Although there are the grand tapestries, Great Hall and Long Gallery, as well as all the trappings of magnificence, there are corners of Haddon Hall that do not feel like a grand and glorious Country House. They simply feel like home. Being midwinter, I think we may have seen the interior, at least, at its best… though I would love to see the gardens in summer. Roaring fires, the scent of pine and woodsmoke hanging, heavy as incense, in the air of low-ceilinged rooms, all make the place welcoming and ‘human’ in some indefinable way.
As you wander through these rooms, you begin to wonder about the people who lived here. Not as figures who wrote their names in the annals of history at both local and national levels, but as people… human beings with lives, loves, fears and foibles like our own.
There are medieval faces carved in the stone of the building. Are they, as we have often found, portraits or caricatures of people who were known to the masons? There are portraits carved in the rich wood of the panelling… the only clue to their identity lies in dating their dress to Tudor times. Later research says that they are portraits of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, though at the time I wondered if the two faces gazing at each other across the centuries were perhaps Sir George Vernon, the King of the Peak as he was known, and his wife Margaret.
A portrait of their daughter hangs in an upper room; the same Dorothy Vernon who eloped with George Manners. She was accounted a beauty in her younger days and must have been a headstrong and wilful young woman to defy her father. Her portrait seems to show her as a woman of some strength and serenity. She and George inherited the Hall, after her father’s death, and the couple went on to have five children together.
Close by hangs a portrait of Francis, the sixth Earl of Rutland. In 1601, Francis was involved in the rebellion led by Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. While Essex was beheaded for his role in the rebellion, Francis was briefly imprisoned, given a fine that was then remitted and his freedom. Shortly afterwards, he became a member of the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court, which had been founded by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century. For a rebel, he did well for himself under Elizabeth’s successor, James I, becoming a Knight of the Garter, Knight of the Bath and a member of the Privy Council.
He does look rather pleased with himself in this portrait, but his life was not untouched by tragedy. His two young sons died in circumstances that led to the arrest of three women for witchcraft. Joan Flower died on her way to trial. She had asked for bread, in lieu of the Eucharist, stating that no witch could eat such a blessed thing… and died after the first bite, thus condemning her daughters, Margaret and Philippa. Margaret was hanged at Lincoln Castle, but her sister escaped to Kent, where she lived long enough to have three children. Francis died in 1632 and his monument reads: “… In 1608 he married ye lady Cecila Hungerford, daughter to ye Honorable Knight Sir John Tufton, by whom he had two sons, both of which died in their infancy by wicked practises and sorcerye.“
Not all the portraits hang on the walls. One miniature of a young lady and her little dog, painted in oils on tortoiseshell, was found behind the panelling in one of the rooms during renovations. Another is the death mask of Grace, Lady Manners. Grace was the granddaughter of Sir William Cavendish and the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick. Bess was the builder of Hardwick Hall, of which it was said it was ‘more glass than wall’, and of Chatsworth House, the most impressive stately home of them all. Grace married Sir George Manners in 1593 and they had four children.
The death mask is made by creating a plaster cast of the deceased face within the hours following their passing. It may seem a macabre practice to modern eyes, but it was a common thing to do at the time, preserving the likeness for the future. Before Grace died she had founded a school that still exists today, initially endowing it with £15 per year to employ a schoolmaster, then leaving lands to maintain it in her Will. The terms of the schoolmaster’s employment seem to match the odd mixture of kindness and severity in her face. While he would be paid to provide ‘Grammer Schoole’ education to local boys, every day of the week except Sundays and holidays, from seven in the morning till five at night, he was not allowed to marry or ‘live disorderly or scandalously’ or else he would be out of a job.
By far the most touching portrait, though, is that of Robert, Lord Haddon, who died in 1894, at just nine years old. His mother, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, was a self-taught artist who painted portraits of her social circle. She was a member of The Souls, an avant-garde group of artistic and intellectual aristocrats. Herself a great beauty, with an undoubted talent for art and a grasp of socio-economic questions, she was considered ‘queen’ of the group. On the death of her son, knowing nothing of sculpture, she set herself to learn and created his beautiful memorial with her own hands. After all the faces we had seen, it was his feet that finally brought home the very human life of this house.