Rising majestically within a 3,000-acre park of rolling pastures is Grimsthorpe Castle, a country house in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire. Managed by the Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust, the house and its gardens are open to the public from Sunday to Thursday. Visitors enjoy long walks around lakes and a woodland landscaped by famous gardener Capability Brown (1716-83). Whilst the Trust welcomes everyone to explore the park and building, it remains the home of Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Grimsthorpe has been the home of the de Eresby family since 1516.
Grimsthorpe Castle is not a castle in the conventional sense of the word, but any buildings with crenellated towers had the right to apply for castle status. The impressive front of the house was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), who is perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace. Yet, Grimsthorpe dates back much further than the 17th-century. During the 13th century, Gilbert de Gant, Earl of Lincoln (1126-56), built a defensive tower on the land, known as King John’s Tower. Since the dates of Gilbert de Gant and King John (1166-1216) do not match up, the name came later than the construction.
When Gilbert de Gant died in 1156, the tower fell into the hands of the Earl of Chester and Grimsthorpe. Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester (1172-1232), who worked for the king, may have been the person to name the tower “King John’s Tower”. After this, the ownership remained obscure until the late 15th century, when it belonged to Lord Francis Lovel (1456-87). Lovel supported King Richard III (1452-85) during the War of the Roses. Legend says he was the king’s best friend and, after Richard was defeated by Henry VII (1457-1509), his property was confiscated by the crown.
In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) granted Grimsthorpe to William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby (1482-1526), as a wedding present. Willoughby had recently married María de Salinas (1490-1539), the lady-in-waiting to the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). When Willoughby passed away, his only daughter, Catherine (1518-90), inherited the barony and the estate. Usually, prestigious titles could not pass down to female children, but baronies are one of the few English titles that can descend through the female line.
Catherine was only seven when her father died, yet she inherited Grimsthorpe and 90 other manors in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, worth around £900 per annum (approximately £500,000 today). She was one of the wealthiest heiresses of her generation, but at the time, too young to claim her estates. Catherine immediately became a Ward of Court, meaning she belonged to the king. In 1528, Henry VIII sold the wardship to his sister’s husband, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk (1484-1545). Rumours claim Henry intended to make Catherine his wife, but after Mary Tudor (1496-1533), Brandon married her instead.
The Duke of Suffolk set about renovating his wife’s house at Grimsthorpe, using stone from the nearby Vaudey Abbey. The Cistercian abbey, founded in 1147, was demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. After rushing to complete the building project, Grimsthorpe Castle was ready to welcome Henry VIII in 1541. The king only stayed one night on his way to York to meet his nephew, James V of Scotland (1512-42), the father of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). The hastily constructed parts of Grimsthorpe Castle began to sink into the ground over the following centuries and required substantial repairs.
After Charles Brandon’s death, Catherine married Richard Bertie (1516-82), who formerly served as her Master of the Horse. The marriage was a love match, and many considered Bertie below Catherine’s status. Bertie was also a religious evangelical, which put the couple in danger when the Catholic Mary I (1516-58) came to the throne. Catherine and Bertie fled to the Continent to escape Mary’s persecution of religious reformers. They were among the 800 “Marian exiles” who fled to Protestant countries, such as the Low Countries, Germany, and Switzerland, between 1553 and 1558.
When Elizabeth I (1533-1603) succeeded her sister as queen, Catherine and her husband returned to Grimsthorpe in 1559 with their children, Susan (b.1554) and Peregrine (1555-1601). Peregrine Bertie was allegedly named for their peregrinations in exile. Susan left Grimsthorpe at the age of 16 when she married Reginald Grey of Wrest (1541-73), who later became the Earl of Kent.
In 1578, Catherine gave Grimsthorpe to her son on his marriage to the English noblewoman Mary de Vere (d.1624). He did not inherit the title of 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby until his mother’s death two years later. Peregrine spent several years as a soldier, fighting in the Netherlands against the Spanish. He finally returned to England in 1598 but died three years later due to poor health. His eldest son, Robert Bertie (1582-1642), whose godmother was Elizabeth I, inherited Grimsthorpe.
In 1625, Robert Bertie was appointed Lord Great Chamberlain, which allowed him and his heirs to take unwanted furniture from the royal court as a form of payment. It is for this reason that Grimsthorpe Castle contains several thrones, such as those used by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and the morbidly obese George IV (1762-1830).
