Some lost houses leave no trace behind, some fragments, some a wing or two incorporated into something else, and some, like the Manor at South Wingfield, end up as a stupendous ruin.
Wingfield Manor is just such a stupendous ruin, and one that never fails to amaze me once I go through the gate from the road. Its sheer size brings you up short for a moment, for here is a ruined house that once was as big as Haddon, but taller, as tall as Hardwick, but more spread out. Had it survived to the present intact, it would be a wonder of Europe and a serious rival to houses such as Penshurst.
The grandest houses in the 15th century, when most of what you see at Wingfield Manor was built, were constructed around two courtyards, as at Haddon and once upon a time at Codnor Castle. Yet it took from the 12th to the 16th century to complete Haddon as you see it today, whereas the importance of Wingfield is that it was conceived as a whole and built – more or less – for one man within just over two decades. Thus it is an architectural unity, one man’s vision.
The other architectural landmark at Wingfield is the seventy four foot High Tower. This, of five storeys, is only the second manifestation in Derbyshire of what one might call “high rise living”, a habit that was to take hold both here and in Nottinghamshire in a big way in the century following, reaching its apogee in houses like Hardwick, Worksop Manor and Bolsover Castle. The predecessor of the High Tower at Wingfield is Prior Overton’s Tower at Repton Hall – now part of the Headmaster’s House at Repton School.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that this splendid residence was built for someone of great consequence, and it was: Ralph, 3rd Lord Cromwell, Lord Treasurer of England. The Cromwells were a family of no particular wealth, who had held only dear old West Hallam after the Norman Conquest. Ralph’s enrichment came partly through winning a long legal case in 1439 by which he obtained, as joint-heir, Wingfield and its estate, and partly through what we might term the fruits of office. Sleaze was not then considered de trop!
Ralph was clearly an enthusiast for tall buildings, for he built another famous one – which also survives – at Tattershall Castle, in Lincolnshire, but this time, like Prior Overton’s, in brick.
In 1441 building work began under John Entrepas, Lord Cromwell having first cleared the site of the ancient house of his predecessors, the de Heriz family and thought to have been built a century and a half before by Roger de Paveley on the site of what might have been an adulterine (i.e., unofficial) 12th century castle dating from the war between Stephen and Matilda.
Heriz had also laid out hunting parkland around his house, certainly one to the north which a descendant gave to the Abbey of Darley and rented back, the charter concerning which gives us a clear insight into its extent. Indeed, that document set against the present topography, helped save South Wingfield from an opportunist building an estate of 80 odd houses within it at a recent planning appeal. The little park to the east (now mainly built over) and the huge great park to the south, extending to the Ripley Ambergate Road, were either laid out by the de Heriz family or by Ralph Cromwell.
The house itself is built of local stone – Ashover Grit from Crich and Ashover Moor for the best ashlar work the masons, could produce, and Wingfield Flags, a type of Coal Measures sandstone, for the coarser work and the roofing. The High Tower was to house guests and was also put in place as an elevated hunting platform from which the ladies could watch the menfolk at the chase. In winter, this was the only viable way to obtain fresh meat. A second tower, now mainly demolished, was provided at the NE angle to aid people watching the hunt in the northern park.
The house was not finished when Cromwell died in 1455, and it passed by sale to John Talbot, 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury, already a major Derbyshire landowner. He managed to occupy it by 1458, so that the entire magnificent structure was completed within 17 years, which was quite an achievement. There are even surviving records of him hunting the parks, and it may well be that he acquired the house and estate specifically for this purpose.
It is well known, and hardly bears repeating here, that the estate later passed to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the unwilling gaoler of Mary, Queen of Scots – a man who was in the invidious position of being beholden to a jealous Queen: Elizabeth I (and her efficient intelligence network) and a jealous wife: the larger-than-life matriarch, Bess of Hardwick. The Scots queen’s apartments are said to be those one encounters immediately beyond the High Tower.
Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl, the heir, died without a son, so the huge Derbyshire estates including South Wingfield, were split three ways between the daughters and their husbands. Thus one of them, the Earl of Arundel (later Duke of Norfolk) got the house and 1000 acres of park.
