This Is My Half of the Castle: The Eccentric Living Arrangements of Aristocrats
Having a big house helps keep your problems hidden from the outside world: The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk occupied different wings of their stately home while separated.
Updated 04.13.17 3:07PM ET / Published 08.25.16 1:00AM ET
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast
Like many aristocratic couples of their generation, my paternal grandfather, the writer Christopher Sykes, and his wife, Camilla, née Russell, had separate bedrooms.
Camilla was a famous beauty in her youth and when I knew her, in her 70s, she still proudly asserted her right to look fabulous. Her room at their substantial house in a small Dorset village—where they had moved in 1952, having no further use for the city after the king died—was an Aladdin’s cave of jewelry, powders, perfume, pills, shoes, and foreign clothing piled high on elegant mother of pearl-inlaid tables and overflowing from lacquered chests of drawers.
She entertained visitors, including her husband, on an upholstered love seat, a sofa that resembled two armchairs joined together but facing each other, thereby forcing you to stare straight into her eyes when sitting on it.
Christopher, a writer who was famous for his love of what in 1980s England was still considered to be an eccentric French pastry, a mysterious thing called a croissant—vast quantities of which were bought at a specialist baker in London and frozen; not for nothing did we call him Fat Grandpa—had a separate bedroom lined with his beloved history books.
He would sometimes emerge from here in the evenings wearing a glamorous silk dressing gown. His own room was tidy and very, very male. He couldn’t have borne to be surrounded by Camilla’s fripperies. They both had separate dressing rooms as well.
The separate bedrooms were a simple acknowledgement of the fact that, although married, they liked their own space too.
However, I think even they would have drawn the line at the living arrangements of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, who have spent the past five years of their life living in separate wings of the 11th-century Arundel Castle after their relationship hit a rough patch. Georgina stayed in the more homey west wing, long the family home, while Edward decamped several hundred yards to the more Spartan east wing, which had been used to house staff in days gone by.
Happily, the duke has now moved back into the west wing, rejoining his wife—the queen, a close friend, is said by the Mail on Sunday to be “delighted” at the rapprochement—although after all those years of enjoying their own space, it would be a fair bet that they are still sleeping in separate bedrooms.
For the Norfolks, their dispersal around Arundel Castle was a way to live separate lives while avoiding the trauma of divorce, which they refused to consider for both practical and religious reasons. The Norfolks are among the most senior lay Catholics in the otherwise largely Protestant United Kingdom.
They nobly refused an invitation to the royal wedding of William and Kate, as they did not wish to hypocritically sit next to each other.
However, the banishment of one’s partner (or their own voluntary exile) to a dower house or distant section of the building is by no means a foible unique to the Northumberlands. It is a well-documented part of upper class British life.
A similar situation developed in the case of an Irish aristocrat I know. In this case the wife remained in the big house while the husband, who suffered from severe depression, moved into the gate lodge at the bottom of the drive.
“What are we supposed to do?” the châtelaine told me when explaining the developments a few years ago. “There’s no sense getting divorced, or there will be nothing left for the kids.”
She started an affair with a musician quite openly and encouraged her husband to do something similar. He did not, and has since died. Out of the tragedy, a glimmer of salvation is that the estate has been successfully preserved for her children.
The sheer size of most stately homes allows for troubled marriages to be given time and space to heal—or not heal—without outsiders being any the wiser.
And the tradition of separate bedrooms for the master and mistress of the house provides a useful cover behind which to hide marital breakdown. While not as completely standard as some reports suggest, separate rooms were certainly very common before World War II in any sizable house, even when the relationship was untroubled.
Marie Stopes, writing in 1918, advised provision of a single bed “in a nearby dressing room for when either of the partners desires solitude.”
The custom has even made its way into fiction: In Downton Abbey, occasional references are made to the fact that Lord Grantham has his own room, even though he usually sleeps in Cora’s bed.
The queen and Prince Philip observed the habit of sleeping in separate rooms—a fact that was only made public after an intruder broke into the queen’s bedroom in the most shocking security lapse at Buckingham Palace on record.
The break-in was said to have been facilitated by the fact that the queen insists on sleeping with the windows open—Philip prefers the windows closed, hence his desire for his own room.
Prince Charles and Camilla have separate bedrooms at Highgrove, Charles’s house, but Camilla goes one step further and has kept her own family house, which predates her marriage to Charles and to which Charles is not, as a rule, invited. It’s very much “her place,” say sources.
There is evidence that, as many of the middle classes now occupy houses of comparable size to small manor houses, they are starting to emulate this aristocratic habit. According to one survey, some 9 percent of married (or partnered) British couples now sleep in separate rooms. In Japan, the figure is 28 percent.
My grandparents would certainly have approved.
Christopher Hugh Sykes FRSL (17 November 1907 – 8 December 1986) was an English author. Born into a well-off northern English landowning family, he was the second son of the diplomat Sir Mark Sykes (1879–1919), and his wife, Edith (née Gorst). His sister was Angela Sykes, the sculptor. His uncle, also Christopher Sykes, was, for a time, a close friend of Edward VII.
Educated at Downside School and Christ Church, Oxford, Sykes was, for a time in his youth, in the Foreign Office, including a stint as an attaché (1928–29) in the British Embassy in Berlin, where Harold Nicolson was then Counsellor. This was followed by a year (1930–31) at the British Legation in Teheran. An early hero was Aubrey Herbert, remembered now as the man who inspired John Buchan's classic thriller, Greenmantle.
