The year is 1732.
As an infant named George Washington is being rocked in his cradle, a party of about 30 travelers are making their way to the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers in the rugged hills of the colony of Pennsylvania.
The purpose of the expedition is to show Thomas Penn and his brother, John Penn, sons of the colony’s founder, William Penn, a part of their birthright. As their horses splash down into the water, Thomas notes the flow of the Lehigh and the Delaware.
To his 18th century mind, rivers are highways. And this one flows down from the still largely unexplored regions of his colony’s interior to the burgeoning town of Philadelphia, population roughly 7,000. He may have made a mental note of the location or he may have written it down, but Thomas Penn did not forget the potential of the Forks of the Delaware
Time passes. It is now Sept. 8, 1751. George Washington has grown to manhood and Thomas Penn has not forgotten the Forks of the Delaware. In a letter to James Hamilton, the lieutenant governor of the colony, he passes along his “wishes” for the site.
“Some time I wrote to…lay out some ground in the forks of the Delaware for a town…I desire it may called Easton from my Lord Pomfret’s house, and whenever there is a new county that shall be called Northampton."
Alas Thomas Penn, dying in 1775, did not live to see the canal era of the 1830s that finally was to realize his vision of a watery highway. But by his naming of the town he tied it historically to Easton-Neston, the manor house of his father-in-law the Earl of Pomfret. It was one of the finest and last examples of English Baroque style by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who worked beside Sir Christopher Wren as he built St. Paul’s Cathedral, Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, familiar to Americans as the setting for the 1980s TV dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, ”Brideshead Revisited.”
The family that Penn had married into was named Fermor. The first to emerge in history in the late 1400s as a successful blanket maker and merchant in the town of Whitby, a seaside village in Yorkshire, was Richard Fermor. In 1530, Richard purchased the land on which Easton Neston was to be built from Henry the VIII’s tax collector. But four years later the English Reformation began.
Fermor refused to give up his Catholic faith, which did not at all please his “dread and sovereign lord” King Henry. He was forced to give up his property and retire to the one small estate that he had that was not confiscated by the king.
Then a remarkable thing happened.
According to a story handed down in the Fermor family for 400 years, Will Somers, the king’s court jester, a post he had also held when working for Richard Fermor, put a good word in for him with the king. Legend or fact, in 1550, three years after Henry’s death, the property of Easton-Neston was once more in the Fermor family’s hands.
The first Easton-Neston manor house was a much smaller structure in that era and was located nearby just outside the town of Towester. But it did not lack for historic associations. It was there that the future King James I met Anne of Denmark, his future queen. It was probably not an easy marriage as James throughout his life openly expressed his sexual attraction for men.
When the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, Sir William Fermor took up his sword in the defense of his king. Where he was after Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell’s dictatorship was established is unknown, but when the monarchy was restored by Charles II he was given a seat in Parliament. It was his son, also a Sir William, who decided he wanted a much larger house.
By chance, Sir Christopher Wren had married into the Fermor family. He created a comfortable but grand house of brick for them. But Sir William, now elevated to the peerage as Lord Lempster, who had just taken as his third wife, Sophia, daughter of the Duke of Leeds, decided that he needed something far grander.
Wren turned the project over to Nicholas Hawksmoor, his assistant. A brilliant architect in his own right, Hawksmoor replaced the brick structure with the jewel of English Baroque architecture that is the manor house of Easton-Neston. A small-scale version of the Petit Trianon Palace of the French kings at Versailles, it was surrounded by extensive grounds and statuary.
Tall windows in the 36-room structure graced two stories and a 100 foot long hallway offered a vista through the house to a fountain pool and a tree-filled park. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings and paintings by Reynolds and Gainsborough decorated the walls. In the Yellow Dining Room, the Roman goddess Diana and her nymphs, done in elegant white relief plaster, dashed across the ceiling.
As with most gems, Easton-Neston came with a large price-tag. Even after Hawksmoor scaled back his plans considerably it was an enormous pile to keep up along with the 4,000 acre grounds.
When Thomas Penn married on Aug. 22, 1751, Lady Juliana Fermor, the daughter of the now Earl of Pomfret (she was to work closely beside her husband in running Pennsylvania), his lordship was deep in debt. Bill collectors were demanding the spendthrift earl pay up.
By the time his son took over, he was living the life of an aristocratic pauper. On top of that, he was convicted of manslaughter after a duel and married a wealthy, overweight heiress whose, as one wit said, “tonnage was equal to her poundage.” With the close of the 18th century, the heiress’s money was gone once more.
The following two Earls lived quiet, frugal lives, the last dying without male heirs. The Pomfret title became extinct. In 1857, the fourth Earl’s daughter married into the wealthy Hesketh family. But it was not until 1867 that they were given permission to acquire Easton-Neston.
If not quite as grand as the Fermors, the Heskeths had a knighthood that went back to the reign of Henry VIII. Already having an estate in Lancashire, they used Easton-Neston as a combination summer residence and royal rental.
Its most famous 19th century renter was the Empress Elizabeth, the wife of Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. An expert horse woman, she caused quite a stir with the local fox hunt that season when instead of the traditional hunting “pinks” she showed up in bright blue jacket with gold buttons. But apparently it was understood that royals played by different rules.
The Heskeths moved into Easton-Neston fulltime in 1919. There were three baron Heskeths. The first, Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, married a wealthy American heiress to a Nevada silver fortune. She grew so homesick for America that she had two redwoods planted on either side of the manor house, one of which is there to this day.
By the 1980s, Easton-Neston was the home of Lord Thomas Alexander Fermor Hesketh, third Baron Hesketh. Unfortunately, Hesketh seems to have carried the Fermor riches to rags gene. Fond of lavish living, he also invested his fortune in business ventures like a custom-made motorcycle that lost millions. “Pheasant shooting parties at Easton Neston…went through hundreds of bottles of vintage champagne,” noted one newspaper.
Although in 1990 Hesketh was able to entertain no less a personage than former Prime Minister Margret Thatcher for a long stay, the breaking point came in 2002 when a fire damaged Easton-Neston.
In 2004, Hesketh put the house up for sale and moved to London with his family. “In truth, the family estate was never endowed with enough land to make it pay for the grand Nicholas Hawksmoor house,” noted the London Daily Mail. An auction of the house’s contents by Sotheby’s brought $16 million.
At that time the London press feared an Arab sheik or Russian gangster would buy Easton-Neston. Fortunately present at the Sotheby’s auction was Leon Max, a Russian born woman’s fashion designer who lived in America. What drew him was the 100 foot-long hall. It was what made Max want to make Easton-Neston his own.
Purchasing Easton-Neston for the knock-down price of $15 million, he spent $25 million improving its inner workings. “The electricity dated from the 1920s,” he said. “It had to go.”
Working with interior decorator Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, who as a daughter of the 11th Duke of Marlborough grew up in Blenheim Palace, Max has restored Easton-Neston complete with 18th century furniture, art and accessories. Today, Diana and her nymphs once more cavort over an elegant dining room.
Max’s primary residence is a Spanish style villa in Los Angles that once belonged to Madonna. But spring and fall, it’s Easton-Neston.
“The English countryside is one of the most agreeable places in which to put down roots,” Max told Architectural Digest in 2012. “Guys on Wall Street are killing themselves to have a place at the Hamptons. But this is a much better idea.”