This historic, Jacobite, Grade 1 Listed house, between Belsay and Wallington, was designed and built, in 1668, by Robert Trollope for Sir John Swinburne, 1st Baronet. Though enlarged about 1800, it still retains its charming Restoration baroque features and the extensive gardens enjoy wonderful views over the 18thC park and fully maintained kitchen garden and greenhouses.
The Swinburne family (now Browne-Swinburne) live in Capheaton Hall and run the estate, as they have done for 700 years. The luxury self-catering accommodation is in the West Wing and the family occupy the East Wing and centre of the house.
Capheaton became the main Swinburne seat in about 1270 and there is plenty to learn about them between then and 1668, but we will pick up the story at the Restoration of Charles II, in 1660.
The house builder, Sir John was son of a great catholic Royalist, also John, who was promised a baronetcy by Charles I, but unfortunately, before receiving it, was murdered at Meldon in 1643, following a lunch party argument. As the Civil War was raging, it was then thought wise to send son John to a Benedictine monastery in France, for safe keeping
When peace and eventually Charles II returned , a member of the Radcliffe family and cousin of the Swinburnes, found John, while on his travels. Though the monks did not know his name, John proved his identity by describing the markings on the tabby cat at Capheaton and the family’s silver punch bowl; and on the strength of that rather flimsy evidence he succeeded to Capheaton and his estates.
In that same year Charles II granted to John the baronetcy, which had been promised to his father and with it gave John and his wife, Isabell (nee Lawson of Brough) permission for a new mansion on or around the site of the original castle. This was the first unfortified substantial house to be built in Northumberland.
From what we know of John and Isabell, they were educated, creative and worldly, with a great zest for life and determination to make their mark.This spirit, in an age of great excitement, hope and progress, is reflected in the ebullience and daring of their building brief to Robert Trollope for the new Capheaton .
Described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, as “one of the most interesting houses of its date and character in England and far too little known...”, the original house is testament to John and Isabell’s joy and passion for life and each other( Isabel had twenty four children). Hopefully, you will be able to see for yourselves this remarkable expression of Restoration baroque, at its most audacious.
The Swinburnes were the epitome of a leading family, in the Jacobite tradition. Deeply catholic and enduring servants of the House of Stuart, they were cousins of Lord Derwentwater , who led and lost the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion at the Battle of Preston. Luckily, the Swinburne of the day was on his death bed and sent two of his brothers, rather than his son, to fight so their lands were not sequestered like those of many comparable Jacobite families.
The 18th C. heralded comparative calm and great cultural and artistic activity, inspired by educational visits to the Continent on the Grand Tour. The Swinburnes, because of their catholicism, were mainly educated in France and from an early age, widely travelled.
Foremost among them, in this respect was Henry Swinburne (1743-1803), whose Travels through Spain in the years 1775 & 1776 became a best selling travel book and standard issue, forty years later, for British officers in the Peninsula War.
His second book, Travels in the Two Sicilies 1777-1780 provides a fascinating insight to southern Italian Court life.
Henry and his wife Martha, became friends of the pleasure seeking King Ferdinand IV and his formidable Queen Carolina, so much so that their new born daughter was christened Caroline and the Queen was her godmother and in due course their son Thomas became page to the queen’s sister, Marie Antoinette, but that is another story.
In 1763 Capheaton had been inherited by Sir Edward (1733-1786), Henry’s elder brother. A merchant in Bordeaux, Edward was a member of The Society of Dilettantes and had also done the Grand Tour.
He made his mark on Capheaton by creating the lake, which bears his name, turning the house chapel into his library, planning to add wings and moving the house approach from the south to the north side. He also began building the village in its present form.
He engaged a brick maker, John Newton to build the present kitchen garden walls, but more importantly, it was to be his son, William Newton who would be responsible for designing and building the wings and new north front on the house.
Edward died with his dreams unfulfilled and was succeeded by his son John Edward (`1762-1860), who presided over the most exciting and progressive period in Capheaton’s history. He was an energetic, ambitious Whig and like many of his contemporaries, inspired by The Enlightenment and frustrated by the restrictions imposed on Catholics. So as soon as his father died he turned protestant, writing to his friend the British Ambassador in Vienna:- “It was absurd to sacrifice my consideration in my own country, my prospects in life, to condemn myself to eternal insignificance and oblivion, for Tenets I did not believe and ceremonies I never practised.”
John Edward became an MP and staunch supporter of Lord Grey and his Reform Bill, but he also found time to modernise his farms and buy more, dig quarries, build roads and bridges and greatly improve his estate.
Immensely cultured, he was an active patron of the Arts, engaging Mulready to teach his children to draw and paint and befriending and supporting Turner and Cotman amongst others.
A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was first President of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle and also of the Artists’ Benevolent Fund.
With William Newton’s help, he altered and enlarged Capheaton on the lines envisaged by his father. Thankfully, he retained the original south front, about which architectural historians are so enthusiastic, but in the process he changed a Restoration gem into something substantially less manageable for future generations!
For 100 years following John Edward’s death in 1860, the house and home estate remained substantially unchanged. But Fate dealt the family a tricky hand to play. First, John Edward’s eldest son Ned rebelled against everything that his father held dear and took his family to live a bohemian life in the Lake District. Luckily, Ned died before his father, or he would almost certainly have sold or ruined Capheaton.
But, as well as Ned predeceasing John Edward, Ned’s eldest son Henry also did.
Thus Capheaton passed, on his grandfather’s death to John, Ned’s unsuspecting second son, a naval officer who was to have three wives.
John Edward had spent all his and his wife’s money, John had none to spend and refused to allow his heir, Hubert to become a lawyer and earn some.
So when Hubert’s only daughter, Joan married in 1937, the house was in desperate need of repair and modernisation. Then came World War II and the house was taken over by the Army and Ministry of Supply and filled with boxes of TNT! Though they did not explode fortunately, the fabric of the house deteriorated to a point where demolition was contemplated.
In 1966 my parents married and with the help of £12,000 of Government war reparation money, they and my grandparents renovated the East Wing, where we were all brought up.
Over the ensuing years my parents carried out major restorations to the house and gardens, made the West Wing into another house and moved John Edward’s library downstairs to the old front hall.
Between my grandparents, who sacrificed so much for the benefit of the place and my parents who built on that prudent management, Capheaton remains as much of a passion for the Swinburnes today, as it was in 1668.