John Tufton was born on 15th December 1608. He was the eldest son of Nicholas Tufton, 1st Earl of Thanet (1578-1631), who was created earl on 5th Aug 1628. His father, Sir John, had been Sheriff of Kent and become a baronet in 1611. (Fletcher says that ‘the Earl of Thanet, the son of a jumped-up peer who purchased his title for £5,000, was enormously wealthy but of little account in Sussex outside the Kentish border county of Hastings Rape.’)
The first earl made a good marriage before 3rd September 1602 to Lady Frances Cecil (1581-1653), the granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. She was the 5th daughter of Burghley’s elder son Thomas, 1st Earl of Exeter, by his first wife Hon Dorothy Nevill, 2nd daughter and coheiress of John Nevill, 4th Baron Latymer. The family owned property around Rye and the 1st Earl bought the Manor of Bodiam in 1623, when it included the castle and the tight to hold a fair.
On 21 April 1629 John Tufton married Lady Margaret Sackville (1614-1676), the daughter of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset and his rich wife, Lady Anne, née Clifford. Margaret would later become, at least briefly, Baroness Clifford in her own right. Lady Anne had received a life interest in Lord’s Place in 1624, the year her husband died, as his Sackville forebears had owned the house since 1559. The couple must have had a well-suited marriage, as they had 11 children over 23 years, four of whom succeeded him in succession to the title, as the first three sons had no children of their own.
John became 2nd Earl of Thanet on the death of his father in 1632. In 1634 he bought Wiston House for £16,500 from the Earl of Middlesex. The transaction was aided by the fact that his grandmother, Lady Exeter, was the sitting tenant and friend of Lord Middlesex. In 1637 he bought the reversion of his mother-in-law’s life interest in Lord’s Place, the Sackvilles’ sprawling mansion in Southover.
Thanet was an ardent supporter of King Charles I and in August 1642, when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, signifying the start of the English Civil War, the earl joined the king with 100 horse. He fought at Edgehill on 23rd October 1642 and took part in the siege of Chichester in December of that year. He was part of the defeated royalist force at Haywards Heath shortly after, when Sir Edward Ford’s West Sussex levies showed that they were reluctant to fight their fellow countrymen, particularly as he had recruited many of them by threatening their property. Thanet and Ford’s plan had been to advance from Chichester to Lewes, to seize and fortify Lord’s Place, and use it as a Royalist base, despite the parliamentary leanings of the area around Lewes, but this was frustrated by Col Herbert Morley’s prompt action at Haywards Heath. As a result, the Parliamentarians reinforced their military control of Sussex: it was focussed on Lewes, which Captain Ambrose Trayton had been ordered to secure for Parliament. Sir William Waller retook Chichester from the Royalists and demanded from the wealthier inhabitants a quantity of plate, which with £900 worth of plate belonging to the Earl of Thanet, and as much more which the committee had sent to Portsmouth, was distributed among the Parliamentary soldiers.
Eventually Thanet had to surrender to the parliamentarian army, while his house at Wiston was captured by the royalists and recaptured by the Parliamentarians. He requested an ‘accommodation’ and in the spring he managed to escape to the continent, leaving his pregnant wife and children at Wiston House. Parliament then sequestered all his estates and for 18 months used Wiston as a base after the fall of Arundel Castle. Morley informed Speaker Lenthall that he had confiscated the barque of the Brighton man who had transported Lord Thanet to France in April 1643, and added that he thought it ‘noe smale crime to transport those that have made war against the parliament without your warrant.’
The county committee could be implacable as it was with the Earl of Thanet and Sir Edward Bishop, but by and large it stuck to the rules and was lenient to gentry involved in the royalist campaign. In March 1644 Thanet returned from abroad and as a ‘delinquent peer’ paid Parliament a fine of £9,000 for the return of his estates, which was the largest amount demanded that year. He estimated that he had lost £17,000 on his Kent and Sussex estates. At Wiston, £1,600 worth of silver plate had been stolen, plus £1,400 worth of other goods, as well as furniture, weapons, books and a trunk full of documents. In 1649 he sold Wiston House and a great part of the estate for £6,870 to John Fagge, a 22-year-old parliamentary commander and Sussex MP. In 1654 Nehemiah Beaton, the young minister of Wiston, was not receiving his stipend as he was suffering from the Earl of Thanet’s failure to pay the yearly maintenance of £40 he had promised when he compounded.
After the Restoration of 1660, the spacious and redundant Lord’s Place accounted for most of the 33 hearths credited to the Earl of Thanet in the records of the Hearth Tax of 1662, showing that it was easily the largest building in Lewes. Thanet attempted to evade liability for tax by describing it as ‘an ruinous and useless house for the most part fallen downe and lying waste.’ In 1664 ten pounds of lead were stolen from its roof.
Gradually Lord Thanet recovered his wife’s inheritance, including land in Brighton, when he paid £7,000 to the creditors. He died at Thanet House, London on 6th May 1664, while his wife Margaret outlived him, dying on 14th August 1676
Lord’s Place was demolished over the 20 years from 1668, when William Lane, Henry Shelley and Edward Trayton contracted to demolish the mansion. The three men paid £375 for a ten-year lease in 1668, on condition they demolished the ‘great old house’, the great barn and great stable, but left standing to a height of eight feet the wall of the mansion east of the churchyard, the north part of the great gateway and the wall of the stable and barn beside Cockshut Lane and the High Street. (The Buck print of the site suggests that they obeyed this instruction.) Its Renaissance stone doorcase may have gone to Fairhall in Southover. When Norman Norris excavated the site of the Lord’s Place in the 1950s, he found clay pipes from the Restoration period, and slates discoloured, perhaps by fire.
Other properties were gradually dispersed. Thomas Earl of Thanet sold Allington in Lewes in 1722 to Thomas Medley for £3,340. The 6th earl, John’s fourth son, died in 1729. The title became extinct on 12th June 1849.
A County Community in Peace and War: Sussex 1600-1660 by Anthony Fletcher
Pre-Georgian Lewes by Colin Brent
Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. 94, 1955: Excavations on the Site of the Lord’s Place, Southover by N S Norris, pp. 1-12
Victoria County History on Sussex
Wiston House by Janet Pennington and Richard Mayne
World Heritage Encyclopedia on John Tufton, 2nd Earl of Thanet
*Helen Poole is Curator of Crawley Museum, a Lecturer on Sussex History and a former Trustee of Lewes Priory Trust.