Hall a Royal favourite

Northamptonshire will never live down the epithet, “The County of Mires, Spires and Squires”, so we must just accept it.

Mark you, I’ve never been too keen on the mires bit, but certainly we will always have a breath-taking collection of spires. And as for squires, well!

Once Northamptonshire had dozens of them, in other words the aristocracy, the gentlemen with titles and huge houses. Many of the titles have died out and most of those that still exist no longer have any connection with the county.

One of the greatest dynasties to make its home here came through Sir Anthony Mildmay, who inherited the magnificent Apethorpe Hall in 1589. He was close to Queen Elizabeth who visited the house on at least one occasion. She made him her Ambassador to the French whom, incidentally, he hated!

When James I came to the throne, he stayed at Apethorpe on his way to London for his coronation in 1603. From then on, Apethorpe became perhaps his favourite retreat.

Sir Anthony’s daughter, Mary, married Sir Francis Fane, who thereby inherited the Mildmay estates including Apethorpe. In 1624 he was created 1st Earl of Westmorland and in the same year he took his seat as Member of Parliament for Peterborough, then in Northamptonshire.

He too became a close friend of James I and had been present when the King first visited. Subsequently the King stayed at Apethorpe 13 times for long and short visits. It is the house in Northamptonshire that can claim the most visits by kings and queens.

King James felt so at home that he commanded special Royal Apartments to be built for him, including adjoining bedrooms with interconnecting doors so that he could pop through to meet his lover, George Villiers, whom he had first met at Apethorpe.

James also stayed at Grafton Regis five times, where Villiers held the ancient office of Keeper of Grafton. As a reward, James created him Duke of Buckingham.

The Westmorlands moved in the highest circles. The 2nd Earl for instance was chummy with both Charles I and II, naturally siding with the Royalists during the Civil war, and suffering a short stay in the Tower of London as a result!

Great scandal came with the 10th Earl who wanted to marry Sarah, only daughter and heir of banker Robert Child, who opposed a marriage. So in May 1782 the Earl and Sarah fled to Gretna Green and married there. Eventually Child gave in and the couple had a church wedding in Apethorpe, conducted by the Vicar of Nassington.

No scandal with the 11th Earl. He had a distinguished military and diplomatic career, serving as Ambassador to the Austrian Empire. And he loved music and was a prolific composer. His greatest artistic achievement was in 1822 when he founded The Royal Academy of Music.

For 300 years Apethorpe was home to successive Earls until, following the 12th Earl’s death in 1891, it was sold. Apethorpe church has magnificent Westmorland family vaults, well worth visiting.