One day in October 1998 on the Rhug estate in north Wales, Robert Wynn, 8th Baron Newborough, blasted his late father out of an C18 cannon. The ceremonial scattering of his ashes in this explosive fashion was a fitting finale to the life of ‘Micky’ Wynn, a decorated war hero and Colditz inmate who, as we shall see, also had ‘previous’ when it came to loosing off the family’s antiquated arsenal. The cannon was a remnant of many such owned by the Wynns down the ages just as Rhug (pro. reeg) is the last of several notable houses to remain in their possession.That Rhug should have finally emerged as the locus of this dynasty was never obvious, it being the only Wynn house they did not actually build and also the only one of their four properties to be located away from the family’s historical stamping ground west of Snowdonia.
Rhug comprises some 12,500 acres which in all likelihood have never changed hands for money and which have descended through three families since 1500. The Newborough estates were certainly among the great Welsh landholdings, 28,800 acres being recorded in 1873. For four centuries until 1971 444 of these were accounted for by Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula, one of many disposals by the 7th Lord Newborough who would also sell the original seat of the Wynns, Bodfean Hall.‘A large mansion in the Georgian style built in 1736, remodelled and greatly expanded in the late C19,’ Bodfean (aka Plas Boduan) was relinquished in 1967 and its contents sold separately. As the Sunday Times noted, ‘It was the type of auction which will become increasingly rare; in which Hepplewhite, Chippendale and Sheraton furniture looked as if it had remained unmoved since it had been bought.’¹
Generations of fealty to the Crown had helped the family accrue a sizeable estate, and then a baronetcy for the builder of Bodfean Hall, Sir Thomas Wynn (d. 1749). The latter’s marriage to heiress Frances Glynne would in due course yield the Glynllifon estate to the north which by the time his grandson had been enobled as the 1st Baron Newborough had become the family’s principal seat.‘A moderate sized brick mansion of 1751′ burned down in 1836, Spencer, 3rd Lord Newborough then commissioning the elongated neo-classical affair we see today. While the land here has been retained the 102-room house has had a rather chequered history since 1949 when it was vacated by Thomas, 5th Lord Newborough citing “high taxation and because I find it almost impossible to get staff.”
Money troubles but entirely of his own making had also forced the flight from this place of Thomas, 1st Lord Newborough (1736-1807). Still to be seen at Glynllifon are the 8-mile estate wall and the tower and armoury he styled Fort Williamsburg, all testament to defensive preoccupations which would be most spectacularly expressed some three miles north at the entrance to the Menai Straits.‘Notable for being the only purpose built fortress of the American Revolution on this side of the Atlantic,’ low-lying Fort Belan would later stand primed (with Newborough’s own full-time militia) to repel the Napeolonic threat. But live action came there none and the place would be later converted for domestic family use. (The guns always remained serviceable, however, as the 7th Lord Newborough for one regularly delighted in proving, incurring a minor criminal conviction in the process. The Daily Mail amongst others reported his 1976 prosecution after ‘a 9lb cannonball whistled a quarter of a mile across the Straits, damaging a yacht sail and frightening people on the beach.’)²
While Newborough’s well-intentioned ‘military fantasies’ helped gain him a peerage they would also reduce him to a state of financial embarrassment such that he eventually felt ‘obliged to live obscurely abroad’. So it was that in 1782 a newly widowed Newborough relocated with his young son to Tuscany where he remained for ten years and where, fatefully, he would meet a girl called Maria.Maria Stella Petronilla was a minor starlet of the Florence stage. She was also just 13. Though 35 years her senior Newborough became smitten, bedazzling her low-born but ambitious parents into the cause of winning round the reluctant Maria. In a sensational memoir some forty years later the second Lady Newborough (r) recalled her teenage dread: ‘Realising that it was not a joke, I implored them to let me become a nun, [anything] so long as I was not forced to make such a detestable match.’ But the grown-ups got their way, the eventual return of the squire to Glynllifon with his unlikely new bride giving rise to no little excitement in north Wales and the salons of the capital.
In 1800 Newborough’s 27-year-old son and heir died; his stepmother, 26, would yield once more. ‘His father’s grief was so great, and he had always shown me so much kindness, that I at last felt it to be my duty to make the most painful sacrifice for his sake.’ The future 2nd and 3rd Lord Newboroughs duly resulted.In a rather amazing parallel Thomas, the 5th baron, would also make a controversial second marriage to an exotic Continental woman 37 years his junior who would later publish a tell-all memoir. The tenor of Denisa, Lady Newborough’s ‘Fire in my blood’ may be adduced by its lengthy serialisation in the News of the World in April 1959: ‘One of my friends said to me: “Have you heard the man’s reputation?” “Good heavens,” I said, “I’ve got a reputation too, you know. I’m not exactly a Vestal Virgin.” Another friend warned, “Tommy Newborough doesn’t want a wife, he wants a brood mare. He’s just crazy to have sons.”
But unlike Maria, Denisa nor any of Tommy’s three wives produced a male heir and his cousin Robert Vaughan Wynn of Rhug succeeded. Robert’s father Charles, a younger son of the 3rd Lord Newborough, had inherited the Rhug estate from his godfather Sir Robert Vaughan Bt (d. 1859), the last of his line. The Vaughans had benefitted similarly in 1780 by the will of Maria Salusbury in whose family Rhug had descended since an early C16 marriage.Today Rhug is the home of Robert, 8th Ld Newborough (who has relocated from Peplow Hall in Shropshire, a relatively recent acquisition currently on the market). The present classical house was erected at the very end of the C18 and stands in an extensive landscaped park, the work of Humphry Repton. The latter’s Red Book for this place outlined the challenges of working ‘in a country like that of North Wales, abounding in magnificent scenery…yet exposed to frequent rains and violent storms of wind.’ Repton concluded that ‘Gothic architecture is infinitely more applicable to such situations than the lofty portico of Greece.’ Enter, later, architect Joseph Bromfield with a portico of unambiguous loftiness which has nevertheless survived unlike some later cumbrous Victorian additions. A colonnade and enclosing ground floor walls are all that remain of a clunky full-height pedimented east wing wherein a curious ballroom-cum-conservatory arrangement was attempted (l). But much original interior detailing remains including a staircase with panelling from an older house and ‘excellent plaster friezes, painted and gilded, the dining room’s being particularly fine.’³
Some half a mile from the house is Rhug’s private chapel, ‘an astonishing survival, [its] profusion of ornamented surfaces a remarkable document of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.’† And no doubt a useful facility to have on hand for someone feeling in need of a miracle. Speaking in 1951 the present owner’s grandfather augured that ‘the future of large estates cannot be anything but gloomy.’††
Yet one place which has certainly confounded this prognosis is Rhug itself, today a thriving brand employing over 100 staff and supplying produce to high-end establishments around the globe. Behind all of this is the energetic 8th Lord Newborough, for the past 15 years something of a Richard Branson-esque figure at the forefront of the organic farming movement and who was named national Farmer of the Year in 2013.
A thoroughly estimable character by all accounts.. unless, of course, the present Lady Newborough – his second wife – has some tales she cares to share…
¹ The Sunday Times 17 Dec 1967.
² Daily Mail 16 Jan 1976.
³ Haslam, R, Orbach, J, Voelcker, A. The buildings of Wales: Gwynedd, 2009.
† Haslam, R. Rug, Clwyd I/II, Country Life 6/13 Oct, 1983.
†† Shaw, H.R. Country heritage: the stately homes of the NW counties and N Wales, 1951.