Includes a collection of letters between the 6th Duke of Somerset and his officers' which shed a new light on the building of the present Petworth House, and the laying-out of the formal gardens; the plan and contracts for the landscaping of Petworth Park by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown; and a complete series of personal, household, legal, and estate accounts of Algernon, 10th Earl of Northumberland, from 1650-1667. The dominant position which the family at Petworth House had in the surrounding area is demonstrated by the presence in the archives of the records of two local schools (Coates and Up Waltham), and of the local poorhouse at Sutton.
Accounts of London tradesmen who supplied goods to the Earls of Egremont have been listed individually. This was time-consuming, but it was felt that otherwise so much information on individuals, and on the luxury goods of the time, would be obscured. The accounts also provide one of the major sources of information on the 3rd Earl of Egremont, since most of his personal papers were, regrettably, burnt by his son and executors.
Apart from the accounts, and a considerable amount of estate administration papers, which form the backbone of the archives of a great estate such as Petworth, there are also several groups of documents of particular interest. These include a significant collection of letters and other papers concerning the financial affairs of Charlotte Smith, the writer, in whose affairs the 3rd Earl interested himself for a time. There are also documents concerning the claims made on the 3rd Earl's estate by J.E.Carew, the sculptor, and a number of parliamentary papers of Sir William Wyndham. Of more local interest are papers concerning the dispute between the 9th Earl of Northumberland and his tenants in the 1590s, and a wonderful collection of manorial accounts from the 14th to the 16th centuries.
There is still a considerable amount of uncatalogued material in the Petworth House Archives, though all except the more modern material has been summarily listed, so there are unlikely to be any major unexpected finds. The uncatalogued material is in addition to the old title deeds relating to the Sussex, Yorkshire and Irish estates, which are listed under the estate office system established in the mid-19th century. These are accessible through the old lists and indexes, and so are not a priority for re-cataloguing. Enquiries about them should be addressed to West Sussex Record Office.
|Administrative / biographical background:
Petworth itself, from the middle of the 12th century, was the property of the Percys of Northumberland, providing them with a quiet and peaceful home away from the turbulent North. In 1293 Henry, later Baron Percy of Alnwick, obtained licence to crenellate the castle at Petworth. A bird's eye view, drawn in 1610 by Ralph Treswell, jun., gives a good picture of the house. This was done for Henry Percy, the 9th 'or Wizard' Earl, probably the most famous of the eleven Earls of Northumberland, who for alleged conspiracy in the Gunpowder Plot, spent sixteen years in the Tower of London. His incarceration was not unduly uncomfortable; for example he was allowed to see lots of people from outside and to converse with them as long as he liked. He met and befriended Thomas Harriott, the astronomer and mathematician, many of whose papers are at Petworth. (These papers will be described in greater detail when the Historical Manuscripts Commission Report of 1877 is revised.) Henry Percy, scholar and patron of learning, collected a large library, much of which is still at Petworth. His great grand-daughter, Elizabeth Percy, the last of her line, at the tender age of fifteen married as her third husband in the chapel at Petworth in August 1682 Charles Seymour, the 6th or 'Proud' Duke of Somerset. Apart from his inordinate pride and obsession with his lineage, he is famous for undertaking the rebuilding of Petworth House, though it is unfortunate that the normally detailed building accounts, covering the years 1688-1696, during which time Grinling Gibbons worked at Petworth, fail to mention the name of the architect; however John Scarborough, who worked for Wren and was Clerk of Works at Greenwich, may have been concerned with the building of the house.
The break in the Percy connection with Petworth is slightly complicated. Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, the 'Proud' Duke's eldest son, allowed his daughter, Lady Elizabeth, to marry Sir Hugh Smithson, son of the Yorkshire baronet, a marriage which took on greater significance when, in 1744, Lord Beauchamp, only son and heir of Lord Hertford, died in Bologna of smallpox. This meant that Sir Hugh and his wife were heirs of both the Percy and Somerset estate, which in no way pleased the 'Proud' Duke, who looked down on the Smithsons. An unpleasant legal battle led eventually to the conclusion that the Northumberland possession, over which the Duke had no authority, with the Barony of Percy must pass in the female line, in default of the male, to Lady Elizabeth Smithson, and the united estates were therefore only vested in Algernon, 7th Duke of Somerset, for life. In 1749 he was created both Earl of Northumberland, with remainder to Lady Elizabeth and her heirs, and Earl of Egremont, with remainder to Sir Charles Wyndham, bt., elder son of his sister, Lady Catherine Seymour. When in the following year the 7th Duke died the estates were thus divided: Sir Charles Wyndham succeeded to the Petworth and Cockermouth estates as 2nd Earl of Egremont, while Sir Hugh Smithson was in 1766 created Duke of Northumberland, taking the name of Percy.
The 'Golden Age' of Petworth came with Sir Charles Wyndham's eldest son, George, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), patron of the arts, ideal landlord, agriculturalist, and generous host, famous both for his extreme shyness in London's social circle as for his immense hospitality to all at Petworth. He is said to have entertained upwards of 6000 of the local poor at one time in the house and grounds, and over a period of 60 years to have spent in excess of £1,200,000 on charitable purposes. Numerous artists visited and worked at Petworth, most notable of all being Turner, many of whose paintings hang in the house, while Blake, Hayley, B. R. Haydon, Phillips, Farington and Greville all recorded the immense generosity of their host. He introduced many agricultural reforms under the expert guidance of Arthur Young, and took great interest in road and waterway improvements. In 1774 he took also the surname of Obrien, which he inherited with the estate of his late uncle, the Earl of Thomond, a family connection which arose from the marriage of a daughter of the 6th Duke of Somerset. He was Lord Lieutenant of Sussex from 1819-1835. At least two attempts were made to marry him into society, but it was Elizabeth Ilive, the daughter of a master at Westminster School, who bore him his nine children, and whom he eventually married in 1801. On account of this oversight, on his death in 1837 the title passed to his nephew, George, on whose death in 1845 it became extinct. The estate passed to his eldest son, Col. George Wyndham who in 1859 took the title of Leconfield. In 1947 it was conveyed with a large endowment to the National Trust, to be preserved for the nation, and is now in the occupation of Lord Egremont, M.B.E. (formerly Mr. John Wyndham) who was created a Baron in 1963 and revived the Egremont title as his father, the 5th Lord Leconfield, was still living at that time. (The pedigree at p. xvi is intended to indicate the descent of the estate, the names of Petworth's owners being in italics.)