Today, though Donington Hall is still standing and part of its once extensive park survives, it is no longer the grand private country home it was during the Regency. But the house has an interesting history and, though its owner was away from the estate for much of our favorite period, that circumstance in itself might add an interesting wrinkle to a story plotline. A Regency author seeking a fine country manor house with extensive grounds situated roughly in the middle of England might find Donington Hall, or a fictional version of it, just the setting they need for their next romance.
Donington Hall and its park, through the Regency . . .
The tract of land which made up Donington Park is located in the county of Leicestershire, which is situated in the East Midlands, almost in the center of England. From the time of the Norman Conquest, when that tract of land was listed in the Domesday Book by its Saxon name, "Dunitone," it was the property of the Barons of Haulton. In 1310, it was acquired by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby, though his marriage to Alice de Lacy. Thomas was a junior member of the House of Plantagenet, and the land remained in his family until 1594, when it was sold to George Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon. The property remained in the hands of the Hastings family for the next three hundred years, right through the Regency and into the early twentieth century.
After he took possesion of the property, George Hastings, the 4th Earl of Huntingdon, ordered that an old, fortified castle on the grounds be demolished. He then had a large manor house in the Elizabethan style erected to replace it. That manor house became the principal seat of the Earls of Huntingdon so long as there were Earls of Huntingdon. In 1789, Francis Hastings, the 10th Earl of Huntingdon, would become the last of that line. Francis Hastings, the tenth earl, had no children. He had three brothers and two sisters, but there was no surviving male line descendant on any of those branches of the Hastings family tree to inherit his title. His three younger brothers had all predeceased him, none of them leaving any legitimate heirs. One of his sisters had never married. That left his married sister, Lady Elizabeth Moira, as the only surviving Hastings heir. Lady Elizabeth had become the third wife of John Rawdon, the 1st Earl of Moira and bore him five children. After her marriage, she spent much of her time in Ireland with her family.
Lady Elizabeth’s fourth child, and her eldest son, Francis Edward Rawdon, was born in December of 1754. He grew up in Ireland, but in 1771, at the age of 17, he acquired a commission as an ensign in the 15th Foot, an East Yorkshire regiment of the British Army. During the next couple of years, he attended Harrow, then University College, Oxford. Like many young men of the time, he did not take his degree, but left college to go on the Grand Tour of Europe with his uncle, his mother’s elder brother, Lord Huntingdon. In 1773, he was promoted to a Lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of Foot. By the spring of 1774, Francis Rawdon was back in England, where he joined his regiment and was soon on board a ship bound for the American colonies. Rawdon remained in America with the British Army until 1781. He was a valiant and capable soldier, eventually being promoted to the rank of Colonel. He was forced to resign his commission due to ill-health, in 1781, and soon sailed back to Britain. He was captured during his return voyage by a French ship, but was soon exchanged for a French prisoner held by the British.
Once he regained his health, the young Lord Francis Rawdon spent time in London, where he became involved in politics. He was particularly concerned with issues relating to Ireland, including Catholic Emancipation. Despite his Irish political leanings, he became a staunch Whig. It is likely that it was through this political affiliation that he became friendly with the Prince of Wales and his younger brother, the Duke of York. Lord Rawdon also joined several associations in London, including the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Arts and the Free Masons, in all of which he took an active part. Rawdon spent so much time in London that he took a house for himself in the metropolis. There, he entertained many of his friends and his family, including his parents and his uncle, the Earl of Huntingdon. In October of 1789, while seated at his nephew’s dining table, Lord Huntingdon died unexpectedly.
Though the title of Earl of Huntingdon became extinct upon the death of Francis Hastings, the 10th earl, five of his ancient English baronial titles passed to his sister, Elizabeth, as his only surviving blood heir. Lord Huntingdon also left his Leicestershire and Warwickshire estates, among others, to his nephew, Lord Francis Rawdon, with the stipulation that his heir take the name of Hastings and add the arms of Huntingdon to his own. Thus, probably early in 1790, the new heir added the name of Hastings to his surname and became known as Francis Rawdon-Hastings for the rest of his life. He also had the Huntingdon coat of arms quartered with his. Only a couple of years later, in 1792, his father died and Francis Rawdon-Hastings then became the second Earl of Moira, thereby gaining control of all of his family’s Irish properties as well as the English estates bequeathed to him by his uncle.
