The year 1688-1689 has been called by historians the ‘Anglo-Dutch Moment’, as the year when the ideas of English and Dutch limited monarchy came together in the person of William, Prince of Orange: King William III. Over three centuries later, one family, the Bentincks, still benefit from this relatively brief merging of national interests. Hans Willem Bentinck was one of the leading supporters of William’s accession to the English and Scottish thrones; created earl of Portland, his son was elevated further as duke of Portland in 1716. The dukedom became extinct in 1990, but not the earldom, which, by the terms of its creation passed to a collateral branch which had continued to reside in the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. The English ducal branch added the historic name ‘Cavendish’ in the early 19th century, and one of its daughters, Nina Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck, became the much lesser known grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Dutch noble family Bentinck is one of the oldest in the Low Countries, based mostly in the eastern part of the country, in the provinces of Gelderland and Overijssel. They are not a ‘van’ family since there’s no place or castle with that name; instead the surname derives as a sort of patronymic from a probable early founder named Bento. The first documented ancestor is Johan or Jan Bentinck, who owned land in a region known as the Veluwe, a gentle hilly region that formed the northern part of the duchy of Gelderland (or Guelders). Its territory was sandy and marshy and full of woods and heath, so was often a preferred hunting ground for Dutch nobles. Het Loo, for example, has been a hunting lodge for the princely (then royal) House of Orange for centuries.
By the 15th century, the Bentincks were members of the Ridderschap, or noble estate, of the Veluwe, and in about 1502, divided into two main branches. The senior line became lords of Aller, and became extinct at the end of the 18th century. The junior line, lords of ‘t Velde, got a step up as its founder, Hendrick, acted as Steward of the lands of the Duke of Guelders in the Veluwe. His residence, Huis ‘t Velde, was an old moated manor house rebuilt by the Bentincks, located east of Warnsveld in another region of Gelderland, Zutphen. It was acquired in the late 17th century by the Van Keppel family (interestingly, rivals of the Bentincks in England), and today serves as a conference centre for the regional police service.
Hendrick Bentinck ‘t Velde’s sons and grandsons married heiresses and founded several different branches that co-existed well into the 19th century (though interestingly some of them remained Catholic after the Reformation while others firmly embraced Calvinism). Another Hendrick shifted his branch’s centre somewhat to the north, acquiring the lordships of Diepenheim and Schoonheten in the 1630s, both in the province of Overijssel. This province, which for centuries was not independent, but property of the bishops of Utrecht, takes its name from the fact that it is across the River IJssel. It is made up of several districts, including Twente in the east (where Diepenheim is located), and Salland in the west (where Schoonheten is). Hendrick also took on the important post of Drost of Salland, sort of equivalent in English to a local sheriff or seneschal.
Schoonheten Castle has been, and remains, the main seat of the Bentincks in the Netherlands. There has been a moated manor house here, near the town of Raalte, since the 1380s. Hendrick Bentinck rebuilt and enlarged it in the 1630s. It was enlarged again in the late 18th century with the addition of an English-style garden. In the late 19th century it took on its modern appearance, as its white plaster walls were re-covered (on three sides) with red brick. The local town retains a memory of its long British connections, with a pub named the ‘Duke of Portland’.
One of Hendrick’s grandsons, Eusebius, carried on the branch of Diepenheim and Schoonheten in the province of Overijssel, and we will return to them later on; a younger son, Hans Willem (1649-1709), became a favourite and protégé of William III, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic. In the 1670s, to get closer to the seats of power in the province of Holland, he acquired the lordships of Rhoon and Pendrecht. Both are located on a sandy island in the delta of the River Mass, just south of the city of Rotterdam. Rhoon Castle was built on a sandbank in about 1200, then rebuilt in the 1420s. It gave Hans Willem and his successors a seat in the local estates and house of lords of Holland. But it is no longer Bentinck property, having been sold to a local shipping family (Van Hoboken) in 1830.
