History of Whitelackington Manor
Records for the ownership of Whitelackington House begin in 1430, with records of the Dillington estate dating back as far as the Doomsday book of 1086 where it is listed under the ownership of Harding Fitzeadnoth, or Hardinus de Meriet
The Cameron family, who own the house and lands of Dillington Estate around it, have lived in it and used it as the family home since 1982. Prior to that that house was split into two, with one family living in the West half, and the divide separating the East half found where the double glass-panelled doors are on the ground and first floors.
The Camerons renovated the house and created the gardens in the 1980s. At the time there was no garden to speak of, with the rear lawn a field for grazing dairy cattle and the walled garden where the swimming pool is now found a dairy farm.
Prior to the Camerons moving in the house was occupied by the farm manager of Whitelackington Farm and another tenant family, with the Cameron family’s ancestors, the Lees, Hannings and Vaughan Lees previously living at Dillington House and using that as the principal house on the estate.
In 1430 records of the Speke family as owners of Whitelackington Manor begin, with Whitelackington House as the principal house on their estate. It wasn’t until 170 years later that the final boundaries of their estate included a house at Dillington.
THE SPEKE FAMILY
The history of Whitelackington Manor is really a history of the Speke family, for they owned the house and estate since before the records of 1430 up to the 1790’s. In 1795 the Speke family’s descendants sold the house and estate to John Hanning, who is the ancestor of the current owners, the Camerons.
CATHERINE OF ARAGON
1496 marks an important point in the Speke family history, when Sir John Speke threw his weight behind Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the throne. Warbeck had returned again to Cornwall and reached as far as Taunton in his campaign to challenge Henry VII. This moment proved to be a costly mistake, and after Warbeck’s defeat in 1497 Sir John was find £200 for his treachery. But having paid the fine (or in fact while still paying the sum by instalments), Sir John was forgiven and chosen to lodge Catherine of Aragon at Whitelackington House, who had arrived to wed Henry VII’s eldest son Arthur, and even to escort the future Queen on her journey to London. It is rumoured that one of Sir John’s sons later married one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies in waiting.
DUKE OF MONMOUTH
Some 150 years later, during the Civil War (1642-49) the Speke family continued to support the Royal house under Charles I. Records show that George Speke furnished a troop of horse and lent the Royalist Cavalry, under the command of Charles I’s nephew Prince Rupert, 1,000 crown pieces. Charles I was eventually captured by the Parliamentarians, brought to London, tried and executed.
As well as honouring Charles I, George Speke became associated with his illegitimate son by Lucy Walters, the Duke of Monmouth, who came to stay at Whitelackington Manor in 1680. Accounts tell of a great lunch under the spreading shade of a chestnut tree that is thought to have been planted before the Norman conquest, and which grew to a height in excess of 50 feet, with a massive girth of 25 feet. Here Monmouth drew a crowd of fans numbering some 2,000, who grew so excited they pushed down and destroyed over 100 metres of palings. The tree however survived another 200 years before it was brought to earth by a hurricane recorded on Ash Wednesday of 1897. The remains of the tree are still visible to this day in the field above the house.
In 1685 Charles II died and the throne passed to his legitimate heir, his brother, James II, who was a strong Catholic. This was the year that Monmouth, a Protestant, embarked on his ill-fated campaign of rebellion in Somerset. Some say that he might have won if he had only waited, but that at that stage James was untested and undoubtedly the legitimate heir. However, loyal to the Protestant cause, George Speke’s eldest son John raised a small troop of horse and served Monmouth as Colonel.
The rebellion failed and the Spekes again paid for treachery to the crown, this time not with a fine, but a life. Unable to find John Speke, Judge Jefferies ordered the hanging of his youngest and politically disinterested brother for the crime of having shaken Monmouth by the hand en-route to Sedgemoor at Ilminster. “This family owes a life” he declared.
Hugh, the middle son, was in prison at the time and escaped capture and the judgement of Assizes. Being politically astute he befriended James, and when William arrived with James II’s daughter Mary in 1689, Hugh was asked by James to join William’s camp as a spy. Siding again with the Protestant cause, Hugh announced this fact to William, and asked him what he should report back to James, thus becoming one of history’s first double-spies.
James was unaware of Hugh’s true loyalty, and it was through the confidence he held in Hugh that he was later able to render his most important service to William and Mary. Almost to a man, the country had espoused the couple and turned against James, whose Catholicism had become unsupportable in the way he tried to force it upon political life. Their accession became known as the “Glorious Revolution” because they were monarchs chosen by the will of the people.
James II was incarcerated in the Tower, because to end his life was both politically dangerous and morally abhorrent (he was after all, Mary’s father), but to keep him incarcerated might also serve future enemies. To rid themselves of this problem, William and Mary conspired with Hugh and asked him to go with James for a plan of escape (source: Peter Speke). Whether James ever learnt that his escape had been planned with the very people from whom he was escaping, no one will ever know…
Hugh Speke’s antics seemed to “do” in terms of historic drama for the Spekes for the next eighty years, while they lived quietly farming and increasing their landholding until, in 1757, George Speke died without a male heir. Thus the family holding that by then included the Manors of Whitelackington, Atherstone, Dillington, East and West Dowlish, Cudworth, Ashill, Rowlands, Chillington, parts of the Manor and Advowson of Ilminster, and the Hundreds of Abdick and Bulstone. This Estate was passed into marriage settlement (in those days women could not own property) for his daughter Ann, who would also have inherited Burton Pincett from her uncle, but she had chosen to marry Lord North, Earl of Guildford. North was the Prime Minister who had managed to lose the USA (sounds so careless) and her uncle was so incensed by this and the fact that North had introduced a cider tax that he cut her out of his will and gave Burton Pincett to the Younger Pitt instead, who had opposed the tax. The uncle never knew of course that Pitt, when he later became Prime Minister, was to introduce a far more important and far-reaching tax, the income tax!
When Lord North died in 1792, his elder son became Earl of Guildford and seemed to lose all interest in the Somerset estates, selling them throughout the 1790s. Dillington was finally sold in 1795 to John Hanning, who was able to finance the purchase by mortgaging a large part of the land he had come into through his wife, Susannah Harvard, daughter ot Thomas of Barrington Court. Thus, for a period, the two great Ilminster estates of Dillington and Barrington were united under a single ownership.
For a more detailed history of the Dillington Estate, please see this speech, written by Lord Cameron of Dillington, updated September 2008