Two houses with a claim to having had an influence on the development of the United States of America are within reasonable distance of Ripon for a day’s visit. One was the home to a 17th-century pioneer; the other was the power base of an aristocrat who eventually saw Britain’s American colonies lost to independence.
First, let’s go north to Kiplin Hall. In many ways it is a typical late-Elizabethan or early-Jacobean house. Built of red brick, it has echoes of more famous contemporary mansions, like Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, Blickling Hall in Norfolk and Aston Hall in Birmingham. It is of red brick with stone dressings; it has some pattern-work – diapers – in a more purple-tinged brick; it has towers (unusually, not at the corners but on each side) with lead ogee caps.
Because the house – begun in 1625 – is almost square, it has a more castle-like air than many of its contemporaries. It’s not quite so easy to tell that these days, as it has had additions, in particular a new library wing added in a classical style in 1818 by the minor architect Peter Frederick Robinson. This was Gothicised (and given a sumptuous new interior) in 1879 by William Eden Nesfield, who for a time was in partnership with the great Victorian architect Richard Norman Shaw. Many of the house’s interiors now have an 18th- or 19th-century look.
For whom was this special, if not architecturally top-drawer, building constructed? George Calvert (a good North Yorkshire name) was a recognisable type of upwardly-mobile middle-class stock. His father rented land at Kiplin, and educated his sons well. George went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in law in 1597; by 1603 he was private secretary to Sir Robert Cecil (Later the Earl of Salisbury), who was King James I’s chief Secretary of State, and owner of Hatfield. Calvert’s rise was rapid; after some hush-hush missions to Europe for the crown, he was knighted, and in 1691 he, too, was appointed a Secretary of State.
With his political rise came wealth; he was given 6,000 acres of land in Co Longford, Ireland, by the King, and he bought 600 acres of land at Kiplin. He also invested almost £25,000 – a huge sum – in a colony in Newfoundland that he (rather romantically) named Avalon. At much the same time he began his house at Kiplin, no doubt influenced by his old boss’s Hatfield House, which was started in 1611.
In 1625 he set out to Avalon with his new wife; by now he had reverted to the Catholic faith of his ancestors and retired from government work; King James rewarded him with the title of Baron Baltimore of Co Longford. The couple moved on from Avalon to settle in Virginia, and then asked the new King, Charles I, for new lands. In 1632 he was given land a little to the north of Virginia, which he called Maryland after Queen Henrietta Maria. George Calvert then died, and his brother took over Maryland. The capital of the state was called after the family title, Baltimore. From then until the death of the 6th Baron Baltimore in 1771 the family divided their time between Kiplin and their Maryland properties.
You could argue that the influence that the Calverts had on America was localised and, though of importance to Maryland, not nationally significant. The same might be said, in architectural terms, for Kiplin Hall. Our second day-trip property, though, was a bigger player in both areas – politically and architecturally.
Charles Watson Wentworth, the Second Marquess of Rockingham, lived at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham. The house he occupied is vast. Its east front is more than 600 feet long – the longest of any British country house. It is, in fact, two houses – one, now the west front, started in the late 1720s in the Baroque style, and the other, in the Palladian style, started in the 1730s, as a back-to-back with the first. It is a very odd arrangement, but produced a house of great distinction.
The Marquess of Rockingham was just as distinguished. A man of vast wealth from the coal on his lands, he served twice as Whig Prime Minister, first from 1765, when he was 35, to 1766, and again in 1782, when he died in office. Much of his time as head of the government was occupied with the American colonies. He was generally in favour of the colonies having self-government. He repealed the unpopular Stamp Act of his predecessor, which stopped the colonists from buying British goods and, though he said that the British had the right to tax the colonists, he did not enforce the right. He also tried to introduce a new legislative system for the American colonies, but met too much opposition in parliament to get it through.
Much of the political discussion on these problems happened at Wentworth Woodhouse. It was a house for political purposes; the great sweep of state rooms (a succession of interiors described by Pevsner as ‘not easily matched anywhere in England’) was intended to impress the voters of Yorkshire (in Rockingham’s time that meant about 15,000 men of property) into voting for the Whig candidates. It is said that our American cousins know more about Wentworth Woodhouse, because of their admiration for the Marquess’s American policies, which eventually led to independence, than we do in Yorkshire. It is certainly true that for the last forty year or so Wentworth Woodhouse has been ‘off the radar’ of visitors.
Now, though, like Kiplin Hall, it is opening its doors to the public. Unlike Kiplin, Wentworth Woodhouse is not open a great deal, though there are open days in the season – check the website for dates; it is also open to organised groups, by arrangement. A visit to both properties will introduce you to some good, even great, buildings, and give you a little insight into the sort of men who helped to develop that great nation across the Atlantic.
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