In 1626, Robert Bertie was created Earl of Lindsey for his services to the king. During the Civil War, Lindsey fought on behalf of Charles I (1600-49). Whilst participating in the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, Lindsey received a shot through the thigh bone. Despite attempts to save his life, Lindsey died the following morning. The Earldom passed on to his eldest son, Montagu Bertie (1606-1666), who, at that time, was imprisoned in Warwick Castle.
As well as 2nd Earl of Lindsey, Montagu Bertie assumed the name Baron Willoughby de Eresby. He was released from prison 18-months after his father’s death and sold some of the timber from Grimsthorpe to support the Royalist cause. Montagu continued to attend to the king until Charles’s execution in 1649. Legend suggests the Earl of Lindsey was one of several men who tried to buy the king’s life with their own but were refused. Instead, Montagu and three other peers were responsible for burying Charles I’s body.
Parliament fined Montagu Bertie £647.13 for supporting the Royalist cause and a further £300 each year that he lived at Grimsthorpe during the Commonwealth. The 2nd Earl of Lindsey lived to see the monarchy restored and assisted as Lord Great Chamberlain at the Coronation of Charles II (1630-85). As payment, Montagu claimed the Indo-Portuguese bed, which the king used the night before the coronation. The bed still resides at Grimsthorpe Castle today.
Following Montagu Bertie’s death in 1666, his eldest son Robert became the 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701). Robert’s first marriage to Mary Massingberd provided the Earl with much-needed money, as did his second marriage to Elizabeth Wharton (d. 1669). In 1670, Robert married a third time to Lady Elizabeth Pope, who oversaw the rebuilding of the north front of Grimsthorpe Castle. She also arranged for the re-laying of the formal gardens.
In 1701, the Earldom passed on to another Robert (1660-1723), who received many titles during his lifetime. As well as the 4th Earl of Lindsey, Robert was styled as 17th Baron Willoughby de Eresby until 1706, after which he was made the 1st Marquess of Lindsey by Queen Anne (1665-1714). Following the queen’s death, Robert was created the 1st Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven. This honour could only pass down the male line, so if a future heir only had a daughter, the title would die out.
While living at Grimsthorpe, the Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven employed Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) to design a fortified garden, although little remains of it today. Robert Bertie also hired Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) to create a baroque-style front to the house to celebrate his ennoblement as Duke. The design is Vanbrugh’s last masterpiece and encompasses the two-storey Stone Hall, State Dining Room, State Drawing Rooms and several bedrooms.
The Stone Hall, also known as the Vanbrugh Hall, features full-length paintings of English kings by Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), which resemble statues standing in alcoves. The State Dining room is lit by an impressive Venetian window and the State Drawing Room contains a chimneypiece thought to be “one of the most elegant in England”. Vanbrugh also redesigned corridors at the south and west of the building, which now contain the thrones used by George I and Victoria, as well as many portraits of the Willoughby de Eresbys.
Vanbrugh died before the completion of Grimsthorpe Castle. It is not known for certain who took up the work, but it was not complete until 1730. When the 1st Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven died, the castle and title passed on to his second eldest son, Peregrine (1686-1742), who oversaw the remainder of the building work. The eldest son predeceased his father by 19 years.
In 1742, the 3rd Duke of Ancaster, also called Peregrine, focused on decorating the interior of Grimsthorpe Castle. He brought the decor up to date by introducing the Rococo style. He also employed Capability Brown to landscape parts of the park. The fishponds that the 1st Earl of Lindsey dug were landscaped into a lake, and a knot garden, hedged rose garden, and a terrace with herbaceous and shrub borders were introduced.
Robert Bertie (1756-79) succeeded his father as 4th Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven but died a year later. With no children, the Dukedom passed on to his uncle Brownlow Bertie (1729-1809). Brownlow had no male children, so the Dukedom became extinct on his death in 1809. His only daughter predeceased him, so the Barony of Willoughby de Eresby passed to the 4th Duke’s eldest sister, Priscilla (1761-1828).
When Priscilla, 21st Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, arrived at Grimsthorpe, she found that the various alterations over the past century had achieved little to improve the building. Vanbrugh’s style of architecture was no longer in fashion, but Priscilla opted to keep it and hired Samuel Page to carry out a sympathetic restoration. Unfortunately, this work removed much of the original features of the Tudor parts of the house.
