Political gardening at Wentworth Castle Gardens

The sun monument and Stainborough Castle at Wentworth Castle Gardens

Stories of power, wealth and politics, family infighting, misery and hope can be found all around Wentworth Castle Gardens – you just need to know where to look.

Sir Thomas Wentworth (1672-1739) created this estate to outshine his cousin’s, building a house and gardens to rival nearby Wentworth Woodhouse. This bold statement started centuries of work at Wentworth Castle Gardens, creating the stories hidden in monuments around the estate today.

 

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 (particularly since this change caused him to lose both his power and influence).

Patriotism and planting in the Union Jack Garden
The Union Jack Garden at Wentworth Castle Gardens, Yorkshire
Patriotism and planting in the Union Jack Garden

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 Sundial

Like many of his contemporaries, Thomas Wentworth benefitted from the sale and labour of enslaved Africans. This human misery helped pay for the house and gardens he built.

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 Africans to the Spanish colonies in the Americas - known as the ‘Asiento’. He 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.

Like many of his contemporaries, Wentworth was also a shareholder in the South Sea Company, a public/private partnership business set up to exclusively manage British trade in slaves and goods with the Spanish empire. In the same year that he was appointed to work on the Treaty of Utrecht, Wentworth married Anne Johnson (c.1684-1754). Anne was the daughter Sir Henry Johnson (c. 1659-1719), a wealthy and influential man who also profited from the slave trade. He owned the Blackwall shipyard in London, which built vessels for the East India Company which was heavily involved in the Atlantic slave economy. The shipyard was managed for a time by Henry’s brother, William (c1660-1718) who during his career also worked directly for the East India Company and the Royal African Company. At the end of his life William was appointed Captain-General of Guinea for the Royal African Company, overseeing the company’s West African forts where enslaved Africans were held before being transported over the Atlantic by the vessels of the South Sea Company and others.

When Thomas and Anne married, she brought with her a huge dowry of about £60,000 (worth £6.2m today), paid for by her family’s business activities. When Johnson died, Thomas, Anne and their heirs also inherited the Blackwall shipyard (which they sold for £2,800 or approximately £325,000 today) and Johnson’s Friston estate in Suffolk (which remained in family ownership into the 20th century).

The Kneeling African at Wentworth Castle Gardens, on loan from Barnsley Museums
Sundial in the form of a kneeling man at Wentworth Castle Gardens
The Kneeling African at Wentworth Castle Gardens, on loan from Barnsley Museums

Lady Mary Memorial (or the Sun Monument)

“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”. This extremely early memorial dedication to a non-royal woman was probably added to an older monument by Thomas’s son, William (1722-1791).

Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu (1689-1762) was a poet and letter-writer, well known for her travel writing, including vivid descriptions of Muslim women and their lives in the 18th century Ottoman Empire. 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, along with his three sisters, were all treated to protect them from the terrible disease.

The plaque was probably added after Lady Mary’s death in 1762. One theory is that the dedication is also meant as a coded reference to the impact deaths from smallpox had in the changing of the Royal Succession from the Stuarts to the Hanoverians. Another theory is that it had a more personal family meaning as William’s infant nephew apparently died from smallpox in 1751. It may have also been a gesture to Lady Mary’s daughter (also Lady Mary) who owned nearby Wortley Hall from where the sun reflector on top would have been visible. 1762 was also the year that Lady Mary Jnr’s husband, the 3rd Earl of Bute (who was raised by William Wentworth’s father-in-law) was briefly made Prime Minister, so this may be a connection.

It is not certain when the monument, which is a copy of an ancient obelisk in Rome, was first put up. 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’. Thomas Wentworth was involved in plots to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. Did he want to make a coded tribute to the exiled son of the deposed King James II? Or was the monument simply a later tribute from William Wentworth to his father, Thomas?

Argyll Column

In 1744, William Wentworth dedicated this grand column to his late father in law, the 2nd Duke of Argyll. But is this simply a touching family tribute, or could this also be a political statement? 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?