To Chatsworth And How Mary Ann Went To The Ball


So here we have a fine contrast between the Fox family’s tenanted property at Callow Farm, a few miles uphill and upstream in the Derwent valley, and the landlordly premises that ate up farm rents and lead mining royalties and employed armies of local craftsmen and servants.

This, then, is Chatsworth House, the place called home by the Cavendish family, otherwise known as the Dukes of Devonshire. It is one of England’s most imposing stately piles, these days run by the Cavendish family as a charitable trust, and caught here so flatteringly in the October sun. The setting alone is magnificent.

And so how does it come to be here. Whose money built it?

The answer is somewhat convoluted – successive generations of royal patronage is part of it. But so too is Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir and his subsequent break from the Catholic Church, one result of which was the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

If you have ever wondered what happened to the amassed wealth of some 900 monastic estates during Henry’s big 1530s campaign to liquidate holy assets and usurp papal domination, then Chatsworth is one place to look. William Cavendish, courtier and royal employee was a man with a good head for figures and a strong survival instinct, though he did slip up badly in the end.

For a time he held a post in the  Exchequer. In 1530 he was also one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners who visited the monasteries to audit their wherewithal and demand its surrender to the Crown. This included the lead off the roofs, which would have been worth a fortune by itself, and its stripping key to the physical dissolving of monastic edifices, which disintegration happened pretty soon after the weather got in.

It is said William took unfair advantage of this appointment. On top of this he was officially rewarded by the king with a knighthood and estates in Hertfordshire. He continued to enjoy royal favour even as his former boss, Cromwell, fell from grace (and was beheaded). Cavendish was despatched to Ireland to repeat the property assessing exercise. When Henry died he remained in the young Edward VI’s court and was granted still more monastic land. He even managed to hang on when Mary Tudor succeeded (he having paved the way by sending the Lady Mary tokens of loyalty before her accession). When she returned the nation to the Catholic Church he conformed and so gained a post as her Treasurer of the Chamber (1546-1553). It was here he rather over-reached himself. In late 1557 when the auditors arrived in Westminster to discover what he had been doing while in office all those years, they found the accounts in a shambles. Sir William was accused of embezzlement. He then died pretty much at once thereby avoiding further unseemly exposure, but begging for clemency for himself and his family.

It was during his years of service to Mary Tudor that he married for the third time – a rich young Derbyshire widow, Elizabeth Barley. She would later become [in]famously known as four times married ‘Bess of Hardwick’. She wanted to live in her native Derbyshire and so Sir William sold up all his monastic acquisitions and in 1549 bought the then lowly manor of Chatsworth for £600. Thus began the massive building of the first Cavendish family seat, which was only completed by Elizabeth after Sir William’s death. She would later go on to build the even more astonishing Hardwick Hall. She also the founder of the Cavendish Chatsworth dynasty, bearing 8 children during her marriage to Sir William.


Thereafter the heirs sought and bought titles, including the Earldom of Devonshire, and it was the 4th Earl who gained a further step up by being rewarded with the dukedom (1694) – this for his part in bringing Protestant William and Mary to the English throne. It was also  the 1st Duke who went in for some massive rebuilding, including most of what we see today. He began by adding more family rooms and the extravagant State Apartment for receiving the new monarchs. Once started, however, no frontage could be left untouched. He also had the formal gardens laid out on a jaw-dropping scale. This included the famous Cascade, though he lived to enjoy its creation for only four years after its completion in 1703.


The 4th Duke (1720-64) decided the house should have westerly approach, which meant demolishing the 1st Duke’s stables since they interfered with the view. He also relocated the village of Edensor where his staff and tenants lived, so it too did not spoil the view. Architect James Paine was commissioned to build the new stables we see today plus a new bridge upstream of the house.



And Capability Brown was engaged to make the now enclosed park look more ‘natural’. In the meantime the Duke found a vastly rich heiress to marry and acquired  even more property and family titles.

