Situated on a hill in the north corner of Leicestershire, with views over the counties of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, is Belvoir Castle, the stately home of David Manners, 11th Duke of Rutland (born 1959). Four castles have stood on the site since the Norman Conquest in 1066, and the surviving structure is a grade I listed building from the 19th century. Whilst the castle remains the home of the Manners family, several rooms are open to the public.
The castle gets its name from the Vale of Belvoir, which derives from the Norman-French for “beautiful view”. When the French-speaking invaders named the area, the Anglo-Saxons could not pronounce the word in their accent, preferring to call it “Beaver”. This pronunciation remains in use today, often confusing the tourists.
The first castle on the site was built before the completion of the Domesday Book in 1086, which records Robert de Todeni as the owner of the land. Todeni was a nobleman and the founder of the now-destroyed Benedictine Belvoir Priory. On his death, the motte-and-bailey castle was given to William d’Aubigny (d. 1236), who rebelled against King John (1166-1216) and became one of the twenty-five barons to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. On his death, he left Belvoir Castle to his daughter, Isabel, who married Robert de Ros (d. 1285). Although the castle did not belong to royalty, De Ros received a licence to crenellate the building.
On the death of Isabel, her eldest son William Ros, 1st Baron Ros of Helmsley (1255-1216) inherited the Belvoir estate. William was also one of the thirteen claimants to the Scottish throne when the seven-year-old Queen Margaret passed away in 1290. William’s great grandmother was the illegitimate child of William I of Scotland (1142-1214). The ownership of the Belvoir estate continued down the male line until 1508 when Edmund Ros, 10th Baron Ros of Helmsley (1455-1508), died without a male heir. It then became the property of the eldest daughter, Eleanor Ros, who bequeathed it to her son, George Manners, 11th Baron Ros (1470-1513).
Unfortunately, the castle suffered during the War of the Roses between 1455 and 1485. The Ros family, who supported the Lancastrians, lost a great deal of their estate when the Yorkists took the throne of England. The family fought to retain the castle, but the new landowner, Lord Hastings, attacked the building, stripping lead from the roof and destroying much of the stonework. When George Manners inherited the castle, it was in ruins.
George Manners left the castle in its derelict state, but his son, Thomas Manners (1497-1543), constructed a new castle. The medieval design incorporated some of the original building, plus stones from Croxton Abbey and Belvoir Priory following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The building was completed in 1555, and Manners made it his main residence.
In 1525, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Thomas Manners a Knight of the Garter and made him the Earl of Rutland. Manners’ grandmother was Anne of York (1439-76), the elder sister of Edward VI (1442-83). Anne’s niece, Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), was the mother of Henry VIII, so Manners was distantly related to the king. Due to this family connection, Manners became a great favourite of the king and was appointed the lord chamberlain of Anne of Cleves (1515-57). The extra money earned working for Henry VIII went towards the building of Belvoir Castle.
Upon Thomas Manners’ death, his son Henry (1526-63) took possession of the castle and became the 2nd Earl of Rutland. Subsequently, the building and title were passed to his eldest son, Edward (1549-87). When Edward died without a male heir, his brother John (1559-88) became the 4th Earl of Rutland. John’s eldest son, Roger (1576-1612), 5th Earl of Rutland, was proposed as a candidate for the authorship of William Shakespeare‘s work during a debate about Shakespeare’s authenticity.
When Roger died childless, his brother Francis (1576-1632) became the next earl and entertained James I (1566-1632) at Belvoir Castle in 1612. Francis also died without an heir, so the next brother, George (1580-1641), inherited the peerage. When George also failed to produce a son, his second cousin, John Manners (1604-1679), became the 8th Earl of Rutland. The Manners family supported Charles I (1600-49) during the English Civil War. Three years after the king’s execution, Parliament ordered the demolition of Belvoir Castle as a punishment.
Following the restoration of the monarchy, the 8th Earl instructed the English architect John Webb (1611-72) to design a classical mansion to replace the old castle. Costing £11,730 (£2.06 million today), the building was completed in 1668, by which time the 9th Earl, also called John (1638-1711), had inherited the estate. Following the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the deposition of James II (1633-1701), Manners entertained Princess Anne (1665-1714), the future Queen of England, at Belvoir Castle. When Anne succeeded the throne, she created Manners the Duke of Rutland and Marquess of Granby.
The ownership of Belvoir Castle continued to pass down the male line. John Manners, 2nd Duke of Rutland (1676-1721), stood as a member of parliament until the death of his father. His heir, also called John (1696-1779), made several improvements to the castle and developed a large art collection, which he later sold for unknown reasons. As well as art, the 3rd Duke held great interest in music and served as one of the directors of the Royal Academy of Music. He also supported the creation of London’s Foundling Hospital.
