A short history of Dyrham Park

The west front of the house

There is history of occupation at Dyrham Park from ancient times, but the Dyrham we know today is centred around William Blathwayt in the late 17th century. His unique role at the heart of colonial government and military organisation is reflected in the house and gardens he created.

This short history of Dyrham Park provides an overview from the earliest archaeological evidence to the most recent conservation projects.   

Ancient Dyrham

People have occupied the site of Dyrham Park since at least the Bronze Age, with worked flints and the remains of barrows found nearby. Adjacent to the parkland is Hinton Hill Iron Age hillfort and within the gardens archaeological excavations have found Romano-British pottery and building debris.

In 577 a significant battle was waged at Dyrham. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded how Saxon leaders Cuthwine and Ceawlin defeated Britons Coinmail, Condidan and Farinmail ‘at the place that is called Deorham’ before capturing Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath. The battle was a decisive victory for the West Saxons repelling Britons into Wales and Cornwall.      

Medieval Dyrham

In 972 Dyrham was an estate of Pershore Abbey, Worcestershire, and is recorded in the Domesday Book (1086) as transferring from Aelfric to the Norman soldier Thurstan fitz Rolf and his nephew William fitz Guy. The manor passed down Thurstan’s successors until the death of James de Newmarket in 1216 whose daughter had married Ralph Russel (1216-c.50) and into this family’s ownership Dyrham moved for the next 200 years.

The first documentary evidence for a manor house at Dyrham is in a survey of 1311 on the death of Sir William Russel. Later, Sir Maurice Russel (d.1416) was the first and last of his family to live at Dyrham, after fighting in France and becoming a county sheriff and JP. The survey made on his death describes the house, including a hall, high great chamber and wine cellars. His memorial brass survives in the adjacent parish church of St Peter’s.     

St Peter’s Church is the oldest building in Dyrham village, dating from the mid-13th century
The church (not National Trust) and west front of the house at Dyrham Park
St Peter’s Church is the oldest building in Dyrham village, dating from the mid-13th century

Courtiers and soldiers

Sir Maurice Russel left Dyrham to his two daughters, with Margaret’s husband Sir Gilbert Denys (c.1350-1422) buying out his sister-in-law to unite the ownership. In 1466 Gilbert’s son Maurice Denys rebuilt the house with a ‘new courte’. Maurice’s grandson, Sir William Denys (c.1470-c.1530), a courtier and knight of the body for King Henry VIII, enclosed a 250-acre park to the south of his now enlarged house from 1511. Sir William’s son Sir Walter II Denys (1501-71) was also a courtier and soldier, supporting Henry VIII and Edward VI, and profited from his connections by acquiring and selling dissolved monastic lands. Probably prompted by declining health, Sir Walter sold the manor of Dyrham for £1,800 to William and George Wynter in 1571.         

Dyrham Park as surveyed in 1689, showing the medieval and Tudor arrangements before William Blathwayt’s reconstruction
Map from 1689
Dyrham Park as surveyed in 1689, showing the medieval and Tudor arrangements before William Blathwayt’s reconstruction

The Wynters

Brothers Sir William (c.1525-89) and George Wynter (d.1581) were leading naval administrators, Surveyor and Clerk of Ships respectively. Sir William was an active sailor and a commander against the Spanish Armada (1588). Both brothers owned ships used for trading, exploration and privateering, including investing in their colleague Sir John Hawkins slave-trading voyages, and George advanced £400 in Sir Francis Drake’s project to circumnavigate the globe in 1577. His son John Wynter (d.1619) captained their ship Elizabeth, reaching the Strait of Magellan before separating from the fleet in violent storms and returning home.  

Dyrham passed to John Wynter and an inventory of 1601 lists a richly furnished house of 22 rooms. John’s son Sir George Wynter (d.1638) received a new licence to empark though it was not enacted in his lifetime. Sir George’s son John Wynter (1622-88) suffered financial hardship after being an active Royalist during the English Civil War. Finances evidently improved by the 1660s as the park had relocated to its current site by this time, though the house needed repair. All was to change after John’s daughter and heir Mary Wynter (1650-91) married William Blathwayt in 1686.

William Blathwayt

During marriage negotiations William Blathwayt (c.1649-1717) remarked on the ‘necessity of building a new house’. Dyrham today is very much his creation. The first works started in 1691 digging a canal for new elaborate gardens, involving the leading designer and plantsmen George London and Henry Wise. Mary Wynter died the same year and never saw the transformation of her ancestral estate. Construction started on the west front of the house the following January under little-known Huguenot architect Samuel Hauduroy. In 1700 Blathwayt stepped up his ambitions with a new east front by William Talman, Comptroller of the Royal Works.   

Engraving of Dyrham Park including the house, garden and terraces, by Johannes Kip
 1710 Johannes Kip engraving of Dyrham Park
Engraving of Dyrham Park including the house, garden and terraces, by Johannes Kip

The house William Blathwayt created embodied his professional standing. As the leading colonial administrator of his age, his north American colleagues willingly sourced luxury walnut and cedar timber to construct stairs and panelling. As Secretary at War to William III, his travels and connections in Europe enabled purchase of Carrara marble tiles and luxurious silk fabrics, some of which were Indian textiles imported through the Dutch East India Company.

