When film-makers sought a location for an adaptation of 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy they chose a real gem – Felbrigg Hall, near Cromer. But its story, and that of the Windham family, predates the Georgian era.

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Thats Windham, not Wymondham.

The rise and fall of the Windham family tells us much about the history of the English gentry over the past three or four centuries. From Norfolk landowning stock, they attained wealth through agriculture and gained political and social precedence. A flirtation with the culture and art of the continent via the Grand Tour in the 18th century was followed by a family member making an impact on the national stage, only for the dynasty to suffer in the following century and face extinction during the tenure of a mentally-unbalanced member. In the 20th century the direct line died out but the house and estate remains cherished to this day and, with it, the familys legacy.

The history is illustrated by the house.

Felbrigg Hall has grown and evolved over several centuries. The original Jacobean frontage is evident, but the property has been added to greatly over the years, evidence of the family fortunes. The first of the Felbrigg Windhams emerges in the mid-15th century. John Wymondhams family had held land around the south Norfolk town of that name (they later contracted the spelling to Wyndham or Windham), and had to overcome violent resistance from the Felbrigg family who had formerly held the land. Despite Sir Johns son being executed by Henry VII for treason, the Windhams prospered under the Tudors. Like many gentry families they benefited from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, picking up Beeston Monastery, while Edmund Windham was the High Sheriff of Norfolk who executed Robert Kett and fellow rebels in 1549.

All the time picking up new wealth.

Thomas Windham inherited the hall in 1599 following the death of his litigious and unpopular brother Roger. It was Thomas who began building the house in its familiar guise, influenced by Sir Henry Hobart who was building nearby Blickling Hall. The huge lettering across the first floor of the house Gloria Deo in Excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) dates from this Jacobean era. During the Civil War, Thomas, like most people in Norfolk, backed Parliament, thus avoiding the kind of violence that affected Royalist houses such as Oxburgh. Eldest son John became a cavalry captain, but his later life was less happy. After inheriting the house he married three times, but all his wives died childless. Half-brother William took over; he and his wife, Katherine, were to embark on a new building programme at Felbrigg.

What, more building?

They had neighbours and tenants to impress. The new west wing was begun in 1675 and work would not be complete until the late 1680s by which time William was dead. Wife Katherine outlived him by 40 years, and managed the estate before son Ashe came of age. By the late 17th century, the English aristocracy had more than local affairs on their minds. With increased affluence, young men like Ashe could indulge their curiosity for the exotic. In 1693, he and tutor Patrick St Clair set off for the Grand Tour. Part tourism, part educaton, part no doubt sowing of wild oats, this trip around France and Italy was near obligatory pilgrimage for the wealthy.

Surely it wasnt all fun?

Younger brother William lost a leg fighting with Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704; another brother died at sea. Ashes son, William II, followed his father on the Grand Tour and cut a swathe through Europe. His expedition to the Swiss Alps in 1741 began the British craze for mountain-climbing. Once he returned home he began yet another round of building at Felbrigg, eventually furnishing a room of the house with an extensive collection of paintings brought back from Italy. The Windhams also produced a son who was to make his name known in national politics. William IIIs first public speech is captured for us by the diarist Parson Woodforde. He was present at a public meeting in Norwich in 1778 when young Windham spoke out against the American War. He spoke exceeding well, with great fluency and oratory, but on the wrong side, wrote Woodforde. Windham later became Secretary of War under Pitt during the French wars of the 1790s. If his politics were of a conservative nature it was due to the drastic circumstances of the time when Britain faced invasion threats.

No time for more building then?

Not much nor did he have time for a family. On his death in 1810 he left Felbrigg to William Lukin, the son of his half-brother. Lukin joined the Navy aged 13, fighting with Nelson at Copenhagen, and was a distinguished Vice-Admiral by this time. Changing his name to Windham on moving into the house, Lukin is immortalised by a painting of himself and his brothers setting off for a days shooting which now hangs in the Morning Room at Felbrigg. He revitalised the house for a while, but things went backwards under his unfortunate grandson. William Frederick, cruelly labelled Mad Windham, was eccentric and naive. Apart from dressing as a London policeman he also acquired a mail van and drove dangerously to Norwich for his letters, as well as driving a coach. Exploited by gold-diggers, crooks and shysters, he fell hopelessly into debt. The estate was sold to a Norwich merchant, John Ketton. It proved hard to maintain the expensive house, and it decayed, but the family produced one remarkable figure; Robert Windham Ketton-Cremer was a gifted amateur historian, well worth reading for his studies of Norfolk in the Civil War. On his death in 1969, he left the house to the National Trust.

Website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Telephone: 01263 837444

A Cock and Bull Story, based on Lawrence Sternes book and starring Steve Coogan and Keeley Hawes, was released last year, containing scenes filmed at Felbrigg.

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