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Last updated: December 27, 2013 6:19 pm
To the casual browser of high-end property pages, there is nothing particularly striking about Cefntilla Court. A pleasantly rambling largely 19th-century manor house in Monmouthshire, it has the features and idiosyncrasies of a conventional gent’s residence. True, the Great Hall, dating from the 16th century, has a certain splendour, and the garden bristles with topiary, but its large and comfortable kitchen, draughty windows and tangle of outhouses in varying states of repair are all charming rather than glorious.
There is certainly nothing to catch the eye of a Russian or Indian oligarch: no underground cinema, sauna, en-suite spa facilities, just long corridors with creaking floorboards and the kind of bathroom-to-bedroom ratio (2:15) considered really rather generous in, say, the 1950s.
But look more carefully. Observe the paved platforms at the front where gun carriages and cannon once stood. And set into the weather-beaten portico over the front door, a touching, if scarcely legible, inscription: “This house with 238 acres of land was purchased by 1,623 of the friends, admirers and comrades in arms of the late Field Marshal Lord Raglan GCB and presented by them to his son and his heirs for ever in a lasting memorial of affectionate regard and respect.”
For Cefntilla is no ordinary home, but a gift earned in battle – a distinction shared with Stratfield Saye, Blenheim Palace and Bemersyde in Scotland. The house is a tribute to the military prowess of Lord Raglan, Britain’s victorious commander in the Crimean War and a general beloved in his day, if best known now for the colossal mishap that was the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Until recently, any guests would immediately have been aware of the house’s history – a sword here, a table full of medals there, cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them. For many years, two impressive Russian howitzers, recovered from Sevastopol, did sentry duty outside the house. There was even the tattered bridle from the horse ridden by Captain Nolan, the galloper whose fatally vague message sent the six hundred into the Valley of Death.
A fabulous miscellany of bits and bobs bore witness to Raglan’s earlier career as a dashing young staff officer to Wellington in the Napoleonic wars, and the “Wellingtonia” he acquired through his marriage to the Iron Duke’s niece. Raglan’s favourite ring – a golden knuckle-duster – had been taken as loot by Wellington from the collection of the defeated Indian potentate, Tipu Sultan, after the battle of Seringapatam. Raglan duly wore it at Waterloo, only to lose it, briefly, during amputation of an injured limb. “Bring my arm back”, he reputedly protested to the surgeon. “There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger”.
Raglan died in the Crimea in 1855 – “of a broken Heart” according to his chief of staff, Sir James Simpson, though the doctors diagnosed dysentery – and the house was for more than a century a shrine to his memory. But in recent years the only significant visitors have been valuers, judging which of the contents can be turned into hard cash. Early next year, a court hearing was listed in London to decide the fate of the estate, which had been tied up in an inheritance dispute since early 2012. However, a settlement was reached recently, under the terms of which the court proceedings are dismissed. The beneficiaries of the gift made by Lord Raglan’s friends in perpetuity are, in effect, likely to include law firms.
Someone has blundered, but who? Wind back a few years, when the estate was in the hands of FitzRoy Somerset, the fifth Lord Raglan and the field marshal’s direct descendant.
The fifth Lord was eccentric and childless, alternately frugal and generous. He regarded shaving foam as a pointless modern invention, and the loos featured the sort of hard lavatory paper found in boys’ boarding schools – but his house was full of music and he supported for years the Raglan Baroque Players, who gave concerts for his friends every New Year’s eve. (“Bring a cushion”, said the invite, for there were never quite enough chairs for all the guests.) “The players were professionals from London who did it out of affection for FitzRoy,” recalls one guest. “They used to stay at the house and he would cook them breakfast in the kitchen.”
Lord Raglan was also an avid collector, with a passion for buying and restoring vintage Bugatti cars, as well as family memorabilia. In the 1990s, he bought back the field canteen that had accompanied his ancestor to the Crimea. In 2005, he purchased a walking cane and dispatch box. “FitzRoy was immensely proud of the collection,” says the playwright Julian Mitchell, a near-neighbour. Others who knew him agree: the last thing he would have wanted was to see his beloved artefacts sold off.
