The histories of Chillingham Castle and the Wild Cattle are tied up with two noble families of Northumbria, the Greys and the Bennets.
Commemorated by Grey’s Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne and by Earl Grey Tea, the Greys have influenced the course of our national history.
Death pervades the Grey’s family mediaeval history. Chillingham Castle is located close to the border of Scotland and England. In the 1200’s the two countries were bitter enemies.
The castle was repeatedly attacked by Scotland, and used as a base for the English army entering Scotland. In 1297, William Wallace, a leader of the Scottish army attacked Chillingham Castle and burned the women and children of the Greys to death in the monastery.
Then again, torn apart by the War of the Roses in the 1300’s, the Grey family was split between the Lancastrians, supporting Henry IV and the Yorkists, Edward IV. The winning side of the family, the Lancastrians, ordered no less than eight brutal executions for their fellow family members.
For high treason, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Ralph Grey ordered this fate for his own son.
This blood-curdling execution saw the prisoner hanged by the neck but then cut down from the gallows, still alive, to have their blood and guts removed before their very eyes. The struggling prisoner, still alive, was then sliced into quarters. Usually the dead man’s head was displayed at the city gates, as a warning to all others.
By 1695 the Greys, as lords of Chillingham and major powers in the land had acquired the title of Earls of Tankerville. But there was no son to inherit the title in 1701. Lady Mary Grey married Charles Bennet (who was then Baron Ossulston), and the title was revived for him.
During the 20th century the fortunes of the Tankervilles declined and the estate was progressively sold off. In the 1980s the Castle reacquired the Grey connection, when Sir Humphry Wakefield, whose wife is a Grey by descent, bought the Castle.
Encouraged by Charles Darwin, the Bennets were the first custodians of the cattle to keep a detailed record of the herd. Wild animals were kept in fenced parks in medieval times for military and then sporting reasons. The Bennets were a typical aristocratic family of the Victorian and Georgian age. The preservation of so uncomfortable an old fortress and its ancient hunting park makes them unique.
Charles Bennet, 2nd Baron Ossulston (1674-1722), inherited the Chillingham Estates in 1701 from his friend and father-in-law, Ford, Lord Grey. Ossulston, like his father-in-law, was somewhat of a rogue and went on to establish a dynasty of competent and maritally successful politicians. His great-grandson Charles, 4th Earl of Tankerville, was one of the proponents of modern cricket spending his time in-between Chillingham and his lavish Surrey estate, Mount Felix. He appointed John Bailey (1750-1819), the highly gifted agriculturalist, as his steward. Bailey recorded many important observations of the cattle and facilitated his friend, Thomas Bewick, to make the famous engravings of the Chillingham Bull and Cow. Mount Felix was so extravagant that it had to be sold on his death and it is probably down to the straitened finances of the 5th Earl that Chillingham survived in its archaic form.
It was the 5th Earl who befriended the painter, Sir Edwin Landseer, and commissioned him to paint three paintings for the dining room at Chillingham, the largest being The Death of The King Bull. The 6th Earl, a Victorian industrialist , invited the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to shoot the King Bull in 1872. This was the last time the cattle were exploited for sport.
When the 7th Earl died in 1931, the Tankerville estates were in a poor financial state. That the Chillingham Wild Cattle survived the 20th century is mainly due to Charles Bennet the 8th Earl, his wife Violet, Dowager Countess of Tankerville and their son, the Hon. Ian Bennet. The Earl set up the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association and the direct family connection lasted until the Dowager Countess, who carried on a very active engagement with the CWCA, died in 2003 ending three hundred years of the Bennet’s association with the Wild Cattle.
For further reading and more information go to:
“Chillingham – Its cattle, castle and church”