Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire

An inspired and vivid family tree, compiled in pictorial form, shows the Hesketh family pedigree dating back to the mid 13th century. Originating from the village of Hesketh, only a few miles from Rufford, generations of the family gradually gathered up neighbouring estates, and other large tracts of land, mainly through extremely profitable marriages. The first mention of a hall of any substance being constructed on the site at Rufford appears to have been in the 1450s. With the colourful, often dubious, lives led by the early Heskeths, as outlined by well-documented records, it is not surprising to learn that in the first half of the 16th century an illegitimate son inherited the estate. Determined to prove his rightful place in the Hesketh hierarchy, it was Robert Hesketh who had the elaborately decorative great hall built, apparently with no expense spared. Hardly any factual evidence exists about the building or, indeed, about the life of Robert Hesketh, except that at some point he was awarded a knighthood.

There is some hint of an association between the young William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Hesketh at Rufford Hall in about 1580, but apart from the usual difficulties of being a covert Catholic family during this period, nothing untoward seems to have occurred at the property. It was in 1662 that the three-storey red brick wing was added to the old hall, following the lines of Carolean classical design which was quite alien to the county of Lancashire during the 17th century. This extension provided much needed additional accommodation for the ever-increasing number of children and servants at Rufford Hall.

Half a mile from the existing hall, a new neo-classical mansion was built by another Thomas Hesketh in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps in recognition of his status as High Sheriff. Granted with a baronetcy in 1761, Sir Thomas enjoyed his life as one of the gentry, taking a house in London and doing the usual tour of Italy to collect works of art. Meanwhile, many of the Hesketh estates were sold off, and the Rufford Old Hall was leased. Major restoration work on the old hall was undertaken during the 1820s in preparation for the next generation of Heskeths, aand for the next 50 years both Rufford properties were occupied. By 1867 the family had decided to use Easton Neston in Northamptonshire as their main residence, and they have remained there ever since.

Having been presented to the National Trust in 1936 by the first Lord Hesketh, Rufford Old Hall has been preserved with its contents, giving a cosy, 'lived-in' feel about the house. Outstanding early craftsmanship is displayed in the great hall where an elaborate hammerbeam roof spans a room filled with history in the form of stained glass, family coats of arms, and a good collection of 16th and 17th century armour. Notwithstanding the fact that many of the rooms have seen a change of use over the centuries, much of the furniture housed at Rufford Old Hall has always been in the family, and there are numerous paintings of the various Hesketh descendants. This is a rare example of late medieval building, rejuvenated briefly during Victorian times, but left largely untouched and unspoiled.

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