Downton Abbey – the Board Game? Given the ongoing international success of this TV drama/franchise, it’s surely not such an implausible spin-off. In fact, Handed on has long thought that the whirligig of aristocratic fortune offers much scope for this kind of diversion: ‘Chasing Your Entail’ – hours of fun for all the family! In reality, of course, the twists and turns of inheritance and entitlements can prove to be anything but, as the Parkers/Earls of Macclesfield have found and Somersets/Lords Raglan may yet. The dynamic of Downton Abbey (Series One) – the lack and/or premature demise of male heirs, and the significance of daughters of the house – find echoes in the history of Melbury House and the Ilchester Estate. And if that imagined board game were to exist one person you probably wouldn’t want to find yourself playing against is Melbury’s present owner, who is not, these days…
…an Earl of Ilchester.
Robin Fox-Strangways, 10th earl of that ilk, lives on this road in rural Warwickshire and not, as the first seven of his predecessors had, at the Grade-I house which sits at the heart of the 15,000-acre Ilchester Estate.
The peerless hexagonal belvedere that crowned Giles Strangways ‘remarkable’¹ Tudor house of c.1530 still overlooks ‘surely the most beautiful deer park in England’² despite the rest of the original building being ‘tantalizingly obscured’¹ by a fashionable 1690s Baroque remodelling. (The house would be gratuitously enlarged again in the C19 by Salvin and Devey.)
The aforesaid 10th earl might compare notes with George Monckton-Arundell, 12th Viscount Galway, who lives on this road in suburban Canada and not, as his first nine predecessors had, at the ancestral seat…
…Grade-1 Serlby Hall (left) set in 3000 acres of north Nottinghamshire, created by architect James Paine for the 1st Viscount in 1751. In fact, both house and land would be sold off between 1981-91 as rather surplus to requirements since, over the course of the previous twenty years, the slings and arrows of fortune had conspired such that both the Ilchester and Galway estates had devolved to just one woman…
…the present Mrs Charlotte Townshend, who happens to turn 57 this very day.
The premature death at just 41 of the 9th Viscount Galway in 1971 would see the decoupling of title and estate, Charlotte, his only child, ultimately inheriting the latter (the title going to a series of cousins). Galway was married to Teresa Fox-Strangways who had similarly benefitted as the only surviving child of the 7th Earl of Ilchester (having tragically lost her two brothers before she was 27) following his death in 1964. She would die in 1989 with daughter Charlotte duly becoming principal beneficiary of the Ilchester estate.
But all this was nothing new for Melbury. After the demise of the Strangways male line in 1726, ‘inheritance by two heiresses in succession meant that women played an unusually important part in shaping the destiny of [this] house and estate in the 18th century.‘³ The big headline from last year’s Country Life Succession Survey – ‘Daughters are beginning to inherit‘ – shows Melbury has long been ahead of this particular curve.
Uncannily foreshadowing the tragedies which would befall the 7th Earl over 200 years later, C18th heiress Susanna Strangways’ two sons died young leaving just a daughter, Elizabeth. In engineering Elizabeth’s marriage at 13 years of age to the son of Sir Stephen Fox (‘one of the great arrivistes of the C17th’†) Susanna would unwittingly gold-plate the Ilchester inheritance, a cousinly connection with the Foxs/Lords Holland subsequently yielding the Holland House estate.
This property now amounts to a mere 20-or-so acres but they – more so even than 15,000 glorious acres of Dorset – explain how private Melbury and its vast park ‘have been kept up as well and as fully as in the past’.² And more directly they account for Charlotte Townshend’s Rich List ranking which, at £342m, is some way north of, er, the Queen’s.
‘The tranquility made it difficult for us to realize we were in the centre of London,‘ wrote James Lees-Milne in 1942; ‘How important it is to preserve this sanctuary.‘†† And so it came to pass that the grounds of bombed-out Holland House at the western end of Kensington High Street became the public amenity that is Holland Park and the eponymous neighbourhood abutting it amongst the most valuable and exclusive in London. Monopoly, anyone?
¹ Pevsner, N. and Newman, R. The buildings of England: Dorset. 1975
² Cecil, David. Some Dorset country houses. 1985
³ Martin, Joanna. Wives and daughters: Women & children in the Georgian country house. 2004
† Beckett, J.V. The aristocracy in England 1660-1914. 1986
†† Lees-Milne, James. Some country houses and their owners. 1975