During the Commonwealth period, Windsor Great Park, the Royal deer park attached to the nearby Castle, was divided up into small estates and sold off by order of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Cumberland Lodge, then called Byfield’s House, was a mansion with stables, barns and outbuildings erected at the centre of one of these lots for a Parliamentary lieutenant named James Byfield in the 1650s at a cost of £5,000. It was approached from the Bishopsgate by a double avenue of trees and appears as the middle seven-bay section of the 1754 engraving (above), largely unchanged. The architect is unknown, but he was no mere builder.
After the Restoration, King Charles II took the Great Park back into Royal hands in 1670. He made Byfield’s House the residence of the Ranger of the Park, calling it the ‘Great Lodge’. The first man to hold this post was Baptist May, the cousin of the architect at the Castle, Hugh. The latter was probably responsible for adding the flanking three-bay pavilions.
In 1697, the Rangership was given to King William III’s great friend, Hans William Bentinck, the Earl of Portland. He only lived at the lodge for five years, but had a great impact on the gardens. The house originally just linked together two circular enclosed gardens and plantations to the north and south. Portland added a large area of terraces, parterres, rigid formal hedges and ornamental fountains in the latest Baroque style from his native home in the Netherlands. He paid for everything himself at a cost of £10,000.
With the accession of Queen Anne in 1702, the Rangership was granted to the Earl (later Duke) of Marlborough and his wife, the Queen’s great friend, Countess Sarah. Building works, costing £2,500 and using workmen from the Works department at the Castle, started almost immediately. Nicholas Hawksmoor, the Assistant Controller of the Works is believed to have been the architect. Sarah supervised everything, as her military husband was away on campaign on the Continent. The additions were no doubt “strong, plain and convenient” as favoured by the Marlboroughs and almost certainly included the estate offices in a northern semi-circular extension. The Duchess found the place, “1,000 times more agreeable than Blenheim”. By 1711, however, Sarah had fallen out with the Queen. She lost her rooms at the castle, but stayed on at the Lodge, despite briefly considering a move. By 1720, she was building a new ‘eating room’ with a novel marble mantelpiece (instead of wood) installed over the fireplace as a fire deterrent. She also added a bowling green. The Duchess died in 1744 and was briefly succeeded as Ranger for two years by her grandson, John Spencer.
King George II's second son, Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, acquired the office of Ranger in 1747 and immediately set about altering his residence to form a grand mansion to rival any in the land. He employed his old architecture teacher, Henry Flitcroft. He initially suggested new south wing be added, but this idea seems to have been rejected. Cumberland seems to have concentrated instead on his vast landscape works in the park and the ancillary buildings at the lodge: a brewhouse, liquor room, farrier’s shop, slaughter house and farm equipment store for eleven carts, nine ploughs, waggons and more. The formal Dutch gardens were removed and a new kitchen garden and the Great Meadow Pond added. Visitors were much taken with the Duke’s improvements at the Great Lodge. He was a very keen horseman, so a huge extension was added to the stables so that they could accommodate fifty horses. This is the building that stands today as the conference centre. The clock turret is dated 1750. As well as a huntsman, the Duke became both a breeder and racehorse trainer and was often at Ascot Races. His horses were allowed to graze on the Long Walk and were painted by Stubbs, Sandby and Gilpin. The most famous, Eclipse, was however not born until after the stud was moved to Cranbourne.
The Duke also kept a fine menagerie there which included Golden, Silver and common pheasants, eagles, horned owls, ostriches, a wolf, a dromedary, lions and, originally two tigers which had to be sent up to the Tower of London after one killed a young boy. In 1764, a cheetah was brought to the lodge from Madras. The Duke wanted to see how the creature attacked its prey and so conducted an experiment, releasing the big cat into a netted area along with a stag. However, the terrified cheetah fled into the woods where, unwatched, it killed one of the fallow deer instead. The stag who cheated death was rewarded with a silver collar inscribed with the story for its escape. This extraordinary episode was painted by George Stubbs.
Elaborate draft proposals show the Duke may have been again contemplating a major rebuilding of the lodge when, in 1757, the arch under his bedchamber unfortunately collapsed. So he employed
Thomas Sandby to make still further additions to the place. He almost doubled the size of the house with the addition of a vast centrally pedimented Palladian north wing of eleven bays that became the new main entrance. It was connected to the old house by a bizarre corridor that passed through an open courtyard. Inside was a 30ft square entrance hall, leading to new drawing and dining rooms and several fashionable ‘print rooms’ like those at the Vyne and Stratfield Saye House. The rooms were decorated the pilasters and rich pedimented doorways. The gilt ceilings were ‘Palmyrene’ in style. Sandby also worked on an elaborate circular colonnaded temple-style chapel (although the planned attached walkway was never built) and the reuse in the park of the Holbein Gate from Whitehall Palace which the Duke had purchased and carefully taken down in 1759. Much of the work was still unfinished at the Duke’s death in 1765.
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