Thomas Cecil, First Earl of Exeter, has been eclipsed in History by his famous father William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was so powerful in Queen Elizabeth’s Court; and by his half-brother Robert Cecil, prominent in the Court of James VI and I. Indeed, Lord Burghley allegedly said Thomas was "hardly fit to govern a tennis court"! However that may be, for Garden Historians Thomas is an important figure.
At his dramatically sited house in Wimbledon he pioneered the use of the Italian style terraced entrance and at Burghley (near Stamford) he built a Lodge with four towers at the near-by hamlet of Wothorpe, surrounding it with an impressive set of garden courts between 1615 and 1620. It is just a mile from the main house at Burghley and Thomas retired here with a smaller retinue - maybe to have a less formal lifestyle than was possible in the ‘big house’. Thomas Fuller wrote ‘It was built by Thomas Cecil Earl of Exeter to retire to (as he pleasantly said) out of the dust, whilst his great house of Burleigh [sic] was a sweeping’ No one is quite clear if ‘pleasantly said’ indicates Thomas was joking since he had other houses to which he could retire.
The plan of the house was revolutionary, being one of the first houses to have a separate entrance hall. In the Great Garden was a zig-zag rill – copied by Mountain Jennings at Hatfield House for Robert Cecil. It is shown on the 1615 John Thorpe Junior plan and its existence has been proven by a geophysical survey.
After Thomas’ death in 1623 Wothorpe was used as a Dower House but gradually fell into disrepair and was partially demolished in the mid-1700s by the 9th Earl (1725-1793). In 2004 restoration of the building and garden began but unfortunately has been abandoned within the last few years so the Lodge is no longer open to the public. It is on view from the public footpaths as shown in the accompanying photograph. The Google Earth image shows how far the restoration work progressed – note the octagonal building to the west is a 19th century ‘palais de poulet’ (a fancy chicken coop) and not part of the original garden courts. Archaeology as well as documentary evidence informed the restoration of the gardens and it is a shame that this has stalled for lack of funds – it seems likely that the building will once more be on the At Risk Register.