The Hall

History of Holkham

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634)

Sir Edward Coke

Sir Edward Coke founded the family fortunes in the 16th Century. Regarded as one of the most brilliant lawyers of his time, he invested his wealth wisely in land. From these shrewd investments grew the fortune that 150 years later, his descendant Thomas Coke, used to fund the building of Holkham Hall. Indeed, Sir Edward Coke is believed to have originated the phrase: ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’.

Sir Edward was born at Mileham, Norfolk in 1552. He was educated at the Grammar School in Norwich, then at Trinity College, Cambridge, before beginning his legal career in the Inner Temple, London.

Throughout his long life he held high political and judicial office during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. He was Speaker of the House of Commons and Attorney General to both Queen Elizabeth and King James. As Attorney General he was responsible for the prosecution of Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder Plotters. During James’ reign he became Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and finally, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, the most senior judge in the land.

Sir Edward married twice. His first wife, Bridget Paston bore him 10 children, all but two of whom survived into adulthood. Bridget died in 1598, and five months later he married Lady Elizabeth Hatton.

It was said that Sir Edward was the only lawyer who could interpret and digest the most complicated laws of England. As ostriches are renowned for being able to swallow and digest anything from stones to bits of iron, Coke chose the ostrich for his crest, along with the Latin phrase ‘Prudens Qui Patiens’, which translates as: ‘the prudent man is the patient one’.

Sir Edward, who later fell out with King Charles and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for eight months, died in 1634 aged 83. His legal judgments and commentaries are still quoted today.

The first Earl of Leicester of the first creation (1697-1759)

The first Earl of Leicester of the first creation

As both his parents died young, Thomas Coke inherited Holkham at the tender age of 10. He was a wilful child and when, at 15, his passion for cock fighting started to distract him from his lessons, his guardians decided he should embark on a comprehensive tour of Europe, known as the Grand Tour. The purpose of the Grand Tour was to acquaint the sons of wealthy families with the glories of Greek and Roman civilisation, and the ploy certainly worked on Thomas: during his six-year journey he fell in love with Italy and with all its classical associations. He met the architect William Kent, and returned to Holkham determined to build his own temple to the arts, filled with the huge collection of treasures he had bought on his travels. Thomas married Lady Margaret Tufton and together they set out to complete his dream of building Holkham Hall. The project was to take 30 long years, a period that would see the death of the couple’s only son, Edward, in 1753, and Thomas’ own death in 1759, a full five years before the house was completed. He had, however, left meticulous instructions for his wife, and it is thanks to her vigour and determination that the house was finally completed and furnished exactly as Thomas had envisaged.

The first Earl of Leicester of the second creation (1754-1842)

The first Earl of Leicester of the second creation

After Margaret Tufton’s death in 1775, Thomas Coke’s nephew, Wenman Roberts, who changed his name to Coke, inherited Holkham and when he died in 1776, his son, Thomas William Coke, following a Grand Tour rather shorter than that of his predecessor, came to live at Holkham. Thomas William built on the success of his forebears, both in terms of status and stewardship of the land. He championed innovation in agriculture by instigating the Holkham Sheep Shearings, foreshadowing the county shows of today, where experts on all aspects of farming could meet, discuss and demonstrate the latest methods of food production and animal husbandry. He was MP for Norfolk for 50 years, but because there were two other MPs with the same name, he was always addressed in the House of Commons as ‘Coke of Norfolk’. The nickname stuck. On Queen Victoria’s succession to the throne in 1837, Thomas William Coke was elevated to the peerage, at the good old age of 83. He took the title of Earl of Leicester of Holkham; the original title of Earl of Leicester having been forfeited (and passed to the Townshend family) when his great uncle died in 1759. During his lifetime, Coke of Norfolk planted more than one million trees at Holkham, which helped to create not only a stunning Park, but also a wonderful habitat for wildlife that we can all still enjoy today.

The second Earl of Leicester (1822-1909)

The second Earl of Leicester

The second Earl, also named Thomas William Coke, was the eldest son of Coke of Norfolk’s late second marriage, so was only 20 when he inherited Holkham in 1842. His father had made few changes to the house itself, but the young second Earl embarked on extensive modernisation. In the 1850s, he built, at the east end of the house, the magnificent stable block and great range of domestic offices: including a laundry, brew house and a malt house, which now house the Pottery Shop, Bygones and History of Farming; the Estate Office and Porter’s Lodge (now the Finance Offices); the present artesian well and the new water supply system, which is still in use today; the conservatory, the terraces and fountain to the south of the house; and the vestibule and terrace on the north. Even the cricket pitch on the north lawn is due to his love of cricket. The second Earl was, above all, a countryman, whose particular passions were game shooting and forestry. His father had been a remarkable shot and his son carried on the tradition, building on Holkham’s reputation as a fine shooting and agricultural estate. He also reclaimed large areas of marshland and planted a belt of Corsican Pines on the sand dunes on Holkham Beach in order to protect the land from the sea. The second Earl had 18 children from his two marriages and lived to the grand old age of 87.

