Welbeck Abbey was founded as a monastery in 1153. When Henry VIII became Supreme Head of the Church of England in the 1530’s, he dissolved the monastery and Welbeck Abbey was bought by a member of the King’s court.
Bess of Hardwick’s youngest son, Sir Charles Cavendish, bought the Welbeck Estate in 1607. Since then the estate has continued to be handed down through the family.
Family members include the 5th Duke of Portland, the famous ‘burrowing duke.’ The 5th Duke spent his time and wealth at Welbeck, commissioning an impressive range of buildings which included a maze of underground tunnels. The Gas Works, which was built about 1860, lit his underground structures and is now home to The Harley Gallery.
The Gallery is named after Edward Harley, who married Charles Cavendish’s great-granddaughter, Lady Henrietta, the greatest heiress of her day.
Edward Harley was one of the greatest bibliophiles and collectors of his age. His collecting habits led to an extensive fine and decorative art collection. Some works are still in family hands but the rest were sold and his manuscript collection was bought by the nation and helped found the British Library. Harley bought the famous horse, “The Bloodied Shouldered Arabian” and shipped him over to Britain. It is said that every racehorse in Britain is descended from him or another horse, “The Darley Arabian”.
The family have retained a passion for horses and horseracing and in the 1880s their winnings from racing amounted to what would be around £30,000,000 in today’s money. The Duchess at the time, Duchess Winifred, made sure that some of the money went to building a set of almshouses, which she named “The Winnings” and which are still in use today. She also used her position to promote her love of birds and helped found the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Welbeck Abbey remains a private family home. During Summer, The Harley Gallery runs tours of the Abbey’s State Rooms to see objects from the Cavendish-Bentinck family art collection, The Portland Collection, in their historic setting.