‘On the right of the railway upon rising ground is seen Swinnerton Hall with its extensive park, the seat of T. Fitzherbert, Esq. The ancestral oaks which surround this mansion chronicle on their furrowed trunks ages before the Conquest.’
Being an extract from Thomas Roscoe’s 1839 guide to the recently opened Grand Junction Railway between Birmingham and Liverpool, highlighting sights which would meet ‘the eye of the traveller as he passes swiftly along, in this the 19th century.’ In this the 21st century future travellers will likely be passing even more swiftly along – at 225mph to be precise – if, as expected, enabling legislation for the proposed High Speed 2 rail line gains Royal Assent in the present Parliamentary session. Were a similar companion guide to be compiled Swynnerton Park would surely feature again since four-and-half miles of the preferred route for the second half of this controversial project arrows straight through the heart of an estate which has passed only by descent since the C13.
Little has fundamentally changed at Swynnerton since Thomas Roscoe’s 1839 description save for ‘y’ now replacing ‘i’ in the favoured spelling of the place and the Fitzherberts, Esq. having since come into a title. And not just any title, oh no. That a fine Grade I Georgian mansion surveying a landscaped park set amidst 6,000 acres in the middle of Staffordshire should be the seat of the Lords Stafford is fitting and pleasingly apt – but also entirely coincidental.
The C17 title originated with the Staffords, Dukes of Buckingham, and owes its ‘homecoming’ a century ago to the persistence of a C19 Norfolk baronet. In October 1637 William Howard, great-grandson of the 4th Duke of Norfolk, wed Mary Stafford who was able to revive an eponymous family barony then in abeyance.
But the descent of this title would again be truncated – so too, quite literally, its holder – in 1680 when William Howard was beheaded. Having been dubiously implicated in the ‘Popish Plot‘ on the evidence of Titus Oates all of Howard’s titles were attaindered. Fast-forward to 1809 and to Costessey Hall in Norfolk, seat of Sir George Jerningham, 7th bt., but – more importantly here – the great-great-great grandson of the ill-fated Howard. Sensing an opportunity to ascend from the aristocratic foothills Sir George petitioned the Privileges Committee of the House of Lords asserting his claim to the title of Baron Stafford.
Such wheels turn slowly and it was sixteen years before a conclusion was reached. (This was thanks in no small part to a late counter-claim by a party by the name of McCarthy whose supporting evidence – some suspicious-looking entries in a C17 church register and a family tradition “that my mother’s descent was good” – was eventually discounted.¹) But in 1825 Jerningham’s claim was formally ratified. Two childless nephews later, in 1913, the title passed to Francis Fitzherbert, the eldest son of Sir George’s niece Emily and her husband, Basil Fitzherbert of Swynnerton Hall. ‘Lord Stafford’ had arrived in Staffordshire.
What also unites the Fitzherbert, Howard and Jerningham families, of course, is their Catholicism. ‘The Fitzherberts possess a title to fame far more glorious than that of ancient lineage. In spite of fierce persecution they have been ever loyal to the ancient faith…shirking not from poverty or exile, imprisonment or death.‘
‘A Catholic family in trouble throughout the Elizabethan period,’ the Fitzherberts’ recusant travails may be exemplified by the life of Thomas Fitzherbert (1517-91) who would spend a total of thirty years in various prisons, eventually dying in the Tower. In 1868 their adherence to Rome was finally made manifest in the form of the richly-decorated Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption (by Catholic architect Gilbert Blount) which stands behind the Hall (above). But the first church to be built by this family is to be found 25 miles to the east in the Derbyshire village of Norbury.
‘St Mary & St Barlok church was built by the Fitzherberts in 1295 and contains two fine alabaster family tombs.’ From Norman times until they finally sold up in 1881 the Fitzherberts were lords of the manor at Norbury; their former house – ‘a very rare example of a medieval hall built on the first floor’ – is now National Trust (r). But recusancy fines and the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War took their toll at Norbury which would gradually be supplanted as the primary family seat in favour of Swynnerton.² This place had come to the Fitzherberts through the mid-C16 marriage of William Fitzherbert to the heiress of Humphrey Swynnerton whose line had held the eponymous manor for three centuries.
The relocation was sealed in the 1720s when Thomas Fitzherbert commissioned a fashionable new house for his Staffordshire estate.
Externally, at least, the scene at Swynnerton Hall (l) remains much as conceived and executed 1725-29 by Fitzherbert’s architect/builder. Strong stylistic and circumstantial evidence has identified the latter as the prolific Francis Smith of Warwick, being highly typical of his ‘big blockish houses…strong, dignified but not strikingly imaginative.’
‘It was as a designer and builder of country houses for the Midland gentry that Smith became famous and consequently rich.’³ With its urn-accented attic storey, Swynnerton shares distinct resemblance with exact contemporaries such as Wingerworth Hall in Derbyshire (demolished) and Berwick House (r) just outside Shrewsbury (still private, last sold in 1875).
Agreeable vernacular outbuildings (l) and a general well-preserved character, all tell-tale signs that ‘Swynnerton is an Estate Village owned by Lord Stafford. [It] was sited behind the Hall…ensuring unhindered vistas across landscaped grounds and open parkland to the south. Although the presence of the Hall is felt, so is its privacy; it presents a quite forbidding tall stone boundary wall and irregular rear elevation to the village.‘ [Conservation report]
The early C19 saw major internal alterations to the house by noted bridge-building engineer James Trubshaw. ‘The principal result is the hall in its present form, two-storeyed with columns above and below, and the spacious main staircase [which] goes to the top of the house.’4
Plainly a versatile sort, Trubshaw also made ‘major alterations’ to the large park at Swynnerton. Versatile and confident, too, since the original hand here was only the biggest name in the game, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1758). The latter’s plans were only partially realised but Swynnerton remains ‘a lovely park of deep undulations, [with] a ‘Brownian’ lake and boundary plantations.’5
Plantations which are now the subject of emergency reinforcement as the reality of the High Speed 2 rail line comes ever closer (and 640m from the house). Interviewed last year the present Lord Stafford was asked, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ to which he replied, ‘Nothing.’ With the first trains not expected for over a decade his son and heir might perhaps be wondering whether he will be able to say the same…
¹ House of Lords Committee of Privileges: Minutes of Evidence 1809-25.
² Smith, B.M. A history of the Fitzherbert family, 1995.
³ Gomme, A. Francis Smith of Warwick, 2000.
4 Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Staffordshire, 1974.
5 Brown, J. The omnipotent magician, 2011.