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The Watsons of Rockingham

On this page, we will focus on the Watsons of Rockingham, one of the most prominent Watson families in England.

Where is Rockingham?

Rockingham is a small village just to the northwest of Corby, in the East Midlands county of Northamptonshire in England. There is evidence of human occupation in the area for at least the last 40,000 years, with the area likely to have been continuously occupied since at least the Iron Age. The Romans established a sizeable settlement here and mined the area quite extensively for iron ore.

The Domesday book, a kind of stocktake of their new kingdom that was written by the Normans after their invasion of England, states that Rockingham was held by the Saxon lord Bovi in 1066. It would appear that Bovi was dispossessed of his lands shortly after the Normans arrived, as William the Conqueror constructed a motte and baileys for strategic control of the main river crossing of the River Welland. This early castle was completed in around 1071 and appears to have consisted of a central motte with a bailey on each side. The north bailey was the main one and still survives to this day, together with a 10-foot-high curved bank that indicates the position of the motte.

Although the land around Rockingham was relatively unproductive, its expansive forest was teeming with deer and wild boar (as well as wolves and bandits!). The Norman kings had a passion for hunting and the castle became a base for administration and hunting and was used as a royal retreat during the Norman and Plantagenet periods.

Although much of the region is farmland in the modern day, the area still has some large patches of the original forest standing.

The Modern-Day Remnants of Rockingham Forest (Rockingham Circled in Red)

[Image taken from Rockingham Forest Vision website]

The Castle Expands

In 1270, King Henry III strengthened the castle with the addition of a twin gatehouse, and between 1276 and 1291 his son, King Edward I, spent vast sums of money modernising the castle, adding windows and fireplaces to the Great Hall, building a bedroom into the eaves for Queen Eleanor and replacing the castle’s original square towers with the round ones that survive to this day. Despite this extravagance, the castle fell out of favour as a royal residence in 1375, when King Edward III made his last visit, and by the late 15th century it had fallen into disrepair.

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The 13th-Century Round Towers of Rockingham Castle, Added by King Edward I

In 1541, King Henry VIII visited Rockingham with Queen Catherine Howard, a year before her head and body parted company (a recurring issue for Henry’s wives), and was shocked by how dilapidated the castle had become. In 1544, he leased Rockingham Castle to Sir Edward Watson, and so began the long association between the castle and the Watson family.

What of the Watsons?

Sir Edward Watson’s immediate ancestors were landowners from Lyddington, a small settlement 5 miles to the north of Rockingham Castle. Between 1544 and 1584, the Watsons set about converting their medieval castle into a Tudor residence. The castle was expanded, with the Great Hall divided into two rooms and bedrooms added, a new gallery wing, and the kitchen and servants quarters completed.

Lewis Watson, Edward’s grandson, was the first Watson owner of the castle, having bought it from King James 1 in 1619. Lewis was not only a landowner but was also a politician, and from 1621 to 1624 he sat in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Lincoln. He received a peerage and become known as Sir Lewis Watson. He completed the gallery wing of the castle that was started by his grandfather, only to see it demolished in the English Civil Wars of 1642 to 1651. Early in the Civil War, royalist troops were garrisoned in the castle; however, in the 1643 it was captured by Lord Henry Grey, 1st Earl of Stamford and Lewis Watson was evicted. The castle was returned to Sir Lewis after war but had been badly damaged. For his support of the Royalist cause, Sir Lewis was created 1st Baron Rockingham in 1645.

The succession of ownership now gets a little complicated, so pay attention!

Sir Lewis’s son Edward inherited his title, becoming the 2nd Baron Rockingham. Edward’s son, also called Lewis, served as Lord Lieutenant of Kent and was created Earl Rockingham and also inherited the title of Viscount Sondes from his mother Lady Catherine Sondes, daughter of George Sondes, 1st Earl of Feversham. Lewis outlived his son, yet another Edward, and so his title was inherited firstly by his grandson Lewis Watson, who became the 2nd Earl of Rockingham, and then by Lewis’s brother Thomas Watson, 3rd Earl of Rockingham. Unfortunately, this particular line stopped with this generation, and the Earlship took a sideways leap to Lewis Monson, the son of John Monson, 1st Baron Monson of Button, and Lady Margaret Watson, eldest sister of Lewis and Thomas’s father. John and Margaret’s eldest son John inherited the Baron Monson of Burton title, and their second son Lewis inherited the estates of Rockingham on the condition that he should adopt the name and arms of Watson. Lewis was later created 1st Baron Sondes of Lees Court. The Barons Sondes adopted Lees Court as their family seat, and Rockingham Castle remained unaltered during the tenure of the 1st to the 3rd Barons. Lees Court eventually passed to George John Watson, 4th Baron Sondes, and his brother The Rev. Henry Watson inherited Rockingham Castle, followed by another brother, Richard Watson in 1836.


The Arms of The Watson Earls of Rockingham

Richard Watson set about modernising the castle, adding the flag tower – now referred to as “Salvin’s Tower”. Richard and his wife Lavinia were good friend of Charles Dickens, who visited the castle of five occasions. Dickens fell in love with Rockingham (indeed, he wrote to Lavinia in 1851, saying, “I always think of Rockingham, after coming away, as if I belonged to it and had left a bit of my heart behind”), and it inspired many of his novels.

The castle passed to Richard’s son George Lewis Watson and then, on George’s death in 1899, to George’s son The Rev. Wentworth Watson. On Wentworth Watson’s death in 1925, the estate passed to his great nephew Sir Michael Culme-Seymour. Sir Michael and his wife Lady Mary Faith Montagu, daughter of the 9th Earl of Sandwich, lived in the castle until 1967, although the castle was rented out to an American millionaire, Victor Emmanuel, for five years, who funded the installation of central heating and bathrooms.

In 1971, Rockingham Castle was inherited by Commander Sir Michael Saunders Watson. During his childhood, Michael lived at the castle during the Second World War along with numerous siblings, cousins and family friends. Once the war was over, he pursued a career in the Royal Navy, a vocation that took him all over the world. Upon inheriting the castle in 1971, he retired from the navy and moved to Rockingham with his wife Georgina and his three children. The couple immediately devoted themselves to turning the castle into a successful visitor attraction and expanding the existing farming operation. Passionate about heritage, Sir Michael was a founding member of the Historic Houses Association and served as their president from 1982 to 1988 and became chair of the National Curriculum History Working Group in 1988. In 1990, he became chairman of the British Library, was also a trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Kew Gardens and became involved with a wide variety of local organisations in Northamptonshire.

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Commander Michael Saunders Watson

Sir Michael handed the castle and estate to his eldest son James in 1999 and died in 2022 aged 88. Rockingham Castle is still the family home for James, his wife Elizabeth, and their three children Eleanor, Beatrice and Henry.


The Modern-Day Watsons of Rockingham

[Image taken from Rockingham Castle website]

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