The 5th Duke was famous for marrying celebrated beauty and socialite, Lady Georgiana Spencer. They lived in London but had lots of jolly house parties at Chatsworth. They also lived happily in a menage a trois with Georgiana’s best friend Lady Elizabeth Foster. The 6th Duke never married, but nearly bankrupted the estate with all his ‘improvements’. These included funding plant expeditions around the globe and having his head gardener Joseph Paxton construct the Emperor Fountain (85 metre/280 feet of jet). The fountain meant draining the upland moor into an 8-acre man-made reservoir on the high ground above the house.

On the day we visited the jet was on short measures due to the high wind.


The 7th Duke (1808-1891) was apparently a sober successor to the Batchelor Duke, a sad widower who lost his wife when she was only in her twenties. For thirty years he maintained strict economies in the running of the estate. Our family legend has it that my great grandmother Mary Ann opened the tenants’ ball with him one year, she as the eldest daughter of the oldest tenant family on the estate. He is said to have remarked to her on her family’s long presence in the locality, far longer than his own, he said. He would have been quite elderly at the time, and Mary Ann perhaps in her late teens or very early twenties. The blue silk covered  buttons from the dress she wore were apparently kept down the generations, and still in my grandmother’s sewing basket when my mother inherited it. I’m not sure if I have a real memory of seeing them or not. Anyway, it was not long after this that Mary Ann ran off with the Bolton spindle manufacturer, and had her more usual  bright print country dresses scoffed at by the dark clad women of Farnsworth.

When we went around the house we had hoped to see the ballroom, but when Graham asked the attendant she said it was in the family’s private quarters and had been turned into a theatre. And as for the interior rooms we did see, and the severe outbreak of aggravation they induced in me, they and it will have to wait till the next post. For now, here’s the Emperor Fountain making a rainbow, which we very much enjoyed.


copyright 2018 Tish Farrell


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54 thoughts on “To Chatsworth And How Mary Ann Went To The Ball

  1. Lovely pics Tish. I visited a long time ago and have been through Edensor (pronounced Enser by locals I believe) a few times. The village is still owned by the Devonshires and all the residents have to have their exterior doors and windows painted the same colour – a rather nice air force blue last time I was there. Loving your Derbyshire odyssey. I often think it’s a neglected county, that even many Brits would forget if asked to name an English county. I’m glad you’re putting that balance to rights with these posts

    1. Glad you’re enjoying these posts, Lynn. I get the impression Sheffield folk have laid claim in a big way – the moors were alive with humanity on weekends. It’s great people can get there by bus; handy bus stops everywhere.

      1. Funny, isn’t it? How people from out of an area lay claim to it. At Weston Super Mare, it seems to be mainly the Welsh and Brummies that visit – those same accents everywhere!

  2. As always, it is fascinating to read your historical descriptions, Tish. Somehow you have the ability to make it all come to life for the reader. Loved it!

  3. I know it’s impressive, but the older I get, the less impressed I am by gigantic houses that look like no place I would want to live. There’s something so cold about them, so un-cozy. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine living in a place like that. It looks like an institution. A very well planted one. I like the stables better than the house.

    1. Wait till you see the inside. I was quite infuriated by the time we’d finished. The whole edifice built to impress and lay claim to acquired and unwarranted status.

  4. What a marvellous history lesson and I love that your family had a very small part in it. Do I take it that the buttons are now a thing of the past? Although I enjoy visiting NT places – mainly for the gardens – I find that I get more and more annoyed about the huge social gap between the classes in the past and the arrogance of the aristocrats (even now!). How impertinent they are to want to move an entire village just because it spoils the view!

    1. We feel the same about NT properties. They usually omit to say how the wealth was created, stealing being quite a common source; slaving or slave ownership never mentioned. And yes, impertinent moving of village indeed – though this was very common at that time. Also making tunnels around the park so they didn’t have to see the workers. Sadly the buttons have gone too.

