How old do you reckon this building is? Looks a bit Elizabethan, doesn’t it? Well read on and you may be as surprised as I was.
Minterne House (and especially the gardens, which I write about here) was my destination when I stopped off to have a look at the Cerne Abbas Giant during my few days in Dorset recently (see my previous post about the giant).
The house itself is not open to the public, except as a wedding venue, so I had to consult various sources to find out more about it. Most interesting seem to be the stories of a couple of rather scandalous women who lived at Minterne in different eras, although of course it has always been the men who have had all the titles and honours.
Minterne is an estate of 1,300 acres and has been the family home of the Digby line for 350 years. It was used as a location in the films Tom Jones and Far From the Madding Crowd. Originally this was the site of the Abbey of Cerne but after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, around 1550, the property went to Winchester College. The college rented it to lawyer John Churchill a century later.
The first Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688), son of John Churchill, may have lived here in the 17th century, and his son, John Churchill (1650-1722), the Great Duke of Marlborough, was brought up here, later having Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire built for him by a grateful nation after his victories in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Meanwhile Winston’s younger son, General Charles Churchill (1656-1714), inherited Minterne. He improved both the house and grounds, laying out a series of enclosed gardens with formal ponds, surrounded by a small park containing a long avenue to the house.
Charles Churchill died with no legitimate children and in 1768 Minterne was sold lock, stock and barrel, to Admiral Robert Digby (1732-1815), a grandson of William Digby, 5th Baron Digby, of nearby Sherborne Castle. The first baron with that title was created in 1620 as part of the Anglo-Irish peerage.
Robert Digby joined the Royal Navy at the age of 12 or 13 and was captain of HMS Solebay by the age of 23, in 1755. By 1781 he was an admiral and commanded North American waters. This was during the American Revolution or War of Independence, when the country threw off British colonial rule. After the surrender of New York City, which had been loyal to Britain, in 1783, Digby helped evacuate 1,500 United Empire Loyalists to the small village port of Conway in Nova Scotia. The settlement turned the place into a town, which was renamed Digby. The local museum is the Admiral Digby Museum.
The admiral came home in 1787 and married the daughter of the Lieutenant-Governor of New York, although I’m not sure in which order. He retired from the navy in 1794.
Robert Digby died childless and was followed at Minterne by another naval officer, his nephew Admiral Henry Digby (1770-1842), who joined the navy at the age of 14, at the end of the American Revolutionary War. He earned a fortune capturing prize ships during the European wars following the French Revolution.
His share of the 1,400,000 pieces of eight seized from the Spanish frigate Santa Brigida in 1799 was around £40,000 and set him and his family up for life.
He also commanded HMS Africa, a “third-rate” ship of the line at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, where the British defeated the combined fleets of France and Spain. Although he seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and disobeyed Nelson’s orders not to get involved.
In 1863 Minterne was inherited by Henry’s son Edward St Vincent Digby (1809-1889), the 9th Baron Digby, who started Minterne’s rhododendron and shrub collection.
Then, finally, we have the answer to the age of the current house – Edward St Vincent’s son Edward Henry Trafalgar Digby (1846-1920) the 10th Lord Digby, inherited the estate in 1889 and carried on developing the Himalayan gardens. Notably, between 1902 and 1907, he rebuilt the house in a mixture of styles, mainly Elizabethan, on the site of the previous Victorian house, to designs by architect Leonard Stokes.
But what about the two famous women I mentioned earlier, who grew up at Minterne?
The first was scandalous adventuress Lady Jane Digby (1807-1881), daughter of Admiral Henry Digby and younger sister of Edward St Vincent Digby. So of course she lived in an earlier version of the house.
Jane’s life was scandalous by Victorian standards and included four marriages and numerous lovers. There’s so much on Wikipedia and at least one book has been written about her (by Mary S Lovell – A Scandalous Life, 1998).
She was first married to Edward Law, later the Earl of Ellenborough, who became Governor General of India. They had one son, who died in infancy. But after affairs with her maternal cousin, Colonel George Anson, and Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, she was divorced from Lord Ellenborough by an act of Parliament, a scandal at the time. She had two children with Felix but that affair ended soon after their son died at a few weeks’ old.