Though Sykes thought of making politics his career, his stammer and also his artistic and imaginative disposition indicated that political life was not for him. At the School of Oriental Studies in London, he devoted himself to Persian studies in 1933 before travelling in Central Asia during 1933–34 with Robert Byron, who later wrote The Road to Oxiana recounting their long expedition in what was then an almost unexplored country. In the book, Byron states that Sykes was given an order to leave Persia, but they could negotiate that he leaves via Afghanistan with Byron.
On their return to England, Sykes and Byron wrote a novel together under the name of Richard Waughburton, Innocence and Design, published in 1935. A little later, Sykes and Cyril Connolly planned a book with the title of The Little Voice. In common with other projects of Connolly's, the book never got beyond the planning stages. Sykes published in 1936 a biography of the German Persianist Wilhelm Wassmus; he did not, during later years, include this volume in his list of his publications. A memoir of Byron, killed at sea in 1941, was included in Sykes' best-selling book, Four Studies in Loyalty.
Sykes had an eventful war. Having held, like his famous father, a Territorial Army commission in The Green Howards in 1927–30, he was commissioned in 1939 as a reserve officer in the regiment's newly formed 7th Battalion. In June 1940, Sykes joined SO1 (later Special Operations Executive [SOE]), where he was personal assistant to Colonel Cudbert Thornhill. In October 1941, Sykes was sent out to Tehran as Deputy Director of Special Propaganda (DDSP) under diplomatic cover (Second Secretary at the British Legation) in the aftermath of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, where he remained until November 1942, when he was transferred to Cairo. Out of a job because his department had been wound up, Sykes found time to write a light novel, High Minded Murder (1944), something of a roman à clef, set in wartime Cairo where Graham Greene's sister Elizabeth was living(Sykes mentions Greene himself in his biography of Waugh). Meanwhile, after failing to find any position as an intelligence officer in the Middle East, Sykes returned to the UK in May 1943, volunteered for the Special Air Service (SAS), and was posted to the Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry Castle, Invernesshire on 1 July 1943. As an SAS officer, Sykes, who spoke fluent French but could not pass as a native, undertook extremely hazardous work with the French Resistance: an experience which, like his friendship with Byron, was depicted in Four Studies in Loyalty (dedicated to the town of Vosges), this time in that book's last chapter.
Nowadays Sykes is especially remembered for his biography of his friend Evelyn Waugh, whom he met after the success of Waugh's Vile Bodies. He introduced Waugh to the socialite Diana Cooper, aka Lady Stitch. He praised Brideshead, Waugh's Catholic epic (the two were both Catholics, but with the notable difference—mentioned by Waugh's son Auberon when reviewing Sykes's book in the November 1975 issue of Books and Bookmen – that whereas Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in his twenties, Sykes was a cradle Catholic) though admitting to his dislike of the character Julia Flyte. Sykes makes some interesting comparisons between scenes in Waugh's books and those of William M Thackeray - the fox hunting scene in a Handful of Dust is compared to that in Barry Lyndon.
Sykes is also remembered to a lesser extent, for his history of the British Mandate of Palestine, Crossroads to Israel (1965). He also wrote several books of fiction and lives of Orde Wingate (published 1959 - Sykes drew attention to Wingate as the possible basis for Waugh's character Brigadier Ritchie Hook in The Sword of Honour trilogy, in his biography of Waugh) the general sometimes known as the "Lawrence of Judea" (a phrase that Wingate deplored); Lady Astor, who, born in Virginia, was one of the first women to sit in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom; and Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed following his part in the failed 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler.
After 1945 Sykes worked for many years in BBC Radio, where he helped to get Waugh's broadcast on P G Wodehouse, who was captured in Le Touquet by the Germnas, on air, as well as writing for several British and American periodicals, including The New Republic, The Spectator, Books and Bookmen, The Observer and the short-lived English Review Magazine. He was invested as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Marriage and family
He married Camilla Georgiana, daughter of Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell (great-grandson of the 6th Duke of Bedford) on 25 October 1936.Their son, Mark Richard Sykes (born 9 June 1937), by his second marriage, is father to six children including New York-based fashion writer and novelist Plum Sykes. The writer and photographer, Christopher Simon Sykes, is a nephew. Writer/journalist Tom Sykes is a grandson.
Christopher Simon Skyes
In 1975, Christopher Simon Sykes received a phone call from Mick Jagger, a personal friend, inviting him to document the Rolling Stones on their upcoming 40-show Tour Of The Americas ’75, a.k.a T.OT.A. ‘75 . According to Sykes, “’I had absolutely free and total access. I was in a very privileged position because I’d come to keep a diary, I’d been recommended by Rupert Lowenstein and I knew Mick. I was more of a friend than a rock photographer.” Sykes dove head first into the assignment by photographing every aspect of the tour, keeping a daily diary, even collecting memorabilia such as backstage passes, the tour manager’s newsletters, even hotel keys. The resulting photographs are an insider’s view of the grueling and infamously decadent life on the road for ‘The Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band in the World’.
The tour proved just as exhausting for Sykes as it did for the Stones. Returning to England, Sykes shifted his focus to what has become a lifelong project: photographing the UK’s great country homes and gardens, including his own family estate, Sledmere House. Sykes is a regular contributor to House & Garden, World of Interiors, Vogue and author of several noteworthy books.
Sledmere House is a Grade I listed Georgian country house, containing Chippendale, Sheraton and French furnishings and many fine pictures, set within a park designed by Capability Brown.