In 1793, along with his new surname and title, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Earl of Moira, decided that he needed a new country home in England. He ordered that the old hall at Donington be pulled down, and he engaged William Wilkins to design and build a large new "Gothik" manor house for him, in the style of Strawberry Hill. William Wilkins was a builder, draughtsman, plasterer and an antiquarian with a strong interest in medieval architecture. He had also come into possession of a theatre in his home town of Norwich, which he renovated and enlarged, then went on to manage for the rest of his life. Before Wilkins was engaged, Humphry Repton had been hired to landscape Donington Park, and he was a man who had a great interest in Gothic architecture. At the time, William Wilkins was teaching drawing to John Adey Repton, the elder Repton’s son. It was Humphry Repton who brought William Wilkins to the attention of Lord Moira, as an ideal architect for the grand English Gothic-style house which the new Hastings heir wanted to build in Donington Park.
Local white stone was quarried to build the new house, which significantly reduced transportation costs for the primary building material. However, that seems to have been the only economy practiced by the new Lord Moira in the construction of his splendid Gothic mansion. The massive house was designed as a large quadrangle block around a central courtyard, with the principal facade facing south. The main wings of the house were two storeys, with ten bays of sash windows on the south front, five on each side of the main entranceway, a dramatic porte-cochère. Most of the exterior embellishments are in the late Gothic, Perpendicular Tudor style. Between each bay is an octagonal buttress which is topped with a crenellated turret, with larger turrets at each corner of the building block. The east and west facades of the building were ornamented in a similar style, but with less ornate Gothic architectural features, and no elaborate center bays. Only the stables and service areas, on the northern side of the building, had simple roughcast, colorwashed walls and a slate roof.
The new house had 203 rooms, the grandest of which included the stately dining room, the elegant drawing room, the extensive library, the large attached family chapel, a noble master suite and a lofty and ornate entrance hall. Lord Moira spared no expense on the decoration and furnishing of his new home. The magnificent library, located on the west side of the house, is known to have housed at least 13,000 volumes, as well as the Hastings and Rawdon family papers. The drawing room, dining room and many other rooms were adorned with wide array of valuable paintings and sculptures. Some of those works of art had been removed from the older, Elizabethan manor house before it was demolished, but many others were purchased by Lord Moira for his new country home. The grand entry hall was in the Gothic style, with a large, nine-lobed lunette window above the main door. This lunette was decorated with rose tracery and stained glass, some of which had been acquired from the old chapel of Stoke Poges, in Buckinghamshire. In addition, other windows in this imposing entry hall were painted to compliment the old stained glass by a skilled Irish glass painter, Richard Hand. In order to commemorate his acquisition of the Donington estate, Lord Moira had an inscription carved into the stone frieze above the door in the main entrance hall. That inscription read:
To the memory of his uncle, Francis, Earl of Huntingdon, from whose affection he received the estate, this edifice is gratefully dedicated by Francis Rawdon Hastings MDCCXCII (1793)
The new Donington Hall was completed in 1795. Lord Moira intended it to become his principal seat among all of his many other estates. He had spared no expense on the construction of this new manor house and the landscaping of the park, spending so much that he was deeply in debt. That same year, he sold the primary Rawdon estate in County Meath, Ireland, in order to help defray the great cost of the work at his Donington estate. He realized £62,000 from the sale of the estate in County Meath and still it was not enough to cover all of his Donington expenses. Nevertheless, Lord Moira was very pleased with his new country home and intended that its elegance and grandeur would help to increase his standing among the English aristocracy. Not long after the manor house was completed, he invited the exiled members of the French royal family to be his guests at Donington Hall for as long as they liked. His hospitality was so extravagant that upon their arrival, each of them found an open cheque drawn on Coutts Bank on the dressing table in their bedchambers. The French royals were not ungrateful, and they presented Lord Moira with busts of King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and King Charles X, in token of their appreciation.
