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The history of Wentworth Castle Gardens

View of the Sun Monument along the avenue at Wentworth Castle Gardens
The Sun Monument along The Avenue | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

The only Grade I listed parkland and gardens in South Yorkshire, Wentworth Castle Gardens is home to no fewer than 26 listed buildings and monuments, each of them with a different tale to tell. Stories of power, wealth and politics, family infighting, misery and hope can be found in the history of Wentworth Castle Gardens, and its monuments, statues and buildings help us truly understand its past.

A bitter family feud

The Wentworths were one of the most important families in Yorkshire. Long before the time of the English Civil War (1642–51), members of the Wentworth family held seats of power and influence in the area, building the imposing estate at Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire as their home.

When William Wentworth, the 2nd Earl of Strafford (1626–95) died childless, his nephew Thomas Wentworth (1672–1739) expected to inherit the family fortune and their grand home at Wentworth Woodhouse. His hopes were dashed when the fortune and Wentworth Woodhouse instead passed to his cousin, Thomas Watson.

Wentworth plots revenge

Infuriated, Thomas Wentworth used his skills as a soldier and diplomat to plot revenge. Within a few years he had bought, extended and renamed his own house and estate, just six miles away from Wentworth Woodhouse, at the estate we now know as Wentworth Castle. In 1711 he even acquired the old family title, the Earldom of Strafford – all to outshine his ‘obnoxious relative.’

Queen Anne Monument

In 1714, the crown of England controversially passed from the Stuart royal line to the Hanoverians. This 1734 monument is dedicated to Anne, the last Stuart monarch, and is unique in an English garden. It’s an almost treasonous statement by Thomas Wentworth, and hints at what he thought of the regime change.

Patriotism and planting in the Union Jack Garden

The geometric design of this maze-like garden was very fashionable when it was first created for Thomas Wentworth in 1713. But there’s a patriotic message here too: Thomas created the design to combine the crosses of St George and St Andrew, celebrating the union of Scotland and England in 1707. This union was a proud moment in Queen Anne’s reign, and so even after her death this garden stands as proof of his loyalty to her.

The Union Jack garden at Wentworth Castle Gardens, showing two paths leading to a central tree in the foreground
The Union Jack Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Connections to slavery

Although recognised as one of the UK's greatest 18th century landscaped estates, the house and gardens Thomas Wentworth had built are closely tied to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In 1713, he was instrumental in securing for Britain the lucrative monopoly to transport and sell enslaved people from African countries to the Spanish empire. The design of his grand house and garden was in part a celebration of his pride in this ‘achievement'.

Thomas also made direct profit from the trade, partly from shares he owned and partly through his marriage to Anne Johnson (c.1684–1754) whose family were deeply involved in the slave trade by building ships for the East India Company and working for the Royal African Company.

The sundial

In 1711, Wentworth was appointed joint negotiator of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the long War of the Spanish Succession. As part of these negotiations, Britain gained the monopoly to supply enslaved people from African countries to the Spanish colonies in the Americas – known as the ‘Asiento.’

Wentworth considered the treaty a crowning achievement in his diplomatic career and something to be proudly represented in his house and gardens. This included a sundial, now in the conservatory, in the form of a kneeling African man – a legacy of the enslavement of Africans and the objectification of Black bodies in British and European art.

Lady Mary Memorial

‘To the memory / of the Rt. Hon. / Lady Mary Wortley Montagu / who in the Year 1720 / Introduced Inoculation / of the Small Pox into / England from Turkey’.

An example of an extremely early memorial dedication to a non-royal woman was probably added to an older monument by Thomas’ son, William (1722–91). It's also known as the Sun Memorial.

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762) was a poet and letter-writer, well known for her travel writing, including descriptions of Muslim women and their lives in the 18th century Ottoman Empire. Her life and work continues to fascinate and she is seen by many today as a proto-feminist and historic LGBT+ figure.

Tackling smallpox

After seeing inoculation against smallpox practised in Constantinople (now Istanbul), she made British medical history by helping to make it fashionable in British high society during the 1720s. William Wentworth and his three sisters were all treated to protect them from the terrible disease.

It is not certain when the monument, which is a copy of an ancient obelisk in Rome, was first erected. It originally had a bronze disc on top which was rumoured to be angled to reflect the sunlight across to the Wentworth Woodhouse estate. Could this be another example of family rivalry on show? It has also been suggested that the name is also an 18th century pun on ‘sun’ and ‘son.’

Argyll Column

In 1744, William Wentworth dedicated this grand column to his late father in law, the 2nd Duke of Argyll. Shortly before his death, the Duke had been punished for opposing the government's harsh anti-Jacobite policies in Scotland. This column dedicated to his memory is topped with a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, who faces south to London. Was William making a subtle political comment with this monument?

Two people and a dog are silhouetted standing next to the rotunda. The rotunda is a round brick building supported by six pillars surrounding it and has steps leading up to it.

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History 

Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.