Newstead Abbey is best known as the seat of the Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, but it was equally famed in the middle of the 18th century as the home of his great-uncle, William, the 5th Baron, known as the ‘Wicked Lord’. It was William who built sham forts and castles around the estate’s Great Lake, on which sailed his fleet of boats.
William (1722-1798) became notorious when he killed a man in a duel in 1765, and after his death countless stories were told of the Wicked Lord’s licentiousness, his feckless approach to money, and his murderous tendencies – many of the tales were wildly exaggerated, but whatever his vices he had the virtue of knowing how to erect a good gothic folly.
The sham castle on a hill above the lake was built in 1749, the date being inscribed above the door, although no records of a designer seem to survive. The Battery on the shore of the lake below the Castle must have been constructed around the same date, as it is shown in an engraving published in October 1749.
The Castle, as it is named on the earliest Ordnance Survey map of 1838, was built as a belvedere, from whence ‘the views of the lakes, the abbey and its fine arch, the plantation and the park […] form a very noble landscape’. It was also a banqueting house, and in the basement were servants quarters for the preparation of food. The upper storey was an ‘Octagon Gothic Room’ with a coved ceiling. This space was fashionably fitted out with a polychromatic Gothic fire surround, a sofa, blue and gold ‘Chinese’ chairs, and statues including Venus and Flora. No doubt great parties were held there, although little contemporary evidence can be found. But such is the Wicked Lord’s reputation that Emily Brand, in her recent book on the Byron family, surmises that ‘beyond that great oak door William and his dishonourable friends supposedly sank into depravity and staged drink-fuelled orgies’.
Below the Castle was a rampart with gateways at each end on which 4 guns were mounted, and at the foot of the slope was the Battery, ‘a small Fortification with about Twenty Cannon’ and a flagpole with boathouse alongside. Once the Castle and Battery were complete William ordered a number of boats, and in September 1753 a friend of the family noted in her diary that ‘ye ships came today to Newstead’. As well as craft described simply as yachts and boats, there was a rather more impressive gunship equipped with 20 cannon. This vessel fired a gun salute which was returned from the fort and battery. The accounts for 1755 show that a sailor and an assistant were paid to maintain the fleet and crew the ships. It has been assumed, with the arsenal of cannon on the boat and at the forts, that mock naval battles (naumachia) were enacted at Newstead, and whilst that seems likely, no first-hand accounts of such antics have been found.
By 1759 William had already embellished a mill across the lake from the Battery with turrets and battlements. In that same year it was reported that he was planning to add kennels and stables in a similar style. In 1767 a visitor noted that the building was known as ‘Moro Castle’, suggesting that it was complete by 1762, the year the British stormed the Moro Castle in the Siege of Havana during the Seven Years War. But this is the sole mention of it by that name, and it was better known as the Fort.
All of this investment, as well as William’s extravagant lifestyle in general, led to financial difficulties, and he had to sell off wood to pay his debts. In 1760 Horace Walpole wrote to his friend George Montagu to say that Lord Byron had ‘lost large sums, and paid part in old oaks, five thousand pounds worth of which have been cut near the house’.
Walpole may have exaggerated a little for dramatic effect, as other visitors in the 1760s admired the ‘fine park’, and the ‘fine oaks’. The trees in the immediate vicinity of the Castle were certainly reprieved, as in 1768 a visitor admired the ‘large plantation’ each side of the folly. These woods are shown in an engraving of 1780 after a painting by Paul Sandby, above, and in the anonymous watercolour taken from the same viewpoint.
The Castle survived into the 20th century, being used for a time as a schoolroom, but it was demolished in 1921, with only traces now visible above ground.
The Battery (listed grade II* as ‘the Cannon Fort’) and the Fort (grade II) can still be seen: the former was restored a few years ago and can be visited, and the latter, the abbey’s tea-room in the middle of the 20th century, can be admired from across the lake.
Newstead Abbey was bought by the philanthropist Sir Julien Cahn and presented to the City of Nottingham in 1931. The fort and stables were later sold and converted to private housing but the abbey and park have continued as a popular tourist destination ever since. Read more https://newsteadabbey.org.uk
For more on Naumachia see the essay by Michael Cousins (who is thanked for his help with this post) and Patrick Eyres in the New Arcadian Journal https://www.newarcadianpress.co.uk/product/naumachia/
For more on Newstead see the excellent Newstead Abbey: a Nottinghamshire Country House: its Owners and Architectural History 1540-1931, by Rosalys Coope & Pete Smith. http://www.thorotonsociety.org.uk/publications/recordseries/newsteadabbey.htm