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The history of Nostell

Oil painting on canvas of Sir Rowland Winn and his wife Sabine Louise d'Hervart in the library at Nostell Priory, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton RHA
Oil painting on canvas, Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Bt (1739 - 1785) and his Wife Sabine Louise d'Hervart (1734 -1798) by Hugh Douglas Hamilton RHA (Dublin 1739/40) | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

From money made through the London textile industry to the construction of a Georgian masterpiece, generations of the Winn family created this Yorkshire treasure house to advance their social status. Unravel the distinct chapters that define Nostell's history.

Religious roots

The name Nostell Priory refers to an Augustinian priory founded on the site in the early 12th century, dedicated to St Oswald, an Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria. After flourishing for over 400 years the priory was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After various owners, Nostell was eventually sold to the Winn family in 1654, with whom it remained until it passed to the National Trust.

A great house

Nostell is one of the great treasure houses of the north of England. It was created not simply as a home, but to send out an important message about the Winn family who owned it.

The Winns made money from the London textile trade during the Tudor period. During the following century the family used their wealth to invest in property and land, which included the Nostell estate in Yorkshire. Owning land brought the family new and regular income. In a society that valued land ownership above all else, it also brought status.

By the early 18th century the family had been knighted and were firmly members of the gentry class. They now wanted to replace their existing home with a fashionable new house that could show off and add to this status.

The results were spectacular. The cost was huge.

An ambition too far?

Most of Nostell was designed and built by two generations of the Winn family between c.1727 and 1785.

The main structure of the house was created for the 4th baronet Sir Rowland Winn as a replacement for an older house already on the estate. The work was overseen by architect James Paine from the mid-1730s and follows a design known as Palladianism. This was fashionable in the early 18th century and was thought to express order and stability.

Building a grand house in the latest design was not only an expression of good taste, it was probably intended to support Winn’s early political ambitions in the region by acting as a place to entertain and impress. Winn was never elected, and the scale and cost of the work meant the house was far from complete by the time the 4th baronet died in 1765.

Nostell was inherited by the 5th baronet (also called Sir Rowland Winn) and his wife, Swiss heiress Sabine d'Hervart. They picked up the project with new vigour, employing fashionable architect Robert Adam and leading craftsmen such as Thomas Chippendale and Joseph Rose. Designs were updated and expanded, particularly after the birth of a son and heir in 1775. Lack of money again slowed progress and work came to an end with the 5th baronet’s death in a carriage accident in 1785.

‘A burden since it was built’

With the death of the 5th baronet, Nostell was left a grand, but unfinished vision. Many rooms were undecorated and shut up. A plan by Adam for four new wings got no further than the empty shell of one.

The turn of the century saw a complex family soap opera play out. The baronetcy died out and Nostell was inherited in 1817 by Rowland and Sabine’s grandson, Charles Winn. Winn had part of the house redecorated, but he had neither the money nor interest to complete the major building plans of the previous century – indeed he thought Nostell ‘overgrown’ and a ‘burden’.

Charles’ real interest was in history. He bought much of the old furniture, books, paintings and objects of antiquarian interest which are still a major feature of the house today. Charles also added ‘Priory’ to the name, a reference back to the monastery that had been on the site before 1540.

Detail of the Top Hall at Nostell Priory and Parkland, West Yorkshire.
Detail of the Top Hall at Nostell Priory and Parkland, West Yorkshire. | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

A vision realised

The Winn family continued to face financial challenges. Selling Nostell was a real possibility until the discovery of ironstone on another Winn estate in north Lincolnshire. Combined with the coal that had long been mined on the Nostell estate, Winn fortunes were revived thanks to the Scunthorpe steel industry. This business success was masterminded by Charles Winn’s son – another Rowland, who inherited in 1874. He invested in repairing and refurbishing the house.

In many ways this time marked the point Nostell finally fulfilled its original purpose. As well as being a successful businessman, Rowland Winn was a major player in the Conservative Party, rising from MP to Chief Whip. The house played an important role in supporting his career, playing host to everything from mass political rallies to more intimate weekends with guests of influence and status. In 1885 he was made 1st Baron St Oswald, named after the saint of which the original Nostell Priory had been dedicated. The dream of the 18th century Winns had been realised.

The future

In 1953 the house was given to the National Trust, with full management taken over from the family in 1997. From a chequered past defined by exclusivity and money, Nostell is now a place of wonder and enjoyment for everyone.

People who made Nostell

State Bedroom, Nostrell Priory, West Yorkshire
State Bedroom, Nostrell Priory, West Yorkshire | © National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Thomas Chippendale

Thomas Chippendale is celebrated as the ‘Shakespeare of furniture’ and is one of the most influential furniture-makers and designers in English history. Nostell boasts some of the most important Chippendale in Britain, with over 100 items ranging from single pieces to complete interiors in the latest Chinese taste, from the humble to the luxurious.

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The exterior of the mansion at Nostell Priory and Parkland on a damp day in winter

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