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Last updated 5 July 2012

The Grantleys of Wonersh 

On Sunday, 13 June 2010 the newly restored painting of Fletcher Norton, 1st Baron Grantley of Markenfield was unveiled there by the 8th Baron.  It shows Sir Fletcher Norton in the robes of Speaker of the House of Commons.  Several years ago the 8th Baron visited Wonersh and went to Great Tangley.  He had come to Wonersh to see the village where Fletcher lived.  This significant event is opportune to recall Fletcher’s life story. 

In the programme for the unveiling we read:  “Sir Fletcher Norton (1716 to 1789) was a forceful and pugnacious Speaker of the House of Commons 1770 to 1780.  Perhaps, at times, he was a little too pugnacious; the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments that he could be “coarse, ill-tempered, tactless and careless of whom he offended” but he was “bold, outspoken and certainly nobody’s lackey”.  While still a barrister, before he entered politics, his nick-name was “Sir Bull-Face Double Fee” from his practice of taking money from each side in a dispute, without telling the other. 

We do not know the precise year that his portrait, showing him in Speaker’s robes was painted, but it must have been towards the end of the 1770s.  William Beechey who painted it later became Court painter to Queen Charlotte, wife of George II and was knighted.  He was born in 1753, making him only 27 when Norton resigned the Speaker-ship.  A good friendship must have sprung up between painter and sitter, as Beechey was to go on to paint Norton’s son, 2nd Lord Grantley and his grandson who became the 3rd, which full length portrait now hangs in the Great Hall.  The 3rd Lord Grantley also married Beechey’s daughter Charlotte. 

In 1761 Fletcher Norton bought Markenfield back into the family for £9,400.  This was partly an act of piety, as he was collateral descendent by marriage of the Markenfield family who built the house in 1310.  At the time it was structurally in very poor condition; he repaired it and made it water-tight again. 

He was a direct descendent of Sir Richard Norton, Standard Bearer of the 1569 Rising of the North, two portraits of whom now hang in the Chapel.  He was proud of this descent; when he was later raised to the peerage, he adopted the motto “Avi Numerantur Avorum”.....”I come from a long line of ancestors.” 

He also took the title Lord Grantley of Markenfield, which it remains.  His cleaned and conserved portrait is being unveiled today by Richard Norton, the 8th Lord Grantley of Markenfield, his great-great-great-great-great-great- grandson. 

Fletcher was also a member of a famous Surrey family about whom Basil Cracknell writes:  “The Grantleys lived for several generations in the village of Wonersh during the 18th and 19th centuries in their fine home “Wonersh Park”.  “Pretty, ham-fisted 19th century Gothic” was the way Pevsner described it in his forthright way.  The house passed out of the family in 1884 and was ultimately demolished in 1935.  The family name still survives in the district from the 15th century in the Grantley Arms.  The family also owned at one time Great Tangley Manor.  The Grantley name is also part of the history of Guildford for the family provided a succession of M.P.s, Recorders and High Stewards. 

Yet the Grantleys are hardly remembered with love and affection.  Rather they are remembered for the legendary unpleasantness of the first Baron;  for the way he pinched a piece of Wonersh common land so as to keep the villagers a little further from his house; for the “lordly and worthy” family pew he had built in the church, and for the way when he rebuilt the church after a fire in 1796 he used plans drawn up by his own butler; for the “enormous wall”, as Eric Parker once described it, that a later Baron had built to keep out prying eyes;  and for the way the brother of the 3 Lord Grantley, who married one of the beautiful grand-daughters of Sheridan, the poet, treated his wife with such cruelty.  Indeed there was more than a touch of arrogance and cruelty in the Grantley make-up which made the Speaker’s story so different from that of Surrey’s other great Speaker of the Commons and near neighbour, whose family also provided several M.P.s for Guildford, the Onslows. 

It is rare indeed that the Dictionary of National Biography describes one of its illustrious subjects with such frankness and uncompromising criticism as in the case of Fletcher Norton, 1st Baron Grantley of Markenfield.  “Norton was a shrewd, unprincipled man of good abilities and offensive manners.  His violent temper and lack of discretion unfitted him for the post of Speaker.  Though by no means a learned lawyer, he was a bold and able pleader and was remarkable alike for his clumsiness of arguments and the inaccuracy of his statements.” 

The Nortons came from fiery Northern stock.  An ancestor took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace and in 1569 participated in the Northern Rebellion, a rising of Catholic feudal chiefs of Northern England against Queen Elizabeth.  After the collapse of the rebellion he was forced to flee to Europe and died in Flanders in 1588.  Wordsworth wrote a poem about “Richard Norton” (Old Norton) and his eight brave sons. 

Fletcher Norton, the future First Baron Grantley, was born in 1716, eldest son of Thomas Norton of Grantley near Ripon.  He showed early promise in the law and was admitted as a member of the Middle Temple on 14 November 1734 and was called to the Bar on 6 July 1739.  At first he had difficulty getting any briefs, but by sheer power of persuasion and forceful pleading of the few cases he had, he eventually built up a large and lucrative practice.  In 1754 he became King’s Counsel and was elected Attorney General for the County Palatine of Lancaster.  In March 1750 he became M.P. for Appleby and in 1761 M.P. for Wigan.  On 25 June 1762 he was appointed Solicitor General and knighted. 