Lord Raglan had a nephew, Arthur Somerset, who stood to inherit the title. An entrepreneur with his own event management business in London, Somerset was married with three children, and was regarded as the obvious heir. Indeed, so sure was he of the inheritance that he bought a house near the estate to get to know the locality. This propinquity sometimes sparked friction with his uncle. “FitzRoy once accused Arthur of just sitting at the end of his drive waiting for him to die,” recalls another neighbour.
Few imagined such outbursts to have any deeper meaning. But when the will was read after Raglan’s death in January 2010, the obvious nephew was snubbed. It seems few know the reason why, but on his deathbed – or near enough – Raglan had defied expectation. The house and all its contents were bequeathed to the son of Raglan’s sister, a recruitment executive in California.
The lucky nephew, Henry van Moyland, initially seemed interested in living at Cefntilla. There was even talk of turning the house into an upmarket hotel or spa. But none of this lasted for long. The property duly went up for sale with a guide price of £2m and Christie’s was instructed to auction some of the contents, including medals, armchairs, and cannon. The auction reserve for the collection was set at £750,000. This was something of an underestimate in the view of Huon Mallalieu, an expert on the period who regards the Raglan hoard as “one of the most important collections of military memorabilia in private hands”. This is not just because of the quality of the artefacts but because of their “vast associative value”.
“Just take Tipu Sultan’s ring – it is deeply associated with both Raglan and Wellington, two major British military figures,” he says. And that is before taking into account the international dimension. “If it comes up for sale, there is likely to be massive Indian interest in buying it back.”
The sale prompted yelps from historians and connoisseurs, and Bettina Harden, a landowner from north Wales, promptly set up The Raglan Rescue, a campaign to secure at least some of the artefacts for the nation. There were hopes of finding a new home for them at Tredegar House, a beautiful but sparsely furnished 18th-century mansion on the outskirts of Newport that had recently been taken over by the National Trust of Wales. Yet with only a short time to raise the money, the venture looked fruitless.
Auction items: miniature gold sword (above left) engraved with the date of Waterloo; the badge of Portugal’s Military Order of the Tower and the Sword (top); and a gilt-brass and ivory pocket field glass telescope (above right)
Then, in April last year, with the sale catalogue printed, and just days before the auction was due to take place, Arthur Somerset launched a legal action to contest the inheritance. He obtained an injunction that prevented van Moyland from pressing ahead with the house sale and auction. The case revolved around a legal doctrine called “estoppel” – in effect a version of that old English legal chestnut, breach of promise – and the action outlived Somerset himself. Within months of obtaining the injunction, Somerset died of a heart attack at the age of just 52. This left his widow to carry it on in the interest of their nine-year-old son, Inigo.
In fiction, the most famous disputed inheritance is the case in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House involving Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This runs on for so long that legal fees eat up the entire inheritance. While the situation with Cefntilla is not so bleak, much of the estate might eventually be sold and there will likely be heavy legal expenses to pay.
The first Lord Raglan was a modest man. He was even tempted to refuse his peerage on grounds of economy and could only be persuaded to do so when Queen Victoria discreetly paid the expenses. Wittingly or not, his successors are returning this quiet corner of Monmouthshire to the obscurity he so reluctantly abandoned.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
Correction, and Statement by Henry van Moyland
This article has been amended since its original publication in relation to a number of inaccuracies, which have been corrected in the version above, including that a settlement was recently reached in the legal dispute. Mr van Moyland has also given the following statement:
“Like my uncle, I care deeply about Cefntilla and securing its long-term future – after all, I was born there and have many happy memories of the place. I have no current plans to sell the house. Now that the claims against the estate have been dropped, I would like nothing more than to keep Cefntilla and the collection together, and would happily consider selling them jointly to an institution such as The National Army Museum or the National Trust of Wales. However, at the moment I am not aware of any prospect of this happening, and so I may have little option but to sell the collection to help raise funds towards the million pounds required to carry out the immediate repairs to the house and more for the much-needed modernisation. I am sure that in my position my uncle Fitzroy would have made the same decisions.”
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