A History of Rufford Country Park

A Rough Ford


Reproduced, with thanks, from Nottinghamshire County Council Community Services booklet, "Rufford Past & Present" July 2000

Rufford lies a few miles south of a site where some of the first confirmed traces of modern man in Britain have been discovered. Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge near Worksop, has revealed evidence of Ice Age man who lived in its caves around 40,000 years ago.

No one knows, of course, how far these primitive people may have strayed in their search for food but the area around Rufford at that time must have been pretty inhospitable, with huge glaciers regularly descending from the higher ground to the east, and vegetation only slowly taking a hold in the frozen ground.

The native wildwood forests of oak, birch and lime were first partly cleared by Neolithic people and, by the time of the Romans around 120 AD, a Roman settlement is mentioned near Ruchford, Rutherford or Runford, and a probable Roman road passed through the area from Oxton to Blythe in the north.

The first recorded owner of Rugforde or Rumford was a Saxon called Ulf, son of Suertebrand, and was one of twelve hereditary estates on the eastern boundary of Sherwood Forest. After the Norman Conquest, William I gave Ulf's estate of Rugforde to his nephew, Gilbert de Grant, as a reward for his loyalty.

Sherwood Forest was a hunting place for kings from the Middle Ages onwards. Far from being just a thickly wooded expanse of land, it also consisted of large areas of open heathland. It was governed by a strict set of Royal forest laws, which encouraged the breeding of game such as deer, wild boar and wolf.

Sherwood Forest was also the traditional home of Robin Hood, the legendary medieval outlaw, who supposedly married Maid Marian at the nearby church in Edwinstowe.



The Coming of the Cistercians

Gilbert de Grant's grandson, the Earl of Lincoln, who was also called Gilbert, gave land at Rufford to the Cistercian Order in 1146. He apparently made the gift to seek forgiveness for his past wrongdoings, which had included the burning down of Pontefract Priory during the civil war of 1139-53 between Stephen and Mathilda.

During the war, Gilbert had been captured by Ranulph de Gernon, Earl of Chester, at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, and forced to marry the Earl's niece Rohese, who was a keen patron of the Cistercians. Gilbert was obviously keen to impress his new in-laws but, unfortunately, he did not live long after founding the abbey, and there is a tradition that he made his Rufford bequest on his deathbed.

Monks from Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, who originally came from the Cistercian abbey at Citeaux in France, made Rufford their fifth and final "daughter house". Led by a monk called Gamellus, the first of 17 Rufford abbots, they travelled to Nottinghamshire and immediately started building work.

In 1156, Rufford received its official blessing from the English Pope, Adrian IV, and various charters in the following years saw the abbey expand its land and gradually evict the villagers of Rufford, Cratley, Grimston and Inkersall. Some were resettled in a new village called Wellow, just outside the abbey estate.

The Building of the Abbey
It is thought that the construction of permanent stone buildings of Rufford Abbey was well underway by the 1160s, although work may well have continued on and off for almost a century.

Local craftsmen were hired, and among those recorded were John of Maplebeck, Robert of Muskham, Garth of Ollerton and Simon of Budby.

Local stone was also used; easily carved red sandstone for the outer walls and fine-textured white sandstone to line the vaulting, all of which came from the Mansfield area. The great arches and vaults were built around wooden frames which were removed once the mortar had set. Baskets on ropes, hauled up on simple wooden pulleys, did the job of cranes.

The Cistercian Way of Life
Novice, or trainee, monks had to wait outside the abbey as a test to the strength of their beliefs. On entering, they were required to remove their ordinary clothes and put on a rough pale woollen habit. A Master of Novices taught them the strict Benedictine Rule, and after a year, they took their vows to stay silent, single, to give up all possessions and, to live in the abbey and always obey the Abbott. The novices then received the tonsure - a severe haircut which left a ring of hair around a central bald patch - and a scapular, a black apron, and a leather belt.

