On the vast, exuberant and lavishly decorated monument in Derby Cathedral to Bess of Hardwick is an inscription, lauding the late Derbyshire grande dame, which includes the lines:
‘This most illustrious Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, built the houses of Chatsworth, Hardwick and Oldcotes, highly distinguished by their magnificence.’
In fact, this is only some of what she was instrumental in building or rebuilding, for it makes no reference to her hunting lodge at Blackwall-in-the-Peak, nor of her impressive town house in Derby Market Place, nor of various other family enterprises in which she was in one way or another involved.
Chatsworth, of course, and the two houses she built at Hardwick are well known, but what of Oldcotes, today rendered as Owlcotes?
Oldcotes was part of the estate of the very grand family of Savage of Stainsby, and was held under them by the Hardwicks of Hardwick, and thus became the property of Bess of Hardwick on the death of her brother James, whose father also bought out the Savage interest. It was when her son by Sir William Cavendish came of age, that she resolved to build a new house there for him, he being her favourite son.
Bess made William Cavendish payments between 1593 and 1597 for the construction of this house, which was going up concurrently with new Hardwick just a couple of miles away. It is thought that the architect for the house was without doubt Robert Smythson, then working on Hardwick and who also designed Wollaton for the Willoughbys and Worksop Manor (another lost house, but in Nottinghamshire) for Bess’s fourth husband, the much put upon George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Smythson also designed Bess’s monument in Derby Cathedral, all made and paid for nine years before it was required!.
The contract for the stonework at Oldcotes is dated March 1593, and involved six men already working under Smythson at Hardwick. The new house also appears to have included part of its predecessor, as at Hardwick Old Hall, was two rooms deep, had two turrets with a 20 foot high great hall. As no ashlar work was involved, it was clearly to be constructed of coursed rubble, and it was to be finished in eight months – that is, by January 1594. As Bess was still giving further subsidies to William of £100 five years later, we may be sure that, like all builders, they fell behind on the job, and furthermore, that Bess having a reputation for changing her mind in mid-contract (witness the chaotically planned old hall at Hardwick) delays were also thus incurred .
Clearly the house was considerably smaller and simpler than Hardwick, but that notwithstanding, the Pierrponts (its owners in 1670 when the assessment was made) still had to pay tax on 48 hearths there, the same total as Haddon, and exceeded in Derbyshire only by Bretby, Chatsworth and Hardwick.
A drawing for an unknown house in the RIBA Smythson Collection is generally thought to represent Oldcotes as built, and shows a two storey house on a high plinth, with a three storey two bay centrepiece supported on a three bay loggia and topped with shaped strapwork, with a raised portion behind supporting a group of chimney stacks.
The house then – most unusually, even for Smythson – receded back in three stages, as the drawing clearly implies with its return cornices appearing to overlap the following bays, implying recession. Most of Smythson’s houses receded from the edges to the middle and allowed the centre section to advance. An exception is Chastleton, Oxfordshire.
There was a cornice over each floor at lintel height and a balustrade on top. A three storey tower was added at each end in the middle of the return elevation (as at Hardwick). Like Hardwick, the windows were all tall, multi-section, mullioned and transomed ones, the largest one of fifteen lights each. It may be, of course, that inside, there were more than two storeys, as at Hardwick and Bolsover, where the changes in level frequently bear little resemblance to the external regularity of the fenestration. We can also be sure that the 20 ft high hall would have run through the house from front to back, as at Hardwick, then a new and innovative feature in great houses, with an elaborate carved stone or timber screen with a gallery upon it.
A map of 1609 by William Senior also appears to show the house as two storeys, although the representation is rather formulaic and uninformative, rendering it impossible to be certain whether what we are seeing is the same as the RIBA drawing or not. Nevertheless, a further map, of 1659, now in the Manvers archive at Nottingham University Library, certainly does show the house as it then was. This image, however, comes as something of a surprise as it shows the house with three storeys.
This suggests that the house was raised by a storey (except the centrepiece) some time between 1609 and 1659. As it was sold, with its estate to Robert Pierrepont of Holme Pierrepont and Thoresby, 1st Earl of Kingston, in 1641, one might expect that this was done subsequent to that date, but the fact that the Civil War was then raging, followed by the uneasy calm of the Commonwealth, throughout the time between the Pierrepont’s purchase and the 1659 map, the suggestion might seem hard to countenance. More likely it was done by the future 2nd Earl of Devonshire, who lived there before his father’s death in 1626 and was a fairly extravagant young man, who lived in great state.
If this suggestion is tenable, then the architect for the enlarging of the house would almost certainly have been John Smythson, Robert’s son, then building for Devonshire’s cousin, Lord Newcastle at Bolsover. It is a shame we have no better image of the place. It is thought that the gabled house in front of the main façade of Oldcotes on the 1659 map is the rebuilt previous house, called the Old House in the inventories.
After the house was sold to Lord Kingston, his younger son William lived there, followed by another brother, George and then George’s son, Henry. When he died unmarried in 1674, his brother Samuel succeeded him, dying, similarly without children, in 1707. On his death there was much confusion about the true inheritor of the estate, but in the end it reverted to the head of the family, in the person of Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl and (by then) 1st Duke of Kingston. It remained with them and their heirs, the Earls Manvers until 1931 when Owldcote was sold off as a working farm.
Meanwhile, however, following Samuel’s death, there had been much activity at Oldcotes, where the agent (and Samuel’s executor) Edward Neville, seems to have set about demolishing the old mansion, whilst at the same time building himself a rather more modest new house (New Hall, he called it) on the West side of Shire Lane, including elements of architectural pretension which the late Pamela Kettle reckoned were re-used from the old house. This house still survives, albeit somewhat altered, now called High House Farm.
On the site of the demolished house, or at least on that of the so-called Old House, to its south, rose a new vernacular farmhouse, Owlcotes Farm which probably incorporated considerable elements of both Oldcotes and the Old House, although nothing in the nature of an architectonic vestige can be seen in the mean unpretentious exterior, although a stone shell niche still lurks in a nearby wall.
Beyond that, little or nothing remains. Yet, in say, 1700, had one had looked from the battlements of Bolsover Castle, one would have seen on the surrounding hills, Hardwick (old and new), Oldcotes, old Sutton Scarsdale and Barlborough (also by Robert Smythson), a striking and memorable succession of eminences crowned with great houses, where now the M1 with its ceaseless traffic, roars along the valley floor. But these numberless travellers may notice occasionally Hardwick, and perhaps Bolsover, on its hill above the town like a German schloss, but they probably miss the eyeless shell of (new) Sutton Scarsdale and of Oldcotes, no vestige can be seen at all. All we have is that tantalising boast on Bess of Hardwick’s funerary inscription on Derby Cathedral.
Sic transit Gloria mundi.