Chatsworth History


Lying in the most becoming surroundings is THE building of the Peak District, if not of England. Today, your eyes marvel at the absorbing scene, the river, the bridge, the house, the rhododendrons and wooded slopes beyond. Is there anywhere to compare with such magnificence? I doubt it, but it has not always been like this. it is the work of several Cavendishes whose fortunes were founded by the Countess of Shrewsbury, Bess of Hardwick. It was her passion for building which started the house, and her future family inherited this enthusiasm. Sometimes as we shall see, Chatsworth lay dormant, while at other times it occupied their lifes work. it is the creation of three centuries of activity which has made a house so perfectly suited to its surroundings and adds its glory to a delectable scene. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086 A.D) the area was held by William Peveril of Peveril Castle, the actual residents being Ôfive villeins and two bardars. Their houses were not far from Queen Marys Bower.

At the same time the nearby village of Edensor was owned by Henry de Ferrers (see Duffield Castle). Little is known about the early history, although in the 13th Century the family at Chatsworth were becoming important landowners and bearing the title of Ôde Chattesworth. It is not until 31st December 1549 that todays story begins when Sir William Cavendish, who was Bess of Hardwicks second husband, bought the property and several others for £600. Three years later Sir William, guided by Bess, began building a house. Their second son became the first Earl of Devonshire in 1618. When the house was only partly completed, Sir William died leaving Bess to continue and complete the Elizabethan house. This she proceeded to do, the final cost being some £80,000. The site was chosen by sheer chance and stands on exactly the same location as the current building. The house was a tall structure of four and five storeys, with large square turrets at the corners and enclosing a courtyard. The buildings front faced the hillside, and the gardens likewise spread up the hill and not down towards the river as today. The Derwent was prone to flooding, and to keep the surrounding ground from becoming submerged seven ponds existed in front of the house. One of these had the building known as Queen Marys Bower in it. The Elizabethan house had barely 150 years of life before being radically altered beyond recognition. Shortly after Bess of Hardwick married the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot, the house acted as a Ôprison for Mary Queen of Scots, as both Beth and George were her guardians. She was here in 1570, 1573, 1577 and 1581, and possibly on other occasions. Queen Marys Bower takes the name from her, for while she was at Chatsworth she often spent her time in the little garden at the top of the thirty steps. Her coat of arms is still visible above the entranceway. The house was later occupied during the Civil War.

In 1643, it was first held by Parliament forces under Sir John Gell, the Parliamentary Governor of Derbyshire, and later in the year it was occupied for the King by Colonel Eyre. Two years later in 1645 the Royalists once more held the house under Colonel Shalcross who had 300 men from Welbeck Abbey. The next Cavendish builder, the third Earl of Devonshire, began in 1676 to modernise the building internally and to work on the gardens, which were still being altered eight years later when he died. The internal changes left the structure of the Elizabethan house in a very weak state.

When the fourth Earl inherited Chatsworth in 1684, its poor condition helped to make up his mind to start rebuilding the house, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. A factor influencing his total involvement was that he had been banished from the Court in July 1685, and therefore spent all his time at Chatsworth. The incident happened in the Presence Chamber at Whitehall, when Colonel Colepepper gave him an insulting look. Angered by this, the Earl led the Colonel out of the room by his nose and once outside hit him on the head with his cane. His enemies secured his appearance to the Court of the Kings Bench, which found him guilty of assault and ordered him to pay a £30,000 fine. Instead of paying he retired to Chatsworth, and there arrested the two people who had come to arrest him. His mother, the Dowager Countess, offered her bonds for £60,000 which Charles I had borrowed from her during the Civil Wars as payment for the fine. Her offer was refused, but the Earl never paid the sum for shortly after James IIs departure from the throne in 1688 the necessary paper was destroyed (see Revolution House). The Earl was made the first Duke of Devonshire in 1694.

Apart from the Queen Marys Bower the only other surviving remnant of the Elizabethan house is the Hunting Tower, where ladies from the house would watch the progress of a chase. It was also a summer house for Bess of Hardwick. The fourth Earl started first of all on the south front and originally this was all he intended to do, but he became so involved and so interested in building, inheriting Bess passion, that he continued through the rest of the house.