Educated men who joined the Cistercians became choir monks, and spent their days in prayer and study. They also wore white, unbleached robes and black scapular, and in cold weather a white overcoat with hood and long, wide sleeves.

Lay brothers, who were usually unable to read or write, worked on the abbey's estate and wore dark brown garments with a hooded brown cloak and strong boots for work in the fields. Monks were not allowed to wear underwear. When they went out of the abbey, they wore breeches made to fit anyone, which had to be put back in a cupboard after use!

There were usually twice as many lay brothers as choir monks, and they lived, ate and slept separately in the abbey. Some lay brothers lived on distant granges, or outlying farms, and came back to the abbey for two services a day, if they were within travelling distance.

A Life of Prayer and Devotion
For Cistercian monks, the vow of silence was all-important, and the only place allowed for conversation was in the parlour (meaning "talking place").

In addition to prayer and study, some of the most important work which the choir brothers did, long before the days of the printing press, was to copy out books by hand (manuscripts) and illuminate them by decorating with colours and gold leaf. Sitting at desks either in the cloisters or in the Scriptorium - a special writing room which was built to catch the best light - the monks copied the books, letter by letter, onto parchment or vellum made from animal skins.

All Cistercian monks were vegetarian, eating the produce of their estate and granges. Fish from the abbey's fish ponds was sometimes allowed, but meat and eggs were usually only served to the sick in the infirmary. Large quantities of bread were baked every day in the big stone ovens in the walls of the kitchen Monks washed their hands in the Lavatorium, or washroom before and after eating.

Out in the Fields
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, Rufford Abbey founded 21 outlying granges or farms, on which the most important crop was wool from their huge flocks of sheep. Although it was never as large or prosperous an abbey as Rievaulx or Fountains in Yorkshire, like them, Rufford made most of its income from wool.

The value of the "golden" fleece was far more than meat. The wool was traded with Flemish merchants at markets in Nottingham and Newark, and by 1315, Rufford's wool was worth 10½ Marks per sack - a very good price and many times the average weekly wage. Rufford's standing was greatly increased from gifts of new land, rents and the rights to use the timber and grazing in Sherwood Forest. In 1252 a charter from Henry III allowed them to cut down 7,000 oak trees and 1,000 saplings create more pasture for their sheep and cattle. By the reign of Edward I, a Royal licence in 1304 gave permission for another 40 acres of forest to be cleared. Rufford Abbey was now stated as being worth £6!

Gifts from endowments further increased the abbey's income. It owned the churches of Eakring and Rotherham which provided regular burial dues, Easter offerings and tithes (a tenth of the villagers' produce). The abbey also received rents from a weekly market and annual fair in Rotherham.

The Combined effects of the Black Death of 1348 - 1349, the stretching of the abbey's finances from buying too much land, and reduced profits in the wool trade meant that Rufford started a long period of decline. Throughout the 15th century, Rufford Abbey was often excused from paying a tenth of its income as a tax to the king, because of its "notorious poverty".

Morals were also allowed to slip and in 1280, Brother William was arrested for the murder of Brother Robert. In 1317 two Rufford monks, William Sausemer and Thomas de Nonington, along with other local men, were charged with seizing Thomas de Holme near Rufford, robbing him and holding him to ransom, demanding £200. In 1344 the Abbot of Rufford was charged with "having completely laid waste to the wood of Beskhall" and for cutting and selling more than 20 acres of oak trees worth over £400. He claimed his actions were covered by earlier charters but he was still fined 40s (£2).


Back to top of page


Henry's revenge

When Henry VIII broke away from the Church of Rome in 1530 he was eager to stake his claim to the assets of the great Catholic religious orders. One of these was Rufford which by 1534 was worth £176. Its gross income was estimated at £254 and it had 17 granges and other estates as far away as Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

The following year, the ruthless Richard Cromwell was appointed head of a Royal Commission to examine all the smaller houses such as Rufford, and in 1536 he appointed the Commissioners Legh and Layton to find sufficient evidence to allow him to close down the abbey. Among the "disgraceful offences" they found at Rufford was the claim that the abbey possessed some of the Virgin Mary's milk. They also alleged that the Abbott, Thomas of Doncaster, had broken his vows of chastity with at least two married and four single women, and claimed that six of the other monks were of "disgraceful character". Six of the fifteen monks at the abbey were said to want to be released from their vows to take up other careers. The days of the abbey were clearly numbered, and the monks were dispersed, with the allegedly immoral Abbot granted a pension of £25 a year - later withdrawn when he became vicar of Rotherham.

