Colonel John Palmer Chichester

Colonel John Chichester of Arlington Court

Born in 1769 to John Chichester and Mary MacDonald, Colonel John had a profound influence upon the history of Arlington Court, not least because he lived in three different houses on the estate and substantially remodelled the grounds into the form seen today. Although his legacy at Arlington is largely historic, he was a fascinating character who led a remarkable life.

A challenge of faith

John was the last Chichester to openly practise Catholicism until he recanted his faith at Exeter Cathedral in 1793, adopting Anglicanism and dismissing the elderly Catholic Chaplain, Henry Innes.   That he did so is historically important because since the early seventeenth century, the Chichesters had suffered for their faith, losing land and being heavily fined by the Crown.  His Catholic Scottish grandfather Donald MacDonald of Terndreich had been one of the Jacobite officers executed for marching with Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) and the only way that John could hold onto his land and power was to recant his faith in dramatic terms.  The original statement, still preserved at Arlington, shows him professing to
" abjure as impious and heretical that damnable doctrine"
- Colonel John Chichester

Refreshing the family home

1790 was a crucial time for Colonel Chichester, marking the start of his great rebuilding scheme to turn the Tudor manor house into a remarkable neoclassical mansion with three floors and sweeping pleasure grounds requiring the eviction of tenants from the land.  He built pineries and orangeries, created the lake and wilderness pond and evidently intended to emphasise his growing role as a local landowner.  His grand plans, however, were destined to fail and his new dynasty would be plagued by tragedy and misfortune thereafter.

A trio of wives

He married three times, each time to daughters from prominent local families, increasing his political influence and social standing.  The first marriage, to Mary Cary, lasted only a year as she died in 1791 having borne him one child, followed by a second to Agnes Hamilton in 1793.  Agnes lived until 1814, giving him six children including his heir, John Palmer Bruce Chichester.  After Agnes’ death he married again to Catherine Ford, but by this time he was much older and she gave him no children.

A new design

It was customary for gentlemen of the time to hold office in the armed forces; often these ranks were only honorary and they rarely saw active service.  John Chichester was no exception and in July 1810 was appointed as Colonel to the Cardiganshire Militia, a regiment based around the Welsh estates that he had inherited from his grandmother.  It was from these estates that he had to draw unexpectedly when in the early 1820s it became apparent that his grand new house was in fact collapsing.  He sought a site on flatter, more secure land, shipped in stone from his Welsh estates and set about a new building from scratch, employing the up-and-coming Barnstaple architect Thomas Lee to design what we now see as Arlington Court.

Unfulfilled ambitions

Colonel Chichester did not live to see his new home finished though: he died in 1822, just as work was progressing, and it would be several years before his son and heir John Palmer Bruce Chichester would settle there to found the next generation of the family and see through the completion of his grand landscaping scheme. Although he would never see his new home finished, Arlington Court is essentially the Colonel’s vision and it is his footsteps in which you walk and his eyes that you look through as you enjoy the house and grounds today.