It may have gained new currency but the phenomenon of so-called ‘fake news’ is hardly unique to our times. Take this assertion from the Middlesex Journal dated December 23, 1769:
‘The report that Lady Betty Germain has left £20,000 and Drayton, her fine estate in Northamptonshire, to Lord George Sackville has no foundation in truth.’
While confidently purporting to disabuse its readers, it was in fact they who were being misinformed. Now scepticism about such a spectacular bequest was perhaps understandable since there were no family ties between this particular lord and lady. But this was merely the latest in a sequence of unlikely twists in the destiny of Drayton House, ‘so fine a place [yet which] changed families so often and so quickly, without purchase or descent’.1
‘One of the best-kept secrets of the English country-house world, Drayton has remained hidden, mysterious, rarely open, guarding its privacy’ across more than 700 years.2 Though ‘far less well-known than the other Sackville house at Knole in Kent, Drayton [similarly] resembles a small fortified village in a parkland setting, retains outstanding C17 and C18 furnishings, and has not been subject to any major alterations during the past 200 years.’3
Lord George Sackville’s death in 1785 closed perhaps the most remarkable one hundred years in Drayton’s long history. Vita Sackville-West’s tart summation of her ancestor as ‘a soldier first and then a statesman, both disastrously‘ undersells a rollercoaster life in which the inheritance of Drayton was a welcome upswing. That of his ‘fairy godmother’4 Lady Betty Germain was, by contrast, a life of singular constancy.
Yet while she would be chatelaine in widowhood for over half a century, the earlier eight-year tenure of Lady Mary Mordaunt (later Duchess of Norfolk) was of greater moment for it introduced to Drayton the charming adventurist who was to wed them both. Sir John Germain provoked one of the most notorious and significant divorces in British history but would also play a major role in transforming Drayton House into ‘one of the most extraordinary buildings in England’.5
‘Drayton is hidden in its pastoral landscape. The approach is a magical one, silvery-grey walls and a tiered roofline of battlements, turrets, towers and cupolas.’3
The remarkably unified symmetry of the house’s SE-facing front belies its structural evolution in five discrete phases over 400 years from the end of the thirteenth century. The last of these included the fine early-C18 forecourt gates displaying the insignia of Mary, Duchess of Norfolk and her second husband, marking not just their union but also, it transpired, the point at which Drayton would pivot away from a 400-year-old hereditary lineage.
The medieval structure from the time of Simon de Drayton remains the core of a house which within a few years of his death in 1357 had passed by marriage to Henry Green. Green’s namesake son and heir would be peremptorily executed in 1399 for his energetic allegiance to Richard II but the family’s property survived unscathed. Henry Green III (d. 1467) enlarged Drayton with bookending low towers in his latter years before the estate passed, via his daughter Constance (‘one of the richest heiresses in England’), to John Stafford, 1st Earl of Wiltshire.
The second earl’s premature death without issue heralded a fifteen-year legal tussle between various parties before the claims of canny Turvey, Bedfordshire-based Henry VIII courtier Lord Mordaunt, through his wife (a Green descendant), prevailed. Mordaunt’s grandson, Lewis, 3rd baron (d.1601), would develop the footprint of Drayton as it stands today with his addition of the three-storey Elizabethan wing extending north-west.
Occupying most of its top floor is the Long Gallery, adapted as a library 200 years later. While original panelling and paintings remain, ‘its ceiling and end window date from the beginning of the C20’.5
Suspected of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot, the 4th Lord Mordaunt spent several months in the Tower, a location with which his grandson, an active ally of James II, would also become reluctantly familiar. Succeeding in 1642 as sixth baron and also now 2nd Earl of Peterborough, Henry Mordaunt backed the losing side in the Civil War, at some cost to his estate. He would be further constrained in his early ownership by the machinations of his mother but upon gaining full control of his entitlements Henry stamped his mark: ‘Everywhere at Drayton we find signs of the building of the second earl.’6
Arms raised above a new Classical gateway punched through the C14 wall emphasised the new principal entrance to the south. Knightly nostalgia inspired Mordaunt’s remodelling of the entire north-eastern facade (r) which would now overlook garden pavilions of ‘elegantly severe Puritan minimalism’, all by Inigo Jones’ pupil, John Webb.7
Indoors, Webb (and his client) were rather less restrained, an exuberant State Bedroom overmantel (left) soon part of a three-way fight for attention with the stunning needlework of a major series of Mortlake tapestries (two of which have since escaped to New York) and the magnificent bed itself. Access to the upper floors of this wing would now be via an ingenious feat of carpentry, the Walnut Staircase, ‘a spiral cantilever unique in England’.8 But the most renowned architectural statement at Drayton was still to come.
