If you are watching the coronation of King Charles III this Spring, chances are you have been confused by mention of the ‘shared office’ of Lord Great Chamberlain of the United Kingdom, one of the two Great Officers of State that remains hereditary, alongside the Earl Marshal (the Duke of Norfolk), and one of the chief participants in the ceremonies on the day. You may have even heard that this ‘shared office’ is due to the split inheritance of the Duke of Ancaster.
Who was the Duke of Ancaster and why is his hereditary office currently held by someone called Baron Carrington?
Rupert, 7th Baron Carrington (whose surname, confusingly, is Carington, with one r), was nominated to fill the post of Lord Great Chamberlain following the death of Elizabeth II in September 2022. He will fill this role until the reign ends, when it will pass back to the family of the Marquess of Cholmondeley (who held it in the previous reign). Carrington’s family possess a ¼ share of the office, while the Cholmondeleys hold a ½ share. The other ¼ is held by the heiress of the last Earl of Ancaster, the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. The formal term for this collective hereditary portioning of an office is that it is held ‘in gross’. It is the result of the complicated succession of 1779 that followed the death of the next-to-last Duke of Ancaster, Robert Bertie. The dukedom and other titles passed to an uncle, some of his private fortune passed to his illegitimate daughter, while the barony of Willoughby and the office of Great Lord Chamberlain went into abeyance between his two sisters. It is the heirs of these sisters who share the office today.
The office of Lord Great Chamberlain is a purely ceremonial position, and is different to the office of Lord Chamberlain. They were once the same, the chief courtier in charge of running the monarch’s chamber (bedchamber) and by extension, the household, but since the 14th century, his actual duties have been carried out by a deputy, who became known as the Lord Chamberlain. Today the Lord Chamberlain, a non-hereditary post but still always someone with a title, is the senior officer of the royal household, responsible for organising all day-to-day ceremonial activities, diplomatic visits, garden parties, award ceremonies. Since 2021 this has been Lord Parker of Minsmere. The higher ranking office, the Great Chamberlain, has been hereditary (for the most part) since the 1130s, and is responsible for organising the great state events of the monarchy, coronations and funerals, along with the Earl Marshal. At the coronation, he dresses the sovereign on the day and is involved in the investiture of royal insignia during the ceremony. He carries the crown at the State Opening of Parliament, and bears a white staff, a symbol of his office, along with a golden key—always a symbol of the office of chamberlain, in any European monarchy, as the courtier with the keys to the monarch’s private spaces. We’ve seen these moments on television when the Lord Great Chamberlain raises his white staff to signal the king’s messenger, ‘Black Rod’, that he should go knock on the door of the House of Commons to summon them to attend the sovereign.
The office of Lord Great Chamberlain was for centuries held by the De Vere family, earls of Oxford from 1141 (with some interruptions; but fully confirmed as hereditary by Queen Mary in 1553). When the 18th Earl died in 1625, there was some uncertainty with his succession, but within the year it was decided that the earldom would pass to his male heir, but the office of Great Chamberlain would pass to his closer heir via a female, Robert Bertie, Baron Willoughby the Eresby. He was at about the same time raised in rank as 1st Earl of Lindsey.
So who was Robert Bertie?
The Bertie family (pronounced ‘Barty’) had a family legend—as all these great aristocrats do—that they came to Britain with the Saxons, originating in ‘Bertiland’, said to be in Prussia, though no such place name exists (some have speculated it refers to Bartelsdorf in East Prussia, now in Poland). In any case, a certain Richard Bertie, son of a stone mason, appears in Tudor history as captain of Hurst Castle in Hampshire, and as master of the horse of Catherine Willoughby, the widow of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Catherine was herself a major heiress, particularly in Lincolnshire; her father, William, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, was thought to have held thirty manors in Lincolnshire and thirty more in East Anglia. His barony dated from 1313, centred on the manor of Eresby in Spilsby, Lincolnshire (his title appended ‘de Eresby’ to keep it distinct from the Barony of Willoughby de Broke (1491), based in Wiltshire). The Willoughbys themselves came from a village of that name a bit further east in Lincolnshire, at the foot of the hills known as the Lincolnshire Wolds (the village name itself comes from Norse for ‘farm by the willow tree’), in the northern part of the county known as Lindsey. They acquired the manor of Eresby in 1310—its ancient manor house was rebuilt in the 1530s by Brandon, but was destroyed by fire in 1769, leaving little remains today.
