I, now brought indoors, was carved for a niche above the north doorway of the new range facing the gatehouse, in such a position that it would greet arriving guests. This was the work of the same carvers who created Apethorpe’s magnificent new suite of floor-to-ceiling chimney pieces, carved with allegorical figures from the Bible and Classical mythology. Fittingly, the most refined decoration is found in the King’s Chamber, with its deeply coved plaster ceiling decorated with the royal coat of arms. Hunting scenes fill the lintel above the fireplace, while a deeply carved relief above depicts two female figures, probably Justice and Peace, honouring a king who carefully cultivated his image as Rex Pacificus (‘King of Peace’), and who adopted the motto Beati Pacifici (‘Blessed are the peacemakers’) from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Another allusion to King James is found in the depiction of King David playing his harp in the Long Gallery chimney piece, flanked by references to the slaying of Goliath, and symbols of Justice and Fortitude. Again, James I is being portrayed here as a peacemaker: the fact that the king was engaged in translating David’s Psalms made the reference all the more apt. Meanwhile, there is perhaps a nod to the succession in the chimney piece in the Duke’s Chamber, decorated as it is with the Prince of Wales’s feathers, suggesting this was originally intended for the use of Prince Charles. The carving of a ship on the overmantel has been interpreted as a reference to the safe return from Madrid of the future Charles I and George Villiers, King James’s favourite, who went to seek the hand in marriage of the Spanish Infanta. Charles and Villiers arrived back in Plymouth in October 1623, a moment captured in the Apethorpe carving, one month before negotiations with the Spanish broke down and a year before a marriage treaty was agreed between Charles and the French princess, Henrietta Maria.
James I did indeed live to see the transformation of Apethorpe: his final visit took place between 31 July and 3 August 1624. The future Charles I accompanied his father to the house, and returned several times as king in his own right up to 1642 and the outbreak of the Civil War. That cataclysm was to mark the end of Apethorpe’s time of glory, the 76 years during which it was frequented by monarchs and transformed from a medieval hall into one of the most important houses of its day. From now on, the house would develop as a family home. Later visitors increasingly used terms such as decline, desolation, dereliction, and decay to describe Apethorpe, and John Fane, inheriting the house in the early 18th century, planned in the 1740s to sweep it away and build a Palladian villa in its place. Sir Robert Peel, staying as a guest in January 1833 just before he became Prime Minister, wrote to his wife to complain about the lack of heating and the draughts, describing the dismal weather and the failure of the windows ‘to exclude the air of heaven’.
Today, all that is in the process of being reversed. Little-known two decades ago, Apethorpe is now regarded as pre-eminent among contemporary country houses for its long history of royal visits, as expressed in one of the most complete sets of Jacobean state rooms to have survived in England – fully justifying the efforts of the Government and English Heritage to do everything possible to save it.
IMAGES: Historic England