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Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Bretby Castle

Lost Houses of Derbyshire – Bretby Castle

By Maxwell Craven

Like its Domesday Book twin, Newton Solney, Bretby is a total delight to visit, although much smaller and more sequestered, despite its closeness to the sprawling outer suburbs of Burton. Taking Bretby Lane out of Winshill one rises up onto the undulating higher ground south of the Trent and turns right into Mount Road, past the substantial walls of William Martin’s Bretby Farm and then left into the village. A few yards along on one’s left is a grassy triangle, at the apex of which stands the delightful St. Wystan’s Church, designed as a replacement for an ancient predecessor by T H. Wyatt for the Earl of Carnarvon of Bretby Hall and completed in 1877.

This preceding church, always a chapel-of-ease to the Priory Church at Repton, had started off as the domestic chapel of the original great house at Bretby, now usually referred to as Bretby Castle. The origin of this house  however, is far from straightforward. The land had come into the hands of William I from those of Earl Algar of Mercia as a result of the Conquest, but Domesday fails to tell us who his tenant was at Bretby. However, there is a moated site surviving higher up nearby which may represent the timber motte and bailey castle of whomsoever it was. By the later 12th century Bretby was held by the de Kyme family, of whom Philip de Kyme, in around 1210, granted it to Ranulph, 4th Earl of Chester, who was already lord of a major portion of Repton.  

Chester’s presence may, however suggest that the earlier moated site, if in fact a former small castle, was an adulterine one (that is, built without Royal Authority like the castles at Repton, Derby and Gresley) put up in a hurry when Ranulph’s grandfather, 2nd Earl of Chester, was trying to take advantage of the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda to pursue his separatist ambitions. Either way, the Earl did not hold on to Bretby for long, but at some date prior to 1228 granted it to Stephen de Segrave of Seagrave (sic), in Leicestershire, the manorial estate consisting of two manors, Bretby Collet and Bretby Preposita.

The Segraves had a perfectly good house already, so probably used the estate at Bretby for hunting and indeed, husbandry, for Nicholas de Segrave was granted a right of free warren (for harvesting rabbits for the table) by Edward I in 1291. There must have been a change of heart by the time his son John succeeded for, in 1301, he was granted a licence to crenellate a house there – that is, to build defensive walls – and it is a reasonable inference that this marked the beginning of Bretby Castle.

Norbury Church with the surviving medieval range of the great house to the left May 2015; They were once attached

The site lay on rising ground between Mount Road to the west and Knight’s Lane on the ridge to the north: an ideal, well drained south facing slope. Indeed if, having gone to visit the church, all you need to do is to stand at its NE angle and look across the considerable field, appropriately called Castlefields, and observe the large number of bumps, undulations and irregularities in the grass. 

It is unfortunate that we have no picture of the old house, but fortunately, when the present Bretby Hall was being built to the designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1813, Charles Burton, the agent to the then owner, the 5th Earl of Chesterfield, was sent to dig out the foundations, which were extensive and substantial enough to be worth getting out and re-using in the foundations of the new house, itself a replacement for the great Classical house, allegedly by Inigo Jones, which the 1st Earl had built from 1610 and which I described in these pages in January 2017.

Stephen Glover quotes Mr. Burton that, ‘on taking up the foundation of the castle walls’ found that it was ‘a building of great strength and consisted of two large courts’ – in other words it was a typical two courtyard defended house, undoubtedly of local Keuper Sandstone (there are two nearby quarries) of the sort that survives, in much grander form, at Haddon. For a knightly family, a two-courtyard house was de rigueur. Indeed, it probably had a close affinity with Norbury Manor as built, being contemporary and, as we discovered when I manged to persuade the National Trust to do a ground-penetrating radar archaeological survey in 2009, also built round two courtyards, although  the original building (also once physically attached to the impressive church) has mostly gone, only the eastern range of the upper courtyard surviving.

Arms of Lord Segrave

Archaeology seems to confirm that the house was moated (traces of the moat remain and the fourteenth century was the prime period for moat building for domestic purposes) and its lower court was without doubt entered via a stout defended gatehouse on the south side, like that which survives as Barton Blount (and later incorporated by Thomas Gardner into the Cromptons’ new house there). 