A favourite of King Henry VIII, in 1516 the 11th Lord Willoughby was married to the chief lady in waiting and confidante of Queen Katherine of Aragon, Maria de Salinas, and was given as a wedding gift, the castle of Grimsthorpe in the more southerly part of Lincolnshire known as Kesteven, which included a manor called Ancaster. After her father’s death, Catherine Willoughby became a ward of Charles Brandon, and eventually his fourth wife. In the 1540s he transformed Grimsthorpe Castle from a medieval castle (originally been built by an early Earl of Lincoln in the mid-12th century, and confiscated from Lord Lovell by Henry VII) into a splendid residence worthy of a duke. He used building materials from the nearby Abbey of Vaudey, recently secularised. It was grand enough to host royalty: Henry VIII and Marie of Guise, Queen of Scots, both stayed there. It would be rebuilt in the early 18th century to celebrate the creation of the Dukedom of Ancaster, as a Baroque palace, the last major building of John Vanbrugh, and a Capability Brown park was added in the 1770s. It is still in private hands today.
The Duke of Suffolk died in 1545 and about 8 years later, the Duchess of Suffolk married her master of the horse, Richard Bertie. Both were devoted Protestants, so early in the reign of Mary I fled to the Continent, first to the Rhineland, and then to Poland. A son was born on their travels so they named him Peregrine, as a pilgrim (‘peregrinus’ a foreign traveller).
Returning to England in the reign of Elizabeth I, Richard Bertie became an MP for Lincolnshire, then Justice of the Peace for Lindsey and High Sheriff of Lincolnshire, 1564-65. He apparently tried to claim a seat in the House of Lords in his wife’s name (as Baroness Willoughby) but was rebuked. His son was more successful when his mother died in 1580, and Richard Bertie himself died in 1582.
Peregrine Bertie, now 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, served as a diplomat for Elizabeth I, for example to the court of Denmark, but became much better known as a soldier. He served as a commander of English forces sent to the Netherlands to aid the Dutch in their fight against Spanish rule, and was named governor of Bergen-op-Zoom in 1586. He later fought for the Huguenot cause in France and aided Henry IV in his conquest of his kingdom in the 1590s. He ended his career as governor of Berwick and Warden of the East March in 1598 and died in 1601.
Lord Peregrine had married in 1577 Lady Mary de Vere, daughter of the 16th Earl of Oxford, the Lord Great Chamberlain of England (her brother was the volatile 17th Earl, the one some have suspected to be the ‘real’ William Shakespeare). Already having quartered his Bertie arms with Willoughby, the family would eventually also add those of De Vere, once their children became heirs of her family after 1625. The very old Willoughby arms were azure ‘fretty’ (a criss-cross pattern) on gold, while the (I assume) new Bertie arms sported an unusual trio of horizontally arranged battering rams, with blue ram’s heads. The De Vere coat-of-arms, as one of the oldest in the Kingdom, was quite simple: red and gold quarters, with a silver star (or ‘mullet’) in the first quarter.
As we’ve seen, their son Robert Bertie inherited the office of Great Lord Chamberlain and was created Earl of Lindsey. Lindsay, the northern third of Lincolnshire, had once been an independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, absorbed by Northumbria in the 7th century. Its name reminds us that most of this eastern coast of England was for much of the Middle Ages a mucky wetland, and this patch of higher ground became known as the Isle of Lind (-ey usually meaning island in Anglo-Saxon place names). Lind probably came from the Brittonic word for pool or lake, and the Romans named a town after it, Lindum Colonia, which eventually became Lincoln. Lindsey was a separate administrative unit within Lincolnshire until the administrative reforms of the 1970s when it disappeared.
