Horsemen at Holkham Hall: Day Trip #15

A week’s holiday away with the family means a break from the hobby for a while. Sometimes. The Norfolk and Suffolk Yeomanry collection was just down the coast from where we were staying but, having visited last year, I declined a revisit and stuck to spending time with the family. When we decided to visit the magnificent Holkham Hall and its enormous gardens however, it provided me with an opportunity for some military history…

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Holkham Hall on the day of my visit

Prior to my trip to the Norfolk and Suffolk Yeomanry collection last year in the Muckleburgh Collection, I did a little background reading. One of the many early incarnations of Yeomanry from Norfolk mentioned in my book was the Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry. I seemed to recall that the troop’s standard was on display within the hall, so I kept an eye out for it as we toured around. I’m glad to say that I did indeed find it although, I’ve since been unable to find any reference to it being at the hall whatsoever, so how I knew I simply have no idea!

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The opulent entrance at Holkham Hall.

Norfolk Yeomanry was raised, disbanded and re-raised a number of times between 1782 and 1849. At any one time it consisted of a wide range of troops from all across the county, often equipped and officered by wealthy local landowners at their own expense. The coastal district of Holkham in North Norfolk was no different and the area was dominated by the very grand Holkham Hall. The man who raised Holkham’s first yeomanry force was the hall’s owner Thomas William Coke. One of his portraits was up on the wall in the Manuscript Library.

Reinagle, Ramsay Richard, 1775-1862; Thomas Coke (1752-1842), 1st Earl of Leicester
Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Ramsay Richard Reinagle (1775–1862).

Underneath this portrait was a seemingly insignificant little banner but I recognised it immediately as being an early yeomanry standard. The HYC initials confirmed it; Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry.

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Holkham Hall’s Manuscript Library with the yeomanry standard. Up on the wall are portraits of Thomas Coke surrounded by (I believe) his three daughters, and also his first wife, Jane (below right).

The Yeomanry standard was hung at eye level in the small Manuscript Library room surrounded by many priceless and ancient books. The Uniforms of the British Yeomanry Force series on the Norfolk Yeomanry contains a monochrome photo of the standard and describes it in the following way: —

“…A standard of the Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry of 1798 carries the same central device, the three turreted castle on a shield with crown above and the letters H and Y left and right of shield and C below, a panel in each of the four corners.”

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The 3-turreted castle is a feature on the coat of arms of Norwich, the principal town of Norfolk. The four corners contain two galloping horses and two ostriches with horseshoes held in their beaks (the ostrich being an emblem used within the Coke family coat of arms). The black and white photo looks very similar although notably the horses are reversed in their direction. The black and white photo might simply be the rear view but the fringe on the base of the standard has come away in my photo. So, this might also be a different standard altogether to my photo. I approached the helpful guide in the room to find out more and he suggested to me that the standard may well not be the original version at all but instead a slightly ‘newer’ version created in the 1820s, towards the end of the regiment’s existence.

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HYC: The standard of the Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry

In my chat with the knowledgeable guide, he also suggested to me that Mr Coke had raised the yeomanry troop partly because other local landowners suspected that he harboured sympathies with the republican revolutionaries of France! This is perhaps surprising for a man with so much wealth, land and influence. Raising a troop of yeomanry could have been a method therefore to forestall any suspicious rumours over his loyalty to the king, and of course did his prestige as a rich landowner no harm at all. Records seem to support the guide’s suggestion that Coke did indeed feel some pressing need to ingratiate himself with the King. In a letter to the Prince of Wales, Coke writes:

”Feeling eager to show my zeal in defence of my King and Country at this alarming crisis… I think the best service I can render is by raising a Squadron of Horse, of the most respectable Yeomanry in this neighbourhood… of which I hope your Royal Highness will have the opportunity of judging by honouring Holkham with your presence in the autumn.” Letter from Thomas William Coke to the Prince of Wales. May 1798. From “Records of the Norfolk Yeomanry Cavalry” 1908.

Coke was appointed to the rank of Major Commandant of the HYC on the 19th July 1798. The local paper recorded the moment that the Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry’s standard was first bestowed upon the new troop. The Mercury recorded that, on October 6th, 1798:

“The two troops of Holkham volunteer cavalry, commanded by Major Coke, received their standard from the hands of Mrs. Coke. At eleven in the morning the troops, proceeded to the chapel, where the standard was consecrated by the Rev Henry Crowe, sen.

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The Chapel within Holkham Hall where the standard was consecrated.

The account continues:

At twelve o’clock the troops were drawn up on the South lawn, within a short distance of the house, when with some ceremony, the standard was given into the hands of Captain Edmund Rolfe. After the ceremony, the troops were entertained by their commanding officer, Major Coke, in Holkham House.” From Records of the NYC”.

