The UK’s largest private home, Wentworth Woodhouse, is a gem in Yorkshire’s crown. It is also shrouded in mystery.
The original house was called Winterhouse (originally spelt Winteworth) and existed from around the 1000s. It later gained the name ‘Wentworth’, which roughly meant ‘fair house’. The first person to bear this name was Reginald de Wentworth, from a family so prominent that they gave their name to the village, not vice versa.
The house at the time belonged to the Woodhouse family, who also lived in Wentworth. The name ‘Woodhouse’ typically means a house made in the clearing of forests, potentially how they got their name.
Descendants of the two families, Robert Wentworth and Emma Woodhouse, married in 1250, and thus inherited the house that was there, naming their new estate Wentworth Woodhouse.
Constantly rebuilt, it was eventually inherited in 1695 by Thomas Watson-Wentworth, the 1st Marquess of Rockingham, from his uncle. A marquess was a rank of nobility between an Earl and a Duke. The name ‘Rockingham’ came from Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire, as he was a descendant of the owners of the castle. The words above the Woodhouse entrance, ‘Mea Gloria Fides’, Latin for ‘Faith is my Glory’, is the Rockingham family motto.
Finished in 1728, the West Front (or the Back Front) was Baroque style – a 1600s Italian architectural style, with examples like St Paul’s Cathedral. Thomas soon considered this house unimpressive, and his political allies began to dislike the Baroque style. Plus, he was in a dispute with his cousin, also called Thomas, over inheritance. His cousin built Wentworth Castle as an attempt to overshadow Wentworth Woodhouse. Thus, Thomas built the 600ft long East Front by 1750, where the entrance is, to display his status; to impress his political allies, and to overshadow his cousin.
Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, and first Prime Minister from Yorkshire, inherited the estates when his father ‘drowned in Claret’ in 1750 – as Claret was a French wine, he supposedly drank himself to death. Charles was a gambler, and the St Leger Races were nearly named Rockingham Stakes in his honour.
Of the 300 plus rooms inside, the Marble Saloon is one of the most spectacular. Benjamin Franklin and George V were both entertained here. There is also the Whistlejacket Room, which was dedicated to the Marquess’ prized racehorse. The huge stables were built by 1782, and once housed 84 horses.
Charles died childless in 1782, passing his estates to his nephew William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam. This family was also extravagant, once hosting a party with over 31,000 pints of ale! The Fitzwilliams owned the Woodhouse until 1989. By then, it had been a girl’s college, and a WWII base. However, death duties and extensive mining meant the house was in disrepair and the Fitzwilliams sold it off.
Nearly 30 years later, it was purchased for £7.6 million, by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust. Today, it is open for visitors to explore the secrets of the 300 year old home.