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Saturday, 23 May 2015


Richard Henry Fitzherbert is an ancestor-by-marriage if there is such a thing. His second wife was Susan Castle (1824-1894), a daughter of Michael Hinton Castle (c1785-1845) of whom I have written here before, and a cousin of my great grandfather William Henry Castle (1851-1929). Like many men of his generation and social standing, Richard Fitzherbert felt it his duty to serve his nation in both a civilian and a military capacity. The latter includes a curious footnote to Britain’s military history.

Richard Henry Fitzherbert (1809-1855)

He was of an ancient Derbyshire family with seats at Somersal Herbert and Tissington in the county. Somersal Herbert Hall is a perfect timber-framed Tudor mansion, built by the Fitzherberts in 1564. But there had been Fitzherberts in Somersal for three hundred and fifty years by then.

The Somersal Fitzherberts died out at the start of the nineteenth century. The house was sold in 1806, but quickly bought back by one of the Tissington Fitzherberts. It had been enlarged in the early eighteenth century, and it was further expanded – by Richard’s father Sir Henry Fitzherbert – following Richard’s marriage to Susan in 1848. 

Somersal Herbert Hall, Derbyshire

Richard and Susan set diligently about the task of filling the extended Hall. Richard already had three young children (aged between three and six) when he took his second wife. He and Susan produced another ten over the next nineteen years. After their youngest son Anthony emigrated to New Zealand as a young man, the house passed out of Fitzherbert ownership for the last time. Today it is a private house, not open to the public.

Like all men of his status, Richard maintained a military career of sorts. He was a major in the Rifle Brigade, which sent two battalions overseas when the Crimean War broke out in 1853. I don’t know if he went with them; in 1855 he took on domestic duties when he was commissioned Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Derbyshire. But the same year he took up another Crimean appointment, as Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed British Italian Legion.

Reviewing the Italian Legion after training at Aldershot, 1856 (from the Illustrated London News)

At the start of the Crimean War, Britain feared that it might not have the military strength to fight a new campaign. The human cost was bound to be high, and so it set about enlisting foreign troops who were prepared to fight for the British cause. The Enlistment of Foreigners Act was passed in 1854, and the British German Legion, the British Italian Legion and the British Swiss Legion were formed the following year.

Collectively they were known as the British Foreign Legion, and over 14,000 international soldiers were recruited to it. It must have sent a potent symbol to Russia that Britain had such international support in addition to its formal military allies France, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. It may also have reassured the British public that not all the losses to the British side would be British.

The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854 (painted by Richard Caton Woodbridge Jr), one of many disastrous actions which made the Crimean war unpopular back home in Britain

Between January and April 1856 three battalions of the Italian Legion were shipped to a holding base on Malta, where they were to prepare for action. No doubt Richard Fitzherbert left Susan at Somersal Herbert to join his men there. But France had committed far more men than Britain to the conflict, and suffered far greater casualties, and sought a peace with Russia which was agreed by the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. None of the British Foreign Legions saw action, and no sooner had the last Italian battalion arrived in Malta than they were all disbanded. 

Richard returned to civilian life where one of his later public roles was as a magistrate in the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire. He died in Somersal Herbert Hall in 1885; and both he and Susan, who followed him in 1894, are buried at St Peter’s Church in Somersal. With so many children, their descendants are, if you’ll pardon the expression, legion.

St Peter and St Blaise, Somersal Herbert

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