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Rebecca Howard opens up about the events that saw her husband ousted from his ancestral seat

‘Whenever I drive past Castle Howard now, a shudder goes through me, as though someone was walking over my grave,’ says Rebecca Howard. ‘My husband Simon was born there, my children grew up there and I felt proud and privileged to be part of its history for 15 years. We had so many happy times, but all those memories have been tarnished.’

Strong words. But for Rebecca, 51, emotions still run high, two years after her family were ousted from one of Britain’s grandest stately homes following an extraordinary boardroom coup instigated by Simon’s elder brother Nick. The story gave rise to headlines in public, consternation and tears in private.

Simon, now 62, had successfully run the house and estate since the age of 27. Instead of continuing the tradition of primogeniture, which sees a firstborn son inherit, Simon’s father asked his four sons which of them wanted to take on Castle Howard and all the responsibilities that entailed, and Simon, the second youngest, was the only one to step forward. As chairman and chief executive, he was dedicated and dutiful and had become as much a part of Castle Howard as the magnificent dome or the shimmering peacocks stalking the walled gardens. Rebecca had made the role of a charming chatelaine very much her own. Their twins, Octavia and Merlin, now 16, had known no other life.

Rebecca and Simon Howard at the family seat, Castle Howard. The breathtaking country house is one of Britain’s most significant houses and arguably the finest

 Rebecca and Simon  at their new home. Welham Hall is a rambling manor house set in its own grounds, ten miles from the Castle Howard estate

 Rebecca and Simon at their new home. Welham Hall is a rambling manor house set in its own grounds, ten miles from the Castle Howard estate

And then, completely out of the blue, the Old Etonian was told by Nick to step down as chairman or face the humiliation of being outvoted by the other directors. There was no discussion. No warning. ‘I had no inkling in advance,’ says Simon. ‘There was no big falling out, no feud. I just had no option but to go.’

The timing was brutal: he was recovering from gruelling radiotherapy treatment for throat cancer. ‘Being told that I was no longer in charge of Castle Howard was far more devastating than hearing the diagnosis “You’ve got cancer,”’ Simon says quietly. ‘My whole raison d’être was swept away in the course of a single conversation. It was appalling; when we told the household staff a lot of them cried.’

Nick, a photographer, and his wife Victoria, the former CEO of publisher HarperCollins, are now in residence at the sprawling North Yorkshire estate with their children, Blanche, 23, and 32-year-old George, from Nick’s first marriage. Victoria is on the board, a position never offered to Rebecca, despite her years helping to run the household. Rebecca hasn’t spoken to her in-laws since.

‘My husband has shown such grace and dignity – too much, in my opinion – and still speaks to his brother,’ says Rebecca, her voice cracking. ‘He made me promise not to get involved, but I am so upset on his behalf and that of our children. 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 is upfront, extrovert and immensely likable. She and Simon work well together – rather like Castle Howard’s mix of architectural styles, which ought to clash but in fact make for a glorious marriage. Her baroque exuberance is in marked contrast to stiff-upper-lip Simon’s Palladian restraint. But Rebecca is also bright and academically minded – she worked as a researcher for the royal biographer Hugo Vickers – and for years welcomed visitors to her husband’s family seat. She may not have been born a Howard but her devotion was unquestionable.

The Howards today with children Octavia and Merlin. Rebecca is upfront, extrovert and immensely likable. She and Simon work well together

The Howards today with children Octavia and Merlin. Rebecca is upfront, extrovert and immensely likable. She and Simon work well together

Rebecca and Simon in 2004

The couple on their wedding day in 2001

Rebecca and Simon in 2004 (left). She had first been introduced to him at Castle Howard as a teenager. The couple on their wedding day in 2001

‘I love this house,’ says Rebecca of Welham Hall. ‘My friends say I am far happier here than I have been in years and they are right'

‘I love this house,’ says Rebecca of Welham Hall. ‘My friends say I am far happier here than I have been in years and they are right’

All the same it irks her that she was once memorably described (she would say defamed) in the course of a smiling character assassination in Vanity Fair as ‘The Woman Who Married a House’. The writer Plum Sykes, now an ex-friend, claimed that at the age of 14 Rebecca, having watched Brideshead Revisited, was so smitten with Castle Howard –where the drama was filmed – that she practically made it her life’s goal to marry a Howard. Rebecca is scornful. ‘How ridiculous!’ she says. ‘I presume I must have made some sort of flippant aside, but at 14 all I cared about were horses, and I dimly recall swooning over Anthony Andrews rather more than the Vanbrugh Great Hall. That profile of me was unkind and could have been very damaging. It was also nonsensical. I mean, how can I simultaneously be a feckless heiress and social-climbing gold-digger?’