The 3rd Duke outlived his son, so the dukedom went to his grandson, Charles (1754-1787), who was also interested in art. Charles Manners collected objets d’art to decorate Belvoir Castle, almost bankrupting the family. When he died aged 33, the castle was abandoned until his son, John Henry Manners, 5th Duke of Rutland (1778-1857), came of age.
The 5th Duke’s wife, Lady Elizabeth (1780-1825), who had a passion for design and architecture, refurbished the derelict building. She supervised landscaping works on the estate and employed James Wyatt (1746-1813), a neoclassical and neo-Gothic architect, to renovate the house. Wyatt was known for his improvements to Windsor Castle, some of which he replicated at Belvoir Castle. Due to these similarities, Belvoir is often used as a Windsor Castle substitute in film and television dramas.
In 1816, when the expensive project was near completion, a fire destroyed the majority of the castle. It resulted in an estimated £120,000 (£9.39 million today) of damages, which included furnishings, objets d’art and paintings by Titian (1488-1576), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), and Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). After raising a further £120,000 (£11.6 million today), building work began again. Today, one of the staterooms, the Elizabeth Saloon, is named after the wife of the 5th Duke.
Visitors to Belvoir Castle following its completion included Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), a friend of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). The Duchess is famed for creating the British “afternoon tea”. According to letters existing from the 1840s, Belvoir Castle served dinner between the hours of 7 and 8 pm. Whilst they included a light luncheon at midday, which was a fairly new invention at the time, the Duchess claimed guests were feeling faint by the time they dined in the evening. She discovered having a midafternoon meal of tea (usually Darjeeling) and cakes or sandwiches provided the perfect balance. The Duchess often invited her friends to join her for afternoon tea, and the tradition quickly spread across the country.
John and Elizabeth’s eldest son, Charles (1815-88), inherited the estate and dukedom after his father’s death, but he never married. When Charles passed away in 1888, his brother John (1818-1906) became the 7th Duke of Rutland. John was made a Knight of the Garter in 1891, as was his son and heir, Henry Manners, 8th Duke of Rutland (1852-1925), in 1918. The 9th Duke of Rutland, John (1886-1940), fought in the First World War but passed away from pneumonia at the start of the Second. His son, Charles (1919-1999), who was serving in the Grenadier Guards at the time, became the 10th Duke. Charles was the father of the current Duke of Rutland, David Charles Robert Manners.
Visitors to Belvoir Castle enjoy self-guided tours around some of the most notable rooms of the house. The entrance hall, also known as the guardroom, is an example of the Gothic Revival style combined with Victorian modernisations. On the walls hang weapons, such as Brown Bess muskets of the Leicestershire Militia and circles of 18th-century swords embossed with the profile of the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). Many of these weapons were collected by the 5th Duke of Rutland. In a letter to his agent, he wrote, “Where is the harm of old armour in a hall intended to look as if it belonged to days of yore?”
More of the 5th Duke’s antiquities are displayed on the staircase leading from the entrance hall to the landing. A canon from the First Sikh War (1845-46) is flanked by two sets of armour dating from the 16th century. On the landing above, aptly named the Carriage Landing, rests the 7th Duke’s Victorian invalid carriage, in which he was pushed around the castle during his 80s.
Upstairs, the Ballroom is lined with paintings of past Dukes of Rutland and their families. The room is also known as the Grand Corridor. Its use as a ballroom went out of fashion after the Regency Period. The 8th Duke used the 120-foot long space for informal family concerts, as recorded in Duchess Violet’s diary: “We have sung a lot in the ballroom and Marjorie and her voice will always be remembered by its walls.” Marjorie was the eldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess.
One of the most picturesque rooms in the castle is the aforementioned Elizabeth Saloon, named after the 5th Duke’s wife. The style reflects the Louis Quatorze fashion of early 19th-century France, which the Duchess admired during a trip to the continent. Unfortunately, Elizabeth passed away from appendicitis before the room’s completion. As well as naming the room in her honour, the room’s decorator Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862) sculpted a marble statue of Elizabeth, placed in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, making it appear as though she is walking into the room. In respect of the Duchess, the decoration of the Elizabeth Saloon remains as she intended, despite the numerous family parties that have traipsed through the room. It is where Winston Churchill (1875-1965) sat and wept after hearing about the abdication of Edward VIII (1894-1972), and more recently, it was a filming location for Young Victoria (2009).
