Belvoir Castle Fire on 26 October 1816

The Belvoir Castle fire happened on 26 October 1816. This castle, which was really a manor, was first built after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and was in Leicestershire, England west of the town of Grantham and north-east of Melton Mowbray. It was situated at the extreme northerly corner of the county of Leicestershire and overlooked the Vale of Belvoir. In addition, it stood on high ground within the wapentake of Framland.

This manor did not become a castle until it was granted to Robert de Ros in 1257. When his male line died out in 1508 the castle passed to a nephew who was created Earl of Rutland in 1525. As it had been in ruins since 1464 Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland constructed a new second castle in 1528. It was completed in 1555 but destroyed by Parliamentarians in 1649. A third castle was started in 1654. It was designed as a large family home by architect John Webb and completed by 1668.

Over a hundred years later, in 1799, John Manners, the 5th Duke of Rutland married Lady Elizabeth Howard. She was interested in continuing the castle improvements her father-in-law had begun but failed to complete because of bankruptcy. Her ambition was that the run down castle would be finished in the romantic Gothic Revival style and she chose architect James Wyatt to achieve her dream.

Belvoir castle fire - John Manners

John Manners, 5th Duke of Rutland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lady Elizabeth’s husband was one of the wealthiest landholders in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the time. He wanted his wife’s dream to come to fruition and therefore sold seven assorted villages and their surrounding lands to fund the massive project. Unfortunately, just as this fourth castle was nearing completion it was almost destroyed by fire on 26 October 1816.

Lady Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Rutland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Discovery of the blaze was said to have happened in the following manner:

“The workmen had been employed all day in substantial repairs, and a ladder leading to a trapdoor above afforded them ingress and egress. Along a corridor were some servants’ rooms. The family were all absent, and the castle was most thinly inhabited. About two in the morning a servant maid, who had been kept awake by an agonizing toothache, fancied the moon was shining with unusual splendour, and rising up to satisfy herself, saw a light streaming through her chamber door – which fortunately had not been shut. To this succeeded what she considered to be a tramp of human feet, as of the workmen going up and down the ladder, a noise which in fact was the effect of the furniture snapping from the progressive fire. Springing from her bed and reaching the corridor, the dreadful cause of this increasing light and noise was but too palpable; with the feet of Atalanta, the young woman ran from one end of the corridor to the other. The alarm bell was rung.”[1]

Newspapers initially reported that the Belvoir Castle fire began in the west wing in the carpenter’s room. That was because workmen had been employed there the preceding day and conjecture was that embers in a fire were not thoroughly extinguished and a spark lit a barrel of flammable material, which quickly enveloped the room in flames. This belief was reiterated by the Northampton Mercury who reported:

“The flames spread with great rapidity, and communicated to the centre, but an alarm having been given in time, the children and servants were removed from danger.[2]

Cries of fire were immediately sent out to locals and horsemen rode off in all directions seeking help. In the meantime, as the fire raged locals did what they could to save the valuable objects inside the burning castle. The Stamford Mercury reported:

“Great was the eagerness of the tenantry to rescue the furniture, and all attention as to its safe removal was disregarded; pictures, cabinets, statues, velvet hangings, and tapestry, with every description of costly and magnificent decorations, were thrown out of the windows and scattered on the lawn.”[3]

When the roof of the wing next to Bottesford fell with a tremendous crash there was fear that the remainder of the castle might follow. The town of Grantham was in great consternation and authorities were doing everything they could to bring engines from every direction. Unfortunately, despite seeking help there were no engines initially available to put out the blazing fire. The Northampton Mercury reported:

“[N]o engines were at hand, and it was a very considerable time before any arrived. That from Belton, the seat of Lord Brownlow, who personally attended, and directed its application; and the Melton Mowbray engine … who heard of the fire accidentally, together with the Grantham engines, were of most essential service, and, by their unwearied exertions, preserved the new edifice, which constrains the state apartments, from destruction.”[4]

Control of the Belvoir Castle fire was not achieved until 11:00am, but even then, the fire continued to sputter and smoke leaving fire fighters busy stamping out embers until late in the day. To protect the valuable items the tenantry had been busy removing and throwing out from the castle’s windows a Grantham troop of yeomanry arrived around 4pm. Of this the British Whig politician Sir Robert Heron, 2nd Baronet wrote:

“After breakfast, I was informed that Belvoir Castle was on fire. I went to the top of my house, with a good telescope. I saw a vast body of smoke, but seeing the building apparently entire; no flames, no bustle, and no appearance of engines, I concluded that some workshop had been on fire and was extinguished. At half-past one, a messenger arrived with the lamentable intelligence that the interior of the Castle was consumed, and that the assistance of my Cavalry was requested for the preservation of the property.”[5]

Reports of the damage from the Belvoir Castle fire were also soon being reported in newspapers:

“Belvoir Castle, the princely residence of the Duke of Rutland … was visited by a most destructive fire on the morning of Saturday, the 26th of October … The whole of what termed the old building, comprising three-fourths of the entire edifice, is completely destroyed; nothing but the walls are left standing. The new structure, except the grand entrance, staircase, and new picture gallery, is preserved. … [The] flames … proceeded with frightful rapidity to the staircase, entrance hall, and gallery.”[6]

Among the valuable property at the castle that was threatened was an extensive and impressive art collection. It had been acquired over the years and was described at the time by the Northampton Mercury.