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South side of Holkham Hall where Captain Rolfe finally received the Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry standard from the hands of Mrs Jane Coke.

Mrs Coke was a committed abolitionist and keen supporter of social welfare. Her portrait also appears up on the wall in library alongside her husband, her face now seemingly looking towards the standard that she’d bestowed upon the regiment just two years before her untimely death.

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On the right, Mrs Jane Coke (nee Dutton) looks across towards the standard that she bestowed in October 1798.

In 1798, tally returns show the HYC numbering 100 men, double the number that many other corps in Norfolk at the time had raised. Consequently, as suggested above, it was split into two troops. The Holkham Troop’s officers consisted of;

  • Major Commandant Thomas William Coke
  • Captain Edmund Rolfe
  • Lieuts. George Hogg and Martin Folkes-Riston
  • Cornets Jason Gardner-Bloom and John Ward

I am unsure as to the uniform details of the Holkham Yeomanry. The automated scanned text of Thomas Coke’s letter to the Prince of Wales contained within the “Records of the Norfolk Yeomanry Cavalry” is garbled: ” …I have to request your Royal Highnesses permission that we may wear the colours of ye loth for our uniform”. Yellow, perhaps? There is in existence an engraved chart entitled “A view of the volunteer army of Great Britain in the year 1806” which listed the colours of all the yeomanry forces but unfortunately omits the Holkham Troop! With the notable exception of the Norfolk Rangers who wore green jackets, the majority of Norfolk’s yeomanry at this time wore red coats, facings which were mostly black and breeches predominantly white or blue. All wore Tarleton helmets. So perhaps we can assume that the Holkham Yeomanry probably looked very similar.

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Jacket of the Clackhouse Troop of Yeomanry Cavalry
Opie, John, 1761-1807; John Harvey (1755-1842), Mayor of Norwich (1792)
John Harvey, Mayor of Norwich in the 1792 uniform of the Norwich Light Horse Volunteers.

The Peace of Amiens in 1802 led to the disbandment of the yeomanry but this was almost immediately followed by a re-raising of all the cavalry in 1803, when Britain once more declared war on France. Lord Townsend of Fakenham grouped the many disparate corps of yeomanry existing across Norfolk into three regiments to improve efficiency. The Holkham Yeomanry Cavalry troop were attached to the 1st Regiment alongside the Norfolk Rangers, the Lynn & Freebridge, Smithdon & Brothercross, and the Marshland Troops. The newly combined 1st Regiment then numbered 350 in total. Some years later, the entire 1st Regiment was to adopt the Norfolk Rangers green uniform.

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Marquess Townshend in the uniform of the Norfolk Rangers, 1799.

Of course, although the threat was very real and persisted for years, Napoleon never did invade and the yeomanry were never called upon to fight him. However, civil disturbances kept many yeomanry forces busy. Indeed on the 16th March 1815, months before the battle of Waterloo, the Holkham Yeomanry’s own commander was subject to an attack by an angry mob:

“Thomas Coke of Holkham was present at a show of prize cattle in Norwich when… a number of persons, acting upon the assumption that he was a supporter of the Corn Bill, proceeded to treat him in a very rough and violent manner…the mob hurled a volley of stones and brickbats at Mr. Coke and friends.” From ‘Records of the NYC’.

It seems that he was besieged in a public house and only barely managed to escape. The riot was quelled by the Brunswick Hussars, then stationed in Norwich, under the  command of a Lieut-Col. Von Tempsky. Disparity of wealth between rich and poor was certainly extreme at the time, yet ironically it appears that Coke was one of the more socially conscious of landlords.

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Officer of the Norfolk Rangers in an illustration by RJ Marrion.

Coke’s troop of cavalry, the Holkham Yeomanry, were finally disbanded for good in 1828. Various incarnations of mounted yeomanry from within the county continued to arise intermittently, however, and there were ongoing ties with Holkham Hall. Indeed, nearly 20 years later, on May 22nd, 1847, the Norfolk Chronicle reported on “Prince Albert’s Own Corps of Yeomanry Cavalry” drilling on the grounds of Coke’s Holkham estate:

“The town of Wells is at this time very gay, being honoured by a visit from the gentlemen comprising Prince Albert’s Own corps of Yeomanry cavalry. They entered the town on Saturday last, under the command of Major Loftus, and the lovers of music are day by day enchanted by their splendid brass band… Their practising ground is on the North lawn in Holkham Park.” From ‘Records of the NYC’.