In Munich she became the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria but also married Baron Karl von Venningen and had two children. Soon she found a new lover, Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis. Venningen challenged Theotokis to a duel and wounded him. Generously, the baron let Jane go and looked after the children. They remained friends.
Jane, still technically married, converted to the Greek Orthodox church and married Theotokis in Marseilles. They went back to Greece but divorced after their son was killed in a fall from a balcony, aged just six.
She had an affair with King Otto of Greece and then a hero of the Greek revolution, General Christodoulos Chatzipetros. She was “queen” of his brigand army, living in caves, riding horses and hunting in the mountains, but walked out when he was unfaithful. It all sounds so Game of Thrones!
At the age of 46, Jane went to the Middle East and fell in love with Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab, 20 years her junior. They married under Muslim law and lived happily until her death 28 years later. She was fluent in nine languages, including Arabic, and the couple lived half the year as nomads in tents and half in a palatial villa in Damascus, which is where she died of dysentery in 1881.
The second famous woman to have lived at Minterne – this time in the present house, was socialite Pamela Digby (1920-1997), more familiar to Americans as Pamela Harriman.
Pamela Beryl Digby was the daughter of Edward Kenelm Digby, 11th Baron Digby, who was the son of Edward Henry Trafalgar Digby, the 10th baron. She and her three younger siblings were taught by governesses at Minterne. She was a good horsewoman and competitive show-jumper.
At the age of 17, she went for six months to a Munich boarding school and was introduced to Adolf Hitler by Unity Mitford. Then she went to Paris and took some classes at the Sorbonne, but she never finished a degree and was back in England by 1937.
In 1939, while working as a translator at the Foreign Office in London, she met and soon married a very distant relative, Randolph Churchill, son of Famous British war leader Winston Churchill. Their son, another Winston, was born just after Randolph became an MP.
In 1941, Randolph asked her for help with huge gambling debts while in Cairo on military service and she began an affair with W Averell Harriman, a suave and sophisticated American from the US Embassy, with whom a friendship had grown during the Blitz. Her Catholic marriage to Randolph was annulled in 1945 on the grounds that he had deserted her for three years. But she and Harriman didn’t marry until much, much later – in 1971!
Meanwhile she had affairs with Edward R Murrow and John Hay “Jock” Whitney while still married to Randolph and was described by William S Paley, with whom she had a fling during the war, as “the greatest courtesan of the century”.
After her divorce she moved to Paris and in 1948 started a five-year affair with the rich and stylish Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli. The relationship eventually ended when he was unfaithful. She also had an abortion, but he may not have been the father.
Then she had a relationship with the married Baron Elie de Rothschild, a French banker and wine-grower. At the same time she had affairs with writer Maurice Druon and shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos.
In 1960 she became the fifth wife of Broadway film producer Leland Hayward, famous for The Sound of Music. They lived together in luxury in New York City and on their country estate until his death in 1971. She wasted no time and the day after his funeral she arranged to meet former lover W Averell Harriman again, by now 79 years old and recently widowed. They soon married and split their time between Washington DC and Virginia.
Harriman, a wealthy railroad heir, was involved with the Democratic Party, where Pamela’s political career now began. Her husband died in 1986 and not surprisingly she and his children fought over his inheritance.
As Pamela Churchill Harriman she had become a US citizen and raised funds for the Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s. President Bill Clinton made her United States Ambassador to France in 1993. She died in 1997, of a brain haemorrhage after swimming at the Paris Ritz.
We’ve come a long way from Dorset, but finally we return to Minterne House as it looks today. I am pleased with myself that I recognised correctly that it is built from golden Hamstone, from Ham Hill in Somerset. I had first seen this unusual colour at nearby Sherborne Abbey…
Sorry this post was so long – but I have learned so much and the connections with Canada and the USA were fascinating!
Here are a few references, apart from Wikipedia, to which I have linked throughout: