The official Brocket Hall website tells us, “Brocket Hall has one of the most intriguing of any of the great houses of Britain. Indeed the scent of scandal can be found in the fabric of the building back to its roots in the 13th Century right up to the present day.” If you are a fan of the PBS series “Victoria,” you know something of Brocket Hall.
The house is located near Hatfield in Hertfordshire, a shire near and dear to every Jane Austen fan. The manor was built by renowned architect James Paine for the owner, Sir Mathew Lamb in 1760. However, the Hall stands on the site of two predecessors, the original of which was built in 1239. The grounds were laid out by the most prestigious landscape architect of the time, Capability Brown.
Sir Matthew’s son was Peniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne (29 January 1745 – 22 July 1828), known as Sir Peniston Lamb, 2nd Baronet, from 1768 to 1770. He was a British politician, who sat in the House of Commons from 1768 to 1793. He succeeded to the baronetcy on his father’s death on 6 November 1768 and inherited Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, another of our favorite shires. He married Elizabeth Milbanke, daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, She was a young woman of great beauty, intelligence and strong character, who quickly came to dominate her husband completely, and steered them into the centre of polite society. Lady Melbourne was known for her political influence and her friendships and romantic relationships with other members of the English aristocracy, including Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV). Because of her numerous love affairs, the paternity of several of her children is a matter of dispute. Lord Melbourne became Lord of the Bedchamber in 1812. In 1815 he was even further honoured when he was made Baron Melbourne, of Melbourne in the county of Derby, in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, which gave him a seat in the House of Lords. He died on 22 July 1828, aged 83 and was succeeded in his titles by his son William.
The Prince Regent often stayed at Brocket Hall to visit his mistress. Supposedly, the first Lord Melbourne turned a blind eye to the affair. After all, his extolled position and title was likely a result of his wife’s lustful endeavors. In the ballroom of the house hangs a Joshua Reynolds painting presented to Elizabeth,
Lady Melbourne. Prince George also created the Chinese suite of rooms, known as the Prince Regent Suite, still in use today by residential guests.
The second Lord Melbourne was the one we know as the Prime Minister for Queen Victoria. William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, succeeded his eldest brother Peniston to the title when Peniston died of tuberculosis before their father had passed. William Lamb’s name was often surrounded by scandal. His wife, Caroline (neé Ponsonby) Lamb, had a very public affair with Lord Byron. She coined the famous characterisation of Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The resulting scandal was the talk of Britain in 1812. Lady Caroline published a Gothic novel, Glenarvon, in 1816; this portrayed both the marriage and her affair with Byron in a lurid fashion, which caused William even greater embarrassment, while the spiteful caricatures of leading society figures made them several influential enemies. Eventually, the two were reconciled, and, though they separated in 1825, her death in 1828 affected him considerably.Set in the 1798 Irish rebellion, the book challenged establishment thinking, whilst also casting a sceptical eye on left-wing politicking. Its rakish title character, Lord Ruthven, is an unflattering depiction of her ex-lover, Lord Byron.
It is said that Caroline introduced the waltz to England, it being performed first at Brocket Hall. Lady Melbourne was known for her scandalous behavior. Supposedly, she emerged from a soup tureen at her husband’s birthday party and danced naked upon a ballroom table, a table still in use today for banquets at the house. Bryon was 24 when he and Caroline began their affair. His fame had increased for he had just published Child Harolde. He attempted to end their affair after only four months, but she would have none of his rejection. In Christopher Winn’s book, I Never Knew That About England (page 130), he tells us, “At Brocket, she (Caroline) gathered together all the local village maidens, dressed them in white and made them dance around a burning funeral pyre on which she had placed a bust of Lord Byron. Then she tore up his letters and cast them into the flames while reciting sad elegies. She turned her bedroom into a shrine to Byron, and her ghost can apparently still be heard in there, playing Chopin, late into the night.” The story becomes sadder when one learns that Lady Melbourne fell from her horse at the shock of seeing Lord Byron’s funeral cortege passing the Brocket estate; she had by all accounts, not known of his death until that moment, for he had died abroad and his body was being returned to his home seat.
Lord Melbourne knew more scandal in 1836. This time he was the victim of attempted blackmail from the husband of a close friend, society beauty and author Caroline Norton. The husband demanded £1,400, and when he was turned down, he accused Melbourne of having an affair with his wife. At this time such a scandal would be enough to derail a major politician, so it is a measure of the respect contemporaries had for his integrity that Melbourne’s government did not fall. William IV and the Duke of Wellington urged him to stay on as prime minister. After Norton failed in court, Melbourne was vindicated, but he did stop seeing Mrs Norton. Nevertheless, as historian Boyd Hilton concludes, “it is irrefutable that Melbourne’s personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity.” [Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846. 2006, p. 500.]
On the death of Melbourne in 1848, Brocket Hall passed to his sister, who was to marry Lord Palmerston. Palmerston went on to become Prime Minister and was to die in somewhat bizarre circumstances at Brocket Hall, on a billiards table, allegedly involved with a chambermaid at the time. More recently Baroness Margaret Thatcher spent time at the Hall where she wrote her memoirs.
The current Lord Brocket is Chales Nall-Cain, 3rd Baronet Brocket. He, too, has had an interesting past. According to Wikipedia, “He became known as a playboy, and collected classic cars, once owning forty-two Ferraris, which he became known for in the eighties and early 1990s. He was convicted of insurance fraud in 1996 and sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served two and a half years. In 2004, he was a contestant on the third series of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! Finishing in fourth place, his newfound fame made him a popular TV celebrity, making almost £1 million in offers. His autobiography, Call Me Charlie, was published in hardback, coming in the Top 10 Best Sellers list of 2004. He hosted the ITV game show Scream! If You Want to Get Off and presented Privates Exposed, a behind-the-scenes programme for ITV’s Bard Lady Army on ITV2. In 2007, he launched his own Brocket Hall Foods range of groceries. In 2017 an episode of the Channel 5 series Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! featured High Court enforcement officers seeking to recover a debt of £8,000 owed to a firm of accountants from him, although he was out of the country on holiday, and thus not seen on screen.” Brocket Hall was, at the time of the 3rd. Baronet’s succession, in a bad state of repair, and he has since converted it into a hotel and conference venue. Today he still owns the hall in Hertfordshire through a trust which leases it to a German consortium and billed as a luxurious hotel and country club. The lease expires after fifty years.