The grand new hall was surrounded by an ancient and magnificent parkland which comprised at least three hundred and sixty acres. This tract of land had once been part of an ancient woodland which was believed to have been in existence since at least Saxon times. The manor house was set on a plain which was created by the confluence of three valleys, so the hall appeared to be cradled in a natural hollow. However, the topography of the area was such that this hollow was situated substantially above the elevations of the surrounding land. Therefore, the views from the hall of the gently undulating and verdant hills were considered quite striking and picturesque. Donington Park was famous for its majestic old oaks and widely spreading hawthorns, some of which were believed to have been there since at least the time of the Norman Conquest. There were also ample open slopes among the rolling hills of Donington Park, many of them covered with grass, described by one visitor as being " . . . green as an emerald and soft as velvet." The most significant geographical feature of Donington Park was Donington Cliff, a steep precipice which was located on the northern edge of the grounds. The River Trent, which formed the boundary between Leicestershire and Derbyshire, flowed past the foot of Donington Cliff, described as a wide ribbon of sparkling silver, surrounded by green and rolling hills punctuated with ancient trees. The landscape in this area was considered to be one of the boldest and most romantic in all of Leicestershire.
From Norman times, a much larger tract of land which encompassed the acreage that became Donington Park had been a royal hunting park, in which both red and fallow deer had roamed freely, under royal protection. The later owners of the property had been given the right to keep those same deer herds by the king, so there were still large herds of both red and fallow deer on the grounds of Donington Park when it was inherited by Francis Rawdon-Hastings in the late eighteenth century. His gamekeeper continued to manage and care for those herds, so they could be seen roaming the park right through the Regency. The park was also teeming with many other species of wildlife which were native to the English Midlands. In addition, Lord Moira kept a large flock of sheep which could be seen grazing throughout the park.
Though it is known that Humphrey Repton was commissioned by Lord Moira to landscape Donington Park, most of those records are lost, so it is not clear how much work he did, or when. Though Repton provided some drawings and preliminary plans for the park c. 1790 — 1792, it is not clear if any of those plans were ever implemented. It is generally believed that Repton’s most significant involvement actually occurred c. 1800 — 1801. It was then that the landscape designer submitted a proposal for the creation of "Pleasure Grounds" and a small artificial lake to the northwest of Donington Hall. The Pleasure Grounds seem to have been an area of the ancient woodland which was enclosed to keep out the sheep and deer, and through which a series of meandering walking paths were cut. The depression for the artificial lake was also dug, but there was considerable difficulty in getting it to hold water, so the project was eventually abandoned. There is no documentation of the presence of an artificial lake on the grounds of Donington Park during the Regency.
These additional improvements to the Donington estate were very costly, and Lord Moira was once again in need of ready cash. He sold the two estates he owned in County Down, Ireland, in 1801, yet those sales still did not bring him enough money to settle his debts. In July of 1804, at the age of fifty, Lord Moira married the heiress, Flora Muir Campbell, Countess of Loudoun, who was twenty-six years his junior. Though he gained control of her vast estates, he and his wife continued to spend so extravagantly that they remained in debt right into the Regency. In 1808, when his mother died, Moira House, in Dublin, in which she had a life interest, reverted to her eldest son. Lord Moira sold off that property as well, to shore up his dwindling finances and thus gave up the last of the Rawdon family holdings in Ireland.
In addition to his imprudent spending on building, Lord Moira had become a generous patron of the arts. However, he did not forget his Irish heritage and became the patron of the Irish author and poet, Thomas Moore. Part of that patronage was to give Moore the run of his extensive library at Donington Hall. By then, Moore had married and had a growing family. The cost of living was much lower in Leicestershire than it was in London, so Moore had exiled himself to Kegworth. Moore lived in the little village for several years. It was not far from Donington Hall, so he regularly walked over to the manor house to conduct research or write in the great library there. A couple of years before the Regency began, Moore began pressing Lord Moira to secure a government position for him so the poet would have a steady income on which to support his family.
