The Herberts & the Duke of Powis

Last summer I drove the lush green valleys of eastern Wales, in the region that was once the ancient Kingdom of Powys, ruled in the early Middle Ages by the Gwerthrynion dynasty until the 850s, then as divided principalities. As we passed by the market town of Welshpool, one of the former princely capitals, we drove by the imposing medieval Powis Castle and its impressive cascading gardens. I was reminded that this was the seat of the one and only dukedom based in Wales—and this only a Jacobite dukedom, so not officially recognised at all in the peerage of the United Kingdom.

The ephemeral ‘Duke of Powis’ was a member of the powerful Herbert family, whose various branches have exercised control over different parts of Wales since the 15th century: Pembrokeshire in the far southwest, Monmouthshire in the southeast, and this area of Powys that was once known as Montgomeryshire. Today the family still thrives in two main branches, the earls of Pembroke & Montgomery, and the earls of Carnarvon—the latter have received much media attention in recent years as hosts of the globally successful television drama ‘Downton Abbey’, in their seat Highclere Castle. This branch of the family are also famous for the 5th Earl’s funding of the expedition that excavated the tomb of King Tutankhamun in the 1920s (and possibly incurring the wrath of its curse), and more recently for the close friendship between the 7th Earl (known as ‘Porchey’) and Queen Elizabeth II, as manager of her racing horses. More recently, the other branch of the family have opened their home, Wilton, to film crews for ‘Outlander’, to serve as a stand in for scenes set at Versailles, not to mention scenes in ‘The Crown’ and ‘Young Victoria’.

A Wilton House interior

I thought it would be a great addition to this collection of short histories of ducal families to be able to include one from Wales, even if it is slightly cheating since the Jacobite dukedom, even if formally recognised, only lasted from 1689 to 1748. And it seems that the Herberts aren’t Welsh in origin anyway, but came—like most of the ruling lords in this region—from northern France. Or at least that is how traditional histories always portrayed them. More recent studies (perhaps with a nationalist bias?) name them as descendants of a cadet prince of the royal house of Gwent (extinct by the 1070s). Other stories say they were the offspring of one of the many illegitimate sons of King Henry I of England (perhaps with Nesta, the Welsh princess of Deheubarth). But if we stick with the traditional version, we get the fascinating idea that this was one of the very few Anglo-Norman dynasties who descended not from the Norman warlords, nor from the Frankish feudal nobility, but from the royal house of France itself.

the arms of the Herberts

One of the great-grandsons of Emperor Charlemagne, Pepin II, was not given a royal throne like most of his cousins, but instead a clutch of lordships in the north of France, what is now eastern Picardy, which were then formed into a county, Vermandois. From him descend the line of the counts of Vermandois, which lasted until the 11th century (or beyond, in the form of the house of Saint-Simon, or so it was claimed—see the entry for the Dukes of Saint-Simon). Several of these counts were known as Heribert, and the last one, Heribert V, had (it is claimed) a younger brother, Pierre, whose son Herbert came to England to make his fortune, and served as Lord Chamberlain to the Conqueror’s son, King William Rufus. His son, Herbert FitzHerbert, was Lord Chamberlain of King Stephen, followed by still another Herbert FiztHerbert, Lord Chamberlain for King Henry II. These latter two made important marriages with women connected to the Welsh borderlands of Hereford and Shropshire: Sybil Corbet and Lucy of Hereford. By the early 14th century, the FitzHerberts were created barons, though the main line died out by the end of the century.

One of their younger sons, Peter FitzHerbert of Chewton (d. 1323), is the claimed link between the Frankish (or Carolingian) FitzHerberts and the Welsh Herberts, which I am not going to attempt to untangle here. Peter married a daughter and heiress of the Lord of Llanllowell in Monmouthshire, and their descendants began to use Welsh naming practices (‘ap’ meaning ‘son of’): Gwyllim ap Jenkin of Gwarinddu (alias Herbert) (living 1350) is seen as the progenitor of the modern house of Herbert. This puts him in the right place (Monmouthshire), to be possibly descended from the Welsh princes of Gwent, as above, but also to become established in the environs of Raglan Castle, the Herbert stronghold for centuries.

Raglan Castle

Raglan, or the “Great Tower of Gwent” was one of the chief fortresses on the borders between England and Wales. It is still a sight to behold, though in ruins since the 17th century, and one of the great models of fortification of the late Middle Ages. It was acquired and rebuilt by Gwyllim’s grandson, Sir Gwyllim ap Thomas, ‘Y marchog glas o Went” (the Blue Knight of Gwent) , who had risen through the ranks first as steward of the lordship of Abergavenny and Sheriff of Cardigan, Carmarthen and Glamorgan, then named as Chief Steward of the Duke of York’s estates in Wales, 1442, and member of the Yorkist military council, before he died in 1446. His wife was Gwladys ferch Dafydd Gam, known as the ‘Star of Abergavenny’, praised by Welsh poets, of whom she was an important patron. Their son, another William (‘Black William’), who adopted the surname Herbert, in the English style, continued the family’s loyal support of the Yorkist cause, and was rewarded, first with a barony (Herbert of Raglan), then the Order of the Garter and possession of the Pembroke Castle (in southwest Wales), all in 1461. He was also, importantly, given wardship of the young Henry Tudor (the future King Henry VII), who was born at Pembroke, and in 1468, created Earl of Pembroke, one of the oldest Welsh earldoms, first held by Gilbert de Clare in the 1130s.

