When we tell our family stories, most of us can’t go back more than three or four generations before we’re talking about an ancestor who crossed an ocean. Not so the owners of England’s legendary “piles.” Just consider the cover of “Great Houses Modern Aristocrats” — the young couple on the cover are Nicholas and Dinah Ashley-Cooper (and son Anthony), the 12th Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, seated in the library of St. Giles House in Dorset, under a portrait of the first Earl.
Here’s James Reginato on the timelines of some of the houses he profiles in this book:
Most of these houses have belonged to the same families for centuries. Take Haddon Hall, for example: By 1200 the Vernons had settled into this crenellated stone manor house in Derbyshire. Almost 400 years later, in 1565, they married into the Manners family. Fast-forward another 400-plus years, and Haddon Hall remains in that family’s steady hands. Broughton Castle, a moated romantic redoubt in Oxfordshire, was last on the real estate market in 1377, some 75 years after it was built, when Sir John de Broughton snapped it up. “We’ve been hanging on ever since,” his descendant, the Honourable Martin Fiennes, told me jocularly…..From Blenheim to Haddon Hall, one thing is clear: A family’s attachment to its great house is visceral and time-tried.
This commitment requires dedication — and funding — that is beyond mortal man (and most of the 1%). Blenheim Palace, for example: “seven acres under one roof, eclipsing the splendor of any of the British royal family’s residences.” Getting access to these mostly ultra-private residences is one thing. Taking pictures that suggest detail as well as mass is another. Happily, Jonathan Becker’s photographs are house porn of the highest order — they chronicle more than “great rooms” that really are great. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]
But what kept me going through house after house —there are 16 — are the stories of the owners. From the chapter about Nicholas Ashley-Cooper:
St. Giles House, a gargantuan and grandiose brick pile, has been Nicholas Ashley-Cooper’s family’s home since 1650. By the time he was born, however, it was like a haunted mansion. Uninhabited since the early 60s—when the Ashley-Coopers decamped to Mainsail Haul, the eight-bedroom dower house on the 5,700-acre estate—St. Giles House had fallen into a parlous state of decay, with rain and snow seeping in when the huge metal sheets that sealed it flapped in the wind.
As he grew up, Nicholas comprehended with some relief that, since he was the second son, the decaying manor wasn’t his problem. His brother Anthony, two years older, would inherit the dilapidated estate along with the family titles on the death of their father, Anthony, the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury.
Nick, as he is generally known, decided he needed to get away if he was going to make anything of his life. In the spring of 2002 he moved to New York’s East Village, where he began to thrive as a techno disc jockey going by the handle Nick AC.
Then, in November 2004, a series of tragic, hard-to-believe events changed everything.
His father went missing in the Côte d’Azur, where he had been living for the previous two years; his body, mauled by animals, with just shreds of his jeans, was discovered five months later at the bottom of a remote ravine outside Cannes. The 66-year-old earl had been strangled at the behest of a high-end prostitute of Tunisian-Moroccan descent whom he had married two years previously and made the Countess of Shaftesbury.
Six months later, on May 15, 2005, it got worse: Anthony, 27 years old, suffered a heart attack and died. Suddenly, Nick was the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, and he had a huge wreck of a house on his hands.
And how about Henry Oliver Charles FitzRoy? He hosts a summer music festival, Red Rooster.
Several chapters began life as Vanity Fair stories. Consider them an amuse-bouche. Or some crumbs from the rich man’s table. Or just really human behavior when the normal constraints don’t apply. Like….
The book’s introduction
Grab a Coors. Settle into the Barcalounger. Wallow.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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