While on a much-needed respite with her husband Sam in Nottinghamshire, undertaker Violet Harper is summoned to Welbeck Abbey by the Fifth Duke of Portland to prepare a body. His Grace is known as the “mad duke,” and Violet has more than an inkling of why when she arrives at the grand estate and discovers that the corpse in question is that of the duke’s favorite raven, Aristotle. Many of the duke’s servants believe a dead raven is a harbinger of doom, and the peculiar peer hopes to allay their superstitious fears with an elaborate funeral for his feathered friend.
But Aristotle’s demise is soon followed by the violent murder of one of the young workers on the estate. Wishing to avoid any whisper of scandal, the reclusive duke implores Violet to conduct her own discreet investigation. In her hunt for evidence, Violet wonders if the manner of the raven’s death might provide a crucial clue in solving the crime. . .before someone else–including herself–risks an untimely fate.
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One day back in 2013, a friend of mine sent me an article on an interesting Victorian fellow named William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, also known as the 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879). He was one of the oddest historical figures I had ever encountered, and I knew he deserved his own story.
It is difficult to know where to begin with Portland. He suffered from delicate health as a youth, yet he joined the army and reached the rank of captain in the Grenadier Guards by 1830.
He was a keen hunter and shooter. He was considered one of the best judges of horse in all of England.
He never married, having been deeply wounded as a young man when the celebrated actress, Adelaide Kemble, rejected his offer of marriage.
The duke became extremely introverted, frequently only allowing his valet permission to be in his presence.
He loved the fragrance of roasting chickens. Well, who doesn’t? But the duke insisted that chickens be roasted in the house 24 hours per day so he could smell them wherever he was. And, because he didn’t wish to see many of the servants, had an elaborate trolley system set up to chicken meals to him.
But the duke’s greatest eccentricity centered on his estate, Welbeck Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, the oldest portion of which dates to the 12th century. He had construction projects occurring throughout his life: ballrooms, guest rooms, a chapel, a picture gallery, and so forth. Sounds like an average duke’s life passion, right? Except that the Duke of Portland had all of these structures built…underground.
With a series of tunnels connecting not only the various structures to each other and to the house, but connecting the house all the way to the nearby town of Worksop, the duke had figured out a way to live outside the watchful eyes of others. He had figured out a defense against spy drones long before the 21st century arrived!
Lest we judge Portland too harshly for his eccentricities, it should be noted that he was an extremely generous employer. Any man who came to him looking for a job would be granted one, and would also be given an umbrella and a donkey so that he could always make it to work and wouldn’t be soaked from the rain. Portland was Nottinghamshire’s largest employer, frequently having in his hire—and even housing in cottages and dormitories—upwards of 1,500 men.
Welbeck Abbey served as an army hospital during World War I, then after World War II was used as an army training college until 2005.
The estate is family-controlled, and today serves in many capacities, such as hosting festivals, being used as a filming location, as well as setting up garden centers and even an artisan food school.