The 1st earl of Lindsey had been raised at court; his godparents were none other than Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. Aside from performing court duties as Lord Great Chamberlain for the early years of the reign of Charles I, he was active in Lincolnshire as starting major drainage projects in the 1630s. Having served as a young man in Dutch campaigns, he was named a royalist commander at the outset of the Civil War, at first tasked with taking Hull (unsuccessfully), and then acting as general of the infantry at the Battle of Edge Hill in October 1642, where he lost his life. He had married Elizabeth Montagu (sister of the 1st Baron Montagu of Boughton) thus integrating the Bertie family further within the hierarchies of the upper court aristocracy (and also the families holding power in the East Midlands).
Their son, Montagu Bertie (known as ‘Lord Willoughby’ as heir) was a favourite of King Charles I. He raised a regiment of Life Guards and brought it into Royalist service in the Civil War, and in 1643 was named to the Privy Council and a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. Now 2nd Earl of Lindsey, he remained faithful to the King through all his tribulations, including his imprisonment and trial. Though he himself was not punished in 1649, he was forced to pay significant sums to the new regime and retired from politics. At the Restoration of Charles II, he performed the role of the Lord Great Chamberlain in the coronation of 1661, was given the Order of the Garter, and was re-appointed Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire, an office his descendants would hold continuously for the next 150 years.
Robert Bertie succeeded as 3rd Earl of Lindsey in 1666, and in politics retained his family’s strong loyalty to the Crown which gradually morphed into the Tory faction in Parliament. His younger half-brother, James, inherited his own barony, Norreys, and an ancestral seat, Rycote in Oxfordshire, from his mother. Lord Norreys was a more substantial politician, and due to his close connections with his brother-in-law, Lord Danby (essentially the King’s first minister), and helped hold together a ‘Crown Party’ in the turbulent last years of Charles II’s reign, earning for himself an earldom, that of Abingdon, in 1682. The secondary Bertie branch, the earls of Abingdon, outlived the senior branch, and in 1938 combined the two earldoms into one. The current 14th Earl of Lindsey and 9th Earl of Abingdon is Robert Bertie (b. 1931); his heir is known as Baron Norreys.
The 3rd Earl of Lindsey remained in office under the regime of William and Mary, despite the fall from power of the Danby faction and the rise of the Whigs. His sons regained some of this favour under the new King and Queen, and eventually shifted their loyalties towards the Whig party: the second son, Peregrine, in particular, was named Vice-Chamberlain of the Household of William III, in 1694, and continued in this office under Queen Anne. The older son, another Robert, had been a Tory MP for Boston in the 1680s, and supported the northern rising in support of the Glorious Revolution. He was rewarded by William & Mary with the office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1689. In 1701 he succeeded his father as 4th Earl of Lindsey, 17th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, and Lord Great Chamberlain—performing this role at the funeral of William III, then at the coronation of Queen Anne on St. George’s Day, 23 April 1702. He was also appointed a Privy Councillor.
In 1706, he was raised a rank in the peerage, as Marquess of Lindsey, and in the new reign, of George I, was elevated again, in 1715, as Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven. I’ve not been able to find precise reasons for the choice of these titles: perhaps ‘Duke of Lincolnshire’ was rejected, so this was a substitute? Why use both names? Ancaster was one of the original Willoughby estates brought to the Bertie family in the 1550s. Its name suggests Roman origins (‘Anna’s fort or camp’) and indeed there are remains of a Roman settlement here, on a key road north from London. The region of Kesteven was, like Lindsey, one of the three subdivisions of Lincolnshire, in the southwest of the county. Its name may derive from a hybrid of Celtic ceto (‘wood’) and Norse stefna (‘meeting place’)—its name appears as Coestefne in about 1000. More recently it has been used as part of the title of one of its most famous residents, born and raised in Grantham, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven (cr. 1992).