To explain: Rebecca’s maiden name is Sieff, and Marks & Spencer was the family business. But although her branch of the family lived in nice houses at smart addresses such as Eaton Square in London, her private means was modest. After her education at Millfield school she took an interiors course at the Inchbald School of Design but had soon burnt through her nest egg. ‘I was living in Fulham and having the greatest time, buying lovely cars and paying too many restaurant bills for too many people,’ says Rebecca. ‘I just didn’t appreciate the seriousness of life or that the money wasn’t limitless; something I am keen to impress upon my own children.’

She got to know Simon when she had turned 30. He was ten years older. They had fleetingly met 12 years previously at Castle Howard when mutual friends introduced them. ‘Back then, I thought he cut a rather tragic, romantic figure with lots of hair, but nothing more,’ Rebecca notes. ‘When I bumped into him again at a party he had much less hair and I didn’t even recognise him as the same person, but it was an absolute coup de foudre nonetheless.’ However, Simon was already married to his first wife Annette. So they embarked on an affair, which lasted three years, not something she is proud of. ‘I know we caused hurt, but you can’t help who you fall in love with,’ says Rebecca. For several years they met in London, while Simon obtained a divorce. She refused to visit Castle Howard while he was still married, on the grounds that it would have been ‘insulting’ to his wife. But they spoke about and planned for the future. ‘I read avidly about the place, the history and the collections,’ says Rebecca. ‘I made Simon tell me about every aspect of running the house and estate and who worked there. By the time I arrived, it all felt familiar to me. People realised I wasn’t the pushy arriviste that Vanity Fair made me out to be and were exceedingly kind and took me under their wings until I found my feet.’

Castle Howard has been in the family for 300 years. Simon has nothing to do with the running of Castle Howard although he remains a 50 per cent shareholder

Castle Howard has been in the family for 300 years. Simon has nothing to do with the running of Castle Howard although he remains a 50 per cent shareholder

Castle Howard was the location for the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons

Castle Howard was the location for the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, starring Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons

The breathtaking, unforgettable backdrop to the 1981 Brideshead Revisited series and a subsequent 2008 film, Castle Howard is one of Britain’s most significant houses and arguably the finest. It dates back 300 years and is home to world-class artworks, furniture and porcelain, set in 1,000 acres of parkland, including lawns and lakes, fountains and statuary. There is also a thriving 9,000-acre rural estate. In all, 250 staff are employed there and part of its appeal to around 250,000 visitors a year is the fact that Howards, descendants of an ancient aristocratic family, still live there.

The estate and house have been a limited company since 1949. Simon, who it had been agreed would run the estate, set about preparing himself by studying estate management at Cirencester then history of art and decorative arts. His eldest brother Henry, who had a history of ill health, died at the age of 58 in 2008, his youngest brother Michael lives and works in the property market abroad, while Nick pursued first a career in music, then became a photographer.

When Rebecca and Simon married at Castle Howard in 2001, she wore a Cartier tiara from the Howard family jewel collection and a couture bridal gown. Red-liveried trumpeters played fanfares. A few mean-spirited observers sniped. Most were enchanted.

Octavia and Merlin were born a year later and grew up in a flat in the east wing. Although Rebecca loved her home, she admits she found sharing it with the public tough. ‘We had everything we needed, apart from privacy. I couldn’t even use the garden during the day because of the constant stream of visitors. I thought Simon would eventually be carried out in a coffin and I accepted that; it never occurred to me that we would ever go before then.’