Hans Willem, Lord of Rhoon’s connections to England started earlier than the ‘Anglo-Dutch Moment’ of 1688-89. He had been appointed a page and chamberlain in the household of Prince William as a young man, and crucially, nursed him back to health after an attack of smallpox in 1675. Their intense friendship deepened from then, though the jury is still out over whether this developed into a sexual relationship. In 1677, he was sent to England to formally ask for the hand of Princess Mary, daughter of the Duke of York (and his first cousin), and a year later Hans Willem himself married an English woman, Anne Villiers, a cousin of the King’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham. Her mother, Lady Frances Howard, had been governess of the princesses Mary and Anne, and Anne Villiers and her sisters (and a brother) accompanied Princess Mary to The Hague after her wedding to the Prince of Orange. Bentinck would later deliver important messages from William to his uncle (and now father-in-law) King James in the 1680s, and was key in organising ships and funds for William to mount his ‘invasion’ of Britain in November 1688. Once William and Mary were formally proclaimed king and queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, Bentinck was appointed Groom of the Stole (one of the most intimate court offices, in charge of the King’s private spaces within the palace), First Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and was given the titles Earl of Portland, Viscount Woodstock and Baron Cirencester. He served with William in battle in Ireland and in the Low Countries, then acted as ambassador to France, 1698, representing the King’s interests in the all-important question of the Spanish Succession.
But by this point, Portland had been supplanted as the King’s favourite by another Dutchman, Arnold van Keppel, and he resigned his court offices in 1699, and he mostly retired to his country estate at Bulstrode Park, though he did continue to carry out duties in the next reign, that of Queen Anne. The family’s prominence at court was maintained after his death by his second wife (Jane Temple), who was appointed governess of the daughters of the Prince of Wales (the future King George II), and by his son, the 1st Duke of Portland (below). Bulstrude Park is located in Buckinghamshire, not far from Beaconsfield (and surprisingly close to the M40 motorway!). This was a new house built in the 1680s by the Lord Chancellor, George Jeffreys, and soon after sold to Lord Portland. It was significantly altered by the 2nd Duke of Portland in the 1740s, and by his wife who transformed its gardens into one of the most famous botanical gardens of its day, renowned for its rare exotic plants. The 4th Duke sold Bulstrode Park in 1811, to the Duke of Somerset. His successor completely rebuilt the house in the 1860s, and it then passed to the Ramsden family who later sold it in the 1950s. Today it is in private hands and not open to visitors.
Hans Willem Bentinck’s eldest surviving son, Henry, carried on the family legacy as a chief supporter of the Whig political agenda in Britain—that is a limited, Protestant monarchy—and was therefore created 1st Duke of Portland by the new Hanoverian regime in 1716. William III had created many new dukes for this reason, so it seemed natural; plus, Henry Bentinck was now even wealthier than his father, as he had married a significant heiress, Lady Elizabeth Noel, daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough and heiress of Titchfield Abbey and its estates in Hampshire. His subsidiary titles created in 1716 included Marquess of Titchfield, to be used for the heir. The new Duke was named a Gentleman of the Bedchamber in 1717, and Governor of Jamaica in 1722, where he died in 1726.
Titchfield Abbey had been founded by Premonstratensian monks in the 1220s, and was a frequent resting point for royalty travelling between London and Winchester—as well as the site of a royal wedding in 1445, between Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. When the monasteries were dissolved in the 1530s, one of Henry VIII’s henchmen, er, courtiers…, Thomas Wriothesley acquired the property and converted it into a residence. By the 17th century it was known as Place House. The Bentincks did not hold on to it very long and sold it in the 1740s. It was soon abandoned and partly demolished. Today it is in government ownership and cared for by English Heritage.