Adjacent to the Elizabeth Saloon is the State Dining Room. The decor and architecture were inspired by the 5th Duke and Duchess’ visit to Rome. The ceiling replicates the coffered version in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the first churches built in honour of the Virgin Mary. The room is furnished with a long, mahogany table, sideboard and chairs, with enough room to seat 16 guests.
On either side of the Dining Room fireplace, hang two full-length portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. One depicts Lieutenant-General John Manners, Marquess of Granby (1721-1770), the eldest son of the 4th Duke of Rutland who predeceased his father. The Marquess served in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) as the commander of the British troops, for which he was rewarded with the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Forces. Due to his popularity with the troops, many pubs and inns across Britain are named after the Marquess. This painting originally hung at Windsor Castle, but the Prince Regent gifted it to Belvoir after the fire destroyed their copy of the portrait. The other painting in the Dining Room depicts Charles Manners, the 4th Duke of Rutland.
The majority of the artwork belonging to the Manners family is located in the Picture Gallery, including a family portrait of the present Duke by the Russian artist Vasili Smirnov (b. 1975). Other notable paintings include a full-length portrait of Henry VIII, purchased for the 4th Duke in 1787, Turk, A Dog by George Stubbs (1724-1806), depicting the 4th Duke’s dog, and The Last Supper by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-50).
Also located in the Picture Gallery is a four-poster bed made for Katherine, Countess of Rutland, in 1696. It is one of the few items of furniture that survived the fire of 1816. The King’s Rooms, containing a bedroom and sitting area, also survived the worst of the fire. The rooms were used by visiting members of the Royal Family, including the Prince Regent and Queen Victoria. Allegedly, when the fire broke out, someone bricked up the doorway to prevent the flames from spreading into the newly decorated room.
In honour of the Prince Regent’s visit, the 131-foot gallery adjoining the King’s Rooms was named the Regent’s Gallery. As well as regency furniture and decor, the room features the Louis XV Gobelin tapestries, bought by the 5th Duke in 1814. The tapestries tell the story of Don Quixote, a fictional character invented by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). At the top of each tapestry is the image of a peacock. The symbol is coincidently the crest of the Dukes of Rutland.
Within Belvoir Castle is a chapel that survives from the third castle on the site. On the left of the alter is a sculpture of the elder brother of the 9th Duke, who died aged nine. Three Mortlake tapestries adorn the walls depicting episodes from the New Testament based on paintings by Raphael (1483-1520).
Visitors can also explore “below stairs” where the servants used to work. The kitchen was large enough for 35 members of staff to work simultaneously to provide meals and refreshments to the family and their guests. The cook and kitchen maids usually slept in bedrooms near the kitchens and ate in the Servants’ Hall. The more senior members of the household staff ate in the Stewards’ Dining Room, which is now used as a restaurant.
Three sections of the cellar were reserved for beer barrels, which the dukes purchased from the Brewhouse in Belvoir Village. Some barrels were kept for special occasions, such as the “Robert de Todeni” barrel, which could hold 1,300 gallons.
Earlier in the castle’s history, the Manners family consulted the landscape architect Capability Brown (1716-83) about the layout of the estate, which encompasses almost 15,000 acres (61 km2). Brown proposed a subterraneous passageway to transport produce and servants into the castle since they could not use the grand entrance. Known as the Dooms for its dungeon-like atmosphere, the tunnel also transported coal on rail tracks from the family’s mines in Derbyshire.
Capability Brown’s designs for the castle gardens never came to fruition during his lifetime, but the current Duchess oversaw a project to bring some of Brown’s lost plans to life. Yet, the restoration project also kept some of the additions added by the wife of the 8th Duke of Rutland.
Designed by Harold Peto (1854-1933) for Duchess Violet, the Rose Garden reflects the Italian Renaissance era and features a marble column from Bologna in Italy. Dotted around the garden are a series of statues representing the seasons created by the Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700). These were commissioned by the 1st Duke of Rutland in 1680. There is also a statue of Juno, a Roman goddess and wife of Jupiter, whose insignia is a peacock, the same as the Manners family crest.
Today, only a corner of the castle is used by the Manners family. The rest is open to the public at various times throughout the year. The castle is also a popular location for film and television and was used most recently as a stand-in for Windsor Castle in the second series of the British television series The Crown (2017). Belvoir Castle has also featured in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1980), The Da Vinci Code (2006) as Castel Gandolfo, Young Sherlock Holmes (2008) and The Haunting (1991).
For opening times and special events, please visit the website: https://www.belvoircastle.com/