Yet two years ago they did leave, with deep reluctance and heavy hearts. After 60 years in the family home, Simon packed up and moved into Welham Hall, a rambling manor house set in its own grounds, ten miles from the Castle Howard estate. Since then they have remodelled it, transformed an old stable block into bedrooms, installed a gym and are about to turn a barn into an informal area for their teenagers to hang out with friends. There is no comparison with their previous home, but Rebecca’s eye for sumptuous interiors and Simon’s eye for architectural proportion have converged into a fabulous shared vision.

Since moving to Welham Hall Rebecca and Simon have remodelled it, transformed an old stable block into bedrooms, installed a gym and are about to turn a barn into an informal area for their teenagers to hang out with friends

Since moving to Welham Hall Rebecca and Simon have remodelled it, transformed an old stable block into bedrooms, installed a gym and are about to turn a barn into an informal area for their teenagers to hang out with friends

‘Yes, I adored the Castle Howard view from my bedroom on to the lake, but here the house is surrounded by mature trees and there is nothing lovelier than waking up bathed in birdsong’

‘Yes, I adored the Castle Howard view from my bedroom on to the lake, but here the house is surrounded by mature trees and there is nothing lovelier than waking up bathed in birdsong’

Rebecca relaxing with her 16-year-old twins. ‘This terrible time has drawn us closer, not pulled us apart,’ says Rebecca firmly

Rebecca relaxing with her 16-year-old twins. ‘This terrible time has drawn us closer, not pulled us apart,’ says Rebecca firmly

‘I love this house,’ says Rebecca. ‘My friends say I am far happier here than I have been in years and they are right. Most couples move in to a house and do it up together at the beginning of their marriage; we have really enjoyed having that opportunity now.’ She smilingly disputes that she’s come down in the world. ‘Yes, I adored the Castle Howard view from my bedroom on to the lake, but here the house is surrounded by mature trees and there is nothing lovelier than waking up bathed in birdsong.’ Or, as Simon puts it: ‘I can walk round stark bollock naked if I want and nobody will see me.’

His equanimity over his treatment is striking. Grand houses are rich with the accretions of history, scandals and family sagas. With such a glittering prize at stake, it is only to be expected that brothers might engage in a war of words, exchange blows, become estranged. But by Simon’s own account he was simply presented with a fait accompli delivered in a single bombshell. He claims to have no idea why he was ousted and refuses to elaborate further. Rebecca darkly alludes to ‘a truth that will come out’ and teases that she has ‘explosive’ diaries she might yet publish. ‘Nick’s wife Vicky joined the board, and not long after Simon was simply told he would no longer be chairman and managing director; take from that what you will,’ she says.

Decorating their new home has been a shared joy, they agree. ‘This terrible time has drawn us closer, not pulled us apart,’ says Rebecca firmly. Simon has nothing to do with the running of Castle Howard although he remains a 50 per cent shareholder, as does Nick. He declares himself to be ‘semi-retired’ but is casting around for a new project to get stuck into. The firm of architects that worked on their new home have already asked him to be a consultant for them. Rebecca, an accomplished rider who has jumped at Hickstead, has three horses and is throwing herself into the discipline of dressage. They can scarcely be regarded as slumming it.

Outside, the bird feeders are alive with squabbling finches and in the ornamental lake, three black swans are swimming. Four dogs are trotting about, on the scent of mischief. Rebecca gives a contented sigh. ‘We have a totally different lifestyle here,’ she says. ‘The kids are free to go where they like, I play the piano every day and friends can drop by. I’d grown weary of entertaining 60 people to dinner; ten or 12 for lunch is quite enough. Another major positive is that I don’t need to bring my handbag down to dinner because I can fetch anything I need by just popping upstairs.’ It’s not difficult to grasp that Rebecca prefers a more low-key life, but Simon is still processing the storm that he has just weathered.

‘It’s still a wonderful building and estate and there are still some good people there,’ he says reasonably. ‘It remains my family home and I’m teaching my children all about it.’ Rebecca is less sanguine. ‘I certainly don’t look at Castle Howard with any sort of longing; I still feel shock and rage at the injustice done to Simon, not to me. It was like the end of the world for him. Maybe if Merlin or Octavia are there I will go back some day. Until then I have no intention of crossing its threshold.’

 



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