A manor house stood where Witley Court is now located as early as the Domesday survey of 1086. By 1100 the manor was owned by William de Beauchamp and later it passed into the Cooksey family. At this time a church and 3-400 acres were part of the property. Robert Russell inherited in 1498. A larger house was built about 1600 when two long wings were added. Twin towers housed staircases.100 years later formal gardens were laid out.
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Witley Court was, in 1655, purchased by Thomas Foley, member of a rich Stourbridge ironmasters family. His son inherited in 1677 and did further renovating and rebuilding. The family owned the estate for 182 years.
Between 1725-30 the house was greatly extended. A central block, new parapets, and bay windows were among the additions. Curving walls connected the service blocks to the north wings, creating a Palladian style. He also added a new north approach.
John Nash, in 1805, converted the house into an Italianate mansion with porticoes, staircases, columns, and balustrades. In 1837 William, 11th baron Ward, became the owner of the estate when the house was purchased for him. Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV, used the mansion for three years beginning in 1843. Europe’s crowned heads visited her here. He did not move in until 1846.
William, Lord Dudley, had architect Samuel Daukes enlarge the court based on Italian designs of the 16th and 17th century. Bath stone was used to cover the church and outside of the court. James and William Forsyth were employed as sculptors for the house, church, and fountains. The 100 principal rooms were furnished in the second empire style.
The eldest son, the 2nd Earl, (1867-1932) was a friend of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and the house became a magnate for the rich and famous. Fifty servants took care of their needs. He sold the house in 1920, after his wife drowned in Ireland and his fortunes declined, to Sir Herbert Smith, a carpet manufacturer.
The house is now a ruin, having burned in September 1937. The fire started near the butler’s pantry and burnt out most of the central and eastern portion of the building.The contents, which were saved, were sold after the fire. In 1938 the house and land were split and sold at auction. Decay and neglect continued over the years until the house and grounds came into the possession of English Heritage in 1972.
During a tour of the ruin, you can walk through what was the former entrance hall, then through a 17th century doorcase into the west tower. Doubling back leads to the red sitting room and red room. From the entrance hall the east tower is reached. An octagonal dining room leads into a ballroom, beyond which is the octagonal green saloon. The drawing room is reached from the entrance hall and connects with a saloon.
The landscaped gardens, complete with stone fountains, were created by William Nesfield on the instruction of Ward in the second half of the 1700s. A village, sited close to the south front of the house, was done away with. In the 1880s the wilderness “garden” was a naturalistic landscape surrounding the front pool. The gardens and fountains fell into disrepair and restoration has taken place to some extent. In the grounds is the Jerwood foundation sculpture park with modern British sculptures by artists that include Gormley, Armitage, and Ayrton
During the Foley’s ownership the church, St Michaels and All Angels that survives today (it is a parish church) was built (formerly a medieval church occupied the site). The church was completed in 2 years and is thought to be designed by James Gibbs. When first built, it had a brick exterior and stone dressings that matched the facade of the court. The interior of the church was plain, had a flat ceiling, box pews, and a high pulpit. Lady Foley commissioned the south transept monument to her late husband. It commemorates Lord and Lady Foley and the five children who pre-deceased them.
The stained and painted windows of 1719-21 are by Joshua Price from designs by an Italian artist. The second baron Foley added the baroque interior in 1747. The barrel vaulted ceiling paintings are the work of the Italian artist Antonio Bellucci. The gilded stucco mouldings were originally created by Giovanni Bagutti. The white marble font was carved by James and William Forsyth. It has an oak wooden cover. The mosaic panels of the reredos were purchased in Venice by Rachel 2nd Countess of Dudley in 1913. The box pews were replaced, and a new pulpit was installed. The original wrought-iron stair railing was reused. A marble floor, copying that of Worcester’s cathedral, was laid.
Witley Court, seen across its lake and grounds, makes a dramatic and interesting statement of a bygone era.
Off A443 at Great Witley 10 miles north-west of Worcester.
Tel. 01299 896636.
Open: April-end Sep, 10am-6pm daily; Oct: 10am-5pm daily; Nov-March, 10am-4pm, Wed-Sun.
English Heritage property; audio tour available; shop, cafe
Local tourist information at Droitwich Spa (Tel 01905 774312).
Bus 0870 608 2608 Yarranton 758 Worcester- Tenbury Wells (passes close BR Worcester Foregate St).
Train Droitwich Spa 81/2 m.