However, Moira was having problems of his own. He could not seem to manage his money and was in serious financial difficulty. He had assumed that his friendship with the Prince of Wales would ensure a lucrative position for him in the Regency government. Unfortunately, such a position was not forthcoming. There were several powerful members of the Tory government who were wary of Moira’s strong Whig leanings and his perceived influence on the Prince Regent. Those Tories worked to keep Moira out of the British government, and they were quite successful. By 1812, the situation was so dire that Lord Moira realized he could no longer afford to live either at Donington or his wife’s estate at Loudoun. He was forced to accept the governorship-general of India, an appointment arranged by those who wanted to get him far away from the Regent. Lord Moira wrote to his favorite sister, Lady Granard, that the posting to India gave him some hope of "the re-establishment of our finances." Lord and Lady Moira, along with their family, sailed for India in the summer of 1813. They arrived in Calcutta in October. For his efforts in dealing successfully with the Gurkha War, in which the British were victorious in 1816, Lord Moira was raised to the rank of the Marquess of Hastings in 1817. Lord Hastings and his family would not return to England until 1823.
To prepare for his departure for India, Lord Moira needed to find an agent to manage his estates, including Donington Park. He chose Thomas Dalby, a successful Leicestershire attorney. Thomas Dalby’s younger brother, John Dalby, was the vicar of the nearby village of Castle Donington, and it seems the family was well-known to Lord Moira. Thomas Dalby was responsible for all of the business of the estate in Lord Moira’s absence. Dalby may have leased Donington Hall in order to bring in additional funds for the estate, but there are no surviving records which delineate his efforts on behalf of Lord Moira. It is known that Thomas Moore, disappointed at not being given a position in India, continued to live in nearby Kegworth. Even after Lord Moira’s departure, he continued to have the run of the library at Donington Hall.
Though the village of Castle Donington was the settlement nearest to Donington Park, being just a mile to the northeast, there was no main access to that small village from London or the rest of England. During the Regency, those seeking to get to Donington Hall from London would take the road north to Liverpool, as far as the small market town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, known locally simply as Ashby. It was a distance of about 115 miles from London to Ashby. Donington Hall was about another nine miles outside of Ashby, along the road to Nottingham. A journey from London to Donington Hall could take anywhere from two to four days during the Regency, depending upon the type of transport which was used to make the trip.
Dear Regency Authors, might Donington Hall and its surrounding park be right for the setting in one of your upcoming romances? Until early in 1813, the family of Lord Moira was still in residence there, with the exception of the London season. But the house was empty year round once they had departed for India. Mayhap a wealthy nabob about to return to England happens to meet Lord Moira in Calcutta and he arranges to take a lease on Donington Park for an extended period for himself and his family. How will the locals treat these new tenants at the hall? Other aristocrats in the neighborhood may scorn them as nouveau riche upstarts, but those in the nearby villages may be very happy to have their custom. Will the family have a lovely young daughter who catches the eye of one of the local aristocratic gentlemen? There is no doubt that verdant and picturesque Donington Park would make an ideal setting for romance. There were the meandering walks in the Pleasure Grounds, not to mention wild and dramatic Donington Cliff, which overlooked the River Trent. Perhaps author and poet, Thomas Moore, might have a part in a Regency story set at Donington, turning up at odd times to use the library. How might the other characters react to his presence? On the other hand, a fictional estate like Donington Park might serve the purposes of a Regency author. An artificial lake that will not hold water might be just the thing to drain the owner’s finances, should the story call for such a turn of events. Or, could it be that a very pretentious and social-climbing landowner leaves blank cheques on the dressing tables of his important guests to demonstrate his great wealth, in the hope of being accepted into society? What other details of life at Donington Hall might enable a Regency author to enrich a story set during that time?