Death by tea at Ickworth

View of the North Front of Ickworth, Suffolk, framed by autumn leaves

The Hervey's of Ickworth, in Suffolk, have had more than their fair share of scandals.

Ickworth is first mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 amongst the possessions of the monks of nearby Abbey of St Edmundsbury, one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries. Ownership of the estate passed to the de Ickworth family from the mid-12th century until 1432 when the death of the last direct heir plunged it into a lengthy dispute.

Granted to Sir William Drury of Rougham, a descendant by marriage of the de Ickworths, he promptly gave the estate to his cousin Henry Drury, whose daughter Jane married Thomas Hervey in the mid-15th century.

Our story starts with John Hervey, created 1st Earl of Bristol in 1714. It's from dynastic ambitions and love of Ickworth that the Hervey families story at Ickworth, as we know it today, can be traced.

John, 1st Earl of Bristol (1665-1751)

John Hervey was the first Hervey to live at Ickworth for nearly 60 years. Inheriting the estate in 1700 he came to describe it as his ‘centre of rest... Sweet Ickworth'.

A Whig MP, landowner and race horse owner on the rise, he was created Baron Hervey of Ickworth in 1703 and then elevated to an Earldom, choosing Bristol from a choice of titles (the family has no link whatsoever to the famous sherry). Creating a walled garden, summerhouse and canal lake, he demolished the ruined Ickworth Hall, which used to stand on the high ground behind the Ickworth Church, and commissioned new designs from Sir John Vanbrugh. The new house was never to be, even with two successful marriages to wealthy heiresses, Isabella Carr (1670-93) and Elizabeth Felton (1676-1741).

With an expensive family that needed marriage dowries, allowances and gambling debts paid, he grew to love living permanently at Ickworth Lodge, a converted farmhouse on the estate, (and now an annex to the Ickworth Hotel). Available money was instead diverted to living like an Earl, creating a park worthy of the Hervey name and the patronage of artists – the basis of our collections today.

Laid to rest between his two wives beneath Ickworth Church, the first of many Herveys buried there, his grandson August Hervey lamented the passing of 'the poor old lord of this place, to whom this family is so much indebted'.

John, Lord Hervey (1696-1743)

Lord Hervey, the son of the 1st Earl and his second wife, was a successful politician and pamphleteer, and rose to high government office as Keeper of the Privy Council becoming one of the most famous figures of his time.

He is best remembered today for his outspoken memoirs of the court of George II and for his devotion to Queen Caroline. Lord Hervey's life was full of scandal. He was notorious for his bisexual relationships and effeminate style, sharing a mistress with the Prince of Wales, and having a 10-year relationship with another man, Stephen Fox. There was so much confusion about his sexuality that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came to the famous conclusion that there are three human species: 'Men, women and Herveys'.

Even so, Lord Hervey never separated from his wife Molly Lepel (1706-68), herself much admired for her wit and good sense, and they had 8 children who were to greatly influence the Ickworth. His eldest 3 sons became the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Earls of Bristol respectively. His early death at the age of 41, was blamed by his father, the 1st Earl, to his fondness for ‘that detestable and poisonous plant, tea’.

George, 2nd Earl of Bristol (1721-75)

The eldest son of Lord Hervey, the 2nd Earl inherited his grandfather’s title and followed in his footsteps as a Whig MP becoming Ambassador to Madrid. His Government appointments left him little time for Ickworth and whilst he was dismissive of the Lodge, he did consult ‘Capability’ Brown on improvements to the park though no evidence exists for work commencing. He did however add significantly to the collections also adding an impressive quantity of ambassadorial silver.

Augustus, 3rd Earl of Bristol (1724-1779)

Becoming almost as infamous as his father, Augustus Hervey was the 2nd son of Lord Hervey. A sailor, philanderer and politician, he joined the navy at 11, and by the age of 20 had become a lieutenant and secretly married Elizabeth Chudley (1720-88). He spent the next 15 years at sea, during which time he kept a diary detailing his wartime adventures afloat and amorous adventures ashore. His list of conquests includes princesses, duchesses, contessas, artists, models, actresses, singers, dancers and even nuns.

Unfortunately when Augustus returned to England in the 1760s, he found that his wife had abandoned him for the Duke of Kingston. Their bigamous marriage caused one of the most famous scandals of the 18th-century. Augustus sought the solace of numerous English ladies, eventually settling with his last love, Mrs Mary Nesbitt and doted on his illegitimate son also named Augustus. Despite spending little time at Ickworth, Augustus commissioned notable portraits of his naval adventures.