From Monastery to Country House
The abbey and its lands were granted to George Talbot, 4th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1537, in exchange for estates in Ireland and for "eminent services in crushing the Pilgrimage of Grace" (a rebellion against the King mainly in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in 1536). Neither George Talbot nor his son Francis, later the 5th Earl, ever lived at Rufford nor showed much interest in it, possibly only using it only as a lodge when they were hunting in Sherwood Forest.

It was while owned by the 6th Earl, another George Talbot, that the transformation of the old abbey into a fine country house first began, Talbot was the confidante of Elizabeth I, and trusted custodian of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, and as the husband of the ambitious and legendary Bess of Hardwick.

The 7th Earl, Gilbert Talbot, married Bess's daughter, Mary Cavendish and inherited the estate in 1590. Known as a quarrelsome man, he once even challenged his own brother, Edward, to a duel! But Gilbert inherited his mother's great love of building and during his time he added projecting wings onto the north and south ends of the lay brother's wing of the old abbey, forming some of the country house we still see today.

The largest and grandest room was the Great Hall, the setting for many sumptuous banquets, where Gilbert often entertained James I, who liked to hunt in Sherwood Forest and who was sometimes accompanied by his son, later Charles I.

Suspected of being a hiding place of recusants (Roman Catholics), the house was searched in 1611 for arms, recusants or "papistical items" by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir John Holles. He reported: "The House (is) a confused labyrinth, underneath all vaults, above entries, closets, oratories, many stairs down and up, trap doors to issue forth and trap doors to lead to garrets, so as in my search I was never so puzzled in my life".

Gilbert the 7th Earl died in 1616, and his brother and heir Edward in 1617. Edward's widow Jane and his sister Lady Grace Cavendish lived on at Rufford until about 1626.


Back to top of page


Civil War and the Restoration

In 1626 the Rufford estate passed to Sir George Savile and his first wife, Lady Mary, who was a sister to the 7th and 8th Earls of Shrewsbury. The Saviles were a long-established and landed family whose seat was Thornhill Hall, near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.

On George's death at the early age of 15 that year, Sir William Savile, then only 14 himself, inherited Rufford as the 3rd Baronet. A survey of his lands in 1637 showed that he held 50,000 acres in Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, with the Rufford estate comprising a fifth, 9,568, of which two thirds was still forested.

An ardent Royalist, William Savile sided with the King at the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, living up to a family motto to "Fear God and Honour the King". Charles I visited Rufford in July 1642, shortly before raising his standard at Nottingham on August 22, which signalled the start of the war. Later that year, William was involved in skirmishes against Parliamentarian forces at Wakefield and Leeds, and was the main Royalist commander in an unsuccessful attack on Bradford. The following year he was in Leeds when it was attacked and he only escaped by swimming across the River Aire. He was also involved in the Battle of Winceby and made Governor of both York and Sheffield. He died in York at the age of 32 in 1644.

The young Sir George who succeeded Sir William, was destined to become perhaps the most famous and distinguished of the Saviles, rising under Charles II after the restoration to become successively Viscount, Earl, then Marquess of Halifax. his nickname became "The Trimmer" because throughout his career he cleverly managed to steer a prudent course between all extremes, always putting patriotism before politics. After initially supporting James II, he abandoned this lost cause when the King fled abroad in 1688 and was instrumental as official advisor to the Crown in promoting the links between the state and William of Orange. This resulted in him formally tendering the Crown to the joint monarchs, William and Mary, in 1698.

