Minterne – The home of Churchills and Digbys
Although best known to visitors for its wonderful gardens, Minterne House has a history and associations as interesting as any house in Dorset. John Newth has visited it; Peter Booton took the pictures.
Published in October ’16
The source of the River Cerne lies close to where the Dorset Downs fall away into the Blackmore Vale, so if unimpeded, the easterly and north-easterly winds would pour down the head of the river valley. So they did until the late 18th century, when the manor house at the settlement furthest up the valley, Minterne Magna, was bought by Robert Digby, a member of the Digby family of Sherborne Castle. By his own description, the valley was ‘very bare, trees not thriving’ and the house itself was ‘ill-contrived and ill-situated’. He undertook huge tree-planting schemes on the rocky crags on either side of the valley to provide shelter belts and to create the calm and beautiful landscape on which Minterne House looks out today.
Robert was a Naval officer, an Admiral during the American War of Independence, and he took advantage of the large number of sailors paid-off between that war and the Napoleonic Wars to bring some of them to Dorset to create the foundations of what are today possibly the finest gardens in Dorset and one of the county’s foremost attractions. He also took advantage of the fact that his brother, Henry, the 7th Lord Digby, was at the time employing Capability Brown to re-landscape the parkland of Sherborne Castle; whenever Brown was visiting Sherborne, Robert just happened to invite himself to lunch. No doubt he picked the famous landscaper’s brains thoroughly.
The house that Robert took over in 1768 had been owned by Cerne Abbey, but on the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was granted to Winchester College. In the early 17th century the lease was held by John Churchill, who had been born in Bradford Peverell but had made his fortune as a lawyer in London before returning to Dorset with his wife, a member of the Winston family of Gloucestershire. Their son, Winston, returned to make Minterne his country seat (and to become MP for first Weymouth and then Lyme Regis) in 1660. Knighted in 1664, he was the first Sir Winston Churchill. He died in 1688 and left Minterne to his younger son, Charles – much to the annoyance of his elder son, John, who had the consolation a few years later, as victor of Blenheim, of receiving the dukedom of Marlborough and Blenheim Palace. Since the latter’s architect, Vanbrugh, designed it as a monument rather than a home, one suspects that John Churchill would still have preferred Minterne.
Charles’s legitimate line died out and the leasehold of the estate went briefly to his wife’s family, the Goulds from Upwey. It was from them that Robert Digby bought it, but it was not until 1856 that he acquired the freehold from Winchester College. This may have been made possible by the exploits of Henry Digby, Robert’s nephew. Having joined the Navy at the age of thirteen, he gained record amounts of prize money while in command of the Aurora and the Alcmene between 1796 and 1799. Prize money was paid for the capture of ships and was divided among all the crew, right down to the cabin boy. The division was far from equal, however, the captain of the ship receiving 25% of the prize’s value. By the time he was 30 in 1800, Henry Digby reckoned he had received in prize money £57,000 – about £3.5 million at today’s values. He later distinguished himself at Trafalgar, writing to his Uncle Robert a few days after the battle that his ship, HMS Africa, had lost all its masts and was ‘cut to pieces but sound in bottom’.
In the 19th century, the title moved from the Sherborne branch of the family to the Minterne branch, while the estate centred on Sherborne Castle was inherited by a niece who had married a Mr Wingfield-Baker; the Wingfield-Digby family still own Sherborne Castle today.
Robert’s house was much altered by succeeding generations, especially in the Victorian period, when it was extended and a rather odd-looking dome or cupola was added. However, in 1900, the house was found to be riddled with dry rot and the only answer was to knock it down and start again. The present house rose on exactly the same footprint, designed by Leonard Stokes. He was an adherent of the Arts and Crafts Movement and President of the RIBA, but he did not design many domestic buildings; he was best known for Catholic churches and – bizarrely – telephone exchanges. The construction was innovative in that there is no timber used in the frame of the house: it is all iron girders, encased in two-foot-square blocks of concrete. The facings are of Ham stone, which has weathered so much that it looks as though the house has been there for several centuries, not just one.
Minterne could provide evidence for the argument that the early part of the 20th century was an in-between time for British architecture, as it is something of a mish-mash. The north or entrance front owes much to the Gothic, the east front, overlooking the valley, has echoes of Georgian or Queen Anne, while the south front, with its alternate bays and gabled dormers, suggests Elizabethan. Above all squats a square, rather severe tower. Among the details are medallions with charming vignettes of the 10th Lord Digby, who commissioned the re-build, and his family. Unsurprisingly, given the house’s mixture of styles, it has tended to polarise opinions, from ‘heavy and vulgar’ to ‘beautifully sophisticated’, the latter being the judgement of Nikolaus Pevsner.
Inside, the outstanding room is the hall, which runs up through two storeys, with a gallery, to a tunnel-vaulted ceiling. The marble chimneypiece in the hall was originally made for the Duke of Westminster’s seat at Eaton Hall.
To return to the Digby family, two other members have gained a certain amount of fame, both of them women. Jane Digby was the daughter of Henry Digby of HMS Africa. Having caused a scandal by divorcing her much older first husband, she threw herself into a number of romances, notably with Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, by whom she had two children, and Ludwig I of Bavaria. Still only 26, she married a German baron, followed by a Greek count, then had affairs with King Otto of Greece and a Greek revolutionary warlord, with whose brigand band she lived in caves in the mountains of Thessaly. By now she was 46 and clearly felt it was time to settle down, but being Jane, her choice was unconventional: Sheikh Medjuel el-Mezrab, twenty years her junior. They married under Muslim law and were together until her death 28 years later. With him she lived a nomadic Bedouin life for half the year and spent the other half in Damascus and Homs. She lived the life of a traditional Arab wife, but was also a wonderful horsewoman and enjoyed breaking the young horses for the tribe.
Pamela Digby was the daughter of the 11th Baron Digby and in 1939, just a month after the outbreak of war, she united the two families with whom Minterne is most associated by marrying Randolph, the son of the future wartime Prime Minister. They divorced in 1945 and Pamela’s name was connected with a number of powerful men. She married twice more, her third husband being the American diplomat, W Averell Harriman, with whom she had had an affair thirty years earlier. This marriage gave her an entrée into US politics and Washington society, and from 1993 until her death in 1997, she was Bill Clinton’s Ambassador to France.
The present Lord Digby, who inherited the title from his father in 1964, was a successful and popular Lord Lieutenant of Dorset from 1984 to 1999. His wife, Lady Digby, was a nationally important figure in arts administration; locally, she founded and for almost fifty years ran the Summer Music Society of Dorset, many of whose concerts were held in the hall at Minterne. Some five years ago, they decamped to one of the apartments created in Minterne’s west wing and their elder son, Henry, moved into the main house with his family. Although it earns its keep, being hired out for a limited number of weddings and corporate functions, as well as attracting hosts of visitors to its gardens, it remains very much a family home.