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The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

Exclusive extract from the first chapter of  ‘The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse’ by Piu Marie Eatwell

deaddukehighresAfter a long and dreary drive through wet country lanes, the party that included the ‘young duke ’ – for that was the identity of the pale and heavy-eyed young man of twenty-two – arrived at its destination. Welbeck Abbey, like the nearby town of Worksop, was situated near the northern end of Sherwood Forest. The area was known as ‘the Dukeries’– there being no fewer than four ducal seats within a few miles’ radius. Welbeck Abbey had been the principal seat of the Dukes of Portland since 1809, but by 1879 there was little to be found of the original ‘Abbey’, apart from the name. The abbey had been founded as the chief seat of the white- cassocked Premonstratensian monastic Order in the twelfth century. During the Dissolution, the house had been handed by Henry VIII to his prominent administrator, Richard Whalley of Screveton. Afterwards, it had passed to Whalley’s son, then through a series of sales and transfers to Lord Talbot, heir to the Earl of Shrewsbury, and finally in 1607 to Sir Charles Cavendish, a son of one of the best known figures of the Elizabethan age, Bess of Hardwick.

Bess was a friend of Queen Elizabeth I, but while she shared many of her characteristics – including her first name and shrewd personality – she did not, like her, live and die a maiden. Quite to the contrary; by the end of her career, she had married no fewer than four times, and accumulated a fortune in landed estates across the country. She was also, by her many marriages and complex network of family connections, a remote ancestor of most of England’s nobility, and even boasted royal connections.

The portrait of Bess that hung in the great hall of Welbeck in 1879 – and remains in the abbey to this day – reveals a woman with a broad forehead and a determined line to her mouth. She is handsome as opposed to beautiful, and her hands are shapely. Most importantly of all, the huge wealth acquired from her marriages is symbolized in the quadruple string of pearls that dangles around her neck, down to her waist. Bess had a passion for building, which amounted almost to the pathological. One biographer says of her:

All her life she was surrounded by masons, carpenters, brick-dust. She could not cease building, and her workmen were still busy when she died. It was said that she believed a prediction that she could not die as long as she was building.

We have reason to be grateful for Bess’ building mania, for she built some of the finest houses to be seen in England today. It is also possible that she passed on her fetish for construction work to at least one of her descendants, who was to occupy the abbey in later years.

Welbeck Abbey reached the Dukes of Portland through the marriage of Lady Margaret Cavendish Holles-Harley to the 2nd Duke of Portland in 1734. The Portland dukedom was a relatively new title. Back in 1689, an earldom had been bestowed on the Bentinck family in recognition of the close friendship between William III and his protégé, the Dutchman Hans-Willem Bentinck. Hans-Willem had been one of the principal organizers of William’s invasion of England in 1688, and had sailed to England with the Prince of Orange. The Portland dukedom was created for Hans-Willem’s eldest son in 1716. In 1801, William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland, changed the family name from plain Bentinck to Cavendish-Bentinck, in recognition of the alliance between the Bentinck and the Cavendish families that dated back to the 2nd Duke’s marriage to Lady Margaret. The latest incumbent of Welbeck Abbey had been William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, the 5th Duke of Portland, commonly referred to as ‘Lord John’, who had died on 6 December 1879, ostensibly without issue. As a result, the Portland title had devolved on to a cousin – twenty-two-year-old William John Arthur Charles James Cavendish-Bentinck, the new 6th Duke of Portland. He was the pale young man travelling to Welbeck on the winter day of which we speak.

William was only a second cousin of the 5th Duke. His father was Lieutenant-General A. C. Cavendish-Bentinck, whose descent was through the 3rd Duke. William had been born on 28 December 1857, and it must have then seemed a remote possibility that, in less than twenty-five years, he would succeed to one of the greatest dukedoms in the land. The other members of the party arriving at Welbeck that evening were the new duke ’s half-brothers and sisters and his beloved stepmother: his mother having died when he was a few days old, they were his closest family. The pensive, alert-looking little girl, the new duke’s half-sister, was to be famous in later life as the socialite and Bloomsbury Group hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell.

The entrance to Welbeck Abbey was then one of the most unusual of any stately home in England. Before reaching the lodge at the entrance to the estate, the new visitors drove through glorious woodland. The silhouettes of native oaks, elms and yews, dotted with more exotic specimens in the form of cedars and Himalayan firs, clustered in black shadows at the side of the track, the frosty silence interrupted only by the occasional whirring of a pheasant’s wings or the rustle of a squirrel scampering through the frozen bracken. However, as soon as the carriage reached the lodge, it was plunged into a black-mouthed tunnel that cut through the side of a slope beside the lodge gates. The tunnel was not entirely dark, however; periodically, shafts of pale light entered through circular skylights in its roof, and gas jets set along its walls glowed with incandescent blue. The extraordinary underground entrance to Welbeck Abbey had been created by the 5th Duke of Portland. As they travelled through the darkness, the people in the carriage must have wondered what could have induced the duke to create such a sepulchral and cavernous subterranean entrance to his estate, when he could have driven to his front door entirely above ground, and through some of the most beautiful woods in England.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse will be reviewed in the next issue of The History Vault. It is available to buy HERE.

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