Among his many other achievements was being keeper of the Privy Seal and it was largely through his efforts that the fundamental human right of "Habeas Corpus" - the right to a fair trial or hearing before sentence - was passed by parliament.

Rufford Abbey had always been home to Lord Halifax and he affectionately called it his "old tenement". In 1660 he had the stable block built, and in1680 turned the abbey into a magnificent country house by pulling down the remaining old monastery and building a new north wing, with large reception rooms and a splendid long gallery on the former site of the Abbey Church entrance. The east front was also redesigned but unfortunately nothing of this grandeur survives today. The Marquess died in 1695 and was buried with honours in Westminster Abbey.


Back to top of page


The Improvers

After the death of Lord Halifax, his son and heir William sadly outlived him by only five years and the Halifax peerage dies with him. The Baronetcy passed onto a short lived distant cousin John, then onto George Savile, who became the 7th Baronet in 1704. He was an enthusiastic "improver" and liked to  be in the forefront of modern design, building a bat house and garden pavilion in 1729, and the Broad Ride and a purely decorative canal a year later.

His son, the 8th Baronet, succeeded in 1743 and was a prominent Whig politician and another 18th century improver, creating the lake in 1750 by damming the stream to the north. Not only did this enhance the grounds, it also provided power for his new corn mill, now Rufford Mill. He also bought the villages of Ollerton, Broughton, Kirkton and Egmanton, so the estate now extended to 9,910 acres. This Lord Savile was the last of the male line of Saviles, and he was succeeded by his nephew, Richard Lumley-Savile, 6th earl of Scarborough in 1784.

The gregarious new heir brought a fresh liveliness to Rufford and he entertained he future George IV at the house in fine style. He also built a new, classically styled corn mill in the site of his uncle's mill. Richard's brother, John Lovelace Lumley, 7th Earl and the rector of Thornhill, inherited Rufford in 1807. He was the complete opposite of his brother, mean and grasping an earning the nickname of "Black Jack".

After a lengthy dispute over the Savile estates his son, also called John, inherited Rufford in 1835 as the 8th Earl of Scarborough. The new Earl was an incurable romantic. After rescuing a beautiful young French girl, Agnes from drowning in the Serpentine in London, he promptly fell in love with her and brought her back to Rufford. Here they lived together, unmarried, for many years and had six children.

Lord Scarborough employed the eminent Victorian architect Anthony Salvin in 1837, to undertake a thorough re-design of the house, much of which can still be seen by visitors today. Salvin's work, which cost over £13,000, included the Tudor-style entrance porch, steps and balustrade, the clock tower and bell cupola on the south front. A coach house, brewhouse and water tower were also built. The house now had about 111 rooms, 14 bathrooms and over 20 staircases.

During 1841 the 8th Earl also had a main entrance avenue constructed to the house from the Nottingham Road to the west, lining it with rows stately lime trees. This replaced an earlier curved drive. The imposing West Gates were also built at this time, with ornate wrought iron gates and classical stone gateposts, surmounted with the Lumley-Savile armorial bearings.

The 8th Earl tragically died in a hunting accident and was succeeded by his third illegitimate sin, Captain Henry Savile, a keen sportsman, who became a well-known and successful breeder of racehorses which were bred and trained on the estate. He also supervised the introduction of commercial timber production on the estate, building a large saw mill next to the corn mill.

When Captain Henry died in 1881, he was succeeded by his younger brother Augustus. Augustus was a popular socialite, Master of Ceremonies to the Queen, and a favourite of the Prince of Wales who often visited him at Rufford when attending the Doncaster races, and took part in grand shooting parties which were held on the estate.



High Society

Augustus was succeeded by his distinguished elder brother. Sir John Savile, when he died in 1887, Sir John was a man of the arts, and a career diplomat who became British Ambassador to Rome and 1st Baron Savile in 1888.

