A Monument of International Importance
The Darnley Mausoleum is an internationally important monument on the English Heritage buildings at risk register.A Grade I listed building, it is one of the finest mausolea in Britain and represents a high point in the neoclassical movement in British architecture.The Mausoleum stands within Cobham Park on Williams Hill, the highest point locally, commanding wide views over the Thames and Medway Estuaries and the rolling landscape of the Kent Downs.
Traditionally the Earls of Darnley had been buried in Westminster Abbey but by the later 18th century their vaults were full. John Bligh, the 3rd Earl, left instructions in his will for the construction of a mausoleum in Cobham Park where he and his descendants could be laid to rest in an appropriately grand manner. His instructions specified a square stone building with a "prominent pyramid" surrounded by a dry moat.
A Mausoleum Without Burials
For reasons that remain unclear but may have involved a dispute with the Bishop of Rochester, the Darnley Mausoleum was not consecrated and therefore never used for burial. Although unused the Mausoleum was nevertheless the finest and most prominent monument in Cobham Park; the pyramid was visible for some distance towering above the tops of the trees. A proposal by the renowned landscape designer Humphry Repton to convert the Mausoleum into a viewing platform was not pursued, and the building retained its sombre grandeur in a setting redesigned by Repton to provide enhanced views across the Park and estate. It remained a magnificent landscape feature and local curiosity but its condition began to gradually decline.
A 20th Century Conservation Cause Celebre
During the 20th century the Earls of Darnley struggled to maintain the Cobham estate.As early as 1939 an article in Country Life magazine had drawn attention to the Mausoleum’s declining state of repair. In the 1950’s the family moved out of Cobham Hall and sold off most of the estate, although the Darnley Mausoleum and surrounding woodland remained in the family’s hands. The Mausoleum increasingly became the target of vandals, whose attacks climaxed on November 5th 1980 when a tremendous blaze in the crypt brought down the floor of the chapel, damaged and blackened much of the interior and destroyed the elegant outer staircase. The 11th Earl of Darnley who had recently inherited the title renewed attempts to find a long-term solution. In 1985 at a hard-fought public inquiry permission was granted for a scheme to convert the Mausoleum into a palatial residence. The property was sold to a developer who became bankrupt before the scheme could be realised; the Mausoleum and surrounding woodland passed into the hands of the Official Receiver and were left open to further decay and vandalism.
In 2001 the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme (CAMS) provided the funding for Gravesham Borough Council to purchase, on its behalf, the Mausoleum and the surrounding woodland for £150,000; subject to the understanding that the ownership and maintenance of the property would eventually transfer to the National Trust.This proposal is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund who in 2004 awarded a grant of £4.9million for a project to restore the framework of historic Cobham Park, including the Darnley Mausoleum; the largest HLF project in south east England. A project team from the CAMS organisations and including Cobham Hall is working to complete the restoration.
The Darnley Mausoleum - Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme