A brief history of Beningbrough

Black and white photograph of Beningbrough's north front

Beningbrough is an enigma. It is one of the most remarkable baroque houses in England, with richly carved and finished interiors, but almost nothing is known of its building history.

Elizabethan house

Ralph Bourchier inherited the Beningbrough estate in 1556 and began building the first house on a site approximately 300 metres south east of the present hall. This was the family home for around 150 years. Surveys suggest that it was timber framed with fine panelled interiors, some of which were re-used and can be seen in the present hall.
In 1649 Ralph's grandson, the puritan Sir John Bourchier, signed the death warrant of Charles I. He was too ill to be tried and died just before the restoration, escaping any punishment. His son Barrington rescued the property from the threat of confiscation by Charles II, therefore keeping Beningbrough in the family.

The present hall

In 1700 John Bourchier inherited the estate, and in 1704 embarked on a grand tour of Europe, spending almost two years in Italy. On his return and inspired by the Italianate baroque architectural style, John planned and built the current hall, with William Thornton as his chief craftsman. Thornton was responsible for the main cantilevered staircase and the fine woodcarving in the hall. Completed in 1716, the hall now stands proud at more than 300 years old.

The striking south front of Beningbrough Hall
South side of red bricked baroque hall
The striking south front of Beningbrough Hall

The Dawnays

Margaret Earle nee Bourchier was the last of the Bourchier line and owned Beningbrough for more than 65 years. Having lost her two sons in the Napoleonic wars, she left Beningbrough to Rev. William Henry Dawnay, a distant relative and also a close friend of her eldest son. The Dawnay’s were an old Yorkshire family, with a strong tradition of service in Parliament, the church and the army, and made many interior changes in the hall. In 1890 Lewis Dawnay inherited and transformed the hall by adding electricity and other modern conveniences for his young family.
Unknown visitors to Beningbrough in the early 1900s
Young child on pony outside Beningbrough hall
Unknown visitors to Beningbrough in the early 1900s

Lady Chesterfield

In 1916 Beningbrough was sold by Guy Dawnay to pay off the death duty on his father’s estate and so he could live nearer to London where he worked. Beningbrough was bought by Lord and Lady Chesterfield who lavishly furnished the hall with pieces from their former residence, Holme Lacy. Lord Chesterfield died in 1933 but Lady Chesterfield remained here until her death in 1957. Lady Chesterfield’s main interest was in horses, and she built up a stud farm in the 1920s. In 1939 Beningbrough was requisitioned as a billet for British and Canadian airmen and Lady Chesterfield moved to Home Farm returning to Beningbrough Hall in 1947.
Lady Chesterfield and her winning horse Sun Castle
Black and white image of race horse with stable boy holding it and a man and woman
Lady Chesterfield and her winning horse Sun Castle

The National Trust

On Lady Chesterfield's death Beningbrough Hall was offered to the Treasury by her executers to pay death duties. In 1958 the National Trust acquired Beningbrough, devoid of contents. The first 20 years were not easy and primarily had tenant caretakers rather than being a visitor attraction. In 1979, the National Trust formed a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery. This created a unique opportunity to show important 18th century portraits in appropriate historical settings. In 2006 the partners launched a major new initiative to refurbish and redisplay the portraits and created a series of interactive galleries ensuring Beningbrough and portraiture was accessible for all.
After nearly 40 years, visitor feedback led to the development of the Saloon Galleries to allow art to readily change without damaging the fabric of the building. 18th century portraits returned to London and pieces from other lenders and artists will be on display in changing exhibitions.

The future

Beningbrough now welcomes over 150,000 visitors each year whilst managing to maintain and improve the conservation of the hall, collection, gardens and parkland. Your visits, membership and volunteering helps the National Trust to achieve this, keeping Beningbrough fit for future generations to enjoy. Thank you.