Between 1691 and 1696 he rebuilt the east front, which like the south was designed by William Talman who was dismissed in 1694. Next the west front was rebuilt in 1699-1702, the north front being started soon afterwards and completed just before the first Dukes death in 1707. These were designed by Thomas Archer, who was personally assisted by the Duke. This new building was built on exactly the same site as the original Elizabethan house, but the significant change was that the main entrance faced towards Edensor village. it was fifty years before this change began to be appreciated. The first Duke called in the leading artists and craftsmen of the day. The artists, Louis Laguerre and Antonio Verrio, saw to the many beautiful painted walls and ceilings. Caius Gabriel Cibber did the sculpture and Tijou the ironwork. The wood and stone carvings were executed by Samuel Watson, who spent twenty years doing the work.

In Heanor Church is an epitaph to him:- Watson is gone, whose skilful art displayed, To the very life whatever Nature made. View but his wondrous works at Chatsworth Hall, Which were so gazed at and admired by all. The gardens too were greatly altered. The Cascade was built in 1694, but was enlarged eight years later when the Cascade House was added. A period of fifty years elapsed before Chatsworth was the scene of further activity. The fourth Duke conceived a single plan for the house and garden and began carrying out his ideas. Between the years 1755 and 1763 he cleared the front of all eyesores so that from the house you had an uninterrupted view with hardly a building in sight. The flood ponds were removed and the Derwent straightened. The mill was taken down and rebuilt near Beeley, and still exists today, in a now ruinous state. The three-arched bridge was designed and built in front of the house in 1761 by James Paine, who also designed the stables which were built in 1758-1763. The stone carvings on the stables were done by Samuel Watsons son, Henry.

The Edensor Inn, now the Chatsworth Institute, was built in 1777. Another period of Fifty years passed before the final and culminating building and garden scheme took place to bring the house to todays glorious scene. The work was begun in 1818 by the sixth Duke (Ôthe bachelor Duke) who doubled the size of Chatsworth by adding the north wing in which the dining room, sculpture gallery, organery and theatre are located. It was designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville. But it was the gardens that received the most extensive modifications, the master mind being Sir Joseph Paxton. The Duke paid a visit to the gardens of the Horticultural Society at Chiswick, which were leased from him. There he met Paxton and suggested to him that he might like to become his head gardener at Chatsworth. Tradition says that a few days later on 9th May 1826 Paxton arrived in Chesterfield just after midnight and walked the nine miles to Chatsworth, arriving at 4.30 am. Before anyone was up he inspected the gardens before setting the gardeners to work at 6 am. Then he went for breakfast with the housekeeper, Mrs. Gregory, and saw her niece Sarah Bown.

Before 9 am he resolved to work for the Duke, remodel the gardens and marry Sarah Bown – all of which he did! As time progressed he became the Dukes right-hand man and took over much of the running of the estate. The Duke also took him away with him to Europe. In the gardens he laid several large rockeries and built the Wellington Rock foundation. In 1843 he designed the Emperor Fountain, capable of throwing a jet of water 150 feet into the air, and to feed it constructed the eight-acre Emperor Lake. Edensor village could still be seen from the house, and in 1837 many of the buildings were dismantled and rebuilt on the opposite side of the road out of view. It was an unsolved mystery as to why the one house that remains was left. The original main street of the village is in front of this house, and can still be seen by the different colour of grass. Legend says that the owner, Anthony Holmes, refused to sell it but agreed that the sixth Duke could have it on his death. Unfortunately he was still very much alive when the surrounding houses were pulled down. However, according to the account books of Chatsworth, Anthony Holmes appears as the tenant only. Paxton helped to design the houses of Edensor, and these were built in 1839 to 1841. One of the original houses remains in the village and is known as Swiss Cottage.

The Church was built in 1866 and was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott. Later in Paxtons life he designed the other buildings such as Lismore Castle in 1850. But his masterpiece which he developed from the Lily House he made at Chatsworth, was the Crystal Palace in London, which was erected in 1851. He was knighted in the same year for his work. Three years later he became an M.P. for Coventry, and when the sixth Duke died in 1858 he left Chatsworth and concerned himself with his parliamentary affairs and business. He died in 1865 and is buried in Edensor churchyard. The work was complete and Chatsworth was now todays unforgettable vista. The houses contents are there for you to explore and see at leisure, as are the gardens and parkland complete with herds of fallow and red deer. Take you time as you admire the work of three centuries, for it has no equal.

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© John N. Merrill 2004.