Eastnor Castle History
The Cocks family, ancestors of the present owner, moved to Eastnor at the end of the 16th century. They bought the Manor of Castleditch, an engraving of which is in the Great Hall, and over the following 200 years gradually accumulated further land in this area. The Cocks married into the Worcestershire-based Somers family; the aggregation of their estates with the valuable inheritance passed down by the Lord Chancellor Somers in the early 18th century, the banking wealth of the Cocks Biddulph bank (now incorporated into Barclays), and the sale of his father’s estate at Dumbleton, near Evesham, gave the 1st Earl Somers the means to start building the castle in 1812. The family, distinguished in law, politics and the army, needed a new residence more in keeping with its status.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CASTLE
Eastnor was built by the 2nd Baron (Lord) Somers, later 1st Earl, between 1810 and 1824. The combination of inherited wealth, his judicious marriage to the daughter of the eminent and rich Worcestershire historian, Rev. Treadway Russell Nash, and his great ambition prompted the 1st Earl to commission a castle to impress his contemporaries and raise his family into the higher ranks of the ruling class. Then, as now, the size and splendour of a country house evidenced the standing and fortune of any family. His architect, the young Robert Smirke, who was later well known for his design for the British Museum, proposed a Norman Revival style. From a distance, Eastnor tried to create the impression of an Edward 1st-style medieval fortress guarding the Welsh Borders. It was a symbolic and defiant assertion of power by an aristocrat in a period of fear and uncertainty following the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars. The symmetry of the design emphasized authority, distinguishing Eastnor from the more rambling, picturesque, castellated mansions of a slightly earlier period at Downton Castle (Shropshire) and Smirke’s 1805 creation for the Earl of Lonsdale at Lowther Castle (Cumbria). By most standards, the castle is massive, and the construction team and materials used were on a similar scale. 250 men working day and night were employed over the first six years of building, and in the first 18 months 4,000 tons of building stone, 16,000 tons of mortar and 600 tons of wood were used.
Smirke’s interiors were simple and in keeping with the external medieval style: architectural details remain in the Red Hall, Dining Room and Staircase Hall. In 1849, the 2nd Earl commissioned A W N Pugin, well known for designing the Gothic interiors of the Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834, to redecorate his Drawing Room in the more elaborate Gothic Revival style, before Charles, 3rd Earl Somers, undertook further decorating work in the 1860s and 1870s, so Eastnor, possibly in a unique way, epitomises three successive phases of 19th century domestic taste, Regency Baronial, Catholic Gothic and aesthetic Italian. It is possible to trace the evolution of taste through the Victorian period, ending in the Long Library and the State Bedroom, when the fashion had reverted to the Renaissance period. But as the Gothic Drawing Room represented the latest style in its time, it confirms that Charles, who was instrumental in his father’s decision to commission Pugin, was at the forefront of contemporary taste even before he inherited the estate.
DECLINE OF FAMILY FORTUNES
Despite the massive expenditure on Eastnor, the family fortunes flourished. By the 1870's, the Somers Cocks' estates exceeded 13,000 acres, and the family also owned Somers Town in London, a gift from William III to Lord Chancellor Somers, and Reigate Priory in Surrey. However, the agricultural depression of the 1870's caused a decline in the family wealth, affecting them as it did others who lacked income from urban property or coal. By 1920, when the 6th Baron (Lord) Somers inherited the estate - the earldom became extinct in 1883 - much of the land had been sold and the art collection from the Castle had been divided between him and his cousin. When Lord Somers was appointed Governor of Victoria in 1926, the family moved to Australia and Eastnor was left unoccupied. On their return in 1931, some rooms were redecorated and limited central heating was installed. In 1939, all the Castle contents were removed, leaving it available for government use during the war, but it was never used. Lord Somers' widow returned to Eastnor and lived in the servants' wing between 1945 and 1949 in much reduced circumstances, the family having been hard hit by tax of £200,000 - £8 million in today's terms - on the death of her husband.
THE REVIVAL OF EASTNOR
The revival of Eastnor was started by Hon. Elizabeth Somers Cocks and Benjamin Hervey-Bathurst, the parents of the present owner. They moved into the Castle in 1949, when the slow process of reinhabiting the rooms and attending to various outbreaks of dry rot and other long-neglected repairs began. This was financed by sales from the collection and the reinvestment of almost all income from the estate. The first government grant was received to repair the battlements of the four main towers, which were badly damaged by hurricane-force winds in 1976. James Hervey-Bathurst and his family, came to live in Eastnor in 1988, and accelerated the restoration and internal repair of the Castle. Grants of over £250,000 from English Heritage went towards the cost of the external repairs. Since then, diversification into tourism, corporate entertaining, weddings and conferences has enabled the restoration of Eastnor to proceed apace. The Castle will always require a high level of maintenance and there is still much to be done, but the future prospects for Eastnor are possibly more encouraging now than at any time in the last 100 years ...