The second earl had one child, Lady Mary Mordaunt, who in 1677 would vault from mid-table aristocracy to the premier ranked title in the land by marrying Henry Howard, soon to become the seventh Duke of Norfolk. But the wheels began to come off this dream alliance one day in 1685 with the duke’s discovery that his wife had taken a lover. Enter John (later Sir John) Germain, Anglo-Dutch ‘soldier of fortune’ and gambler, a man dubious of morals and parentage (reputedly an illegitimate half-brother of William of Orange).
An imposed sojourn in a French convent failed to break Mary’s ardour, the couple continuing barely clandestine liasons at various residences across London, seamy details of which would spill out in sensational protracted divorce proceedings eventually initiated by the duke in 1691.
There was a lot at stake, including the authority of the Church in such matters. For the duke, mindful he had yet to produce an heir, had taken his case directly to parliament as the Church would not sanction remarriage following a divorce on the grounds of adultery. Over the course of a three-act, nine-year saga Norfolk and his agents subpoenaed sundry ex-servants to reveal quite literally what the butler saw, evidence savoured line-by-line in printed reports by a prurient public.
The duchess denied everything and threw plenty back, aided by those ‘anxious to protect her reputation and property’.9 The latter had long been an issue, Mary claimed, revealing that a supplicant duke had once tried to persuade her mother that ‘if her daughter would consent that Drayton should be settled upon him he would thereby be made a happy man’.
In early 1700 Henry Howard finally got his divorce (‘the beginning of the long process whereby the state took control from the church’9) but little else, dying in 1701 aged 46. Six months later the duchess – a title she refused to relinquish – married her scandalous beau, the couple quickly calling in ‘William III’s favourite architect in England’, William Talman, to execute some defining flourishes at Drayton House.5
Most conspicuous were twin tower extensions and cupolas accenting the roof-line; most striking, a new front to the main range facing the inner courtyard, ‘one of the most ornate Baroque facades in Britain, an architectural tour de force‘.2
That entrance leads into Drayton’s principal interior space, the Great Hall (left), Talman’s pilasters reaching to a barrel ceiling inserted beneath the medieval roof. (Decoration is mid-C19 by Alexander Roos, then also busy designing .. Cardiff.)
Alas, the duchess had little time to enjoy her newly-fashionable surroundings, dying childless in 1705. With her final act she would succeed in putting another noble nose seriously out of joint. For, having inherited the Mordaunt barony and estate in her own right, Mary now bequeathed Drayton in its entirety to her second husband. It could perhaps be argued that the biggest bet of Sir John Germain’s life had paid off wildly, indeed that ‘Drayton was a reward for adultery’.10 Certainly, one individual was especially galled by Sir Johnny-come-lately’s spectacular fortune.
Charles Mordaunt, Mary’s cousin, had succeeded as 3rd Earl of Peterborough upon his uncle’s death in 1697. A soon-to-be celebrated military hero, he now renewed his claim to the property, ‘concluding it highly unreasonable so noble a branch of the ancient estate, and the only seat of the family, should be torn from it to be settled on strangers’. Meanwhile, 55-year-old Sir John Germain – ‘always a favourite of the other sex’10 – would meet and marry Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, 26, within a year of his first wife’s death, and the embellishment of Drayton continued apace.
‘John hearts Betty’ heraldic insignia now started popping up around Drayton, notably atop courtyard colonnades which would flank Talman’s bravura facade. Internally, the ceiling and walls of his stone staircase would be swathed with trompe l’oeil mythology.
Charles Mordaunt’s keen promotion of William III’s usurping of Catholic James II may have had a satisfying outcome but it proved something of a tactical blunder in his quest for Drayton since it landed his uncle in the Tower. The second earl so arranged his affairs as to provide maximum protection for Mary’s interests: ‘We must conclude that his emnity to his nephew was great enough to belittle in his eyes his daughter’s pecadilloes.’6
Germain died in 1718 and is handsomely memorialised in Lowick church. His widow would later recall, ‘My Lord Peterborow plagued Sir John all his lifetime but declared if ever he gave the estate to me, he would have done with it; and accordingly has kept his word, like an honourable man’. And so, having been both a legal battlefield and a construction site for much of the preceeding two decades, Drayton now entered a half-century of stability under the benign auspices of Lady Betty Germain.