Part of the reason for selling the Titchfield estate was the acquisition in the 1730s of a much more extensive portfolio by the 2nd Duke of Portland. In 1734, the Duke married the richest heiress of the day, Lady Margaret Cavendish-Harley (or Cavendish-Holles-Harley), the daughter of Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer and Lady Henrietta Holles, herself a major heiress. This double windfall of two generations of heiresses brought two major new properties from the Cavendish family, in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire: Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey. The Cavendish family, founded on Tudor wealth in the 16th century (Welbeck was of course another dissolved abbey) had been divided in the early 17th century into the Devonshire line and the Newcastle line—both of these were dukedoms and will be explored in a separate post for the mighty Cavendish family. The Newcastle line ended in the male line in 1690, and its chief heiress, Margaret, married the politician John Holles, Earl of Clare, for whom the Newcastle title was revived in 1694. When he died in 1711, his estates went to his daughter Henrietta who married another politician, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (son of the more famous first minister of Queen Anne), though the name Holles and the title Newcastle went to his nephew, Thomas Pelham. It was thus a Cavendish-Holles-Harley heiress who became the 2nd Duchess of Portland.
To entangle the estates and castles of this vast and complicated succession, let’s start at the end and work backwards. The Harleys were a Herefordshire gentry family. In 1601, they acquired the mostly ruined castle of Wigmore in that county, the former seat of the mighty medieval Mortimer lords who used this castle in their defence of the borders between England and Wales. The Harley’s main residence was the more modern Brampton Bryan Hall (also in Herefordshire). At the 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer’s death, Brampton Bryan passed to a collateral branch of his family, but I think (and happy to be corrected) that the Wigmore estate came to the Bentincks. Today it is a ruin, looked after by English Heritage.
The Holles succession might have included the very grand Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, purchased by John Holles in 1710, but it was sold by his son-in-law the 2nd Earl of Oxford in 1740 to pay off debts. His daughter Henrietta Holles did, however, inherit the manor of Marylebone, then on the outskirts of London, and today reflecting past ownership in the names of its streets: Harley Street, Oxford Street, Henrietta Street, Wimpole Street, Wigmore Street (and Wigmore Hall); as well as Cavendish Square, Great Portland Street and so on. The Bentinck family vault was established in the parish church of Marylebone, first in a new church built in the 1740s, at the northern end of Marylebone High Street (demolished in 1949), and then in a newer church built by celebrated architect Thomas Hardwick in about 1815.
It was the Cavendish succession in the north of England that was the most significant, and caused the family to take on the double-barrelled surname Cavendish-Bentinck by the end of the century.
Bolsover Castle is associated most with the 1st Duke of Newcastle, so will be looked at more closely in a different blog post. It was a medieval fortress built to overlook the Scarsdale and the eastern edges of the Derbyshire dales (what today we might call the valley of the M1). Edward VI gave the crumbling ruins to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury; his son, the 7th Earl, sold it in 1590 to his half-brother, Sir Charles Cavendish (son of the celebrated Bess of Hardwick). Cavendish set about rebuilding the castle, more as a pleasure palace than a defensive structure, but it was his son, William, who turned Bolsover into the real gem we see today. The Duke of Newcastle was incredibly interested in the equestrian arts, and it has been exciting to see English Heritage restoring and recreating his horse riding school at Bolsover in the past two decades. The Portland family took over the property in the 1730s, but by the late 19th century rarely lived there, and in 1945, the 7th Duke gave it to the nation. It is one of the jewels in the crown of English Heritage.
Much further to the north, Bothal Castle was part of the Ogle succession that had fallen to the Cavendishes by marriage in the 1590s. The Castle, fortified even before the Norman conquest, is located near Morpeth in Northumberland (north of the city of Newcastle). It was the seat of the Ogle family for about two centuries (created barons in 1461), then passed via Cavendish to Cavendish-Bentinck, who restored it in the mid-19th century. It is still a residence of the Bentinck family, though not open to the public.