Pembroke Castle

The first Herbert earl of Pembroke was named Justiciar of all of South Wales, but within a year was captured and executed by the Lancastrians at the battle of Danesmoor (or Edgecote Moor). His son the second Earl was forced to give up the lands and title of Pembroke, in exchange for another earldom, Huntingdon. He was confirmed in his father’s office as Justiciar of South Wales, and even married the sister of the Queen, Mary Woodville. But he had only a daughter, Elizabeth, who married Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester, and took both the barony of Herbert and Raglan Castle to the Somerset family (later Dukes of Beaufort) where they stayed until the 1980s.

But a son of the 2nd Earl’s illegitimate half-brother, Sir William Herbert, miraculously raised the family’s fortunes once more as an ally and friend of Henry VIII—he even became yet another royal brother-in-law, like his uncle, through marriage to Anne Parr, sister of Queen Katherine. He served as the King’s Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and Receiver of the King’s Revenues, and was rewarded with confiscated monastic lands at Wilton Abbey, near Salisbury, and was named as one of the guardians of King Edward VI when King Henry died in 1547. Young Edward created him Baron Herbert of Cardiff (the castle there had also been given to him by Henry VIII), and 1st Earl of Pembroke in 1551. In the 1540s and 50s, he occupied himself with the rebuilding of Wilton Abbey.

the first Earl of Pembroke of the 2nd creation

Wilton House was a large Tudor mansion—today only the tower of that house survives. In the 1630s, Inigo Jones replaced one of the wings, and more of it was renovated in the early 19th century by James Wyatt. A Palladian bridge built on the grounds in the 1730s has been much copied at other English country houses. It is still the Pembroke family seat.

Wilton House (Tudor tower in the centre)
Wilton House, Palladian Bridge

The first Earl of Pembroke of this second creation had two sons. The elder, Henry, continued the family tradition of marrying royal in-laws, this time Catherine Grey, sister of Queen Jane, in 1553. This of course turned out to be a very bad idea, and the marriage was swiftly annulled after Jane was removed from power. The younger son, Edward, purchased the lands of another branch of the Grey family, including Powys Castle, so it is important we return to his line below.

The 3rd Earl of Pembroke was Lord Chancellor for King James, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and had a new college (Pembroke College) named for him. His brother was one of James’ favourites, and was created Earl of Montgomery in 1605, then succeeded as 4th Earl of Pembroke—his descendants have ever since been the earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, two Welsh earldoms for one family. The 8th Earl was First Lord of the Admiralty and Lord Privy Seal in the 1690s under William & Mary, then Lord President of the Council, Lord High Admiral and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Queen Anne. It is surprising to me he wasn’t created a duke, in this period when loyal supporters of the Glorious Revolution were being promoted in relatively large numbers.

the 3rd Earl of Pembroke, in the central courtyard of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University

This brings us to the cadet branches. One of these, Herbert of Chirbury, had been separate since the mid-15th century, and maintained their lands in the borderlands of Shropshire and Montgomeryshire. They held the castle of Montgomery itself, and were often appointed sheriff of the county. The senior line were created Baron Herbert of Cherbury (or Chirbury) in 1629, while the second line became more prominent, briefly, as both supporters and enemies of King James II. Of the two sons of Sir Edward Herbert, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for Charles II, the younger, also Sir Edward, became attached to James when he was Duke of York, and was subsequently raised by James once he became king to Lord Chief Justice of England, 1685. He fled England with his master in 1689, and served as Lord Chancellor of the exiled Jacobite court in France (and was created Earl of Portland). In contrast, the older brother, Arthur, had been dismissed as an admiral by James, and went to Holland to encourage William of Orange to invade and take the throne—he was named commander-in-chief of the fleet, and Baron Herbert of Torbay (where William landed in 1688), then Earl of Torrington and First Lord of the Admiralty. Neither Portland nor Torrington left descendants, so these titles became extinct. But another Jacobite of this generation did.

This was the ‘Duke of Powis’, a descendant of the cadet branch noted above, founded by Sir Edward Herbert of Powys Castle. This castle, noted as one of the only major castles built by the Welsh in that great era of great castle building by the English in Wales (think Carnarvon, Harlech, etc), was built in the late 13th century by Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Gwen Wynnwyn, a supporter of Edward I, who convinced him to give up his royal title in exchange for an English barony (La Pole, or Pool, later renamed Welshpool). Soon after, this barony passed to the Charleton family, and then in the 1530s to the Greys, who sold it to this branch of the Herberts—notably, Catholics—in the 1580s. Pole Castle became known as Powys or Powis Castle, and the family were raised to the peerage as Baron Powis in 1629.

