The volunteers have been clearing up the Prince’s Riding after the Trust removed a number of lime trees which are not native to the area, and were encroaching on the line of sight from the Mansion to the Monument.
The Monument is the most significant artefact on the N T Estate, open to the public from April to October when it is regularly manned by the volunteers. Not much has been written about the granite Grade II listed column, and the N T do not have an information board or leaflet as yet, to help the volunteers engage with the visitors – it has a complicated history.
The monumental Doric column built on classical lines in 1832 as a tribute to Francis the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, the “Father of Inland Navigation”, had it’s roots in Paris in 1829. The idea and the funding for the monument came from the eccentric 8th Earl, Francis Henry. Following the unexpected death of the 7th Earl, John William in 1823, Francis Henry inherited the title of Earl and a life interest in part of the Bridgewater Estates while living in France, at the same time as the widow Countess of Bridgewater occupied Ashridge for life.
It is curious as to why Francis Henry should wish to commemorate his older cousin in such a way, and at such a spot. Normally commemorative structures are built at ground level, to be seen and admired by the public at large – most admirers would be satisfied with a plinth. Clearly this was not going to be the case for our benefactor Francis Henry, while the only visitors in 1832 would have been the aristocratic friends of the Bridgewaters. Positioned on high ground away from the public gaze, the monumental column must have been built for family self-aggrandisement, viewed daily by the workers and tenants of the Estate in the nearby villages and farms in the Aylesbury Vale.
When Francis Henry was a young man he spent time with the canal Duke on his workings at Worsley in Lancashire hoping to write a biography on his distant cousin, but when he found out that he had only benefited to the extent of forty thousand pounds from his will in 1803, he felt an injustice and cancelled the idea and left England. While living in Paris as a bachelor, Francis Henry became a celebrated eccentric, often having his dogs dine with him at the dinner table! He could well afford the cost of the Monument with an annual income of some forty thousand pounds from the Bridgewater estates, but in his will he failed to mention his immediate family. His will in 1829 would seem to indicate that he had softened in his attitude to the old canal Duke, having often maligned him.
His executors were then presented with the problem of getting the incumbent Countess residing at Ashridge to accept the bequest of thirteen thousand pounds because she thought that the design for the obelisk was “ a specimen of very bad taste”. The Countess engaged the architect to the Mansion, Sir Jeffrey Wyatville to redesign the monument and it was probably banished to the edge of the Estate only to be viewed from the Mansion at a distance along the Prince’s Riding.
Monumental columns were not commonplace at that time. The only comparative column in England was the Monument in the City of London built in 1677 with it’s golden orb commemorating the great fire of London standing at two hundred feet – twice the size of our column. In London a similar column for the Duke of York was erected in 1834, and Nelson’s column arrived in 1843. So where did Francis Henry get the idea from while living in France?
At the time political power and prestige in Europe was in the hands of Napoleon, and he directed that a column should be erected in his honour in 1810 in Paris – the Vendome column a few miles away from Francis Henry’s mansion!
So the Ashridge estate inherited a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose – a folly! The original cost would equate to one and a half million pounds today, but in 1832 labour was cheap while hunger stalked the land.