Country Houses and Landed Society

Country Houses and Landed Society

The tremendous rebuilding of rural England that took place in the south after 1570 is much less evident in the far north. The disturbed state and poverty of the borders meant that very few non-defensive buildings appeared until after the Union of 1603.’A late Tudor house, now demolished, was built at Gloster Hill, near Amble, and at Dunstan Hall, near Embleton, there was extensive Elizabethan remodelling of the old house that dates back to the 13th century. After 1603, however, more Northumbrian landowners began adding non-defensive wings onto their peels and castles: at Belsay and Halton in 1614, and more elaborately at Chipchase in 1621.

Very few entirely new houses were constructed until after the Restoration in 1660. At Capheaton the first of Northumberland’s real country houses was built for the Swinburnes by Robert Trollope (architect of Newcastle Guildhall) in his eclectic Baroque style. Trollope was an individualist, outside the current architectural idiom of Wren and Inigo Jones, and in Northumberland country houses continued to show mixtures of architectural styles, and often lagged well behind fashions in southern England (as late as 1690 houses with mullioned windows were built at Rock). Trollope also worked at Callaly, and his influence or work can be seen at Bockenfield and Swarland, near Felton. At Netherwitton the Thorntons built their elegant mansion, described by John Horsley as ‘stately and magnificent’, in 1698, and at Wallington 10 years before Sir William Blackett had built a new house over the old Fenwick tower.

The main expansion of country house building came later, in the 18th century. This was partly the fruits of agricultural improvement, but also as a result of new industrial and mining wealth. Links between the landed society of Northumberland and the mercantile aristocracy of Tyneside were close, and just as farming profits went into Newcastle banks to fund industry, so successful merchants established themselves in county society, becoming landowners and building country houses. As the Elizabethan Lord Burleigh said, ‘gentility is but ancient riches’. Thomas de Carliol, merchant and mayor of Newcastle, had bought an estate at Swarland as early as 1270, and in the 15th century Roger Thornton acquired Netherwitton, where his family still lived in the 18th century. In the late 17th century, the Blacketts established themselves at Wallington, in the 18th the Ridleys at Blagdon, and the Claytons at Chesters, and in the 19th century the Armstrongs at Cragside. The gentry also found it financially opportune to marry into merchant families: Edmund Craster, who died in 1594, had married Alice, daughter of Christopher Mitford, mayor of Newcastle and governor of the Merchant Adventurers, and Edmund’s daughter married into the Andersons of Newcastle. The younger sons of landed families often became apprenticed in the town’s leading guilds to seek success for themselves: two of Edmund’s sons were apprenticed to merchants, and in the later 17th century William Craster became an Eastland merchant, whilst another Edmund became a barber-surgeon’s apprentice in 1713-14.

The major architectural achievement of the first half of the 18th century was also a solitary one: Vanbrugh’s magnificent Seaton Delaval Hall, described by the architectural historian, B. Ailsopp, as ‘classical in idiom and medieval in massing’, comparable with the great castles at Dunstanburgh and Warkworth. The main style of Northumbrian country houses in the period 1730 to 1760 was the lighter, classical Palladianism, popularised in the north through the architect James Paine, and which can be seen at Bywell Hall, Belford Hall and Blagdon. At Wallington the Blacketts rebuilt again in Palladian style, replacing the house built only 50 years earlier. Sir Walter Blackett settled some Italian artists at his village of Cambo and they did the interior decorations as well as working at other houses like Callaly and Blagdon. The Northumbrian country houses were built with sandstone or lime­stone: brick-built houses (like Morwick Hall) or even farms, were only found in the south-east corner of the county.

The design of the gardens around a house was almost as important as the house itself. Seventeenth-century gardens had been formal and geometric, but they were largely destroyed by the landscaped park­lands and vistas of the 18th century, though the formal design at Hesleyside in Tynedale can still be traced under later alterations. The great landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was born at Kirkharle in 1715  and began his career as a gardener on the Kirkharle estate of the progressive landowner, Sir William Loraine. In Northumberland, Brown worked at Alnwick, Hesleyside and at Wallington, where he also created Rothley Lake for the Blacketts.