Powis Castle, one of my favourite spots in Britain

The 3rd Baron Powis, William Herbert, was created Earl of Powis and Viscount Montgomery in 1674, and was one of the Catholic Lords accused of treason in the Titus Oates Plot and spent six years in the Tower of London from 1678. After his release, he became close to the Catholic king, James II, who raised him a notch to Marquess of Powis in 1687. When James was deposed the following year, Powis followed him into exile and was created Duke of Powis, and served as Lord Chamberlain and Lord Steward of the household and one of the King’s principal advisors until his death in 1696. His wife, Lady Elizabeth Somerset (of the family who now owned Raglan Castle), had helped him spirit Queen Mary and the infant Prince of Wales out of the country to France, and would serve as her principal Lady in Waiting at the court at Saint-Germain, and governess of the Prince of Wales, until she died in 1691.

William Herbert, 1st Duke of Powis

Their son William, known as ‘Viscount Montgomery’ during all of this turmoil, was at most a lukewarm supporter of James and the Jacobites—unlike some of his more avid sisters—and was arrested a few times, but released as being seen as ‘not dangerous’. He was restored to his father’s title Marquess of Powis, in 1722, and the confiscated estates, including Powis Castle, as well as Powis House, their London residence on Great Ormond Street (demolished at the end of the 18th century). He was known to Jacobites as the ‘2nd Duke of Powis’, and indeed he made some weak claims in Parliament to request recognition of this title, but without success. He died in 1745, followed by his son, another William, in 1748. The heiress, Barbara, married her cousin from the Chirbury line (see above), Henry Herbert, who was re-created Earl Powis in 1748 (and Viscount Ludlow, in Shropshire).

This line too came to an end, in 1801, and the estates passed (and titles again re-created) to another son-in-law, Edward, Lord Clive, son of the famous ‘Clive of India’, one of the founders of the British Raj. Their descendants took the surname Herbert, and continues to present. Powis Castle is their seat, and one of its centrepieces is the Clive Collection of artefacts from India. The current Earl of Powis (the 8th), John Herbert (b. 1952), also bears the titles Baron Clive of Plassey (in County Clare, Ireland) and Baron Herbert of Chirbury (among others). A junior branch have been earls of Plymouth since 1905 (with the surname Windsor-Clive).

This brings us to the 20th century, and back to the main senior lines of the House of Herbert. The brothers Sidney and David Herbert were part of the fashionable set of the interwar years—Sidney (who later succeeded his father as 16th Earl of Pembroke) was Private Secretary and Comptroller of the Duchess of Kent (the very beautiful Princess Marina of Greece), while David was a socialite and designer, known as ‘the Queen of Tangiers’, intimate with fashionable writers like Paul Bowles. Henry Herbert, the 17th Earl, was a film and television producer…which leads conveniently to their cousins, the Earls of Carnarvon, who opened their castle, Highclere, to the ITV production team for ‘Downton Abbey’.

Highclere Castle

Highclere, in Hampshire, is mostly a 19th-century creation, a ‘Jacobethan’ fantasy constructed around an earlier house built in the 1670s by Sir Robert Sawyer, Attorney General for Charles II (whose daughter married the 8th Earl of Pembroke). There had been a residence here much earlier, ‘Bishop’s Clere’, which belonged to the Bishop of Winchester in the Middle Ages. Charles Barry, builder of the Houses of Parliament, rebuilt it in the 1840s for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon.

This branch of the Herberts had been created Baron Porchester in 1780 and Earl of Carnarvon in 1793 (though I don’t think there is any actual connection to that county in Wales). The first Earl was Master of the Horse for George III, 1806-07, and the horsey connection would continue with ‘Porchey’ as seen above. the 4th Earl was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the 1860s-70s, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1885-86. His sons both had a very colonial outlook, perhaps, and while the elder son (the 5th Earl) became a premier Egyptologist (as noted above), the younger, Lord Aubrey, became an avid orientalist and travel writer, and an advocate for Albanian independence from the Ottoman Empire (and was indeed offered the throne of Albania two times, in early 1914 and in 1920). The Queen’s racing manager succeeded his father as 7th Earl, and died in 2001. The current Earl of Carnarvon, George, and his son, Lord Porchester, realised the great financial windfall a television company could bring by using the house as a set, and particularly to a house badly in need of refurbishing by the end of the 20th century. Downton may not be set in Wales, and its owners not dukes, but it does seem a residence suitable for a family descended from ancient Welsh kings, and maybe even from Charlemagne himself.

Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter open King Tut’s Tomb in 1923

(images Wikimedia Commons or other public domain)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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