One of the reasons I like visiting castles and stately homes is to learn about social history: how people lived in the past. This usually focuses on the three ‘F’s: feasting, fighting and fornication. The familial history of Belvedere House would make a smashing period drama for HBO or the BBC, even Ireland’s RTE, as the three F’s feature prominently and there is even a baby bear!
Situated on the shores of Lough Ennell in County West Meath, Belvedere House has been restored to its original state, the rooms being smaller than many stately homes, but with the luxury of a wine cellar and a copious kitchen.
The house was built by Robert Rochfort who accused his wife, Mary, of having an affair with his brother, Arthur. He locked Mary up in Gaulstown House and put her under heavy guard. He moved to the newly built Belvedere House where his lifestyle was one of “debauchery and dissipation”. He died having spent his money seeking titles, social position and suing his brother for adultery for which he was imprisoned! (He was unable to pay the £20,000 fine.) As for Mary, on her husband’s death she was released and forever maintained her innocence.
The tales of woe continue. Robert’s sister Mary was out one day when her carriage was halted by beggars. Asking for charity a beggar put his hand through the window and Mary was shocked when she saw the hand was deformed, it having two thumbs. Mary was sure she would not survive her pregnancy having been so traumatised by the incident, and would die at midnight. When her baby was born with two thumbs she was inconsolable. Furthermore she died at midnight despite Dean Swift (of Gulliver’s Travel’s fame) trying to fool her by putting the clocks forward one hour. Make what you will of that little story but I’m not so sure if Mary was shocked by the sight of the thumbs, but rather by the reappearance of a lover or, dare I suggest, rapist!
Robert’s grandfather, colourfully named Prime Iron Rochfort, fought for Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s. In 1651 he killed a fellow officer in a duel and was tried by court martial. It is believed on the night before his execution his son was conceived. My mind boggled as to the reason for the duel, but given what I’d learned so far it probably had something to do with the third ‘f’!
Familial resentment came to a head in 1760 when the first Earl of Belvedere (known as the Wicked Earl) purposefully built a tall ruin in order to block the view of his brother’s house, the neighbouring mansion. It came to be known as The Jealous Wall and is the only purpose built ruin in Ireland. What a family!
The gardens are beautifully maintained, but were also the setting of a scandal ending in a court battle when Sir John Piers seduced the nineteen-year-old wife of his friend, the Second Earl of Cloncurry in 1806. (Had these people no sense of loyalty?) Piers fled to the Isle of Man, but was later sued for £20,000. The poet John Betjeman detailed this tale in his poem, The Fete Champetre, in 1938.
Despite these tales of fighting and fornication, which seems to me to be extraordinarily excessive and financially ruining, some travail was done. During the 1800s and early 1900s owners Charles Marlay, and on his death, his cousin Charles Howard-Bury, worked on the gardens. A walled garden was constructed where fruit and vegetables are still grown, and orchids flourish in the greenhouse. Marlay and Howard-Bury are responsible for creating a large plant collection, the latter bringing back seeds from his travels to Asia. Marlay was a collector of art too, most of which was bequeathed to Cambridge University.
A soldier by profession Howard-Bury spent much of his early years travelling and in 1912 he led the first expedition to Mount Everest where the discovery of strange footprints in the snow led to the press speculating on the existence of the Abominable Snowman. A year later he went to the Shan Mountains on the border of modern day Kazakhstan and China.
He rescued a three week old bear by buying it from hunters and, despite the cub giving him a bad bite and stealing his lunch, the two become inseparable. Howard-Bury brought the cub, which he named Agu, back to Belvedere House where they would play in the gardens. Agu eventually went to live in Dublin Zoo in the late 1950s. (https://www.aechambersnovelist.com/post/chambers-at-large-in-dublin-zoo-1).
A soldier during WWI, an MP in the 1920s and Assistant Commissioner of the Red Cross during WWII, Howard-Bury, an adventurer and philanthropist, died in 1963. A flower is named after him: Primula Buryana. I didn’t spot any primulas, but I admired a dazzling display of tulips and envied the mature cherry trees. I am unlikely to see mine reach such magnificence unless I live to 120 which is highly unlikely!
Financial difficulties led to the auction of Belvedere House circa 1982 and it is now the property of Westmeath County Council. Kudos to all those involved who make this a stately home to remember. I must mention that the grounds are a paradise for dogs and their owners as I was pleased to see all were well catered for by and in the café, where I relished a slice of delicious carrot cake and a pot of tea. I thoroughly enjoyed my day taking in the beautiful gardens and reading about the antics of those who once resided there. I will certainly go back when on my way home from Dublin and I look forward to watching a historical dramatisation based on the shenanigans in and around Belvedere House in the not so distant future.