During the Civil War the house was taken for the King in December 1643 by the ‘Loyall’ Duke of Newcastle, and held by a garrison under Col. Dalby – who undertook a great deal of raiding from there – until well into the year following when, after several fruitless attempts to dislodge them, Sir John Gell, the county Parliamentary commander, managed to borrow some seriously superior ordnance, breach the walls and re-take the house.
After the war, the Duke of Norfolk sold the house – which, apart from bombardment damage had been partly dismantled on the orders of Parliament in 1646 – to his steward, the Cumbrian Immanuel Halton FRS. He was one of the pioneers of algebra, obsessed by the measurement of time, and a keen amateur astronomer. He it was who took Derby’s John Flamsteed under his wing as a lad and taught him algebra and changed his tastes from astrology to astronomy.
He left much of the house to decay – it was far too big for a minor gentleman and far too expensive to repair fully. To make a house for himself, he re-roofed the great hall (putting on a flat roof, and leaving the original tall gables sticking up like the ribs of a well stripped roast boar) and divided it where the transoms of the windows ran with a new floor and turned the whole thing into a convenient five-bay gentleman’s house. You can still see the holes where the beams used to support his floor.
In pursuit of his obsession with time, he also scattered around the house numerous vertical sundials, of which only two remain, neglected and un-conserved by English Heritage, today’s guardians of the site, the freehold of which still belongs to the farming family here, and who long occupied much of the central range as their house.
Indeed, after 1774, their farm house was all that remained habitable on the site, for in that year another Immanuel Halton pulled down much of the house to build a new one across the valley, the mildly Gothick and mildly eccentric Wingfield Hall, which clings precariously (as it would seem from the vantage point of the Manor) to the south slope of the hill opposite. Thereafter the rest was left to the rooks.
The house still dominates the village, which was moved to its present site after the climate change in the early/mid14th century, which made the original location by church near the river uninhabitable – indeed, the church still does get surrounded by floodwater to the present day, so if the climate really does revert to pre 14th century levels those charged with its care may very well feel relieved!
The house also dominates its parks, all clearly traceable through decayed park pales and place names (Park Head, Park Farm etc.) and it is remarkable how little changed the landscape is after more than five centuries and dis-emparkation, which took place between the 1690s and the 1750s. Overall, agriculture has done little fundamental damage. So important is the landscape that it really ought to receive designation from Historic England. If nothing else it would flag up its importance and might also help to see off any further attempts to pepper it with gimcrack houses.
When I first went there with the late Roy Hughes in the mid-1970s, you had to leave your car on the roadside verge and walk across two fields to reach the manor, running the gauntlet in the process of the late Mr. Sam Critchlow, who frequently did his best to deter visitors! There were no facilities on site whatsoever.
I am old fashioned enough to be very grateful that EH have not really developed the site, for it retains its charm thereby. Indeed I doubt whether Wingfield Manor will ever get the full ‘make over’ from EH until the site acquires an enthusiastic owner although such a makeover would probably ruin the whole rather magical experience of visiting.
As it is, it comprises the lost hunting lodge of the Earls of Shrewsbury and the entire lost house of the Halton family: two in one – quite an achievement!
Illustrations for this story in order of appearance:
Halton’s place: the entrance to the Great Hall, adapted after the Civil War as a rather grand family home by the Duke of Norfolk’s former steward, Immanuel Halton.[EH P/C]
The outer court, photographed c., 1900 for a coloured lithographic post-card [M. Craven]
The undercroft, below the great hall and entirely intact: a magnificent space. [EH P/C]
Great Hallo: interior photographed by Richard Keene c. 1860 showing the stripped interior, left as it was c. 1772 by the last Halton after the Hall was completed. Note the joist holes where the Haltons had inserted two floors into the great vaulted space and divided windows [M Craven].
General view from the entrance. The high tower, from which almost the entire Great Park can be surveyed, is on the right. [EH P/C]
The north and part of the West side of Wingfield Manor Farm a painting by Thomas Smith of Derby c. 1740, showing the NW tower and the surviving fishpond. [Derby Museums Trust]