 Indeed, one might  well have expected such a house from John de Segrave, for he had been summoned to Parliament as 1st Lord Segrave in 1295 and later been appointed King’s Lieutenant in Scotland, being in 1314 taken prisoner at the Battle of Bannockburn for his pains. And although the church had been vested by Lord Chester in Repton Priory, it almost certainly was physically attached to Segrave’s new house as a chapel. 

John, Lord Segrave left only a daughter and sole heiress, Elizabeth, who married John Mowbray, who succeeded as 3rd Lord Mowbray in 1361. As Mowbray, whose son rose to be created Duke of Norfolk, was well fitted out with large houses, it would seem that the Segraves’ great mansion at Bretby ceased to be lived in permanently from this time and was perhaps used only in the winter for the hunting. John Mowbray, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, certainly signed various legal documents from Bretby so the house was still in occasional use. 

This last John Mowbray, however, left only a pair of daughters at his death in 1475, and the younger, Isabel, had Bretby settled on her. She had married 1st Lord Berkeley (who died in 1463) and their second son Maurice inherited and without doubt they lived at Bretby. The eldest son, William (who went on to become Viscount Berkeley, Earl of Nottingham and Marquess of Berkeley), inherited the family’s main seat at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, scene of the (allegedly unpleasant) demise of Edward II. Yet when he died without issue in 1492, after having exerted himself to place Henry VII on the throne a few years before, Maurice succeeded as 3rd Lord Berkeley and inherited Berkeley Castle and extensive lands in Gloucestershire and Somerset, once more rendering Bretby superfluous.

Maurice’s younger son, Sir Thomas Berkeley (knighted on the field of Flodden in 1513, having turned the tables on the Scots two centuries almost exactly after Bannockburn) probably also lived at Bretby whilst his elder brother lived, between 1506 and 1525, but on the latter year  he inherited the peerage and tried at first to exchange land in Somerset for more in Derbyshire, presumably to enable him to maintain a presence at Bretby, but this seems not to have gone through, although he did lease his fishponds to Sir John Porte in 1527.  

Certainly by 1554, Henry, Lord Berkely was not living at Bretby permanently and by 1569 was clearly not using it at all, for in that year he granted a lease to Thomas Duport of Shepshed for 41 years. Duport was a barrister, MP and Lord Berkeley’s legal adviser but died in 1592, when the lease seems to have been transferred to John Mee, who seems to have taken over from Duport as Berkeley’s fixer.

Nevertheless, despite having let the house, in 1585 Berkeley sold it and its two manorial estates to Sir Thomas Stanhope MP of Shelford, Notts., who probably acquired it at a discount as it was then being lived in by Mee with a lease with 25 years to run. Stanhope had married Margaret, daughter of Sir John Porte of Etwall who, as we have seen, was renting two large and highly productive fishponds from the Berkeleys. Stanhope, who impoverished himself subsequently by spending too much on rebuilding Shelford (and, presumably on acquiring Bretby) died in 1596, and the property came to his grandson, Philip on whom it was settled by his father Sir John Stanhope, who died in 1611.

  1610 was the year that Thomas Duport’s 41-year lease on the house expired and, at this juncture, Mee departed and Philip Stanhope duly took full possession and started work. First he received consent of the Crown to empark part of the estate and then he started work soon afterwards building his new house on the ridge to the south. He was also an active courtier, being created Lord Stanhope in 1616 and being advanced to the Earldom of Chesterfield in 1628; two year later, he moved into his grand new house. 

It must have been at this juncture that the old house was dismantled down to ground level. The supposition that it was demolished in 1610 to provide materials for its replacement seems unlikely, as Stanhope appears to have been occasionally signing papers from Bretby whilst it was building, suggesting that he was roosting in the old house until the new one was finished.

The chapel survived, for the new house did not acquire its frightfully grand chapel until 1696, but by then it would have long been separated from the lost house. Today, St. Wystan’s church stands on the same footprint (but not on the north side, where a side aisle and vestry were added by Wyatt) as its predecessor. 

The setting is delightful, an estate village par excellence, with a delightful school on the green which, like some of the Regency period houses and farms, is the work of Lord Chesterfield’s architect, William Martin, to whom Derby’s Henry Isaac Stephens was articled and whose daughter he married. We went there on the sunny second day of the year and were struck by the tranquillity of the place, the beauty of its setting and the attractiveness of the majority of its buildings. One could almost imagine the great house quietly dominating the scene, immediately east of the pretty church.


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