The Cavendish property that became the main seat of the dukes of Portland was Welbeck Abbey. Located only a few miles east of Bolsover, it is across the county line in Nottinghamshire, and is one of the four ducal residences that gave the name ‘the Dukeries’ to this area (Portland, Newcastle, Norfolk and Kingston). It is frustratingly closed to visitors. Like Titchfield Abbey it was also built by Premonstratensians, in about 1140—and by the 16th century it was the head of this Order of monks. Over the centuries it was heavily endowed by noble families and by King Edward I. In 1538, the monastery was dissolved and given by the Crown to Richard Walley of Screveton, and was later purchased (1599) by the 7th Earl of Shrewsbury and resold in 1607 to his half-brother Charles Cavendish. It became the chief residence of the dukes of Portland after the sale of Bulstrode in 1811, and then significantly altered by the 5th Duke, as we shall see below. Much of the oldest parts burned in 1900 and were rebuilt. After World War II Welbeck was leased to the Ministry of Defence who operated an army training college there. In 2005 it returned to use as a private residence by the heirs of the last duke of Portland, the Anglo-Italian William Parente, Prince of Castel Viscardo. Only the garden centre and a newly built art gallery is open to the public.
The 2nd Duke and Duchess of Portland were thus astronomically wealthy (though as per normal with the English aristocracy, their land holdings had very little to do with the actual place Portland, in Dorset). The Duchess, Margaret Harley, was better known than her husband, as a prominent ‘bluestocking’ (the name for a circle of women intellectuals in this period) famous for her botanical gardens and her museum at Bulstrode, noted above. The modern Harley Gallery at Welbeck is named for her. Just before she died, in 1786, the Duchess acquired one of the most famous pieces of glass in the world, a 1st-century Roman vase now known as the ‘Portland Vase’, deposited in the British Museum for safe keeping by her son the 3rd Duke, and finally sold to the Museum by the 7th Duke in 1945.
William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland carried the family line forward, and became its most famous politician. He stayed in the family tradition a supporter of the Whigs in government, and was named Lord Lieutenant (or viceroy) of Ireland, briefly, during the ministry of Lord Rockingham in 1782. In the next year, he lent his name to a Whig coalition led by Charles James Fox and Lord North as titular Prime Minister (actually First Lord of the Treasury) for 8 months—though significantly, it was during this year (1783) that his government signed the Treaty of Paris recognising the independence of the United States of America. Following the French Revolution, the Whig Party fractured, and those who were not in favour of such rapid liberal advances shifted to support the more conservative William Pitt, led by the Duke of Portland (these became known as the ‘Portland Faction’). The Duke served in Pitt’s administration as Secretary of State, Home Department, from 1794, and oversaw the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800. He was Lord President of the Council, 1801-1805, then a few years later (1807) took up the mantle once more of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, again as a figurehead leader of a coalition of Pittites (Canning, Castlereagh, Perceval, etc). He resigned in 1809 due to ill health and died soon after. Besides the streets and squares in London bearing his family names, he also gave his name to Portland Inlet and Bentinck Channel along the coast of British Columbia.
In the next generation, the 4th Duke, another William Henry, continued to hold high political office, as Lord Privy Seal in the administration of his brother-in-law George Canning, 1827, then Lord President of the Council in the administration of Canning’s replacement Viscount Goderich, until the government fell in early 1828. He was Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex for nearly a half century, and married a Scottish heiress, Henrietta Scott (so added another name to his surname), and purchased Fullarton House in Ayrshire, 1805, as his Scottish residence, and invested in the nearby port of Troon.