The same newspaper later also documented the activities of this yeomanry regiment at Holkham Hall which is worth quoting at length to provide an overview of yeomanry duties and occupations during camp:

“We mentioned in our last week’s paper, the arrival at Wells, of the 300 Prince Albert’s own corps of Norfolk Yeomanry cavalry, for eight days permanent duty, on Saturday the 15th inst.

”On Monday the 17th, the three squadrons mustered for exercise and marched to Holkham Park, permission having been granted to Major Loftus by the Earl of Leicester, to make any use of the Park for exercise, likewise the stables at the Hall for the accommodation of the horses during his sojourn at Wells, with the corps under his command. At two o’clock the corps were dismounted, and at this period, the Major received a most polite invitation for himself and his brother officers to luncheon at the Hall…

“On Tuesday, at ten o’clock, the corps again marched to the Park, and after going through various evolutions, until 2 p.m. dismounted. The officers received an invitation to the Hall to luncheon, a marquee being erected in the Park for the accommodation of the men, in which refreshments were provided, and at three o’clock they returned to town…

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1843 dragoon helmet of the Prince Albert’s Own Yeomanry Cavalry.

” At an early hour on Wednesday morning, the corps assembled in the Park at Holkham… Precisely at half past five the Earl arrived accompanied by the Hon. and Rev. Thomas Keppel, and were received with all military honours. At eight o’clock the Lord-Lieutenant accompanied by Major Loftus, and the officers proceeded to the concert room which was crowded to excess, and it is but justice to state that owing to the excellent arrangements made by Mr Jonas Wright, the band master, the company assembled enjoyed a musical treat, not often met with in a provincial
town.

“On Thursday morning there was a short foot parade, with carbines and side arms, and at twelve o’clock, the officers, non-commissioned officers and several of the private members proceeded to the Park for the purpose of playing a game of cricket with the Earl of Leicester. At four o’clock the officers and players sat down to a most sumptuous entertainment given by the noble Earl, at which every delicacy of the season was provided.” Quoted in Records of the NYC’.

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Napoleonic-era Holkham Yeomanry muskets on display in the local Victoria Inn, which is still owned by the Coke family.

Thomas Coke, having been created 1st Earl of Leicester in 1837, after 20 years a widower shocked all by marrying 18-year old Anne Keppel at the somewhat advanced age of 68(!). They had a son who inherited the title. Thomas Coke died at the age of 88 in 1842. His body was returned to Norfolk from Derbyshire where he’d been out on a visit and on the final leg of the coffin’s journey there were yeomen in attendance.

After the disbandment of the Norfolk Yeomanry in 1849, there were still instances of volunteer cavalry parading at Holkham Hall. In 1861;

“A body of mounted volunteers, the Norwich Mounted Volunteers, took part in the great review of the whole of the volunteers of the county, on Sept 12, 1861, which was held at Holkham Park. Their uniform consists of a scarlet tunic with blue facings, white cross belt, white breeches, and Napoleon boots, the head-dress is a busby with blue bag; the forage cap is blue trimmed with white. ” Norfolk Chronicle, 1861. Quoted in “Records of the NYC”.

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Norfolk Light Horse Volunteer, c. 1864. By 1863 the busby described had become a dragoon helmet as shown.

It wasn’t until the Anglo-Boer War that the Norfolk Yeomanry was re-raised once again now under the patronage of the King himself. These were men intended to fight out on the South African veldt as part of the Imperial Yeomanry force. The very first parade of the “King’s Own Regiment of Norfolk Imperial Yeomanry” took place at Holkham Hall, on September 10th, 1901. Still awaiting their uniforms, the regiment paraded by squadrons in plain clothes on the cricket ground. On the day of my visit, a cricket match was in progress, the sport still being played right in front of the hall where Norfolk yeomen had once paraded, rode and manoeuvred so often many years ago.

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Cricket match taking place on the north side of the hall; scene of yeomanry drill, parades, band concerts and even sometimes yeomanry cricket from the past!

Further on in the hall, I also discovered a small display featuring men of Holkham Hall who had fought in the World War and were recorded on the Roll of Honour or the war memorial which lies within the grounds. The Roll of Honour included two estate workers who respectively served with yeomanry regiments; the Westminster Dragoons and City of London Roughriders. There was also one from the Norfolk Yeomanry, a Walter Hughe. World War 1 had ensured that a Holkham man finally did see action serving with the county’s yeomanry.

Finally. below are some scenes of the Norfolk Yeomanry at Holkham Hall during their Summer Camp in 1911. Equestrian events such as tent-pegging can be seen and the men are watering their horses in Holkham Hall’s lake. The regiment’s C Squadron had a drill station in nearby Wells-Next-The-Sea.

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Norfolk Yeomanry Summer Camp Holkham Hall 1911 (2)