Chatsworth is perhaps the most famous of the stately homes of England. Although it is far from the major tourist centers, Chatsworth hosts thousands of visitors each year. It is a very grand house full of artistic treasures set in a magnificent setting. It also has an interesting story full of colorful individuals.
The story begins with Bess of Hardwick, the daughter of a Derbyshire squire. She married well four times, which resulted in her accumulating a vast fortune. Part of this fortune was spent on building great houses including both Chatsworth and nearby Hardwick Hall.
Chatsworth was built during Bess' marriage to Sir William Cavendish. It was an Elizabethean mansion consisting of four wings around a central courtyeard. During Bess' subsequent marriage to the Earl of Shrewsberry, Mary Queen of Scots was a guest/prisoner in the house.
Ownership of Chatsworth descended through the Cavendish family. By 1684 when Henry Cavendish, the 4th Earl of Devonshire inherited Chatsworth, the old house was decaying. Henry was part of the Whig oligarchy, a group of wealthy nobles who felt that it was only fitting for England to be ruled by property owners. That brought them into conflict with King James II, who believed in the divine right of kings to rule. The conflict came to a head in the Glorious Revolution, in which the Whig oligarchy replaced James with the more accommodating William III and Queen Mary II. As a reward, William made Henry the 1st Duke of Devonshire.
This outcome was foreshadowed by an incident involving Henry. While at court, Henry had a fistfight with Colonel Culpepper, one of James' supporters. James then fined Henry 30,000 pounds, a staggering sum and imprisoned Henry. However, Henry escaped and for a time, fled the counrty. When he returned to Britain and Chatsworth, James ordered the sheriff to arrest Henry. Demonstrating their relative power, Henry had the sheriff imprisoned instead.
At the same time, Henry decided to do something about his decaying house. His plan was to renovate the south front of the building by essentially tearing that section of the house down and replacing it with a Baroque design. When the work on the south front was finished, Henry decided that he did not like the contrast with the east front so he had the east wing torn down and replaced by new construction. When this was completed, Henry decided that he did not like the look of the west front and it too was rebuilt. Not surprisingly, the same thing happened with the north front. As a result, the house was completely transformed over a 20 year period.
The transformation was not a smooth process. For the first two sections, Henry employed William Tallman as the architect. However, Henry had his own ideas about the house and when he decided that some feature was not to his liking, he would have it torn down and something else built in its place. He would also take workman from one project and set them to work on another project as he came up with new ideas. In addition, even though he was one of the richest men in England, Henry, who loved race horses, was always short of cash to pay his architect who he believed was overcharging him in first place. This led to litigation. As a result, Tallman did not design the west or north fronts. No one is sure who did design them. It may well have been Henry himself, working directly with the masons and carpenters who were very loyal to him.
Despite having been designed and built in such a piecemeal fashion, the exterior of Chatsworth comes together harmoniously. However, because it lacks a central plan, the design of the interior is somewhat haphazard. With its painted ceilings and elaborate carvings, it is quite grand. However, succeeding generations have made various changes in order to rationalize the layout.
One of the best known residents of Chatsworth was Georgiana, who married the 5th Duke of Devonshire in 1774. Born into the powerful Spencer family of Althorp, Georgiana was not only a great beauty but came from a wealthy and privileged background. As Duchess, she became one of the great hostesses of her time and a noted celebrity. When she lay dying, crowds of common people gathered outside her London home to stand silent vigil. Her life was recently depicted in the motion picture The Duchess.
Like some modern celebrities, there were also quirky aspects of Georgiana's life. For example, Lady Elizabeth Foster came to live with the Devonshires after leaving her husband. She was Georgiana's best friend and became the Duke's mistress. The three raised the two children Lady Elizabeth had by the Duke along with the three he had with Georgiana. Georgiana's child fathered by Charles Grey, subsequently Prime Minister, was also raised in the same nursery. Another darker aspect of Georgiana's life was her addiction to gambling, which created massive debts.
Another colorful character connected with Chatsworth was the 8th Duke. He was an intimate frind of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and a member of the fast set in which the Prince moved. Since before he succeeded to the dukedom, he was Maruuess of Hartington, his friends nicknamed him “Harty-Tarty.”
As a young man, Harty-Tarty had a notorious affair with a young courtesan known as “Skittles.” Following that, he fell in love with one of the leaders of the aforementioned fast set. The only problem was that she was married to the Duke of Manchester. So the two carried on a relationship for decades, outwardly observing all Victorian conventions. When Manchester died, she married Devonshire. Consequently, she is known as the “Double Duchess.”
The 8th Duke should not be dismissed, however, as a frivilous lightweight. He headed the Liberal Party at a time when it was one of the leading political parties in Britain. He served as Secretary of State for War and as Foreign Secretary. Three times he was offered the position of Prime Minister but refused each time. Perhaps this was because he did not like making speeches - - he admitted to once falling asleep during one of his own speeches.
Above: The entrance hall was originally a kitchen.
Below: The library.
Above: The dining room.
Below: The south front.
Later on in the 20th century, Chatsworth became connected by marriage to several famous families and personalities. In 1932, Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th Duke, married Adele Astaire, who had achieved international stardom on the Broadway and West End stages working with her brother Fred Astaire. In 1944, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister of future President John F. Kennedy, married Lord William Cavendish, then-Marquess of Hartington and heir apparent to the 10th Duke. Sadly, Hartington, an army officer, was killed in action a few months later during World War II. His brother Lord Andrew Cavendish went on to become the 11th Duke and married Deborah Mitford, one of the Mitford Sisters. She wrote several books about Chatsworth and is credited with much of its restoration.
Chatsworth is surrounded by a vast park. The formal gardens date back to the 1st Duke's time. However, the 4th Duke brought in the renown landscape architect Capability Brown to remodel the park. It includes a number of features including a waterfall cascade that channels a river down steps before disappearing below ground. Also, there is the Emperor Fountain, built in 1843 for the visit of the Russian czar, which shoots a plume of water high into the sky.
When 6th Duke was out walking at one of his other residences, Chisick House, he met one of the gardeners from a neighboring property. The Duke was so impressed by that and subsequent conversations that he offered the gardener the position of head gardener at Chatsworth. Together, the Duke and Joseph Paxton obtained nurtured exotic plants from around the globe at Chatsworth. To house them Paxton became involved in designing greenhouses. This eventually led to Paxton designing the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.
For more information about visiting, see the Chatsworth website.
Cruise destination - England - London - Osterley Park