  5. When we holidayed in Derbyshire I was so looking forward to visiting Chatsworth. When we got there and saw the prices! Turned around and drove out (it was covered in scaffolding as well)

    1. £21 per adult plus £4 parking if you didn’t book on line. The only reason we took the plunge was because we knew we wouldn’t do it again. On the other hand, you could have spent an entire day in the park and garden. And it took 2 hours to go round the house, and we weren’t dawdling. And it did open my eyes to the senseless greed and need to display it enjoyed by some members of the human race. Which was the point when I grew very ratty with the whole thing.

      1. Yes some of these stately houses are a bit much. The Holkham estate here in nth Norfolk for instance, where I went bird / butterfly watching yesterday they charge £3.50 for two hours or £6.50 for four hours parking near the beach/woodland. The only alternative is to park nearly two miles away!

      2. I dare say it helps conserve places from over-use, but it’s being cut off from the landscape in the sense that someone else is dictating terms that I find frustrating and sad too.

      3. Not really saved from over use, in the summer/ holiday periods you can hardly get near the places for people! It’s one of those ‘must be seen at spots’ the Chelsea- on- Sea set adore so much. The estate must make an absolute fortune in parking fees alone. A few years back and this time of the year and it was free. I hate to go bird watching knowing I have to return by a certain time and the car parks are strictly monitored.

  6. Wealth and power do seem to corrupt, in every epochand every place. Like many, I’ve lost any ability to be impressed by privilege and opulence. I am intrigued by your comment about the interior now!!

  7. This was a fascinating read Tish. Instead of a BBC period drama I got a glimpse of the real thing. The wealth beggars belief. And the moving of entire villages for a better view! – breathtaking entitlement. It must have been an amazing life being one of those people who lived at Chatsworth in those days.

    1. Many thanks, Alison. They certainly were extraordinary times in terms of wealth display. The gentry moving inconvenient villages was quite a common activity too. It happened everywhere in the 18th century with the creation of the great parks around grand houses. Unspeakable lot really. Now the rich hide their money in tax havens so we can’t see it!

  8. A great tale of a legacy of greed, corruption, tenacity and I’ll-gotten gains. I think they probably leave our business leaders and politicians looking like learners in the corruption stakes. I wonder where the buttons disappeared too and how excited your ancestor Mary Ann must’ve been to be the chosen one. I do admire Elizabeth Barley, wow 8 children and 4 times married as well as all the building projects. Quite a woman before her time.

    1. I do so agree about the ill-gotten gains, Pauline. And yes ‘Bess of Hardwick’ – of humble origins yet became the most powerful woman in England next to the queen.

  9. Fascinating post, Tish. I love the “backstory” of the monastic land. Is it debated whether Henry VIII wanted the papal assets as much as the ability to re-marry when he broke with the church?

    1. I think it was perhaps more opportunism after the event than original intention. He certainly needed cash. I read that it was Cromwell’s idea that the monastic wealth should go into the Government Exchequer. Henry, however, wanted it to build coastal defences against the invasions he was expecting. Also doling out former monastic estates to secure courtier loyalty was also handy for an increasingly paranoid monarch.

  10. I so enjoyed this peek into history, Tish, and your family’s intersection with this national treasure. I am looking forward to hearing more about your perception of the inner rooms.

  11. Fascinating as always, Tish. I have to admit that I do love a good castle or palace, perhaps because we don’t have much that is similar in the US. I think Americans tend to be enthralled by such “piles.” I have read a wonderful series of mysteries about a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, who works for Cromwell (not willingly) during the dissolution of the monasteries. I learned so much about the period. The author’s name is C. J. Sansom. I recommend them. Looking forward to next post.

  12. A marvelous chapter of history… maybe a few chapters, and all the more charming knowing that you and your forebearers lived in the same vicinity, and you represent them so well. We all have a chance at life, and as most know, wealth is no guarantee of success.

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