Writer’s Travel Guide: Burton Constable Hall

In this post:

  • A gentleman who thought it possible to cross breed rabbits and chickens
  • A cabinet of wonders
  • The trial of a conspirator

Burton Constable Hall is located 3 miles (5 km) south-east of Skirlaugh, Yorkshire.


Burton Constable Hall is famous for the “Cabinet of Curiosities” of one of its most remarkable owners, William Constable.

“Cabinets of Curiosities”, also known as “Cabinets of Wonders”, were collections of objects from natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, alchemy and art. They became popular in the late Renaissance era. Originally, only royalties possessed the fortune and the opportunity to collect in grand style, but by the 18th century many gentlemen sought to acquire the latest scientific instruments and unusual objects from around the world. So did William Constable. His collection is today the most important scientific collection by a gentleman from the late 18th century that is on display in a country house. The collection is substantially intact and still has the original labels. (1)

If you visit Burton Constable Hall, the Cabinet of Curiosities is a must-see, but you will also enjoy the 30 rooms filled with fine furniture, paintings and sculptures. The exotic Chinese Room was inspired by the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavillon in Brighton. (1)

Who was William Constable?

The Constables were a catholic family. They were known to be “recusants”, a term used for those who refused to attend Anglican services and remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. In those days, Catholics were denied several rights: They were not allowed to purchase land in London, they had no access to a university education and they were limited in their political activities. For the Constables of Burton Constable Hall, this meant being cut from taking significant political influence and owning a town house in the metropolis. At best, they could have rented a house a London. (2)

Probably William Constable (1721-91) didn’t care to be an important part of polite society. It seemed that he was quite happy to build his own little realm in Yorkshire. When he inherited the family estate, he remodeled the house extensively in the Neo-Classical style. He commissioned the most fashionable architects, furniture designers and landscape gardeners of the time: “Capability” Brown, James Wyatt, John Carr, Thomas Atkinson and Thomas Chippendale. Designs by famous Robert Adam were rejected. (3)

Besides architecture, William loved science and botany. Had he not been catholic, he certainly would have entered university. But William studied by himself as assiduously as any scholar at Oxford’s or Cambridge’s colleges. His main interest was the advancement of arts and sciences and to keep abreast of the latest ideas in these fields. He studied, among others, botany, geology, zoology and physics. (4)

One wonders how he could manage all these things. I believe he was lucky in having a helping hand: his sister, Winefred Constable. Little is known about Winefred, but is seems save to conclude that she, a spinster, was involved in many of her brothers’ activities: It is known that she settled some of the bills handed in by the craftsmen and artists (2). She also had a special table made for her, in the shape of a horse shoe and made to fit into a window bay. Using such a space allowed her to make the most of natural light. (5)

William and Winefred had travelled a lot. William did the Grand Tour three times. We know that Winefred joined him on his travels at least once. It’s said that the siblings spent the vast amount of 7,000 pounds at their tour from 1769–71 (6).

Make William Constable and his relatives characters of your novel

William and Winefred Constable are great to use as a minor characters in your novel, if you would like to include travellers, collectors and scientists in your novel. You can also consider employing William’s heir, Edward Sheldon Constable, who was a member of the Grand Jury in a trial against a conspirator. Here are some more facts about the family:

  • William was corpulent and suffered from gout. (1)
  • During his second Grand Tour he watched the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. (6)
  • He observed and collected the phenomena of nature, both for knowledge and amusement, (4) and he ordered several scientific instruments from the Royal Instrument Maker Benjamin Cole jr., such as a condensing engine and an air pump. (6)
  • William thought it possible to cross breed rabbits and chickens, as shows his correspondence with John Needham, a biologist then noted for his theory of spontaneous generation of life. (1)
  • He became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Society. (6)
    William and Winefred had themselves painted as Cato the younger and as Cato’s sister Marcia. You can look at the painting here. (6)
  • When William died in 1791, his nephew Edward Sheldon Constable inherited Burton Constable Hall. (1)
  • Edward was a member of the Grand Jury in a trial against Henry Redhead Yorke (1772–1813): Henry Yorke sympathised with radical political ideas. He joined the London Corresponding Society and a radical society at Derby. In 1794, he addressed a large outdoor meeting at Sheffield, convened to petition for a pardon to political convicts and to promote the abolitionist cause. He allegedly expressed revolutionary sentiments in his speech. He was arrested for conspiracy, sedition, and libel. The Grand Jury (a member of which was Edward Constable) thought that the evidence adduced made a sufficient case. Henry was trialed and sentenced i.a. to two years’ imprisonment in Dorchester Castle. He married the daughter of a keeper of his prison in 1800. (8)


(1) http://www.burtonconstable.com/thehouse/house-sub.php?id=5
(2) Hall, Ivan: Furniture History; Vol. 8, The Furniture History Society, 1972.
(3) Pevsner, Nikolaus / Neave, David: The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: York and the East Riding; Yale University Press, 1995.
(4) http://www.hullcc.gov.uk/museumcollections/collections/storydetail.php?irn=756&master=490
(5) http://www.chippendaleactivities.org/res/chippendale_trail_bconstable.pdf
6) Hall, Ivan in: Grove Art Online, 1998 (http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T019165)
(7) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/8975940/John-Chichester-Constable.html
(8) Alger, G. / rev. Spence, Peter: ‘Yorke, Henry Redhead (1772–1813)’; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.