The Lees, Dillons and TreesThe Ditchley estate was bought by Sir Henry Lee in 1580 when he was made the Ranger of the Wychwood Forest, the royal hunting forest based round the hunting-lodge at Woodstock. Elizabeth I visited him at Ditchley in 1592, after he had an alliance with one of her Ladies-in-Waiting without her permission. Annoyed at this, so the story goes, the Queen stayed rather longer than she might otherwise have done, putting her host to considerable extra expense. The visit is commemorated in a painting by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, “The Ditchley Elizabeth”, which shows Elizabeth with her foot on Oxfordshire and her toe on Ditchley. This hung in the Mansion until 1932 and is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. A copy can be seen at Ditchley Park.
Four generations later Sir Henry’s heir, Edward Henry Lee, was created the 1st Earl of Litchfield in 1676 when he married Charlotte Fitzroy, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland, both of whose portraits hang in the White Drawing Room. Their son, the 2nd Earl, built the present Ditchley Park in 1722, to a design by James Gibbs, architect of St Martins in the Fields and the Radcliffe Camera. The interior was richly decorated by William Kent and Henry Flitcroft.
In the grounds the fish pond was extended to form the lake in 1746. After 1760 the Park was “naturalised”, with smooth lawns sweeping down to the lake, and the Great Temple or Rotunda was built in about 1760 by Stiff Leadbetter.
The 4th Earl died in 1776 without heir, so the estate passed to his niece, Lady Charlotte Lee, who had married the 11th Viscount Dillon, an Irish Peer.
In 1807 the 12th Viscount employed Louden to build the Ha Ha, further extend the lake and plant tree avenues, many of which survive today. At that stage the family funds began to run short, so no alterations were made to the Mansion in the subsequent century, a period which saw much modernisation (and ruination of the character) of many great country houses.
The 17th Viscount Dillon died in 1932 and the estate was sold to Ronald Tree, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Market Harborough, a very wealthy Anglo-American (his description). Of American parentage, Ronald was born and educated in England and had returned to the US when his father died in 1914. He met and married Nancy and, after they returned to England, he was elected to Parliament and they bought Ditchley in 1933. They restored the Mansion sympathetically and with great taste. Nancy subsequently married Colonel Lancaster, and as Nancy Lancaster became one of England’s premier interior designers as proprietor of Colefax and Fowler in the 1950’s and 60’s. Ronald and Nancy employed Geoffrey Jellicoe, then a relatively unknown young garden designer, to remodel the grounds. He laid out the Italian style sunken garden immediately West of the main house and resurrected the terrace to the North, part of the original Gibbs design. Under the Trees Ditchley regained some of its earlier social prominence, most notably through several visits there by Winston and Clementine Churchill.