‘Mad Dick Norton’ was possibly not so mad at all
Richard Norton was born in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London and was one in a line of illustrious Nortons. The Norton family appear in Hampshire as early as the C13th. There are many Norton family groups in England but it has been suggested that the Hampshire Nortons may have been associated with shipping and trade, hence their proximity to the coast. If you are interested there is a very good Norton family site which charts the various different Norton groups.
The Richard Norton in this article was known as ‘Mad Dick Norton’ an unfortunate moniker because he was considered a kindly and generous, if eccentric man. His father was Daniel Norton, his grandfather Richard Norton of Rotherfield Park, both politicians and High Sheriffs of Hampshire. Southwick Park came into the Norton family in 1606, through the marriage of his great grandfather who then built a mansion house close to the site of Southwick Priory.
It was in the Jacobean mansion (alas no longer there but Southwick House now occupies the site) in Southwick Park that our character, ‘Mad Dick Norton’, spent his youth, in the care of his grandfather. He attended Christ Church Oxford, matriculating when he was fifteen years old. After the death of his grandfather in 1691 and at the age of twenty five, he inherited Southwick Park and a considerable fortune. Like his father and grandfather before him, Richard involved himself in politics but he was also mindful of the affairs of his estate, Southwick Park. He became Warden of the Royal Forest of Bere by buying the position for two hundred guineas from the Earl of Carlisle, this was an important appointment, a chief royal official who deputized the role to another lesser person of preserving the forest and game and apprehending offenders against the law. He was responsible for ensuring the Royal Forest was managed efficiently and returned a good profit. He seemed to carry out this responsibility very well, he was also Constable of Portchester Castle
Richard Norton was rather an eccentric man given to flamboyant tastes. He loved the theatre and produced performances at Southwick Park in which he himself would perform. In 1696 Norton published a play called Pausanias, The Betrayer of His Country, in which two songs contributed by Anthony Henley were set to music by Purcell.
He was critical of the church and used his plays to poke fun at the church and clergy, an activity he had been warned about. So when a demented ghost chose to interrupt one of Richard’s plays in the chapel where it was being performed, not only did it scare the living daylights out of the other actors, it also made Richard Norton terrified of the devil and was possibly the beginning of his slide into more and more irrational behaviour. His enthusiasm for producing and performing plays disappeared and he became reclusive. His wife and neighbours found it impossible to communicate with him on any reasonable level and his wife eventually separated from him. He tried to give away his great mansion, sick and tired of the devil at his heels. In fact it was his desire to give away much of what he had that made people think he was mad. Whether he was or not is difficult to say from this distance in time. That he was given to impetuous behaviour is not in doubt but whether or not that constituted madness, impossible to say.
Poaching in Southwick Park
Poaching was a constant problem at the turn of the C18th century and Hampshire had its fair share of problems, in the years before 1722, the Waltham Blacks operated in the Forest of Bere, stealing timber and game and blackmailing people. Richard Norton as Warden of the Forest was vehemently opposed to their insolent actions and wanted them swiftly brought to trial and severely punished. Some poachers turned their attention to his own lands but Richard had had dealings with poachers before as is recorded on the gravestone in Southwick church of William Lewis.
The Grave of William Lewis
William Lewis was a labourer on Southwick Estate and was caught poaching a deer. Such an offence carried with it the punishment of transportation or death by hanging. Richard Norton however, sent William packing but allowed him to come home to die and he was buried in the church yard. A headstone was erected but surely not paid for by the Lewis family? The inscription is rather damming of Richard Norton even though he could be considered to have acted in a rather kind manner to the thieving Lewis.
William died in 1703 although the grave marks the date as 1763, the date incorrectly transcribed when the headstone was renewed. The inscription reads thus and at first glance appears to blame Richard Norton for casting William out but it is an ambiguous wording and there might be another interpretation, recognizing the action of Norton but also showing the desire by Norton to make them equal
Here’s Lewis the brave
That ne’er was a Slave
Tho Norton the Great
Drove him to Fate
He returns here to Rest
Like Norton the Great
O men would be Gods
The Will of Mad Dick Norton
In 1714 Richard Norton drew up a will in which he left the revenues of his estates, then estimated at £6,000 a year, with £60,000 in ready money, to be formed into a fund for the use of the
‘poor, hungry, thirsty, naked strangers, sick, wounded and prisoners to the end of the world’.
He appointed Parliament to be his executors, and in the event that Parliament declined the trust, it was to devolve upon the archbishops and bishops. After Norton’s death on 10 Dec. 1732 the will caused a great deal of consternation. Such a will was considered to be at total odds with the norms of society and was hotly contested and eventually set aside on the grounds of his insanity. Leaving no issue, the estate passed to a nephew of Richard Nortons, Francis Thistlethwayte and the Thistlethwaytes to this day day remain at Southwick. Should the will have been overturned? Some think it an injustice that the will written in 1714, nearly twenty years before Richard died should not have stood. He left no children and maybe this eccentric gentleman had a desire to see good come out of his own fortunate position and therefore it is maybe a sadness that ‘his will was not done’.
Richard Norton’s final resting place is believed to be just south of the altar of the the church of St James without the Priory Gate in Southwick.