The third Earl of Leicester (1848-1941)

The third Earl of Leicester

Before succeeding to Holkham, which then covered 43,000 acres, the third Earl, Thomas William Coke, had served for many years in the Scots Guards, retiring as a Colonel in 1892, and had been recalled to the regular army for the Boer War, commanding a Special Service Company volunteered from the Norfolk Militia. By the time he inherited Holkham in 1909, modernisation was again needed. Electric lighting was installed, supplied from a private generating plant in an extension built on to the stables; however, before the Earl’s death in 1941, at the age of 93, this expensive innovation had been made redundant by the advent of mains electricity at Holkham in 1932.

The fourth Earl of Leicester (1880-1949)

The fourth Earl of Leicester

Thomas William Coke, the fourth Earl, like his father the third Earl, also served in the Scots Guards during the Boer War and the 1914-1918 War (which claimed the life of his brother Arthur in 1915), but his great love was music. He was an accomplished violinist. He succeeded to Holkham in 1941, and was in charge of the estate for only eight years, until his death at the age of 69 in 1949. For much of this period, the army requisitioned parts of the Hall, outbuildings and estate.

The fifth Earl of Leicester (1908-1976)

The fifth Earl of Leicester

The fifth Earl, Thomas William Edward Coke, was also a regular soldier and served in the family regiment, the Scots Guards, throughout World War II. He was also Equerry to HRH The Duke of York, later King George VI. His wife, Elizabeth, established Holkham Pottery in 1951, manufacturing fine ceramics for over 50 years. The fifth Earl had three daughters, but as the estate can only pass through the male line, on his death at the age of 68, it passed to his cousin, Anthony Coke.

The sixth Earl of Leicester (1909-1994)

The sixth Earl of Leicester

The sixth Earl, Anthony Louis Lovel Coke, lived in South Africa for most of his life, apart from World War II when he served in RAF Bomber Command. Although he inherited the title, he chose not to move to Holkham, but remained in South Africa. Instead, his son, Edward Coke (later to become the seventh Earl), re-located to England and ran the estate as Viscount Coke.

The seventh Earl of Leicester (1936-2015)

The seventh Earl of Leicester

The seventh Earl, Edward Coke, succeeded to the title on his father’s death in 1994. However, he had in effect been managing the estate from 1973, when the fifth Earl became ill. He immediately embarked on the task of modernising all the estate accommodation, consisting of well over 300 houses, which took more than 15 years to complete. In more recent years, he also spent much time and effort in restoring the hall and its contents to their former glory. At the re-organisation of local government in 1973, Lord Leicester was elected to West Norfolk Council where he served until 1991. For five of those years he was leader of the council. He was President of the Historic Houses Association from 1998 to 2003 and Patron of the Association. In 2005 Lord Leicester was appointed CBE for his services to heritage and also appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk in the same year. He was an English Heritage Commissioner and in 2010 was made President of the Ancient Monument Society. Lord Leicester handed over control of Holkham to his son, Tom, Viscount Coke in 2006. The seventh Earl died 25th April 2015, click here for the obituary.

The eighth Earl of Leicester (b. 1965)

The eighth Earl of Leicester

Thomas Edward Coke, succeeded to the title in May 2015. He had been actively involved in managing the estate since 1993, when he left the army. Like his ancestors, he served in the Scots Guards, after graduating from the University of Manchester where he gained a degree in the History of Art. He has overseen the diversification of the estate away from its dependence on agriculture toward leisure, tourism and property development. In 1996, 70% of the income at Holkham was derived from agriculture. Now that figure has reduced to a little more than 20%, as businesses such a Holkham Property Company, Pinewoods Holiday Park and The Victoria Inn have developed. He married his wife Polly in 1996 and they have four children, Hermione, Juno, Ned and Bess. Lord Leicester’s interests include the great outdoors, especially cycling and running around Norfolk, heritage, conservation and country sports.