A leading figure in the landed society of mid-Georgian Northumber­land was Lancelot Allgood of Nunwick, near Simonburn. The Ailgoods had earlier been lawyers and agents to the Radcliffe Earls of Derwentwater, but had since become major landowners themselves. Lancelot, born in 1711  at Brandon White House, near Glanton, made the Grand Tour of France and Italy in 1736-38, and acquired Simon-burn and other extensive estates when he married his relative, Jane Allgood. In 1749 he swept away the small village of Nunwick to build the present mansion. A great ‘improver’, he developed the farms around Nunwick, improving the husbandry and enclosing moorland, and was a leading promoter of the turnpike road system. In 1745-46 he became high sheriff of Northumberland, and as a Tory with past family Jacobite  connections Lancelot was particularly ardent in proving his loyalty and clamping down on Catholics and Jacobites. From 1748-53 he was M.P. for Northumberland and was knighted in 1760. In 1 761 he was one of the county Deputy-Lieutenants when rioting broke out over compulsory ballotting for the county militia, and mobs seized and burnt the militia lists. At Hexham a crowd nearly 5,000 strong met the Deputy-Lieutenants and their soldiers, and violence broke out: 18 rioters and one officer were killed. Sir Lancelot and the other magistrates retreated to Newcastle, leaving his wife to face the local populace around Nunwick, which Jane calmly did and wrote to persuade Lancelot to come home ‘or else they’ll fancy they have banished you the country’. Like other leading landowners and county officials Sir Lancelot maintained a Newcastle house, and the accounts of the assembly rooms in the Groat Market note the attendance of Sir Lancelot with Mrs. and Miss Allgood on 2 May 1763 and ‘tea for Sir Lancelot Allgood, 3s.’.

After mid-century the Percy family re-emerged to dominate county society. The 11th and last Earl’s daughter married the Duke of Somerset, and her grand-daughter and heiress married Sir Hugh Smithson. Sir Hugh changed his surname to Percy, and was made Earl in 1 750 and Duke of Northumberland in 1766. The Duke restored and rebuilt the ruinous Ainwick Castle in Gothic fashion, employing Robert Adam from 1760 to 1766. As well as the alterations to the castle (such as the building of several of the towers) and the interior decorations, the Duke also had the surroundings landscaped, and built the Gothic embellishments and follies like the Lion Bridge over the Am, the observatory on Ratcheugh Crags, Brizlee Tower to the west of Alnwick, and the sham-medieval gate-tower of Pottersgate in Alnwick town itself. The Percies once again headed county society (indeed, in the early 19th century life at Alnwlck was more like a princely court than the country house of an English aristocrat), and the Gothic style became the local fashion. Sir Lancelot Allgood built Gothic-style kennels at Nunwick, and in the 1770s Sir Francis Blake rebuilt Fowberry Tower, near Chatton, creating a particularly pleasant north front, and began his medieval castle on the cliff above Twizell Bridge, a project never completed because of Blake’s bankruptcy.

At Craster, George Craster was adding Gothic battlements to the medieval tower in 1769, and building the Gothic archway over the road to Craster village, as well as building the present Georgian mansion on to the tower. The Craster family had survived the vicissitudes of border conflict and civil war, and a Stuart house had been added to the medieval tower between 1666 and 1675. After financial difficulties in the late 17th century, the family fortunes had improved. Between 1737 and 1 757 the rents of the Craster estates in Northumberland and Durham doubled, and the family also gained wealth after an inheritance suit. Leading members of the family were absentees for the earlier part of the century: John Craster (1697-1763) was a lawyer who became an M.P. for a pocket-borough and a bencher of Gray’s Inn. His son, George (1735-72) was a man of fashion, who became an officer in the Horse Guards (the purchase cost his father £2,000) and went on the Grand Tour with his wife in the 1760s. He and his wife continued to divide their time between Craster, London and Paris. The probate inventory at George’s death in 1772 shows how the wealth of the Northumbrian gentry had increased. It includes Chippendale furniture, a large Turkish carpet, silk damask curtains, fine Holland sheets, a hand-painted tea-set of Sevres china, and many other luxury items, as well as George Craster’s clothes, like his ‘Crimson velvet suit with two pairs breeches, flower silk waistcoat with gold ground. Light-coloured suit, silver-laced ‘.

In the early 19th century the classical Greek architectural style was introduced by Sir Charles Monck’s Belsay Hall and, reinforced by the example of the 1830s planning of central Newcastle, it dominated for much of the century. John Dobson built country houses in the classical style at Mitford, Nunnykirk, Longhirst, and Meldon. But other styles retained some popularity, and at Lilburn Tower Dobson built a Tudor-style house and at Beaufront Castle, near Corbridge, a piece of grand Gothic. At Ainwick the new Gothic romanticism found expression during the 1850s in the work of the fourth Duke and the architect Salvin, who converted the lighter Gothic of Adam into the heavier style we see today. Later in Victoria’s reign fewer new country houses were built, but at Cragside, near Rothbury, the industrialist, Lord Armstrong had Norman Shaw design a Wagnerian-cum-Tudor mansion that seems to have escaped from some German forest. Romantic in style, it was practical in operation: Armstrong had it lit by the new electric light of Joseph Swan, and generated the electricity by his own water-turbine. By 1900 the great era of country-house building was almost over, though modernising old castles was fashionable. In 1894 Armstrong restored Bamburgh Castle and in the early years of the new century Sir Edwin Lutyens converted the ruinous castle on Holy Island into a home for Edward Hudson, owner of Country Life.