It was the 4th Duke’s younger brother, Lord William Bentinck, who was the more fascinating figure, however. Almost all the males in the family were named William (in honour of their original patron in England), but usually went by their second name; in this case he used William, while his older brother the Duke was William Henry, and his younger brother, William Charles, used Charles (see below). Lord William was appointed at a young age as governor of Madras in India, 1803-07, but was pulled back to Europe at the height of the Napoleonic wars and given command as Lieutenant-General of British troops in Sicily and representative of British interests on that island—notably to keep it out of the hands of Napoleon’s sister and brother-in-law, the Murats, now occupying the throne of Naples just across the straits. Lord William took it upon himself to encourage the liberal aspirations of the people of Sicily, much to the annoyance of their Bourbon king and queen, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina. Against the wishes of his own British government, he helped a group of Sicilian nobles take control of the court of Palermo in1812, forcing the King to abdicate in favour of his son Francis, and even introduced a liberal constitution (which, amongst other things, abolished feudalism…finally). In 1814, his superiors, supporting a full Bourbon restoration, sent him away from Sicily, north towards Tuscany where he was tasked with pushing out another of Napoleon’s sisters (Elisa) from her rule there. Again, he exceeded his orders and encouraged the locals to consider adopting a more liberal form of government, ie, not restoring the Habsburg grand dukes, and even preaching Italian unification—something that definitely would annoy Britain’s allies, Sardinia and Austria. He drove the French out of Genoa and restored its ancient republic (again, instead of returning it to the king of Sardinia, as instructed). He was recalled to Britain but surprisingly went unpunished. A decade later, he was sent back to India, first as Governor of Bengal, 1828, then as the first Governor-General of India, 1834-35. In this short time, he managed to modernise the government administration of Bengal and abolish the monopoly of trade enjoyed the East India Company. He criminalised the practice of sati (a widow’s self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre) and female infanticide; passed stronger laws against organised crime; passed the English Education Act (replacing Persian as the language of high courts); and founded the Calcutta Medical College. He died in Paris only a few years later. Fascinating.
Of the sons of the 4th Duke, the eldest, the Marquess of Titchfield, was expected to have a brilliant career, smart and well placed. But he died of a brain abscess before he reached thirty. The younger sons, Lord George and Lord Henry both became fairly influential members of the newly founded Conservative Party in the 1840s. But it was the second son, Lord John, who succeeded as 5th Duke of Portland in 1854, who captures the imagination of the most eccentric of the great aristocratic eccentrics of this period. Unlike most of his family, he had little interest in politics, and it soon became apparent that he didn’t like people at all. He became a famous recluse, retreating to Welbeck Abbey where he spent years constructing the most elaborate tunnel system—thought to be about 15 miles in total—connecting various parts of the house and the estate. The tunnels connected the main house to the kitchen gardens, stables and a large riding house—equipped with gas lighting! There was also gas lighting in the tunnels themselves, as well as some skylights. There were heated trucks to deliver food through the tunnels. There was a subterranean library and a grand billiards room. But the Duke did not entertain. Staff and tenants knew never to make eye contact if they happened to pass him. He communicated via letter boxes all over the house, but really only occupied a small apartment, sparsely furnished, in one corner of one of the largest houses in Britain. It was said that when he went to London, his carriage was put directly on the train so he never had to see anyone, and he rarely left his residence, Harcourt House on Cavendish Square. He died in 1879, and officially left no heirs, though there were rumours of children, and one sensational lawsuit kept society enthralled in turn of the century London whereby a Mrs Druce claimed the late Duke had led a double life as an upholsterer. Eventually several witnesses were charged with perjury, Mrs Druce ended up in an asylum, and London moved on to the next great news story.
An interesting webpage about the Welbeck tunnels:
By this time, the succession had moved on to a different branch of the family, and we come closer to the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother. At nearly 80 years old., the 5th Duke had outlived his two closest male heirs, his cousins Charles and Arthur. Their father, Lord Charles Cavendish-Bentinck, had scandalised society first by marrying an illegitimate daughter of the famous courtesan Grace Elliott—whose high profile lovers included the Duke of Orléans and the Prince of Wales who may indeed have been the father of Lord Charles’s wife. Shortly after this first wife (called Georgiana Seymour) died, Lord Charles eloped with his friend Sir William Abdy’s wife; they divorced; and Charles and Anne (herself an illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother) married. Their eldest son, Charles (whose name was William Charles, but like his father went by Charles, and in fact signed his name ‘WCC Bentinck’), not thinking he would succeed to a dukedom, entered the church and became vicar for several parishes in Bedfordshire in the 1840s. He had no sons, but from a second marriage left three daughters: the eldest of these was Nina Cecilia, who seems to have preferred Cecilia, but I’d love to know for certain. She certainly has a colourful background in her grandmother and great-grandmother; and, via the Prince of Wales (King George IV) maybe even a drop of royal blood!
