The stone shell of the gatehouse to site of the ancient seat of the Mackworth family is one of the most memorable sites in the County. Lying only a few hundred yards from the City boundary of Derby, it invariably excites interest from those who see it for the first time, and it has been drawn and painted numerous times by local artists as diverse as Frank Gresley and Ernest Townsend; it was also photographed at a very early date by the ubiquitous Richard Keene. Its picturesque qualities are enhanced by a row of early 18th century brick farm labourers’ cottages, originally thatched, attached to the right.
The reason it is called Mackworth Castle is because the name is entirely colloquial, applied to the existing gatehouse simply because it commands a castle-like air in the lane leading through the still largely unspoilt village. Many people actually do not realise that it is merely a rather grand gatehouse behind which once stood the seat of the Mackworth family, although what it was actually called when standing is far from clear – probably ‘the hall’ or similar. In surviving documents it is merely referred to as a ‘capital mansion’ which is fairly typical Medieval legalese for a manor house.
What we see today is a two storey three bay Keuper Sandstone crenelated gatehouse with a central depressed arch with ogiform crocketting executed in relief and a hood-mould above it. There are stepped buttresses either side of the central opening and at the angles, an impost band and a cornice below the crenelated parapet which winds round the slender bartizans at the angles and is punctuated by a row of three gargoyle spout heads. The windows were originally traceried, vestiges of which survived by the bricking up of the outer pair. Yet there is neither roof, nor on the north side any wall at all, only two later brick lean-tos put up in the last couple of centuries in order to provide storage for the Regency farm house built behind.
Originally there were side rooms with a two-chamber lodging for the gate keeper above, the large room being furnished with a fireplace with a projecting hood, finials and a castellated chimney above. Beside the fireplace is a corbel upon which to place a lamp. Dr. Emery, Britain’s foremost expert on Medieval Country houses is of the opinion that originally there was a rear wall, and visible vestiges of a low pitched roof, their dismantling in the 17th century possibly explaining the appearance of tooled ashlar blocks similar to those still in the building in a lean-to added to the adjoining cottages and to be found elsewhere round about.
A closely related gatehouse is that to Worksop Priory, also late 15th century which, although lacking the crenellations (it is today surmounted by what may be a 17th century gable and roof) is of the same general scale, with similarly placed buttresses and windows, although an elaborate traceried shrine to the right of the door relates solely to its religious use. That fronting the North Yorkshire Meynell’s ancient castle at Whorlton is also comparable, although slightly earlier and simpler, with less ornamentation.
Yet if this was a gatehouse, built in the third or fourth quarter of the fifteenth century (as its architecture clearly indicates) what happened to the house? A survey undertaken in 1900 identified two house platforms behind the gatehouse, but the reported position of these seems out of kilter with the extant building. More likely the distinct platform on which the present Castle Farm house rests is a more likely site. Here in 1888 some low rubble walling was found suggestive of a timber framed building on a rubble plinth. The inference is that there was a timber framed manor house and a group of the usual outbuildings on adjoining house platforms, raised up to cope with the occasional flooding of the Markeaton Brook, nearby, just as the Medieval stable block of Tudor Markeaton Hall, demolished in 1754, had been.
Mackworth family are recorded here at Mackworth from the first quarter of the 13th century. The first of the family to be called ‘de Mackworth’, Philip, was almost certainly a member of the family of Touchet of Markeaton, which included Mackworth, and he and several of his descendants were stewards to the Touchets, especially after they inherited the Barony of Audley of Heleigh, in Cheshire.
Several younger sons were also parsons, one being vicar on Longford and another rector of Kirk Langley; a third became a Prebendary of Peterborough Cathedral and Dean of Lincoln. Thomas Mackworth was, on 1st August 1404 the recipient of the earliest datable grant of arms in Derbyshire being allowed, on the authority of his feudal lord, John Touchet, Lord Audley, a shield bearing the arms of Touchet and Audley divided vertically by a jagged line (called dancettée in heraldic jargon) and with a red chevron superimposed bearing gold fretwork.
This Tomas, a lawyer and twice MP for Derby, without doubt lived in the timber framed manor house, the vestiges of which were recorded over a century ago in the farmyard of Castle Farm. He also managed to marry an heiress, in Alice, daughter of Sir John Basings of Empingham and Normanton in Rutland and heiress of her childless brother, another Sir John. On Thomas’s death in 1447, he was succeeded by his son Henry, who also held land at Ash (Etwall) and Trusley. Probably in the 1450s, he is thought to have begun improving his estate at Mackworth, starting by erecting the grandiose gatehouse we can still enjoy today, no doubt leaving rebuilding the house itself in matching style (and no doubt of much increased size) until phase two.
However, at this stage Sir John Basings the younger died, and Mackworth suddenly found himself unexpectedly possessed of a much larger landed estate in Rutland, and it became clear from surviving documents that he moved there quite soon afterwards. From that moment on, then, all thought of continuing work aggrandising his estate at Mackworth was put on hold – indefinitely as it turned out. He was indeed, appointed High Sheriff of Rutland in 1478, and died after 1481.
The family continued at Empingham Hall until the Civil War when, impoverished by loyalty to their sovereign, the family, raided to a baronetcy in 1619 had to sell up, explaining why the 5th Baronet was an apothecary in Huntingdon and why his cousin twice removed, Sir Henry 7th (and last) Bt., died penniless in the Charterhouse almshouse in London in 1803. Nevertheless, a distantly related branch living in Shropshire by the reign of Elizabeth, managed to work their way up, by being canny lawyers, talented entrepreneurs and by marrying heiresses, to landed estates of their own, centered upon Gnoll Castle in Glamorganshire (demolished in 1957), where Sir Herbert Mackworth was in 1776 also made a baronet, and whose descendant, Sir Digby, 10th Bt. lives in Oxfordshire. Other descendants of the Mackworths include the Mackworths of Buntingsdale, Salop and the Mackworth-Praed family.
Meanwhile, the Mackworths retained their estate in Derbyshire until 1655, when a demand for an enormous fine from the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding the estates of ‘delinquent’ persons (i.e. supporters of the King) prompted its sale. Ash went to Parliamentary supporter Sir Samuel Sleigh and the Mackworth estate was purchased by an opportunistic neighbour, Sir John Curzon, 1st Bt. of Kedleston for £1,300.
There is no record as to whether the old timber framed manor house survived, but it probably did, either divided as tenements or converted into a farmhouse, although the hearth tax assessment of 1670 offers no clue. Three farmhouses there then each had three taxable hearths, and any of them could have been a converted medieval manor house, a type notable for having very few hearths bar one in the great hall.
If it did survive, it was probably demolished and replaced after the 1778 land rationalisation between 1st Lord Scarsdale, who had inherited it, and Francis Noel Clarke Mundy of Markeaton Hall, who received it. Mundy was a great improver, and probably built the present farm house behind the gatehouse. Certainly, all knowledge of the history of the ancient house was lost even by 1713, when all William Woolley could write was ‘…here is the remains of an old castle.’
It really is about the most lost of all lost houses in the County!