The last few weeks have been particularly hectic for me. I have been massively distracted by the Olympics, and needless to say, I wish I’d maintained the skills I had in hockey when I left college! Nevermind though, perhaps I could take up handball in time for Rio. Apart from sport, I have kept to my books a little bit, and whilst I clearly haven’t attended to my blog, that doesn’t mean to say that it hasn’t been a platform for activity.
I have had several requests and queries from folk including the desire of an elderly lady to deposit her great great grandfather’s photograph album of Halton House, Buckinghamshire at the archives there, through to prompts and ‘shout-outs’ regarding academic courses, image copyright and project developments.
Besides all that, I’m about to move house too. After almost two years in rural Oxfordshire, I am packing my things and going to the Big Smoke of England – London. And so, this got me thinking about elements of house moving on a larger scale than that of a standard three bedroomed semi-detached house. Typically, the country house is synonymous with patrilineal inheritance, static wealth and legacies, so much so, that we forget how common it is for houses themselves to have had several occupiers and owners over the decades or centuries. Houses and portions of estate might have formed part of a bargaining tool in times of political turmoil, or merely advertised as leasehold properties in newspapers, rented out to close friends or family, or simply sold on the market. Whatever the circumstances, many houses have seen a great deal of movement. Imagine the hubbub as the house move gains pace; the packing of crates and boxes, the taking of inventories, the to and fro of servants and agents, the anguish over a lost item.
Another aspect of the large-scale house move would be in building and creating the country house from the moment the first stone was set. Landed gains of the 16th century after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or industrial wealth of the 18th and 19th centuries are part of this debate, but I want to take a peek at one family – the Cokes. Their ‘house move’ epitomised the desire for residential expansion in the 18th century as well as conspicuous consumption of fashionable goods and design on a large scale. It also highlights the giant sense of resettlement in order to gain dynastic stability for an elite family.
The Cokes owned the manor of Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire from the turn of the 17th century. The manor house at Minster Lovell is now a ruin perched romantically on the edge of the River Windrush as it winds away from the Cotswolds.
There had been a house on the site since the 12th century, but the ruins are mainly what remains of a large new structure built in the 1430s by William, Baron of Lovell and Holand. William and his descendants, most notably his grandson Francis Lovell were to make good political connections and riches through marriage, and loyalty to the king. This was, however undone when Francis supported Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The Lovell estates were turned over to the Crown, and so Minster Lovell was stripped of its owner/occupier. The Cokes made their appearance by 1603 when it came into the possession of the most successful and influential lawyer of his time Sir Edward Coke, who may have viewed the manor house as a retreat or lodge close enough to England’s capital, but far away enough to experience peace and serenity. In any case, the house itself provided him with a good rental income.
It his descendant, Thomas Coke, (1697-1759, Earl of Leicester created 1744) who is important here as it is claimed he was in residence at Minster Lovell in the 1720s, even advancing to the peerage with the title of Baron Lovell of Minster Lovell in May 1728. Coke had been on an extensive Grand Tour as a teenager and returned to England in 1718 with a plethora of goods including art works by Claude, several sculptures and some works of Leonardo da Vinci – most notable of his Grand Tour treasures being the Codex Leicester. It is unlikely that any of these fine things ever reached Minster Lovell, as Coke had other plans. The family obviously held other estates. Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire was where Sir Edward Coke retired to in the early 1600s, but it was in the possession of Sir Richard Halsey by the 1720s. So, where else was there? John Hostettler in his book on Sir Edward Coke mentions ‘the estates’ as a collective and only one in particular – Holkham in Norfolk.*
It is likely there was a residence on the Holkham estate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though much of that part of the Norfolk landscape was barren marshland before Thomas Coke reclaimed it in 1722 for landscaping. As far as I can tell there seems to be a connection to a Waterden Hill Hall which was described as ‘near falling down for want of an inhabitant’ in 1678. Today, wherever Hill Hall existed (possibly now known as Waterden Farm), it is only 3 or 4 kilometres n0rth from Waterden farmland to one of the most gorgeous pieces of Palladian architecture in England.
Thomas Coke started Holkham Hall in 1734, with the intention of housing his wealth of Grand Tour treasures as well as showcasing his appreciation of classical art and culture. The awesome nature of Holkham is found in the magnificent Marble Hall with its plaster dome ceiling and alabaster shipped from Derbyshire – ingredients which marked the beginning of a new era in country house building and design. There is much to be said about Holkham Hall and Thomas Coke. He was well acquainted with Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington and William Kent, he was clearly a key part of the social network known as the ‘dilettanti’, but like many elite men of his generation he made hasty investments and financial losses during the South Sea Bubble in 1720 delayed the building work. It is likely therefore that Holkham may have been started even earlier if it was not for this depletion of funds.
Minster Lovell and other Coke estates were but stepping stones to greater things. The old Oxfordshire manor was incredibly outdated, dusty even, it was too compact and secluded. The characteristics which presumably had made it attractive to Sir Edward Coke were now disadvantageous. The new house at Holkham was meant to be an architectural cabinet of riches. Coke’s sculptures were to be displayed in his Marble Hall, and so numerous were they, that some were placed in the dining room and a gallery which incidentally was also used for entertaining. The experience of visiting Holkham Hall both in the 18th century and today is certainly one of pomp. The educated Coke returning from the European Continent was a sophisticated, well-connected young man, and was eager to declare this to a wider audience. Upon advancement to the peerage in 1728 with a title which linked him so closely to Minster Lovell, Coke had already been planning his new house, he was just waiting for the right moment to begin.
This was all about consolidating funds and creating a grand establishment from where the Coke estates could be efficiently administered. Anything resembling a residence on the other estates could be leased and therefore generated further income. However, the Cokes still held onto the manor at Minster Lovell, even selling off building materials from the house in 1747. The remainder of the land still in the possession of the Cokes (mainly woodland) was sold by 1854. Unfortunately, Thomas Coke never got to see his new house on the Holkham estate finished, dying in 1759 around the age of 62 and still struggling to recover his financial losses: it would take another five years for the house to be completed. His descendants still reside at Holkham throughout the year, and make regular use of the state rooms out of season.
My house move is rather more ordinary. I do not have estates to manage, or capital to expand. My dynastic legacy will still be a suburban semi-detached house with a garage and garden. Nor do I have aspirations to appear on Grand Designs, but if I did have the finances, I’d be sure to purchase a good bit of land and build something suitably generous and accommodating.
* According to the index of Holkham Hall papers, audit books for the 1720s show estates in Suffolk, Kent, Dorset, and Norfolk, amongst others.
Minster Lovell Hall (English Heritage) http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/minster-lovell-hall-and-dovecote/
British History Online – Minster Lovell http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=117025
Some gorgeous pictures of Minster Lovell http://katie-randomnest.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/little-wander-round-minster-lovell.html
Historic Houses Association and Holkham Hall http://www.hha.org.uk/Property/62/Holkham-Hall
Art Collections at Holkham Hall http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_collections_of_Holkham_Hall
Creating Holkham Hall http://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/the-bones-of-holkham-hall/
A visit to Holkham http://glasspilgrim.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/holkham-hall.html
Olive Cook, The English Country House. (1974)
John Hostettler, Sir Edward Coke: A Force for Freedom. (Chichester, 1997)
Leo Schmidt and Christian B. Keller, Holkham. (2005)
A. J. Taylor, Minster Lovell Hall. (English Heritage Guidebooks, 1985)
Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, The Building of the English Country House. (2000)