The decoration of the house was substantially shaped by William Blathwayt’s purchase of his uncle Thomas Povey’s art and book collections. Povey raised Blathwayt as his own son and set him off on a career in government and colonial administration. Through Povey (c.1613-c.1705) important paintings by Samuel van Hoogstraten and Bartolome Murillo arrived at Dyrham.  

Grand Tourists

William Blathwayt raised his sons befitting their gentlemanly status. Between 1705 and 1708 William (1688-1742) and John (1690-1754) travelled across Europe on a Grand Tour. The survival of letters gives a rich account of their activities and character. William was slow to learn and struggled socially and on inheriting Dyrham he spent his life simply managing the estate. Younger brother John was bright and a musical prodigy, notably playing with celebrated composers in Rome. In later life he served in the army and founded an opera company with George Frederic Handel.    

Dyrham’s decline

William III Blathwayt (1719-87) inherited Dyrham as a young man and went on to marry three times. He experienced financial problems and in 1765 auctioned paintings to raise funds. It seems many were purchased by his younger brother and subsequently returned to the house. The gardens also suffered, writer Samuel Rudder remarking in 1779 those ‘which were made at great expense, are much neglected and going to decay’.

The fourth William Blathwayt (1751-1806) started repairing the house and with designer Charles Harcourt-Masters, the remains of the eastern gardens ‘Reconciled to modern Taste’ as an open parkland setting (c.1800). Dyrham was inherited by William’s nephew William Crane (1795-1839) who took the name Blathwayt, though on his death Dyrham reverted to William’s widow Frances (1751-1844) who had remarried Admiral James Douglas. They built considerable debts and left the house in a poor state of repair. 

Dyrham’s revival

Lieutenant Colonel George Blathwayt (1797-1871) was the son of William IV Blathwayt’s younger half-brother. Though born near Dyrham he lived mostly in Ireland and joined the Light Dragoons aged 17, fighting at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). On inheriting Dyrham in 1844 he had only dined in the house twice before but was determined to reverse its recent decline. Colonel Blathwayt was not left the contents and took out a £50,000 loan to buy back the furniture and pictures and to repair and modernise the house. Extensive works included new roofs, central heating and kitchens, remodelled servants’ quarters, and glazing the Greenhouse roof.     

Sales and losses

Colonel Blathwayt’s two eldest sons both inherited Dyrham. Captain George (1824-99) died without children and so Dyrham passed to his brother Rev. Wynter Thomas (1825-1909) who was Rector of Dyrham but moved into the house with his second wife Mary Sarah Oates (1833-1925), though his eldest son managed the estate. Robert Wynter Blathwayt (1850-1936) was compelled to sell collections to fund Dyrham’s maintenance. A celebrated view by Meindert Hobbema (1665) was sold in 1901, bought by Henry Clay Frick in New York, and the funds used for repairs and installing electricity. The state bed was sold in 1911, bought by Lord Leverhulme, as was the Blathwayt Atlas (1678-83), now in the John Carter Brown Library, with further book sales in 1919.

Robert Wynter had no direct heirs, but had relatives living locally, including Lieutenant Colonel Linley Wynter Blathwayt (1839-1919) of Eagle House, Batheaston, who with daughter Mary (1879-1961) created a refuge for suffragettes. Another cousin Henry Wynter Blathwayt (1877-1917) had been killed in action at Cambrai during the First World War and his sons were nominated to inherit Dyrham.

Lady decorator

In 1938 the Blathwayt’s leased Dyrham to Lady Anne Islington (1869-1958) whose late husband had been MP for nearby Chippenham and Governor-General of New Zealand. In 1939 she invited the Pro Patria Day Nursery to evacuate to the house, and from 1941 the Anglo-American Nursery. A member of a group of amateur ‘lady decorators’ she made substantial changes to the house, including painting panelling in off-white colours and installing pale wallpapers alongside introducing new bathrooms.

Nursery cots on the West Terrace at Dyrham Park, c.1939-45
Nursery cots at Dyrham Park in the Second World War
Nursery cots on the West Terrace at Dyrham Park, c.1939-45

War memorials

In 1948 Lady Islington left the house and Justin Blathwayt (1913-2002) with his family moved in for the first time. These were Dyrham’s twilight days as a private residence. In 1956 the Ministry of Works purchased the house through the National Land Fund, an endowment for the purchase of culturally significant property as a memorial to those who died during the Second World War. Dyrham was transferred to the National Trust and after extensive repairs the house opened to visitors in 1961. In 1976 the park was purchased with the support of the successor National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Engraved glass memorial at Dyrham Park by Tracey Sheppard FGE
Glass war memorial at Dyrham Park
Engraved glass memorial at Dyrham Park by Tracey Sheppard FGE

Dyrham revived

Over the last 60 years the National Trust has steadily conserved, repaired and re-opened more of Dyrham Park. Informed by research and archaeological investigations, the gardens have been created, replacing donkey paddocks and plain lawns with a design informed by William Blathwayt’s baroque splendour. Within the house degraded rooms were restored, including the whole kitchen and basements area. In 2015 a major project replaced the house roof, and the same year with the continued support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Art Fund and Royal Oak Foundation a painting by Cornelis de Heem was bought back, evoking Dyrham as William Blathwayt created. And in 2020 the Old Staircase was restored, no longer hidden beneath Lady Islington’s decorative scheme. The walnut timbers shipped from north America in the 1690s once again demonstrate how Dyrham is a place with an international context and significance.