The 1st Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven had also added to his family’s lands, by marriage in 1678 to the Welsh heiress Mary Wynn, a descendant of the ancient princely house of Aberffraw (kings of Gwynedd), and heiress of the 4th Baronet Wynn. The Wynn estates were centred on Gwydyr Castle, in the Conwy Valley on the eastern edges of County Carnarvon (North Wales). Its ancient manor house had been rebuilt in the 16th century, with material from the local secularised abbey of Maenan. It was neglected as a Bertie property in the 18th century, but subsequent heirs rebuilt it—and the name was resurrected in the title Baron Gwydyr (or Gwydir) in 1796. The estate was mostly sold off in the 1890s, and the house finally in 1921 by Earl Carrington (see below). Today it is privately owned and restored. The 1st Baron Gwydir also built a grand London residence, in Whitehall, Gwydyr House, which is today the office of the Secretary of State for Wales. An earlier residence for the Berties in London was Willoughby House, built as a town house by the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk in the 1530s near Cripplegate, in what was once the edge of the Roman City—after this part of London was bombed in World War II, it was redeveloped as the Barbican, and still uses the name Willoughby House for one of its residential units.
The eldest son of the 1st Duke, Robert, had died studying abroad, so it was the second son, Peregrine, who became 2nd Duke in 1723. In politics, he returned to the family’s traditional alliance with the Tories, and despite the ongoing power of the Whig Ascendancy in the first two reigns of the Hanoverian kings, was appointed to key court and government offices: Gentleman of the Bedchamber in 1719-27 (at first as Marquess of Lindsey, the title used by the heir), and Chief Justice in Eyre, north of the Trent, 1734-42. He maintained the family position in Lincolnshire as Lord Lieutenant, and married a daughter of one of the other local elites, the Brownlows, baronets from the other side of Grantham, at Belton House. He acted as Lord Great Chamberlain in key monarchical events in the deaths and accessions of George I and George II.
Another Peregrine succeeded his father as 3rd Duke of Ancaster in 1742. He led a military career, rising to the rank of full general by 1772, and was appointed to the office of Master of the Horse in 1766, which was by this point more a political office than an office of the household. The appointment was the start of a long alliance with the Pitt family. In 1773, he built a country house on Richmond Hill overlooking the Thames in west London, Ancaster House, designed by Robert Adam; but his heirs sold this house soon after. In town they also occupied Lindsey House (sometimes called Ancaster House), on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, near Sir John Soane’s House.
The 3rd Duke died in 1778 and was succeeded by his son Robert as 4th Duke, but only for a year. As Lord Lindsey, he had served in the War of American Independence, 1777-78, and on his return to England was appointed a Privy Councillor, perhaps the start of a great political career. But he died soon after of scarlet fever. He was unmarried, but willed much of his money to an illegitimate daughter, Susan Bertie, who later married another veteran of the war in America, the fantastically named (and outrageously painted) Banastre Tarleton. He had been famous as the daring leader of ‘Tarleton’s Raiders’, particularly in South Carolina, and later became an MP for Liverpool, a vocal anti-abolitionist, a general in the Napoleonic wars in Iberia, and finally a baronet in 1815.
The 4th Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven was the last person to hold the office of Lord Great Chamberlain undivided. Although the ducal title and the earldom of Lindsey passed to his uncle, Brownlow (named for his mother’s family), the office of Great Chamberlain following strict rules governing inheritance went into abeyance between the 4th Duke’s two sisters, Priscilla and Georgina, as did the claims to the barony of Willoughby de Eresby. In 1780, Priscilla was confirmed as 21st Baroness, while her new husband, Sir Peter Burrell (from a family of baronets from Sussex), was appointed Lord Great Chamberlain, and performed the functions of this office until 1820 (and it is he who was created 1st Baron Gwydyr).
The 5th Duke of Ancaster took over the family responsibilities in Lincolnshire, as Lord Lieutenant, and was also appointed to the Privy Council by George III. When he died in 1809, his personal wealth passed to his only grandson, Brownlow Colyear, son of the 4th Earl of Portmore, who was a potential candidate to re-establish the Bertie name and titles, but he was killed by bandits while studying in Rome in 1819.
