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The history of the Darnley Mausoleum

View of the eighteenth-century mausoleum framed by bare winter trees at Cobham Wood, Kent
The mausoleum framed by bare winter trees at Cobham Wood | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The Earls of Darnley were usually buried in Westminster Abbey, but by the late 18th century, their vaults were full. In his will, the 3rd Earl John Bligh, left instructions for a mausoleum to be built in Cobham Park, Kent, where he and his descendants could be laid to rest in a grand manner.

Grand plans

Lord Darnley's ideas for his mausoleum were possibly inspired by the Roman remains, including the monumental pyramid mausoleum of Cestius, he saw on his grand tour. He may also have been influenced by French artist Nicholas Poussin's picture The Sacrament of Ordination.

Of the detailed instructions he left in his will, it clearly stated that he wanted a square stone building with a 'prominent pyramid' surrounded by a dry moat.

James Wyatt and George Dance the Younger

After the Earl's death, the family commissioned architect James Wyatt to design a mausoleum following the instructions set out in his will. Wyatt exhibited his design at the Royal Academy in 1783, but due to a heavy workload, the mausoleum was built under the supervision of another famous architect, George Dance the Younger.

Mausoleum exterior at Cobham Wood, Kent
Mausoleum exterior at Cobham Wood, Kent | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Left unused

The mausoleum was completed in 1786, at a cost of £9,000 (well over £1 million in today's prices), but there was a problem. For reasons that remain unclear, possibly involving a dispute with the Bishop of Rochester, the Darnley Mausoleum was not consecrated and could not be used for burial.

Change of use

Although unused, the mausoleum was the most prominent monument in Cobham Park, with the pyramid visible from some distance towering above the tops of the trees.

Landscape designer Humphry Repton suggested the mausoleum be converted to a viewing platform, but the idea never became reality. Instead, the building retained its sombre grandeur in a setting he redesigned to provide enhanced views across the park and the estate.

Coffin shelves in the mausoleum at Cobham Woods and Mausoleum, Kent
Coffin shelves in the mausoleum at Cobham Wood | © National Trust Images/Jo Hatcher

Saved from the brink - the restoration story

During the 20th century the Earls of Darnley struggled to maintain the Cobham estate, with the mausoleum’s declining state highlighted in Country Life magazine 1939.

Moving out of Cobham Hall in the 1950s, the family sold off most of the estate, although the Darnley Mausoleum and surrounding woodland remained in the family’s hands.

A vandal’s playground

Without anyone to watch over the mausoleum, it became the main attraction for vandals, with graffiti, and over 90 wrecked cars damaging the site.

After an arson attack in the crypt on 5 November 1980, the floor of the chapel collapsed, and the elegant outer staircase was destroyed. With much of the interior blackened, damaged and destroyed, the future looked bleak for the mausoleum.

Let battle commence

The 11th Earl of Darnley renewed attempts to find a long-term solution. After a public inquiry, developers were granted permission to convert the mausoleum into a palatial residence, but they went bankrupt before the scheme could be realised.

With the mausoleum and surrounding woodland open to further decay and vandalism, the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme (CAMS) was formed in 2001. This partnership involved Gravesham Borough Council, Kent County Council, English Nature, The Woodland Trust, English Heritage and the National Trust.

From the ashes

The plight of the mausoleum was highlighted in the first series of BBC television's Restoration in 2003, which publicised severely neglected buildings of heritage importance.

Although not being chosen by the nation as the winner, CAMS were eventually able to provide the funding for Gravesham Borough Council to buy the mausoleum and the surrounding woodland for £150,000.

CAMS also secured £5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and later £746,000 from the Office of The Deputy Prime Minister and Union Railways, to fund the restoration.

Grand prize winner

In 2010, the Darnley Mausoleum won the ‘Conservation and Craftsmanship’ category in the Kent Design Awards, as well as their ‘Project of the Year’.

For everyone, for ever

A condition of the Heritage Lottery Fund was that ownership and maintenance of the property would transfer to the National Trust. In April 2014, the Mausoleum opened its doors to visitors, and it continues to welcome visitors on special days from April to September.

Two visitors walking along a path near the mausoleum at Cobham Wood

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