The estate at Foremark, where once the invading Vikings over-wintered in 783-784, was granted to Nigel de Stafford,a (genuine) comrade-in-arms of the Conqueror and ancestor in the male line of the Stafford, Longford and Gresley families. His family’s later sub-tenant was a junior member of the powerful de Ferrers family, whence it passed through an heiress to Bertram de Verdon, a substantial south Derbyshire land holder, in the later twelfth century. In 1387 the de Verdons sold it to Sir Robert Franceys, one of whose descendants two centuries later married the heiress of his close relations, the Franceys family of neighbouring Ticknall.
The family seat then was at Knowle Hill, on a plateau at the top of the west edge of the ravine, in which lay the later house there, which I wrote about in these pages just over three years ago. It is presumed to have been a timber framed courtyard house; the surviving remnant of the present house lies on the footprint of the east range of its predecessor.
Jane, daughter and heiress of William Franceys of Foremark married in 1602 Thomas Burdett of Bramcote – not the Bramcote down the end of the A52 from Derbv in Nottinghamshire, but that near Polesworth in Warwickshire, albeit not so very far from the SW edge of Derbyshire. The Burdetts, who originated at Lowesby in Leicestershire, had been at Bramcote since 1327, but the couple decided to live at Foremark in an old stone house that the Franceys family had built in Queen Elizabeth’s time.
Thomas was High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1610, and in 1619 was created a baronet, taking his title from his ancestral estate at Bramcote – mainly because his father-in-law was still alive at that time, and to be ‘of Foremark’ would have been more than a trifle presumptuous!
It was their son Sir Franceys, who seems to have set about rebuilding or enlarging the house at the Restoration. He also replaced the parish church of St. Saviour at the same time, positioning it a few yards due east of the house, to serve almost as a domestic chapel as well as for spiritual nourishment of the villagers of Foremark and Milton. We are fortunate in that a painting, attributed to Jacob Esselins and believed to be of this house, was sold at Christie’s in May 1998. It was painted around 1665, so the building was then largely new, although very traditional in style, probably dictated by the portions of the existing house that Sir Franceys wished to include.
The house we see was of locally quarried Keuper Sandstone, U-plan with four straight coped gables, the central pair recessed over the great hall – almost certainly a hangover from the Franceys’ house – divided by a chimneystack. The western cross wing terminated in a matching gable with six and three light mullioned windows, whilst its counterpart of the east of the façade was clearly of the later build, with mullion and transom cross windows throughout. The west front also appears to have had two further gables like the other, coped and with ball finials.
The stables (replaced in the 1720s by the present range) were also on this west side and the whole ensemble was set within a wall pierced by a pair of imposing gate piers (clearly of Sir Franceys’ day) from which one descended into the forecourt. In 1713 William Woolley described it as ‘large and convenient with a large well wooded park and coney warren adjoining.’ In 1662 it was assessed on a substantial 24 hearths for tax purposes. Regrettably, there is no hint as to the interior, bar an enumeration of the rooms in an inventory.
The church (listed grade I) may have been begun during the Civil War, for a sundial dated 1650 graces the exterior but, unlike Sir Robert Shirley at Staunton Harold, Sir Franceys clearly did not risk continuing until the return of better times; the building was sufficiently complete to be dedicated in 1662. There are two other sundials, too, and the four bells are by George Oldfield and bear various dates between 1660 and 1668. The east end has the arms of the family above the Gothic window, surrounded by positively Elizabeth carved strapwork, despite the late date.
Inside, there are box pews, a delightful arcaded oak screen, probably locally carved in a style well out of date by 1660, a medieval font, a timber altar with a later Hoptonwood stone top and in 1710 ironsmith Robert Bakewell added a pretty communion rail, and a splendid pair of iron gates under an elaborate overthrow at the east end through which the Burdetts had to pass on their way to worship. The gallery was only installed in 1819.
Whilst Sir Franceys Burdett’s house stood, the three, house, park and church, could be read together as a coherent ensemble, and in a particularly fine setting.
Sir Robert Burdett, 3rd Bt. was a long serving MP and was thrice married, although of his five sons only one survived but even he managed to pre-decease his father by two months. Hence, by the time of his death in 1716 aged 76, his younger brother Walter was expected to succeed to the title, but Sir Robert seems to have been a game old soul, for Elizabeth, his widow, was pregnant when he died in the January, and was duly delivered of a boy in May, named after his father and who succeeded at birth.
This Sir Robert came of age in 1737, and it is thought that the fête champêtre depicted that year by Thomas Smith of Derby in front of the ancient heritage by the river at Ingleby on the estate was held to mark his coming-of-age. The caves there were enlarge at about this time to enable such convivial events to be made more convenient, just as Knowle Hill was demolished and rebuilt as a folly by Sir Robert in the 1760s for similar reasons. The year after this party, he was High Sheriff of the county, and elected MP for Tamworth.
In 1757, Sir Robert decided to replace the old house with something more modish and convenient, and commissioned David Hiorne of Warwick, who succeeded to the practice of Francis and William Smith to design it. Work, however, did not begin until 1759, the old house being suffered to remain until work finished in 1762. Unfortunately, Hiorne died in 1759, and the work was thereafter supervised with meticulous attention by his clerk of works, the young Joseph Pickford, later of Derby, who even as work progressed was networking like mad, and quote for the building of a new house at Soho, Birmingham, in 1760 for Matthew Boulton, which was built, but subsequently heavily modified in the 1790s by the Wyatts.
Not only did Pickford demolish the old house in 1762, but the original parkland was swept away, by Pickford’s friend the landscaper William Emes, newly come from Kedleston and who turned freelance in the same year, 1760. The diarist Lord Torrington, a trenchant critic later wrote of Hiorne’s house and Emes’s park (which today looks stunning, despite some attrition by agriculture and the demands of school life): ‘of vile architecture and in a bad situation; in front there is a paltry pond with pitiful plantations.’ But then, he was an enthusiast for Neo-Classical architecture, not the staid late Palladianism of the present house. Likewise, the park was just 30 years since inception: it still needed to reach its maturity.
Sir Robert, meanwhile, lived on to 1797, dying aged 80, having over seen the destruction of his family’s original house and the re-landscaping of its park. His ancient seat at Bramcote was demolished by his father and replaced by a delightful compact brick Queen Anne house, but the Warwickshire estate was sold by the 8th (and last) baronet in 1919 (the house is a long-standing building at risk and now is essentially ruinous) and the Foremark estate was sold on his death in 1951, by which time it had been let as a prep school, which it remains to this day.