What sort of man was this fiery descendent of “Old Norton”?  Fortunately thanks to the parliamentary records that have been preserved from this period, and the memoirs of statesmen of the time, we have many examples of the virulent exchanges in which Norton participated in the House of Commons.  In 1763 occurred an incident that displayed the sort of duplicity that caused one person to say of him that he gave “forked counsel” and the satirists of the day to label him “Sir Bull-Face Double Fee”. 

The incident occurred during the debate on Wilkes’ alleged misdemeanours.  Walpole in his “Memoirs of the Reign of George III” says:  “Norton indecently quoted a prosecution of perjury against Sir John Rushout, who explained that the prosecution had been instigated by Norton himself for election purposes and who concluded by saying “It was all owing to that “honest” gentleman, pointing to Norton, I hope I do not call him out of his name.”  Perhaps Walpole was somewhat biased.  He heartily disliked Norton and says of him;  “It was known that in private cases he took money from both parties and availed himself against one or other of them of the lights they had communicated to him.”  Sir Bull-Face Double Fee indeed! 

He had arrived.  But he had made many enemies on the way.  His outspokenness offended many people.  “If I was a judge I should pay no more respect to this resolution than to that of a drunken porter,” he had declared in 1764.  And in January 1766 he incurred the intense dislike of Pitt whom he accused of sounding the trumpet of rebellion, declaring “He has chilled my blood at the idea”, whereupon Pitt replied “The gentleman says I have chilled his blood.  I shall be happy to meet him in any place with the same opinions when the blood is warmer”.  Presumably Norton doubled out of this one, for Pitt was a duellist of no mean reputation. 

Sir Fletcher Norton remained Speaker for the next ten stormy years, during which he built up an unenviable reputation for his violent temper, lack of discretion and his offensive manners.  Many unsavoury incidents in the House marred his Speaker-ship.  No sooner had he been elected than he had a violent altercation with Sir William Meredith, and was accused of using language that was “disorderly, importing an improper reflection on a member of the House and dangerous to the freedom of debate in this House.”  On 13th March 1780 he over-reached himself and revealed his duplicity in a way that could no longer be ignored.  He made an impassioned attack on Lord North for thinking of appointing Lord Wedderburn to the Chief Justice-ship of the Common Pleas, a post that Norton hoped to secure for himself.  On 20th March public opinion forced him to make an apology to the House “for having imprudently gone into matters totally foreign to the subject under consideration.”  The issue was now whether or not he should be evicted from the Chair, but the timing and manner of his departure.  When the new Parliament opened on 31 October 1780 Sir Fletcher Norton was not re-elected Speaker. The House had at last come to share Lord Mansfield’s judgement of their Speaker – that his skill in pleading a cause could not atone for his deep duplicity and lack of principles.  “With him I found it more difficult to prevent injustice being done than with any person who ever practised before me.”  Surely this must be the most severe indictment ever passed on a King’s Counsel and a Speaker of the House of Commons! 

The Baron’s Barren Years 

The fates had yet another trick in store for Sir Fletcher Norton.  Thanks to a rivalry between Rockingham and Shelburne, Norton found himself unexpectedly raised to the peerage on 9 April 1792.  He became the First Baron Grantley of Markenfield in Yorkshire.  He took his seat in the House of Lords, but his limelight days were over.  These were the Baron’s barren years.  He spoke only rarely and on 17 March 1788 made his last speech in the Lords.  He died aged 72 and was buried at Wonersh on 9 January 1789. 

The Grantleys at Wonersh 

Fletcher Norton married Grace, eldest daughter of Sir William Chapple of Wonersh Park on 21 May 1741 and so came into possession of the splendid property in the village.  For the next 143 years the Grantleys lived in Wonersh Park, dominating the aristocratic society of this part of Surrey and playing their part in the civic life of Guildford and the County.  Sir Fletcher Norton enlarged the house that Sir William Chapple had rebuilt in the 1730s and in 1835 an extra wing was added.  The Grantleys added to their estate in this part of Surrey and they restored the shingled tower of the church when it was burned down. 

The Nortons had five sons and two daughters, but the only son who distinguished himself and who was renowned alike for his achievements and his amiable disposition was Chapple Norton, who became a General and served with distinction in America.  General Chapple Norton was a personal friend of the Duke of York and was M.P. for Guildford during the years 1784 – 90, 1796, 1802, 1806 and 1807 – 12; he took a keen interest in all Surrey affairs.  He died at Wonersh on 19 March 1818 aged, like his father, 72 years, but so unlike his father in all other respects. 

A POSTSCRIPT

The Norton family name lives on in Guildford in the name “Markenfield Road.” 

A FURTHER POSTSCRIPT 

The 7th Lord Grantley visited Wonersh in 1985 to reopen the refurbished Grantley Arms. We are grateful to Ian Curteis for reminding us of this fact and for the photograph below of the wooden plaque presented to Lord Grantley on that occasion. Ian tells us that the plaque still resides at Markenfield Hall.

The above article appeared in Wonersh History Society Bulletin No. 39 Summer 2010

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