“The noble mansion of Belvoir is adorned with a numerous and valuable collection of pictures … they were committed of the care of the Rev. Mr. Peter, who in a communication to Mr. Nichols, says – ‘Belvoir Castle contains one of the best collections paintings in this kingdom. Of the Italian school, Nicolas Poussin, … Guido, Carlo Dolci and Salvator Rosa, have each a performance … Of Claude de Lorrain there are five pieces, and Rubens … appears no where with more brilliancy than in Belvoir Castle. … Of Murillo … there are three large compositions … Reynolds, of the English school, holds a distinguished rank among his brethren of the pencil; and by the classic arrangement of his figures, the grouping of his Angels, the beauty of his colouring, and the distribution of light and shade in his picture of The Nativity, takes the palm of victory from one of the best pictures Rubens ever painted, which hangs opposite to it in seeming competition with the unrivalled work of our British artist.’”[7]

Although no one died in the Belvoir Castle fire, just like the fire that happened at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum on 18 March 1925 where irreplaceable items were destroyed, so too were priceless artworks destroyed in the Belvoir Castle fire. In fact, some of the items lost were paintings by some of the world’s most illustrious artists such as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck, along with numerous paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds that included The Nativity, The Infant Jupiter, and General James Oglethorpe. It was a great loss and the monetary estimate at the time was estimated to be £120,000 or £9.25 million in today’s value.

Joshua Reynolds, Self-portrait 1776. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As mentioned, initial conjecture pointed to workmen as the cause of the Belvoir Castle fire, but authorities soon dismissed that idea realizing the fire was not accidental. An investigation conducted by the Managing Director of one of the Fire Offices, a Mr. Beaumont, revealed “that the room used by the carpenters had been entered, and found to be safe some time after the fire had broken out.”[8] Those at the scene also did not cite the carpenter’s room as being involved when the fire started. Furthermore:

“[The Belvoir Castle fire] burst from two different places, which had no practicable communication, nearly at one time. It was further given in evidence, that when the alarm was raised, the nearest inhabitants found as many as nine or ten strange men already in the Castle, and an outer gate open, which the domestics declared they had previously locked and had not opened. There is now no doubt that the fire was occasioned by a wilful act, and the prevailing opinion is that it has been done by the Luddites. These miscreants are now more than ever the terror of this part of the country. Threatening letters are daily received from them. This morning four men were detected in setting fire to some hay stacks belonging to Sir Wm. Manners; the fire was extinguished, but the incendiaries escaped.”[9]  

After the fire, rebuilding of Belvoir Castle got underway about a year later. It was rebuilt essentially using the same designs created by Wyatt and rebuilt at the cost of an additional £82,000 or £7.67 million today. The Duke of Rutland marked the occasion of the new construction by writing the following statement on 10 March 1817, which was then put into a glass bottle and placed in the center tower in the north-east front:

“On Saturday morning, October 26, between two and three o’clock, the castle was visited by a most awful, destructive, and alarming fire, which for a considerable time appeared to defy the persevering efforts of my numerous friends of all ranks and classes, who gave their prompt and zealous assistance on the occasion. By the blessing of Providence their manly exertions were at length crowned with success, and the south-west and south-east fronts were preserved perfect and entire. The principal part of the plate and more than half the collection of pictures were saved; and a mercy of still greater value and importance was bestowed on the Duchess and me (then absent at Cheveley Park) in the preservation of our five dear children. So true it is, that even in His just chastisements, an Almighty God is merciful and that His severest dispensations possess sources of comfort to the mind … It is with a due sense of the divine goodness and with a proper gratitude … that I recommence on this day, the rebuilding of the north-west and north-east fronts of Belvoir Castle.”[10]

Belvoir castle fire - castle in 1829

The south-west range and round tower of Belvoir Castle published in 1829. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Belvoir Castle was largely completed by 1832. However, despite its splendor there were costs associated with the rebuilding that involved more than money. It was reported that during construction seven unlucky workers, who were also residents of Woolsthorpe, died. Papers called their deaths a “melancholy truth” and noted that they all left wives and children behind. The last worker to die was a 25-year-old man:

“William Goodman … was lowering a large scaffold pole from a window, thirty-six feet in height, by an unfortunate overbalance he was precipitated therefrom, and pitching with his head upon the pavement, his brains were literally dashed out.”[11]

Belvoir castle fire - castle in 1856

Belvoir Castle in 1856. Courtesy of the British Museum.


The estate was situated in prime fox-hunting territory and became the headquarters for the famous Belvoir Hunt (“The Duke of Rutland’s Hounds”) that was established in 1750.

References:

  • [1] A. Graves and W. V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA, 2 (London: Henry Graves and Co., 1899), p. 852.
  • [2] Northampton Mercury, “Fire at Belvoir Castle,” November 2, 1816, p. 2.
  • [3] Stamford Mercury, “Fire at Belvoir Castle,” November 1, 1816, p. 2.
  • [4] Northampton Mercury, p. 2.
  • [5] R. Heron, Notes, 2nd ed. (Grantham: Groombridge & Sons, 1851), p. 76.
  • [6] Northampton Mercury, p. 2.
  • [7] Manchester Mercury, “The Fire at Belvoir Castle,” November 12, 1816, p. 3.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The English Illustrated Magazine (London: Macmillian and Company, 1893), p. 804.
  • [11] Stamford Mercury, August 15, 1823, p. 3.

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