Lowther Castle

by Cecilia McCabe

Banner Image: Lowther Castle Parterre by Val Corbett, courtesy of Lowther Estates

The Lowther Estate has played a colourful role in English history since the days of the Vikings. At its centre, buildings have changed from a ‘motte and bailey’ castle to a pele tower, to a grand ‘Queen Anne’ mansion and finally to a neo-Gothic castle, the ruins of which we see today.

The history is best explored by visiting the displays at the Castle, and reading the guidebook, but here are a few highlights:

‘Dolfin’ of Viking descent lived in Lowther around 1150. The attractions for settlement on this particular spot were no doubt the river Lowther (lowth-a meaning ‘foaming river’ in Old Norse) and probably the excellent game hunting.

Hugh de Lowther born 1250 was a lawyer who became Sheriff of Edinburgh in 1296 when that city fell to Edward I. He entered Parliament in 1305, starting a 600 year family tradition.

Hugh de Lowther II fought the Scots for the king including helping re-capture Berwick on Tweed. A border raid by the Scots in 1345, when 20,000 people of Penrith were taken as captives back over the border, was no doubt the inspiration behind the conversion of the ‘Motte and Bailey’ castle to a ‘Pele Tower’ for its defensive qualities.

Hugh de Lowther III added the manors of Hackthorpe, Thrimby, Bampton and Askham to the estate and and married Margaret de Whale.

Hugh de Lowther V fought at Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Hugh de Lowther VI was the first Lowther to go to Oxford University, in 1433.

Sir John Lowther in 1542 fought for Henry VIII’s forces at Solway Moss against the Scots and disinherited his ‘unthrifty’ son in favour of his grandson, Richard.

Richard hosted Mary Queen of Scots at Carlisle Castle and, after barring an attempt by the Duke of Northumberland to take her into custody, he was imprisoned in The Tower of London on her behalf. He even gets a mention in Walter Scott’s novel ‘The Abbot’.

Richard’s grandson, Sir John (I) improved the estate and built Lowther Hall.

Sir John (II) built the gallery and chapel.

Sir John (IV) ‘Jacky’ bought Lowther Village in 1655 and displaced the villagers to Lowther Newton in order to enlarge the Grounds. This left the Church standing alone, as today. The extra grounds were put to use: he was, unusually for the time, a vegetarian. It was he who transformed the existing house into Lowther Hall – a lavish creation complete with frescoes by Verrio (of Hampton Court fame) and a room lined with mohair.

Jacky’s first son Richard died of smallpox in 1714, so the estate went to the younger son, Henry: ‘no great genius’ according to Horace Walpole. Henry was a gambler and a traveller. The house burned down in 1718 and the estate became depleted. He died with no heirs in 1751.

The Estate then passed to a cousin, James Lowther, ‘Wicked Jimmy’ whose father, Robert Lowther, while governor of Barbados, owned slaves and sugar plantations. Wicked Jimmy also inherited Whitehaven Castle and Collieries, from another cousin, and was thus a very rich man. James Boswell called him ‘The Northern Tyrant’. He corruptly controlled nine seats in parliament. His political agent was John Wordsworth (father of the poet and living at Tirril) but Jimmy refused to pay John’s wages. When John Wordsworth died he was still owed £5,000 by the Lowthers and the family was left destitute.

‘Wicked Jimmy’ died in 1802 with the Hall still in ruins. With no heir the estate was left to William Lowther of Swillington, who immediately repaid the old debts of ‘Wicked Jimmy’, including those owed to the Wordsworths, and even restored some fairness to the voting system. Moreover, he replaced the burnt Lowther Hall with the Castle whose ruins you see today. It was designed by Robert Smirke in the ‘Gothic Revival’ style and cost around £150,000, about £11 million in today’s money. William was the true Victorian gentleman and earned the title ‘Earl of Lonsdale’. He counted William Pitt, the younger and William Wilberforce among his friends. I wonder what they called each other?

Lowther Castle and Parterre from above, courtesy of Lowther Estates

‘William the Good’ died in 1844 . His heir, also William, was an avid collector and contributed greatly to the castle’s portfolio of china, paintings and furniture.

After this there were two short-lived earls before the estate passed to Hugh Cecil Lowther in 1882. Hugh Cecil became known as the Yellow Earl. His many achievements included the creation of ‘The Lonsdale Belt’ in boxing, daring feats of horsemanship, sailing with and entertaining Kaiser Wilhelm II. However, his lavish spending took its toll and when economic depression hit in the 1920s, he had to sell assets, abandon the castle and move to his other estate in Rutland.

In January 1942 the castle was requisitioned for war use and became home to a tank regiment.

By the time Lancelot Lowther (5th Earl) came to inherit the castle in 1944, it was in a very poor state and he could not afford to improve or even maintain it. In 1947 most of the artworks and furnishings were sold in a great sale of contents, many of them going for a song, it being the impoverished post-war period.

In 1953 the estate passed to Lancelot’s grandson James Hugh William Lowther, the father of the present Earl. He was saddled with inheritance tax bills of £25m and had no love for the place having returned from the war a committed socialist. He saw the castle as exemplifying ‘the worst excesses of the past’. The people of Penrith objected to the castle’s demolition, so James decided to empty and de-roof it. A large sale was held, and the place left to decay for over 50 years. Jim Lowther – one of James Lowther’s sons inherited in 2006. With the assistance of English Heritage, North West Development Agency, European Regional Development fund, the Architectural Heritage Fund and his friend Bryan Gray, he has worked tirelessly to bring back to life the castle ruins, its setting, its gardens and its history.

It is now one of the most visited attractions in Cumbria offering walks, cycle rides, history, adventure and a very convivial courtyard. For more information see Lowther Castle & Gardens website.

By Cecilia McCabe, edited by Charlotte Fairbairn, Lowther Estates

Lowther Castle & Gardens

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