Aside from her finely-wrought restoration of the private chapel (which had been sacked by an anti-popery mob in 1688), throughout her long tenure Lady Betty was largely content to maintain the fabric of Drayton House much as it was at the moment her husband died.
Outside, ‘though she lived well into the period when the landscape school prevailed, Lady Betty defended her great walled enclosures from the invasion of Kent and Brown’.6 The formal parterres (left) would finally succumb to the exigencies of World War II occupation but today ‘a sea of dull lawn’ is still dotted with Betty’s lead urns and statuary.7
Seeking at one point to enlarge the (now 200-plus acre) park in order that the house might sit more centrally, Lady Betty told her longtime friend and regular correspondent Jonathan Swift of her obligatory dealings with the wheedling local parson, “who flatters me black and blue when he comes for Sunday dinner”. Indeed, a desire for stimulating company would make visits to Drayton infrequent, Lady Betty largely preferring the social whirl of her St. James Square townhouse. And there was always the nearer option of Knole House in Kent.
The Sackvilles, Lionel, first Duke of Dorset, and his wife Elizabeth, were mutual friends of Sir John and Lady Germain who, having lost three children in infancy, latterly determined that Drayton should pass to a Sackville younger son in the event of Lady Betty not remarrying. Thereafter, Knole would effectively become her second home and her personal apartment (r) is now among the principal ‘showrooms‘ preserved there by the National Trust.
The Drayton estate eventually became the property of 53-year-old Lord George Sackville in 1769 with the proviso that he take the name Germain. In truth, already having the use of Stoneland (now Buckhurst Park) in Sussex, Sackville was perhaps rather more grateful to have a new identity than another big house in the country at this particular juncture. For during the past ten years his name had – by royal edict – been mud.
Sackville’s problems began in Germany on 1 August, 1759. No less a figure than the King himself, George II, would see to it that Lord George suffered exemplary humiliation following perceived failings as second-in-command of allied forces at the Battle of Minden. Sackville’s demand for a court martial that he might counter the reputational slurs of Prince Ferdinand backfired: he was proclaimed “unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever”, the King relishing “a fate worse than death”.
Sackville continued as a member of parliament but ‘the whole of his public life was embittered and conditioned by the national memory of his conviction’.11 A year after inheriting Drayton, the latest jibe from a fellow MP on the floor of the House of Commons led to (the now) Lord George Germain taking aim at Governor George Johnstone at twenty paces in Hyde Park. Both men missed but Johnstone’s final shot blew Germain’s pistol clean out of his hand. His duelling demeanour certainly impressed Horace Walpole: “Whatever Lord George Sackville was, Lord George Germain is a hero!”
Having lost his honour and almost his life Lord George would soon lose, er, America! Rehabilitated by Lord North as Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1775, ‘Germain inherited a conflict that was already going badly for Britain [yet] was inevitably held by posterity to be more responsible than any other individual for the British loss in America’.12 But he would at least regain the family name, being created Viscount Sackville by a grateful George III upon his eventual retirement from office.
Like his benefactor before him, Sackville’s busy London diary and other residential options meant limited involvement with Drayton. But he was minded to remodel the Dining Room (left) and the Green Drawing Room in Neo-Classical vein, the work attributed to Sir William Chambers. ‘He also left behind handsome portraits of himself by Reynolds and Romney (r).’5
Since the viscount’s death in 1785 Drayton ‘has suffered no major alteration or addition’ and resumed a rather more conventional line of descent.13 His son Charles inherited not only Drayton but also, separately, the dukedom of Dorset, fifth and last of that ilk. Though ‘a fashionable figure of the Regency and a favourite with the ladies’, the duke died unmarried and childless in 1843, Drayton now devolving to his niece, Mrs. Caroline Stopford.10 Her son, the similarly childless Stopford Sackville Stopford would be squire of Drayton’s 6,000 acres for 54 years until dying in his bathtub at the Carlton Club in 1926.
“Tea and ices at a cafe a mile and a half from the firing line.
This is a strange war.“14
As recently recounted, Lionel and Geoffrey, the elder nephews of ‘Uncle Sack’ would both become casualties of World War One, the Drayton estate consequently passing to their younger brother, Nigel Stopford Sackville. In turn, ‘a massive programme of restoration, all of it without government grants,’2 would be carried out by his son upon taking the reins in 1973; his grandson is the present owner, just the eleventh at Drayton since 1642.
That three of these in sequence acceded with no rooted affiliation to this ‘vast, homely yet palatial pile’15, and five failed to produce a direct heir, the survival of Drayton House intact and unsold across 700 years is surely, like the place itself, a thing of wonder…