In 1881, before she turned twenty, Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck married Lord Glamis (Claude Bowes-Lyon), heir to the Scottish earldom of Strathmore and Kinghorne. The Lyon family were Angus landowners from the 14th century, created Baron Glamis in 1445, and Earl of Kinghorne (later adding Strathmore) in 1606. In 1767, the 9th Earl married Mary Bowes, the heiress of a wealthy London businessman, and the family name became hyphenated. In 1904, Claude and Cecilia succeeded as 14th Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and raised their large brood of children (10) at Glamis Castle in Angus, or at estates in County Durham (Gibside Hall) or Hertfordshire (the enormous country seat of St Paul’s Walden Bury, between Luton and Stevenage). The Countess was known as one of the grand hostesses of the era, and her daughters entered high society, where the youngest of them, Lady Elizabeth, caught the eye of the Duke of York, and married him, in 1923. The future Queen Elizabeth II was born at the Strathmore home in Mayfair in April 1926. The rest of this story is well known.
What is less well known, is that one of the most famous society patrons of the arts and bohemians of the early 20th century, Lady Ottoline Morrell, was Cecilia’s first cousin. She was the daughter of Reverend Charles Bentinck’s younger brother, Lieutenant-General Arthur Cavendish-Bentinck. Once her half-brother William succeeded as 6th Duke of Portland in 1879, she was granted the rank of a duke’s daughter, so entitled to be called ‘Lady Ottoline’, while her husband (married in 1902) was simply Mr Philip Morrell. For the first three decades of the 20th century, she was a literary hostess, a patron, and a protector of pacifists and conscientious objectors during World War I (like Lytton Strachey), notably at her home, Garsington Manor, in Oxfordshire. Her many friends and lovers included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, Dora Carrington, DH Lawrence (who may have modelled his Lady Chatterley on her), Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, and on and on.
William Cavendish-Bentinck, the 6th Duke of Portland, had a more traditional aristocratic history: Master of the Horse under Conservative governments in the 1880s-90s, a Privy Councillor, and long-standing Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire (from 1898-1939). He carried the crown of his cousin Queen Elizabeth at her coronation in 1937. Earlier, his wife Winifred had been a canopy bearer to Queen Alexandra at the 1902 coronation (wearing the famous Portland Tiara, stolen in 2018), and her Mistress of the Robes from 1913 to 1925. The Duchess was also an early animal rights activist and vegetarian. She persuaded her husband to devote significant funds to improving the lives of miners on his Nottinghamshire estates.
The 6th Duke did do something non-traditional, though he was in keeping with the changing times (and indeed the changing laws): in 1943, just before he died, he broke the entail on the Portland estates, since he could see that his grand-daughters would otherwise inherit nothing if the lands and titles stayed together and passed as usual to the next male heir (a distant cousin). These lands were estimated (in 2008, when the last of these grand-daughters died) as 17,000 acres in Nottinghamshire (roughly 3% of the county) and 62,000 acres in Scotland. The Duke was buried in St Winifred’s Church, Holbeck, on the Welbeck Estate, which he had built in the early years of the 20th century. It became the resting place of all of the 20th-century dukes.
His son, William, 7th Duke of Portland, had been an MP for many years (officially as Marquess of Titchfield, but known as ‘Chopper’), and succeeded his father as Lord Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire (until 1962), and was also Chancellor of Nottingham University. He married a grand-daughter of the 6th Duke of Richmond, Ivy Gordon-Lennox, and they had two daughters. The eldest, Lady Anne, never married and lived at Welbeck Abbey and managed its vast estates until her death in 2008. After that, the house and lands passed to her nephew, the Prince of Castel Viscardo (which is in Umbria).
