Of the dozens of noble families that make up the British aristocracy, one stands out from the rest. John Howard was created Duke of Norfolk by Richard III and the two died together in the Battle of Bosworth Field. Aside from that title, the family are amongst other titles, the Earl of Arundel, Earl of Surrey, Earl of Norfolk, and Earl Marshal of England. I don’t even know what that last title pertains to but it’s fair to say these are people of influence. Despite Howard’s support for the defeated Plantagenet monarch, the Tudors continued to favour the family; Henry VIII even marrying two of them (though they were the pair that faced the executioner’s block). The family even features a saint!
The main home, or seat, of the family is at Arundel in West Sussex, but 300 years ago the Carlisle branch of the family decided to build a little place of their own, not in Cumbria, as might seem logical, but in Yorkshire, perhaps hinting back to their connections to that “son of York”. Their lands there incorporated a number of villages, covered over 5000 hectares and for over a century were served by their own railway station. The area is known as the Howardian Hills! You’re not going to build something subtle in the middle of that, and so Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle (one more title in the collection) engaged the services of Sir John Vanbrugh assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Castle Howard was Vanbrugh’s first great house in the English Baroque style (Seaton Delaval Hall was his last).
Vanbrugh was clearly not a man who lacked confidence (I look at these buildings and find Michael Nyman’s soundtrack from The Draughtsman’s Contract springs to mind). It’s not really a castle though! (Technically dear reader, the term can be applied to any great house built on the site of a former military structure, in this case the ruins of Henderskelfe Castle which the family had acquired through marriage in the 16th Century).
One of his other works, Stowe, is renowned for its gardens full of classical temples and landscaping by Capability Brown, but for me Castle Howard outshines it (though that might be a mark of the contrasting weather I experienced there) by being more open, allowing the visitor to take in more of its delights (which are mostly in better repair too). These include the magnificent Atlas Fountain by John Thomas, the Mausoleum and the Pyramid (both Hawksmoor), and the Temple of the Four Winds (Vanbrugh).
A further bonus is that the majority of the statuary are made of lead, and have therefore weathered better than stone which may become encrusted with lichen or worn smooth by acid rain.
There are walled gardens, and woodland walks, and just alongside the mansion, bordered by the outside seating of one of the café’s onsite is an area of neatly tended grass with a plinth at its centre on which stands a magnificent wild boar. Were the dukes great hunters in their time? Maybe. Or is it just coincidence that the Plantagenet coat of arms features a pair of white boars holding the shield (or boars argent supporters I suppose you’d say in heraldic terms). Richard III was known to favour his supporters with boar brooches. Three hundred years after Richard created the title, perhaps the Howards were repaying the favour?One last point – unlike so many stately homes in England, this one is not owned by the National Trust. The property is managed by a company whose directors and shareholders include members of the Howard family, which according to press reports led to the remarkable situation where Simon Howard and his family, having lived in the property for 30 years, were asked to leave or face a vote in the boardroom, so that his brother Nicholas and family could move in. Surely it’s large enough for both?