Navigation Content Activities in the Peak District

The Smythsons - Famous Derbyshire People

The Smythsons of Bolsover

Derbyshire is justly famed for the quality of its natural stone which has been used in the construction of some of the nation's best known historic buildings: - Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Nelson's Column and Windsor Castle have all benefitted from the use of minerals mined in Derbyshire.

Indeed, the county itself is blessed with a rich heritage of splendid historical architecture as evidenced by the abundance of stately homes, medieval halls, manor houses and churches constructed from local minerals. Perhaps therefore, it is not surprising to discover that a locally- resident family of stone-masons were some of England's first and finest architects whose work had a profound effect on the development of architecture in Tudor and Stuart times and heralded a Renaissance during the `Golden Age' of Elizabethan England.

Anyone who has gazed in awe at the elegant frontage of Hardwick Hall or looked in wonder at the soaring ramparts of Bolsover Castle must have marvelled at the inspirational mind of the architect whose hand lay behind their creation. Few will realise that these fine buildings, together with many others in the East Midlands area are all linked to three generations of an amazingly gifted family who have been described as `an architectural dynasty' - the Smythsons of Bolsover.

Since the Norman Conquest the nobility had built fortified dwellings with the emphasis on defence, thus the whole architectural focus was inward looking, with a strong perimeter wall surrounding living accommodation and a courtyard. One of the best examples in England of this late-medieval style is to be found at Haddon Hall, built during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Elizabethan period which followed was a golden age for art and literature and a time of peace and prosperity when the gentry sought to display their wealth by building mansions which were bold and inventive in their design. It is against this background that the concept of the architect, as we know it today, began to emerge.

The time was ripe for the `Smythson Dynasty'. The founding father of the dynasty was Robert Smythson (1535 - 1614) whose earliest recorded work as a master stone-mason was in 1568 at Longleat House, Wiltshire where he was thought to have had a major hand in the design, as well as the construction of the building.

Following his success at Longleat, Robert Smythson moved to the East Midlands in 1580 at the invitation of Sir Francis Willoughby who sought his talents in the design and construction of Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, and it is here that Robert's son, John, learned his trade as a stonemason working alongside his father.

The Smythsons brought freshness and originality to their designs and their mansions of symmetry and light reflected a new age of prosperity and enterprise - attracting a wealth of rich and famous patrons.

At Wollaton Hall, which many regard as his `masterpiece', Robert Smythson built a mock medieval castle in the Flemish Mannerist style. The classic Smythson symmetry can be seen in the shape of the building with a high central hall surrounded by four towers, many large windows, and a Prospect Room providing splendid panoramic views over the countryside. Smythson's plans for Wollaton, including elevations and drawings of the hall screen, all survive to provide a fascinating insight into the talents of England's first noteable architect.

Earliest references describe Robert as a `freemason', but after his death in 1614 his tombstone was inscribed with the words, "Architector and survayor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton and diverse others of great account"?.Those `diverse others of great account' included the Earl of Shrewsbury and the indomitable Bess of Hardwick, reputedly the richest woman in Elizabethan England, who provided the wealth for the Smythsons to design and construct Hardwick Hall in 1597.

Hardwick is regarded as one of the finest and most complete examples of Elizabethan architecture and represents the supreme culmination of Smythson's architectural themes. One's first impression probably echoes the old saying `Hardwick Hall more glass than wall', because it is impossible not to marvel at the huge expanse of glass rising skyward as one approaches. Neither can one ignore the initials `E.S.', Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury emblazoned on the frontage. Undoubtedly, it was built to reflect Bess's great wealth and status, with six imposing towers and the vast array of windows. Glass at this time was an extremely expensive material and it's use on this scale was a display of sheer extravagance, but the effect is quite spectacular and bears testimony both to Bess's wealth and to the innovative spirit and architectural ingenuity of Robert Smythson.

Other noteable buildings attributed to Robert Smythson include Barlborough Hall (1583-4), Chatsworth Hunting Tower (1580), Worksop Manor Lodge (1590's), Doddington Hall (1592-3) and Burton Agnes Hall (1603-5). He also designed the monument to Bess of Hardwick in the crypt of the Cavendish Chapel at Derby Cathedral - and Bess ensured that everything was to her satisfaction in death, as in life - by having the monument completed six years before her demise in 1607!

Robert Smythson died at Wollaton in 1614 and was buried in the church where his monument can still be seen.

John Smythson followed in his father's footsteps and under the patronage of Bess of Hardwick's third son, Sir Charles Cavendish and grandson, Sir William Cavendish, his architectural career flourished.Bolsover Castle is the crowning glory of his work, which began with the construction of the Keep, or Little Castle in 1612 and was finished soon after Charles Cavendish's death in 1617, by his son Sir William.

John Smythson moved into a house and farm at Hill Top, Bolsover and became Bailiff to the Cavendish Estates. In 1618 Sir William Cavendish sent him to London to learn about the latest architectural fashions. Upon his return he added the external balconies and was responsible for the design of the Terrace Range and Cavendish Apartments which stand dramatically along the ridge overlooking the river valley to the west. John's other great architectural achievements are at Welbeck where he designed a riding school in 1622 and new stables in 1625. He also designed the tomb of the first Countess of Devonshire in the parish Church of St.John the Baptist, Ault Hucknall.

King Charles visited Bolsover Castle in 1634 and John Smythson died the same year. In his will which still survives he too is described as `Architecter'.

The third generation of Smythson architects was Huntingdon Smythson, the eldest of John Smythson's two sons. He is credited with the design of the Riding School at Bolsover Castle, which under William Cavendish, known as the `Horsemanship' Duke of Newcastle, grew into one of Europes leading equestrian centres. Huntingdon inherited his fathers job as Bailiff to the Cavendish Estates, and married Isobel, daughter of Thomas Hall of Barlow Lees. The family lived at Bolsover where Huntingdon Smythson, the last of the great dynasty of architects died in 1648 and was buried in the parish church of St. Mary & St. Lawrence.

Within the church is the Cavendish Chapel, built in 1618 to house the elaborate tomb of Sir Charles Cavendish and his wife Katherine.

Close by is a far more simple, but nonetheless admirable plaque which marks the last resting place of Huntingdon Smythson with the inscription:
Reader beneath this plaine stone buried ly Smithsons remainders of mortality
Whose skill in architecture did deserve a fairer tombe his mem'ry to preserve
But since his nobler gifts of piety To God to men of justice and charity
Are gone to heaven a building to prepare Not made with hands, his friends contented are
He here shall rest in hope till th'world shall burn And intermingle ashes with his urne.
Huntingdon Smithson
Obit 1X bris 27 1648.

This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writer Tom Bates