Frederick, 4th Earl of Bristol (1730-1803)

The 4th Earl, known as the Earl-Bishop, puzzled and amazed his contemporaries. Dressed top to toe in Episcopal purple he became one of the tourist sights of Europe, bowling around Italy in an open-topped carriage and staying in many 'Hotels Bristol' named in his honour.

Mischievous but forward thinking, he was never a religious man and used his position as Bishop of Derry, secured for him by his brother, to dabble in politics, gain great wealth and annoy local vicars. Becoming 4th Earl on his brother’s death, he more dangerously supported Irish Nationalism and votes for Catholics, infuriating George III so much he had him arrested.

It was not until the Earl-Bishop's time that building a new house properly began. The grandiose scheme led his wife Elizabeth Davers (1730-1800), from whom he separated never to speak to again following a carriage ride, to ridicule the design as that 'stupendous monument of folly'. The Earl-Bishop amassed a huge art collection to furnish his new house during his time in Rome but it was confiscated by Napoleon's army in 1798 and dispersed. The 4th Earl spent the rest of his life trying to get it back and never saw his dream project rise out of the ground.

Frederick, 1st Marquess of Bristol (1769-1859)

The Earl-Bishop’s youngest son was brought up by his mother at Ickworth when his parents separated when he was 13 and became heir to the title on his elder brother’s death. Effectively cut-off by his father when he refused to break off his engagement to Elizabeth Upton (1775-1844) rather than marry his father’s choice of a wealthy illegitimate princess, he did not to benefit from his father’s huge personal wealth.

The death of his father left him with a half-built house, an indebted estate but none of the Irish estates. Like his great grandfather the 1st Earl, he too had the expensive family to maintain but managed to largely complete the house over the next twenty years whilst improving the estate. Knowing that impressive works of art would be needed for the great rooms of the newly-completed Rotunda and east ‘family’ wing, he set off on a tour of Europe in search of suitable treasures. Unlike his father, he took his wife and children with him, and the whole family spent four years abroad buying pictures, sculpture, silver, ceramics and textiles.

Under his guidance Ickworth at last fully became the dynastic family seat it had always been intended to be. He was even able to prove his father’s prejudice wrong when he was created 1st Marquess in 1826 by his brother-in-law and then Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool.

Frederick, 3rd Marquess of Bristol (1834-1907)

The 2nd Marquess, Frederick, only outlived his father by 5 years so the estate was soon inherited by his son, another Frederick, and his wife Geraldine Anson (1843-1927) who added the collection of fans to the house. Initially able to keep Ickworth in good repair and redecorate, the couple suffered financial setbacks and were forced to mortgage and rent out the house at times.

Theodora, 4th Marchioness of Bristol (1875-1957)

Alice Theodora Wythes was the granddaughter of the Victorian railway contractor George Wythes and had an immense personal fortune. Coming to Ickworth when she married Frederick, the 4th Marquess (1863-1951), it was their shared passion for their home as well as her money, that enabled to the estate to prosper before passing it to the National Trust in 1956.

Her money paid for settling debts and major improvements to the house – new servants' quarters, electric lighting, the latest in Edwardian plumbing and alterations to the great show rooms in the Rotunda. Theodora was also greatly concerned with its contents. She catalogued, cleaned and re-hung the picture collection, had the book collection listed and rebound, and the furniture and objets d’art restored. She compiled scrapbooks of pictures and sculpture associated with the Hervey family and sought to purchase any which came on the market.

Victor, 6th Marquess of Bristol (1915-1985)

The 6th Marquess led an extraordinary life earning the nickname 'Mayfair playboy No.1' but being declared bankrupt at the age of 21. Joining a gang of ‘gentleman’ jewel thieves, he was convicted in 1939 on two counts of robbery from Mayfair addresses. In contrast, his later life was one of extreme respectability, inheriting the title of 6th Marquess of Bristol in 1960 and becoming chairman of the Monarchist League. He left Ickworth for Monaco in 1979 where he died and was buried in 1985. 25 years after his death he was exhumed brought back to be buried at Ickworth Church by his family and the current 8th Marquess.

John, 7th Marquess of Bristol (1954-1999)

The life of the 7th Marquess was as remarkable as his earlier forebears and equaled them in terms of his well-publicised private life and indulgence, surprising many with a brief marriage in the 1980s. Rumored in the press to have blown a £21 million fortune, (and even more made as a business man), on vice and high living, the 7th Marquess sold much of his remaining family possessions and moved out of the East Wing at Ickworth in 1996. He was the last of the Hervey family to live at Ickworth and succeeded by his half-brother Frederick as 8th Marquess of Bristol.