Priscilla Bertie, Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, and her husband Peter Burrell, Baron Gwydyr, thus became the senior curators of the Bertie inheritance—though the earldom of Lindsay did pass to a collateral branch, established back in the 1640s from a younger son of the 2nd Earl. The 10th and 11th earls were both seen as feeble-minded and kept away from society and politics. The 12th Earl, who succeeded in 1899, made more of a name for himself, in the military, and in the 1880s served as aide-de-camp to his distant cousin Lord Carrington (him again) when he was Governor of New South Wales. The 12th Earl left no male heir, but through his daughter he has numerous descendants in Australia, and the Lindsey earldom passed to the branch of Abingdon, as we’ve seen.
Peter Burrell, Jr took over as both Baron Willoughby and Baron Gwydyr. He married a great heiress and added her surname to his own: Clementina Drummond, heiress of the 1st Baron Perth, and to two mighty castles in Perthshire: Drummond and Stobhall. He also succeeded his father as acting Lord Great Chamberlain. He thus represented this Great Office of State in one of the grandest coronations in British history, that of George IV in 1821. In 1830, George IV died, and it was agreed that the office would pass to the holder of the other half of the divided succession: George, 2nd Marquess of Cholmondeley, in the name of his mother, Lady Georgina Bertie (who lived until 1838, so was technically the ‘owner’ of this ½ share). He was thus in charge of the ceremonial role in the coronation of William IV.
The House of Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’) was an ancient landowning family from Cheshire, with a grand castle at Cholmondeley since the 12th century and estates at Malpas, near the borders with Wales. In 1706 they became earls. In 1791, the 4th Earl of Cholmondeley married Lady Georgina Bertie, sister and co-heiress of the 4th Duke of Ancaster. They enjoyed royal favour in the Regency period, she as Lady of the Bedchamber to the Princess of Wales from 1795, and he as Lord Steward of the Household from 1812. In 1797 he inherited the large palladian mansion built by a cousin, Robert Walpole, in the 1720s: Houghton Hall, in Norfolk. This house would become the family’s main seat from this point until today. In 1815, the Earl became the 1st Marquess of Cholmondeley, and the original castle in Cheshire was rebuilt in a flashy neo-gothic style.
The 2nd Marquess of Cholmondeley gave up the position as Lord Great Chamberlain on the death of William IV. It passed back to the owner of the other half-share, Peter Drummond-Burrell, who bore the crown in the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838. He held this office until his death in 1865 when it passed to his son, Albyric, 23rd Baron Willoughby de Eresby. When he died in 1870, the family’s half-share was divided once more between two sisters, Clementina, who became 24th Baroness Willoughby, and Charlotte, Baroness Carrington by marriage. Each of their descendants would now bear ¼of the office, and they agreed that the deputy, ie, the acting Lord Great Chamberlain, would be Clementina’s son, Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 2nd Baron Aveland (the Heathcotes were another East Midlands family, with lands in both Lincolnshire and Rutland). Aveland succeeded his mother as Baron Willoughby in 1888, was created Earl of Ancaster in 1892, and exercised the role of Great Chamberlain at the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, then once more yielded the office to his Cholmondeley cousins.
The long reign of Victoria had been very good for the Willoughby branch of the family. The next Cholmondeley, the 4th Marquess, would not be so fortunate, acting as Lord Great Chamberlain for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, but then for his funeral only 8 years later.