The titles, but not the lands, went to a distant cousin, Ferdinand Cavendish-Bentinck, who became the 8th Duke at age 89 in 1977. He was a descendant of Lord Frederick, the fourth son of the 3rd Duke. Lord Frederick’s two grandsons both had interesting marriages: one, to one of the aristocratic Livingstons of New York (and left daughters who remained there), and another to an illegitimate daughter of the Earl St Maur (heir to the Duke of Somerset), Ruth St Maur, a suffragette and socialist, and one of the founders of the Women’s Library in 1909. Ferdinand spent a long career as a senior colonial official in East Africa, mostly in Kenya, from the 1920s to the 1950s. He and his wife remained in Nairobi, even after he became duke, as there were no lands to inherit in England. In 1980, he was succeeded by his brother Victor, who was also in his 80s. The 9th and last Duke of Portland (who used his third name, William, or ‘Bill Bentinck’) had also had a long career, first as a diplomat in the 1920-30s (rising to be Ambassador to Poland in 1945), then in business, mostly focusing on repairing links between Britain and German industry. His diplomatic career had been cut short (apparently on the verge of being named ambassador to Brazil) because of a divorce in 1948, which in those days was still too shameful for society to handle. His son predeceased him in the 1960s, and with no male heir when he died in 1990, the dukedom ceased to exist.
But not the earldom. We need now to travel back to the Netherlands, and back to the 18th century. The younger son of Hans Willem Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, unsurprisingly also named William, was sent back to the Low Countries in 1719 to maintain the family estates and to occupy the family seat in the Estates of Holland as Baron van Rhoon. He also retained lands in England as lord of the manor of Terrington in Norfolk, not far from King’s Lynn. He would play an important role in Dutch politics later in the century as one of the leaders of the Orangist party who helped re-establish the position of Stadtholder in 1747, and was a delegate for the Netherlands at the peace talks at Aix-la-Chapelle, 1748, that ended the War of Austrian Succession. But he was pushed out of politics in the next reign due to his personal animosity with Princess Anne of Great Britain, now Dowager Princess of Orange and Regent for her son, Willem V.
In 1732, William Bentinck van Rhoon had been created Count of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Charles VI, to raise his rank so that it would be equal to his future bride, Countess Charlotte Sophie of Aldenburg. The Countess was the heiress of an Imperial county formed in the late 17th century out of fragments of the ancient county of Oldenburg (of which ‘Aldenburg’ was an older variant spelling), which had passed into possession of the House of Denmark on the extinction of its legitimate male line. The illegitimate son of the last Count of Oldenburg was given two Frisian lordships, Kniphausen and Varel, both on the North Sea coast on an inlet in the mouth of Weser, on either side of the future port city of Wilhelmshaven (not founded until 1869). The two lordships were joined together as a county by the Emperor in 1653. Charlotte Sophie inherited them and ruled as a semi-independent princess in 1738, but as her marriage broke down due to adultery, and her private life became too scandalous for Dutch society, she was divorced from Bentinck in 1744, and ‘deposed’ by her former husband in 1748, who then ruled the county of Aldenburg in the name of his sons.
The twin ‘free lordships’ of Kniphausen and Varel were ruled as an autonomous county within the Duchy of Oldenburg by the Bentincks for the rest of the 18th century. Varel had been one of the ancient seats of the independent chiefs of the Frisians in the Middle Ages and its castle was expanded into a more palatial residence once the county of Aldenburg was established. The same is true for the castle further to the north at Kniphausen. Both castles were ultimately destroyed by fires: Varel in 1751 and 1817, then gradually dismantled, and Kniphausen in 1708, never rebuilt. Today’s castle at Kniphausen is a re-purposed former stables and is in private hands.
The French Empire built by Napoleon eventually extended its reach to the North Sea, and incorporated the County of Aldenburg in 1810. All of the various Dutch baronial lines of the House of Bentinck were confirmed as ‘barons de l’Empire’ in 1813, and when this fell, they were confirmed as barons of the new Kingdom of the Netherlands. But at the Congress of Vienna, 1815, the Count of Aldenburg was denied a restoration of his sovereignty (however miniscule) and became a vassal of the Grand Duke of Oldenburg. He contested this, and in 1818 was allowed a limited degree of sovereignty in Kniphausen and Varel, mostly concerning internal administration and external trade. But after a succession dispute between two brothers, Willem Gustaf and Jan Carel (the former of whom had married a local farmer’s daughter), the two properties were sold to the Grand Duke in 1854, for 2 million thaler.
