Tragedy, scandal and wealth – the story of one great house

By John Medland

Published on Friday, April 11, 2014 - 16:00


Tragedy, scandal and wealth – the story of one great house

Appuldurcombe house about 1700 prior to the rebuild by Sir Robert Worsley. He later boasted: “I have not left one stone standing”.


On February 7, 1943, a crippled German Dornier bomber circled low over the southern IW. The Luftwaffe crew knew they were doomed to crash. To survive the impact it was essential they drop their single bomb, a sea mine.

The mine exploded just west of Appuldurcombe House, blowing out the windows and causing the roof to collapse. The bomber crashed into St Martin’s Down, killing all four crew.

In the 1960s, my grandmothers shared a cottage in Wroxall close to the Appuldurcombe estate. My brothers and I would run up to the roofless, floorless, palatial ruin. Then we would scramble up to the peak of the down where a truncated obelisk lay shattered in the quarry below.

The origins of Appuldurcombe lie in the ancient settlement of the Island by Stone Age, Bronze Age, Celtic and Jute-Saxon farmers. The name comes from the Old English 'appuldur’ — where apple trees grow, and the Old English 'cumb’ or Celtic 'cwm’ for valley. It offered an unusually sheltered location, with high ridges to the north and west.

Appuldurcombe was part of a prosperous settlement in the valley of Wroxall. In 1086, the Domesday Book recorded 'Warrochesselle’ with one of the top three populations of all the Island’s manors. The rich local geology provided fertile meadows and farming land in the valley and sheep grazing on the chalk downs.

After the conquest of 1066, the Normans built Appul-durcombe Priory. This was an administrative centre for the collection of church fees and taxes for the Abbey of Montebourg, founded in 1080 by William the Conqueror. Appuldurcombe also owned properties in Wroxall, Week, Sandford, and Whitcombe. As the centuries passed, more Island properties passed to the ownership of the priory.

In 1295, just two years after Edward I assumed direct rule of the Wight, his officers at Appuldurcombe recorded 105 quarters of corn, 17 cattle, two horses, 543 sheep, 82 pigs and 80 hens. The Appuldurcombe estate was a major business concern.

During the Hundred Years War with France, the Norman monks were imprisoned on the mainland.

Appuldurcombe was conferred to the "nuns minoresses without Aldgate". In 1498, the Abbess granted Appuldurcombe to Sir John Liegh for 25 years. His daughter, Mary Fry, married the court-connected James Worsley, from Lancashire, who obtained a further lease.

In 1538, during the Reformation, the nuns of Aldgate were suppressed and the Worsleys now held Appuldurcombe directly from the Crown.

The Worsleys became the Captains and Governors of the Wight, with the former priory as their country seat. The priory was transformed into a Tudor country house. King Henry VIII stayed there.

In 1545, Richard Worsley commanded the English army that defeated the main French attack on the Island during the Battle of Portsmouth. In 1560, his two sons, aged eight and nine, were killed when gunpowder stored in the gatehouse exploded next to their school-room.

In 1611, another Richard Worsley was made a baronet, the lowest rank of the nobility with a seat in the House of Lords.

By the end of the 17th century, the Worsley estates covered most of the prime land in the south and east of the Island. Their domination of the Wight over three centuries is recalled in their stone memorials in Godshill church.

In 1690, Sir Robert Worsley became the fourth baronet and from 1701 to 1713 he started replacing the old Gothic mansion with a modern country house in the English baroque style. He started a collection of rare treasures, to which was added his brother’s library. The fifth baronet, James, contributed more to the collection.

Sir Richard Worsley became the seventh baronet in 1768 and took up residence in 1772. He represented the peak of the Worsleys wealth and influence, becoming a privy councillor and "comptroller of George III’s household".

By 1782, he had completed the rebuilding of Appuldur-combe in the Palladian style. Thomas Chippendale was commissioned to design the furniture. Roman plasterers worked on the library ceiling. Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown was hired to redesign a huge ornamental park around the house.

The new Appuldurcombe was a wonder to behold, a gem of Georgian architecture situated in landscaped grounds set in beautiful countryside.

Sir Richard travelled widely and sent home "the most important collection of (ancient) Greek marbles yet seen in England". In 1781, he published the first history of the IW. By 1805, he had collected so many paintings they were stacked on the floors against the walls.

However, Richard was disastrously unsuccessful in his marriage to the heiress Seymour Dorothy Fleming, which lasted from 1775 to1782. The proceedings of their scandalous divorce case ruined his public reputation and the failure of the marriage doomed the Worsley dynasty. It seems somehow appropriate the monument he had built in 1774, at the northward peak of Stenbury Down, was shattered by lightning in 1831.

When Richard died in 1805, Appuldurcombe passed to his niece’s husband. Charles Pelham, Lord Yarborough, was the first Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes. He used the house as his onshore Island base and made final minor additions to the house and gardens.

In 1854, he retired to his estates in Lincolnshire. The heirs to the Earldom of Yarborough now hold the title of Baron Worsley of Appuldurcombe.

In 1855, the house was sold, and in 1859 leased to a joint stock company. The Worsley art collection was scattered.

From 1867 to the 1890s, Appuldurcombe became a school "for young gentlemen".

From 1901 to 1908, it was occupied by French monks until their new home at Quarr Abbey was completed. During the two world wars it was used as a barracks until it was wrecked in 1943.

Appuldurcombe House is now a Grade I listed building and is being cared for by English Heritage. Since 1986, the roof and the windows in three front sections of the house have been rebuilt. The stump of the shattered obelisk on Stenbury Down was restored in 1983.

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