So in 1910, the role passed to the owner of the junior ¼ share, Earl Carrington, who bore St Edward’s Staff at the coronation of June 1911. In 1912, an agreement between the families formalised what was in practice already occurring, that the office of Lord Great Chamberlain would change with each reign, and would be held by the Cholmondeleys every other reign (as holders of a half-share), and by the Willoughbys and the Carringtons every fourth reign (as holders of quarter shares). Earl Carrington was already a prominent Liberal statesman in Edwardian Britain, and was appointed Governor or New South Wales (Australia), 1885-90, Lord Chamberlain of the Household, 1892-95, and Earl Carrington, 1895. He had also been a personal friend of Edward VII in his long years as Prince of Wales. Carrington’s family name originally had been Smith, relatives of the Smith banking dynasty of Nottingham. This branch were created Baron Carrington (of Upton, Notts.) in 1797, and in 1839 adopted Carrington as their surname. The 3rd Baron added the surname Wynn, but also (in 1880) change the spelling of the surname to Carington with one r. Notes on a postcard for any reasons why he did this. In 1911 he was appointed Lord Privy Seal, thus holding two of the Great Offices of State, and in 1912 was promoted once more, to Marquess of Lincolnshire. His seat had been Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire, but he sold it in 1896.
When Lord Lincolnshire died in 1928, his only son having been killed in World War I, the quarter share of the Lord Great Chamberlainship was divided equally between his five daughters and their heirs. They nominated the husband of the third daughter, William Legge, Viscount Lewisham, son of the 6th Earl of Dartmouth, to act out the position for the remainder of the reign of George V, who died in 1936 (and that same year he succeeded as 7th Earl of Dartmouth).
The new Lord Great Chamberlain in January 1936 was another unlucky Cholmondeley (the 5th Marquess), since the reign of Edward VIII was too short for a coronation, and ended in abdication in December. He nevertheless bore the Royal Standard at the coronation of George VI in May 1937, which he had helped plan the previous year. The 2nd Earl of Ancaster (Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby) now took the role, until his death in 1951 when he was succeeded by his son, James, the 3rd Earl of Ancaster. But George VI died in February 1952, so the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley was given a second chance to exercise this position.
The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II was thus attended to first by the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley until his death in 1968, then his son, Hugh, 6th Marquess, until his death in 1990, and finally David, 7th Marquess. He ceased to be the Lord Great Chamberlain in 2022, and in March 2023 was appointed to be a Lord in Waiting to the new King, as a sign of gratitude for the long service of this family to the House of Windsor. The Marquess’s second son, Oliver, will be a page at the coronation.
The new Lord Great Chamberlain, the 7th Baron Carrington (b. 1948), is the great-grandson of the 4th Baron, younger brother and male heir of the Marquess of Lincolnshire. His father, the 6th Baron Carrington, was well known as a Conservative politician, with an incredibly long career from the 1950s to his sudden resignation as Foreign Secretary in 1982 when he failed to anticipate the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. He later was Secretary General of NATO (1984-88), and Chancellor of the Order of the Garter (1994-2012), and was created a life peer (Baron Carington of Upton) in 1999 to allow him to retain a seat in the newly reformed House of Lords. When he died in 2018, he was succeeded by his son Rupert Carington, a banker, as 7th Lord Carrington, who was in that year one of the elected peers to the House of Lords.
But he is not one of the shareholders in the office of Lord Great Chamberlain. These are the descendants of the five daughters of Lord Lincolnshire. By 2022 there were 11 co-heirs, in several families, including the Legge-Bourkes, cousins of the Legges of Dartmouth (above), and the family of Tiggy Legge-Bourke, socialite and close friend of Charles as Prince of Wales, and nanny to the royal princes in the 1980s. These all now have tiny shares of the ¼ share of this set of heirs to the Dukes of Ancaster. The other ¼ is held by Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, who, while unlikely to hold the title Lord Great Chamberlain herself—which would be an interesting innovation, as a woman—unless two reigns pass in the next decade (she is nearly 90), has nonetheless enjoyed what some would consider the biggest prize: the landed fortune, with 7500 acres in Lincolnshire and Perthshire, nearly £50 million (estimated in 2008), and the castles of Grimsthorpe and Drummond. The earldom of Ancaster became extinct with her father’s death in 1983. A grand-daughter of Nancy, Lady Astor, she was inducted into the world of high society at an early age, and was one of the six Maids of Honour at the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II. She never married, so her quarter share will be split into smaller shares by her cousins.