When Castle Howard played host to the set of rumpy-pumpy Netflix hit Bridgerton, released last year, the stately home’s caretakers were so concerned for its antique furniture and fragile fixtures that they refused to leave their posts—even during the show’s most vigorous sex scenes. The staff, it seemed, worried that the delicate atmosphere of the place might be disturbed in some way by all that thrashing and sighing and scandalous energy.
But they needn’t have sweated too much. Castle Howard is used to high drama. This was the backdrop for the 1980s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited—a tale of familial feuding, cursed love, and doomed ambition—in which the graceful baroque mansion, with its glowing stone walls and ornate cupolas, was often considered the true star of the show.
But in the years since, life at the house has begun increasingly to imitate art. Castle Howard has gone Method. Today the place is best known for a cascade of Waugh-worthy outrage that begins with a floundering pop-rock career and ends in an accusation of sexual assault. It is a period drama with a heavy emphasis on the drama.
The house—a castle in name and attitude only—was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, and sits on some 10,000 acres of handsome Yorkshire parkland. Cinematographers fawn over its whimsical follies and fearful symmetry, its glinting gold-leafed dome and flirtatious hedgerows.
The anoraked classes, meanwhile, prefer the Reynoldses and Gainsboroughs (or at least those that haven’t been slung to Sotheby’s to keep the roof on). It has been home to the Howard family for 10 generations, and until six years ago was governed under the earnest stewardship of Simon Howard, the third eldest son of Lord Howard of Henderskelfe.
Today, the place is best known for a cascade of Waugh-worthy outrage that begins with a floundering pop-rock career and ends in an accusation of sexual assault.
In 1984, after the death of their father, Simon inherited the hot seat over his older brothers Henry (who had prohibitive health problems) and Nicholas, who elected to pursue a career in rock music instead. (This pipe dream soon sputtered out: the Daily Mail notes wryly that the most rock ’n’ roll moment in Nicholas’s career came when the estate farmhouse he was living in was raided by police, who discovered what he called “a footling amount of cannabis.” Nicholas was fined some $250, and he asked the court whether he could pay off the sum in three monthly lumps. “This is meant to be a punishment, not hire purchase,” the chairman of the magistrates fired back.)
But in 2014, like Cain dispatching his lawyers upon Abel, Nicholas reportedly handed Simon and his young family an eviction notice and turfed them out of the house. The details of the putsch remain obscure and may amount to little more than a midlife power grab.
Still, the wounds remain salty. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine four years later, Rebecca Howard, Simon’s wife, described how the very thought of the place sent “a shudder through me, as though someone were walking over my grave.”
Onlookers deemed the betrayal particularly coldhearted—not only had Simon saved the place from probable destitution and overseen an impressive quarter of a million visitors a year, but he was also suffering from newly diagnosed throat cancer at the time. In her You interview, Rebecca said that brotherly relations had been strained ever since. “I am so upset on his behalf and that of our children,” she said. “I’m not a Howard: my place is with my husband, wherever that may be. But Simon belongs at Castle Howard, and it hurts me to see him so crushed.”
Rebecca has been a subject of upper-crust intrigue herself. Shortly after her installation at Castle Howard in 2000, a Vanity Fair profile described the new young chatelaine as “the woman who set out to marry a house.” The article described how Rebecca had fallen in love with the place after watching Brideshead Revisited as a young girl, and painted her as a wily temptress who had snaffled the love-drunk Simon away from his first wife, Annette “Scruff” Smallwood, after a raucous evening at subterranean lair Annabel’s. “It was like a coup de foudre,” Rebecca said. “I thought, Rebecca, please, just don’t get involved. This man is married.” But the pair were soon engaged, and her childhood dream became reality.
Like Cain dispatching his lawyers upon Abel, Nicholas reportedly handed Simon and his young family an eviction notice and turfed them out of the house.
The past year, however, has more closely resembled a nightmare—a run of such unpleasantness that tabloid editors have begun to defrost their old “Curse of Brideshead” headlines. In February 2020, Simon fell down a staircase and had a brain hemorrhage at Welham Hall, his family home, according to the Daily Mail. He was placed in an induced coma and remained in the hospital for six months—where his wife was told on two occasions that he would not live through the night. Then, just after being discharged, Simon was diagnosed with Covid-19—an ailment that has left the man “a shadow of his former self,” according to the newspaper.
But perhaps the most disquieting development came earlier this week, when Simon was forced to issue a denial of child-sexual-assault charges dating back to 1984. Appearing via video link at York Magistrates Court, he pleaded not guilty to the allegations of indecent assault and inciting an act of gross indecency involving a girl younger than 14, which are alleged to have taken place at the estate’s gatehouse.
Simon’s lawyer said the defense was based on a “factual denial,” while a family statement read: “Simon Howard’s whole family are shocked by these allegations and are fully supportive of his confidence that he is innocent of all charges, which he denies in the strongest possible terms.” The Castle Howard estate staff, meanwhile, has simply pointed out that “Simon Howard is no longer involved with Castle Howard, having stepped down as a director and shareholder five years ago.” A hearing is now set for March 15, when the trial will be moved to the Crown Court. The case, and the curse, continues.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for Air Mail