Under his ownership, many more improvements were made to the house and grounds at Rufford. He was also a keen artist, antiquary and archaeologist, and converted the bath house into a roofed orangery to house exotic plants and his collection of Roman sculptures and antiquities. In the pool outside the building, Lord Savile introduced a fountain, a huge replica of a Roman lamp based on one he found in his archaeological excavations on the site of the Temple of Diana at Nemi in Italy.

Sir John also re-roofed the stables which had been built by Lord Halifax in 1660, placing his new coat of arms over the entrances, and installing the still existing, delightful dragon roof-finials and gargoyle topped drainpipes.

The last of Rufford's long line of Royal visits were made by Edward VII during the time of the 2nd Baron, John Savile Lumley-Savile, who inherited in 1896, King Edward frequently stayed at Rufford, where he was entertained in grand style. House guests usually included Royal "favourites" such as the Hon. Mrs George Keppel. Lord Savile was considered a perfect host and a fine sportsman, an excellent shot and an enthusiastic huntsman. He was also, in the best traditions of the Saviles, a responsible landlord who was greatly respected by his tenants.

The 2nd Lord Savile died in 1931, and was greatly mourned. His son and heir, George Halifax Lumley-Savile being only 12 years of age, needed a Board of Trustees to run the estate for him.

The recent years at Rufford had never been more grand, the epitome of Edwardian high society. But by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, it was clear that the old way of life at Rufford had gone forever.


Back to top of page


The War years

Rufford made rough-cut wooden coffins for the dead of the First World War, but this war also heralded the beginning of the end for many large country estates, and Rufford was no exception. The estate suffered from rising taxes and wages and reduced income from farm rents so that by 1938, the trustees of the young 3rd Baron were forced to sell the 18,730 acre estate.

The estate at this time included a 500 acre deer park, 70 farms, 2000 acres of woodland, four public houses and many individual properties in Eakring, Bilsthorpe, Ollerton, Edwinstowe, Broughton, Egmanton, Walesby, Wellow and Kirkton.

The estate, house and contents were bought by Sir Albert Ball, a Nottingham industrialist and father of the First World War VC and air ace. He sold the contents at auction, and much of the estate in separate lots for development in 1938, and the abbey and its grounds were purchased by the eccentric Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton.

During the Second World War, the Abbey was taken over by the Army in 1939, and the Leicestershire Yeomanry, 6th Cavalry Brigade were stationed there, arriving as horse mounted troops and leaving as motorised artillery. Later the 4th Battalion of the Coldstream Guards moved in with their Churchill tanks and about 20 army huts were constructed. They left in 1944 to become part of the D-Day allied invasion of France.

The huts later housed Italian prisoners of war, and after the war were used by the Forestry Commission, and by the Nottinghamshire branch of the Civil Defence.

The Fight to Save The Abbey
By 1949, the house where the army headquarters staff had been billeted was in a poor state of repair and a Rufford Abbey trust was founded by local writer and historian, Robert Innes-Smith, in order to try to save it. In the meantime the house continued to decay and the Government announced that in the event of demolition, the 12th century parts of the abbey, including the crypt, must be preserved.

In 1952, Nottinghamshire County Council decided to purchase the Abbey and about 130 acres of land around the house, while attempts to find funding or a new use for it continued. Dry rot, rising damp, a damaged roof, mining subsidence and bulging walls were a  taking their toll, and in 1956, despite some public outcry, a necessary controlled demolition of the Abbey's upper floors, the 17th century north wing and the 18th century east wing was started, but not completed until two years later. The responsibility for the care of the ancient building then came under the Ministry of Works and later English Heritage.

After the Civil Defence had moved out of Rufford, the Abbey and its grounds were finally designated a Country Park by Nottinghamshire County Council in 1969, and a park ranger service set up. A five-year improvement programme began on the grounds, including a £55,000 restoration of the lake, and the planting of 10,000 trees.

After years of neglect, Rufford Abbey was at last looking forward to a brighter future.




Copyright © 2004 [Friends of Rufford and Notts County Council]. All rights reserved. Revised: January 22, 2005

Back to home page   Back to top of page