A humble abode? Having house-hunting difficulties? Looking for a vacation retreat? Just consider the woes of Britain’s greatest hero. All he wanted was just a little place in the country…
At the end of the war that began in 1914 Britain promised its returning soldiers “homes for heroes.” Not all of them were forthcoming. A hundred years earlier, in 1814, when the Napoleonoc wars seem to have ended, Britain had made a similar promise to its hero Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. That time, fulfillment appeared easy. The money was there- indeed, it had lapt from an original grant by Parliament of 100,000 of which one-tenth was for the “Mansion and Park or Pleasure Grounds” in 1812, after “the glorious Battle of Salamanca,” to 400,000, of which one-fourth was for the mansion etc., two years later, when Wellington became a duke. Parliament voted this sum to “support the Dignity and the Dukedom” and to create “a lasting Memorial” of the nation’s “Gratitude and Munificence.”
The architects were there, too, eager to compete for such a plum-John Soane, who had built the new Bank of England; Robert Smirke, future designer of the British Museum; and Benjamin Dean Wyatt, member of Britain’s most illustrious family of architects, born with a golden trowel in his mouth. Magnificent estates abounded also, conveniently encumbered with debt. Yet eight years and a procession of at least twenty-five possible palaces passed before Wellington’s mind was irrevocably made up.
On July 15,1814, Wyatt, who had formerly been Wellington’s clerk in India and now combined the roles of architect, surveyor, and estate agent, sent in his first report on country properties available. Standlynch in Wiltshire, wrote Wyatt, was unsuitable for one of “high rank and fortune.” Its grounds were ordinary, it had not a single really fine apartment, and there was no space for sideboards in the dining room. Above all, Lord Radnor’s neighboring estate of Longford Castle would always dwarf Standlynch.
During the rest of that year three more “possibles” were produced by Wyatt. Great Tew in Oxfordshire, however, he considered neither sufficiently handsome in itself not far enough away from Blenheim Palace, which Parliament had bestowed on an earlier military hero, John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, of which building had begun only six months after his victory. To found a ducal home only ten miles from the Churchills, Wyatt asserted, would be infinitely worse than adjoining the earls of Radnor. In Kent, Somerhill was very beautiful but too much enclosed. On the other hand, Sir George Bowyer, at Radley, was prepared to sell on conditions so advantageous to Wellington as to be “extraordinary.” Provided St. John’s College at nearby Oxford would add to Radley its estate of Bagley Wood, and provided the course of the turnpike road from Oxford to Abingdon was changed – the town clerk of Oxford was “quite willing-, Radley could become a place of suitable magnificence. Alas, by December Sir George Bowyer’s “extraordinary offers” had dwindled away.
As 1814 passed into 1815 there was still nothing but disappointment. Lord Fitzwilliam’s Harrowden was not even his principal estate, and it was just out of reach of all the great packs, and hunting was the Duke of Wellington’s favorite sport. Busbridge, belonging to Lord Egremont, was too small; while a property in Herefordshire called Hampton Court was ruled out because of its deep woods and flooded rivers. “The Duke of Wellington,” wrote Lord Essex confidentially to Wyatt, “might as well attempt to hunt Foxes in London as Hereforshire.” The only surviving hope seemed to be Mr. Clarke Jervoise’s large estate in Hampshire. Its views of Spithead and the Isle of Wight were “very imposing,” and the hunting was excellent….