The name Bretby, although equipped with a Norse suffix meaning ‘place’, suggests that it was, even when the Danelaw was forming in the 10th-11th century, a place known to be (or have been) settled by people of British descent. Yet by 1086 it was attached to Newton (Solney) as an outlier, but by the end of the 13th century had become a separate manor held by the Leicestershire family of Segrave, of which John de Segrave obtained a licence from Edward I to crenellate his house there.
This became the site of Bretby Castle, in its day a significant base of the Berkeley family, heirs of the Segraves. It was last lived in by John Mee, agent to the Berkeley holdings in the area, in the 16th century. After which the castle, now marked by a moated site on the angle between Bretby Lane and Bretby Road, was gradually dismantled and its materials re-used. Some parts were still standing in 1713. The parish church close by, may have begun as the Castle’s domestic chapel, standing within the bailey.
Old Bretby Hall, however, was a new structure on a different site, and during its relatively brief existence, was with Chatsworth the largest country house in Derbyshire. Towards the end of the 16th century the Stanhopes of Shelford (Notts.) bought the estate and in 1610 Philip, 1st Lord Stanhope (in 1628 created 1st Earl of Chesterfield) obtained Royal Consent to enclose land to form a park. It was probably at this stage that the old castle was pulled down, and no doubt any usable stone re-cycled into the structure of the new house he began not long afterwards, the building of which occupied him until the 1630s.
In plan his creation was U-shaped, the open courtyard facing south, the central 11 bay block being flanked by notably lengthy wings of nine bays, split into threes by attached stair towers with ogee tops. The wings boasted external chimney breasts with tall stacks and ended with segmental pediments containing Diocletian or thermal windows. The arrangement was really more Elizabethan than Jacobean, emphasised by the slim towers on the wings, which look very Tudor. The house was of two lofty storeys over a high basement and with attics expressed as shaped dormers in the pitched roof. The central three bays broke forward with a giant Corinthian order supporting a pyramidal roof topped by a tall lantern.
The entire house was set in an interlocking sequence of parterres, later embellished after the Civil War and the open courtyard formed therebv was terminated in a wrought iron screen and ‘massy iron gates’ with a large round pond containing an impressive fountain beyond. William Woolley, matter-of-fact as usual described the house as being ‘of stone, yet not of the modern (i.e. Queen Anne Baroque) architecture, yet regular enough.’
The question is, who could have designed such a prodigious mansion? No contemporary source attests the architect unequivocally, and no papers relating to its construction have survived. One source suggests Inigo Jones, but it seems likely that the classical cloak one sees in the only satisfactory picture of the place (by Kip and Knyff, 1708) disguises a thoroughly Jacobean pile, hence the ogee-topped pinnacles on the wings and addiction to tall clustered chimneys and the single room thickness of each range. Celia Fiennes wrote of it in 1698 that
‘None of the windows are sashes, which in my opinion is the only thing it wants to render it a completer building.’
This suggests the original mullion-and-transom cross windows with iron casements were retained, and confirms the likelihood that the house was much more Jacobean in its original form that might appear. Indeed, some of the surviving service ranges still echo this style of building. Whenever it was begun it was in use by 1639 when a masque by Sir Aston Cokayne of Ashbourne Hall was performed.
The first Earl died during the Commonwealth, to be succeeded by his much married grandson, also Philip, who had travelled extensively on the continent. Once the Restoration had come about and things had settled down, he resumed work on the house. In the 1660s, Louis Le Vau (1612-1670) arrived and re-cased the house in classical detailing, albeit very much in the French taste of the day as one might expect from the architect of Vaux-le-Viscomte and Versailles. In 1670 the finished article was taxed on a colossal 68 hearths; only the unrebuilt Chatsworth boasted more. Inside all that we know was that the rooms were ‘magnificent with painted ceilings rich tapestry and noble pictures’. Possibly the ceilings, like those at Sudbury and Chatsworth were by Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre, with plasterwork by Derby’s Samuel Mansfield.
Simultaneously, the park was re-landscaped, perhaps even by André le Nôtre, le Vau’s collaborator at Versailles, or by le Vau following his associate. The work was undertaken by the same team that were to work on the le Nôtre style gardens of Melbourne Hall, William Cooke and George Sorocold of Derby. Suggestions that the French engineer Grillet (of Chatsworth fame) worked here have not been proven. Traces of work of a similar period emerged some years ago in a study of Elvaston, where they may also have worked for Chesterfield’s cousin.
Woolley was much more struck by the result; writing of ‘fountains (very le Nôtre eg. at Marly) labyrinths groves, greenhouses, grottoes, aviaries but more especially the carpetwalk and situation of orange trees waterworks before the summerhouse, which is built of marble over which is written MEIOR SOLO QUAM IN ALTRO ACCOMPAGNECTO’ (rather alone than amongst a crowd). It is said that the gardens also included a water clock and an hydraulic organ which played Lilibulero, there was also, as at Elvaston, a canal and lakes, the latter being the only visible trace of this lost and dazzling set-piece. Much of these works still lurk, barely discernible under the grassed over parkland, long since returned (where not built over by the NHS and later ‘enabling development’) to agriculture. The truncated lakes are the only visible trace of this lost and dazzling set-piece
In 1695-96, these alterations were supplemented by the addition of a ‘curious chapel’ (Woolley again) attached to the North side, thought to have been by the same man who designed a very similar (surviving) one at Locko Park, George Eaton of Etwall. Certainly, with their segmental headed windows and restrained detailing they look very similar, although that at Bretby acquired coupled Ionic pilasters between the bays under a top balustrade punctuated with urns. Celia Fiennes called it ‘…very light and handsome. Within was a rich lining (i.e. panelling) of cedar; the altar piece of Italian marble, was remarkably fine; there was also an organ in the gallery, and at the east of the chapel stood a very large and venerable cedar’. This last outlived the chapel surviving into the 20th century with props and chains to prevent its falling, being only done away with in 1953 when the replacement house was a National Health Service hospital.
This magnificent ensemble fell into disuse by the family under the famous 4th Earl (who twice refused a dukedom), and his successor was persuaded to allow it to be demolished 1775-1781, by a mendacious resident agent, who greatly enriched himself through the sale of the materials. To be fair to the then Earl, he later had regrets and commenced building the present (unfinished) replacement house, on a site several hundred yards further south, to the design of Jeffry Wyatt before dying with it only about a third complete in 1812. All that remain are some of the architecturally workaday outbuildings and service accommodation of the old house. A new brick house was put up on the site of the old one to accommodate the wily agent’s successor, but this was swallowed up in the present Bretby Hall in the early 19th century.
Bretby must be accounted the single most catastrophic architectural loss the County has suffered in terms of domestic buildings. Had it survived it would no doubt be a terrific magnet for tourism in a part of the County which is short on the sort of showpiece offered further north in Derbyshire. Perhaps it’s as well we know so little about it; if we did, we might feel the loss the more keenly still!