In 1828, Peter Robert Drummond-Burrell (1782-1865) succeeded his mother as 22nd Baron Willoughby de Eresby. Eight years previously, on the death of his father, he inherited the title 2nd Baron Gwydyr. Peter was a Member of Parliament for Boston in Lincolnshire, initially for the Whigs but changed his allegiance to the Tories later in life. At the Coronation of Queen Victoria, Peter had the privilege of holding the queen’s crown. Through his marriage to Sarah Clementina Drummond (1786-1865), he became the owner of Drummond Castle in Scotland.
When the 22nd Baron inherited Grimsthorpe, his mother’s will stipulated that all the furniture must be sold, and the proceeds shared with his sisters. The majority of the ornate furniture in the house today was purchased by Peter from various locations across the continent with his portion of the money.
Albyric Drummond-Willoughby (1821-70) succeeded his father as both 3rd Baron Gwydyr and 23rd Baron Willoughby de Eresby but died childless. The Barony passed to his older sister, Clementina (1809-88), a 60-year-old widow. She made little use of Grimsthorpe, but her son, Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1830-1910), used it for occasional winter shooting parties.
Gilbert became the 1st Earl of Ancaster, a title that passed to his eldest son, also called Gilbert (1867-1951). Finally, Grimsthorpe became a family home once more. The British Conservative politician and his American wife, Eloise Lawrence Breese (1882-1953), restored and modernised the house, which had been neglected for over 40 years. Arts and Crafts designer Detmar Blow (1867-1939) introduced bathrooms, electricity and central heating to the building.
When a relative passed away, Grimsthorpe received many furniture and tapestries. Many of the statues in the garden also come from the relative, whose estate at Normanton Park was sold and demolished in 1924. Eloise landscaped parts of the garden to accommodate the new stone arrivals.
During the First World War, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force used Grimsthorpe Park as an emergency landing ground. The estate was also used during the Second World War by a company of the Parachute Regiment. While they were there, they whitewashed the walls of the Vanbrugh Hall and broke a pane of glass engraved with the names of James I (1566-1625) and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Fortunately, this was the only damage Grimsthorpe received during the war.
On the death of the 2nd Earl of Ancaster, his son James (1907-83) spent the post-war years putting the house back in order. He demolished the service block, which once occupied the courtyard. James’s wife, Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor (1909-1975), oversaw the redecoration of the interior. Her mother, Nancy Astor (1879-1964), the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat, spent her final years at Grimthorpe, passing away on 2nd May 1964.
James’s son and heir Timothy (b. 1936) disappeared at sea in 1962, so his daughter inherited the barony in 1983. Lady (Nancy) Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (b. 1934) is the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Lady Willoughby was one of the six Maids of Honour at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926). She created the Grimsthorpe and Castle Trust, which safeguards the house, its contents and park. Lady Willoughby never married and thus has no children. There are currently two co-heir presumptive: cousins Sebastian St Maur Miller (b. 1965) and Sir John Aird (b. 1940).
Grimsthorpe Castle remains an impressive building with beautifully landscaped gardens. On the east side of the house, a 19th-century copy of a Gladiator in the Borghese Gardens in Rome stands proudly amongst the carefully landscaped flowerbeds. Several more sculptures are located around the grounds, including those in the Old Walled Garden. Produced as part of an exhibition by the Lettering Arts Trust, the artworks celebrate the beauty of the hand-made letter.
One of the artworks in the Old Walled Garden was originally designed for installation in the Park at West Dean in West Sussex. Inspired by the artist David Crowe, 11-metre high chalk letters spell out the word “fragile”. The artist wanted it to appear carved into the ground to remind people that the world needs to treat the natural environment with care.
Nearby, a labyrinth made of turf and box plants represents medieval beliefs. Unlike a maze, which gives people choices of direction, the labyrinth twists and turns in coils until it reaches the middle. Ancient civilisations believed their lives were mapped out in the stars and that their fate was already decided.
For £7 (£3 for children), Grimsthorpe welcomes visitors to explore the extensive gardens and parklands. Those wishing to visit the house, as well as the gardens, can purchase tickets for £13 (£5.50). Photography is not allowed inside the house, but visitors have the opportunity to join a guided tour and learn all about the rooms and the long line of the de Eresby family.
Tickets must be purchased in advance on the Grimthorpe Website.