The branch born ‘unequally’ moved to the United States and faded away. The younger branch added to their aristocratic lustre first in the Netherlands by incorporating the succession of the Reede-Ginckel family, earls of Athlone (created in 1692 for another one of William III’s generals, Godert van Ginckel van Reede; extinct 1844) by inheritance in the 1840s; then by gaining the lands of the counts of Limpurg-Gaildorf by marriage in the 1860s. They were elevated to the rank of ‘illustrious highness’ within the German aristocracy. In the Netherlands, they were now lords of Middachten, with its elegant palace and gardens on a bend in the River IJssel in the province of Gelderland (near Arnhem), and also of Amelongen and Ginckel, a bit to the west in the province of Utrecht. The church at Ellecom near Middachten became the burial place for this branch of the family. In Swabia, they inherited the lordship of Gaildorf, once part of the ancient imperial County of Limpurg (northeast of Stuttgart)—here they possessed an Old Schloss, built in the late 15th century, and later constructed a New Schloss, sometimes called the Bentinck Palace, which served as a summer retreat for the family until it was confiscated in 1918 (and now serves as the town hall).
This Dutch-German branch, using the title, Count of Aldenburg-Bentinck (recognised formally by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1924), became extinct in 1968, and the headship of this branch passed to a senior line who had renounced it in the 1870s and moved to England. In 1886, they were permitted, by royal licence, to bear the title Count Bentinck in the United Kingdom. Count Henry Noel served in the British army in World War II, then became a producer for the BBC. In 1968 he became head of this branch of the family, and in 1990, at age 71, he succeeded his *very* distant cousins as 11th Earl of Portland, and his son Tim became ‘Viscount Woodstock’. Timothy Bentinck had already established himself as an actor, notably on the radio as one of the lead characters on ‘The Archers’. After 1997 he was entitled to call himself 12th Earl of Portland, as well as Count Bentinck von Aldenburg and Count of Waldeck-Limpurg. He has two sons who presumably will continue the line.
There are other Bentinck lines in England: another younger son returned to England in the 18th century to manage the estates at Terrington in Norfolk. William Bentinck of Terrington became a Vice-Admiral in the British Navy and was governor of the Caribbean island of St Vincent, 1798-1802. Due to his European family connections, he later served as an informal diplomat between Britain, Denmark and Russia and died at the court of St Petersburg in 1813. His descendants were also recognised as counts in the United Kingdom in 1886, then died out in 1938. There is still a Bentinck Arms pub in North Lynn, that served dockworkers in King’s Lynn in the early 20th century, many of whom were Dutch.
And there’s more: the senior line of Bentinck van Diepenheim and Schoonheten were also confirmed as barons of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814, but they had already sold the castle of Diepenheim in 1813 (today the private estate of the De Vos van Steenwijk family—cousins and neighbours of the Bentincks since the 15th century). One of these, Berend, moved to England in the 1830s. Two of his grandsons rose to prominence, one as an Admiral of the British Navy (Sir Rudolf Bentinck), and the other as a colonial administrator in South Africa. Both were permitted to use the title Baron Bentinck in the United Kingdom by George V in 1911. This was later rescinded in 1932. Today Gary Ramsay Bentinck (b. 1964) is, strictly lineally speaking, head of both English and Dutch baronial lines. He lives in Aberdeenshire. Meanwhile there are also still Dutch barons too, in various branches of Schoonheten, Bevervoerde and Buckhorst. In the 20th century, several of them served in high positions with the household of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (reigned 1890 to 1948), two as Chamberlain and two (father and son) as Master of the Horse. Others were diplomats, one as ambassador to Czechoslovakia and one as ambassador to France. There’s no danger of this family becoming extinct any time soon, always maintaining a foot in England and a foot in the Netherlands. We can continue to have our ‘Anglo-Dutch Moment’.
(images Wikimedia Commons)