Romantic associations of Bestwood Park: story of decay

ON August 11th, 1485, whilst Richard III was hunting in Bestwood Park, he received tidings of the landing and advance of his rival, the future Henry VII. A few days later he marched out from Nottingham to his doom, and with his death on Bosworth Field the days of Bestwood's regal glories were over. The Crown retained its ownership, but granted its occupation to others and decay at once set in.

The first of its despoilers was James Savage to whom the victor of Bosworth had given the keepership of the park for "his true and faithful service done unto us in our late victorious journey and field." Savage at once busied himself in felling and selling timber and slaying deer "contrary to the statute," but his offences were condoned and he was granted a salary of 4d. a day. Under Henry VIII the depreciation continued. The park pales decayed and the 800 or more deer roamed at will; by 1594 their number had diminished to just over 300 and by 1616 had dwindled to only 28. Many had been transferred to other parks, and in 1536 some men of Lowdham were charged with treason for uttering disloyal words when their carts were seized for conveyance of the King's deer from Bestwood to Ampthill.

In 1540 Newstead Priory with all its possessions here and elsewhere were sold to Sir John Byron, and in 1547 the Earls of Rutland commenced their long and intimate association with this royal estate when Earl Henry was appointed chief justice of Sherwood Forest and custodian of Clipston and "Beskwood" parks. Meanwhile the mansion was neglected until Thomas Markham (of Ollerton) restored it and made it an occasional residence, he being ranger of the Forest in the later part of Elizabeth's reign. One of his guests was the courtier-poet, Sir John Harington, the queen's godson and his own brother-in-law, and another was Margaret Willoughby, daughter of the builder of Wollaton Hall, who here received love-letters from the intriguing Sir Griffin Markham, whom she was fortunate enough not to marry. In 1580, perhaps in anticipation of Markham's residence, "the queen's great lodge of Bestwood" was repaired, and in a curious letter Edward Stanhope repudiated any insinuation of fraud in connection therewith, and avowed his readiness to maintain the building in good order for 6s. 8d. a year if cattle were no longer housed in the lower rooms, hay was not stored in its interior, and corn was not threshed in its upper chambers.

In 1611 the Earl of Rutland was tenant. He induced the King to restore the park fences, largely rebuilt the Lodge, laid out grounds and gardens, stocked the park each spring with young cattle and the ponds with fish, and no small portion of the viands of his households were supplied from this source. In addition, the warrens provided an inexhaustible supply and the warrener sold off rabbits in enormous numbers.

Before the Tudor era there was probably no village here, but under their sway the Forest laws relaxed and some of the local soil came under cultivation. It is significant of growth that early in the 17th century several families, of Bestwood were prosecuted as popish recusants.

A commission appointed to consider the "retrenchments of the King's charges" in 1626 reported that Bestwood Park might be dealt with, but it escaped, and next year the Crown spent £80 upon repairing the Lodge. The Earl of Rutland was then in occupation, and the Belvoir MSS. give inventories of his "household goods and stock" here in 1633 and 1641. In 1643, when the Civil War had broken out, Charles I assigned, the park to Sir Gervase Clifton and others as security for royal debts for which they had assumed responsibility, with power to sell the land unless the debts were discharged within two years. Next year there was a skirmish in Bestwood Park between Cavaliers and Roundheads in which the latter proved victorious, the two Royalist leaders being saved from capture only by the devotion of Gaol Jannot, who sacrificed himself and was confined in Nottingham Castle from which he managed to escape.

In 1650 the Lodge was described as a building "of wood and lime and plaster, covered with slate and tiles, and containing 38 rooms, with a farmhouse, barns, &c." A hundred acres of the park were under tillage and the pastures were leased at 2s. per acre. A scheme for its sale was brought forward in the interests of the late King's creditors, but it came to nothing. About 1676 Thoroton wrote that the park "hath a fair lodge in it, and in respect of the pleasant situation of the place and the conveniency of hunting and pleasure, this park and lodge hath for these many years been the desire and achievement of great men." Much of it, he added, "is now parcelled into little closes on one side and much of it ploughed, so there is scarce wood or venison—a fate which is like to overtake the whole of Sherwood Forest.''

Nell Gwynn.

Very early in his reign Charles II confirmed Lord Willoughby of Parham in his office as keeper of Bestwood Park, with licence to plough and sow and to breed horses as he wished, but a few years later Bestwood appeared to be a "Cinderella." Its profits had been granted to the Duke of Newcastle, and the Earl of Rochester, and other royal favourites, to whom the estate was offered at £5 a year, with licence to dispark or reimpark at will, declined the grant. The "Merrie Monarch" then first leased the park and Lodge to Nell Gwynn, and in 1682 extinguished the old mortgage, then held by Sir John Musters, by payment of £3,374 2s. 6d., and gave it to Nell Gwynn and his son by her, the first Duke of St. Albans, who was then a boy of 12. The park was forthwith broken up and much of its land let off to farmers of Arnold and elsewhere, and by 1700 much of its timber had been felled and sold. In 1775 a Norfolk farmer named Barton, fired by the example of the famous Coke of Holkham, leased large tracks of the parkland, but the skilled labourers he had engaged deserted him and he was ruined by the loss of £10,000. His successor was more fortunate, for although his rental was £1,500, he cleared £3,000 per annum. The close of the 18th century found the Lodge a neglected mansion in a park divided into eight farms.

Dan Boswell, the gipsy king, died at Bestwood in 1823 and his body was removed for burial attended by a vast concourse of mourners. About 1830 the Lodge was rebuilt, to be superseded in 1864 by the new mansion (on the old site) in which the Prince and Princess of Wales were entertained by the 10th Duke of St. Albans, when opening the Castle Museum at Nottingham in 1878, for, unlike his predecessors that nobleman took an active, interest in Bestwood and made the Lodge his principal seat.

Church changes.

Bestwood Colliery, c.1910.
Bestwood Colliery, c.1910.

Throughout the ages Bestwood had formed part of the parish of Lenton: its first church, built in 1870, was a chapel of ease of the mother-church there, but in 1874 the old connection was severed, Bestwood becoming a separate ecclesiastical parish. When Lenton was absorbed by Nottingham under the Extension Act of 1877, this became a civil parish, a proposal to attach it to Arnold being defeated. In 1883 a detached part of Papplewick was added to this parish, and in 1890 the elementary school, which had been built in 1879 was enlarged. Coal and iron works had brought about an increased population, and modern amenities were rapidly introduced. A large pumping station to supply water to Nottingham was founded in 1880, and by that time the old appearance of the district had vanished. The flame of blast furnaces and weird palls of lurid smoke, added to the colliery workings, had marred the scene where deer had browsed. Nothing more unlike the old sylvan park could be imagined. Its ducal owners fled. For some years the Lodge was occupied by Sir Harold Bowden, and in 1938 the Lodge and estate were sold for £150,000. Only a tree, immediately opposite the Lodge, said to have been planted by Nell Gwynn, now remains as a visible reminder of semi-royal Bestwood.