The mausoleum was built for the Earls of Darnley who were bereft of a final resting place now that the vaults at Westminster Abbey, where they were usually buried, were full. Where would they be able to rest in suitable splendour? Living at Cobham Hall in Kent, the solution was obvious - to build a grand mausoleum for family members in a commanding position on the family estates.
James Wyatt was chosen as the Architect, and in 1783 he exhibited the design at the Royal Academy. Work commenced forthwith under the supervision of George Dance the Younger, an architect better than Wyatt at ensuring a high quality of construction and finish. It was finished in 1786 at a cost of £9000.
The mausoleum was never consecrated however, possibly due to a dispute with the Bishop of Rochester, and the 3rd Earl, whose death in 1781 had precipitated the search for a new resting place, never took up residence.
The building is neo-classical in design, with elements of Classical architecture derived from visits to Roman and Greek sites, but interpreted with a Baroque freedom. Some ideas were those of the 3rd Earl, as expressed in his will, such as his desire for a square stone building with a “prominent pyramid” surrounded by a dry moat.
As if being a mausoleum intended to receive the earthly remains of family members was not enough, the building exterior has many symbols of death which can be read freely by those with a handy dictionary of classical architecture.
Meanwhile, within the building, there is a raised Chapel, entered from the external staircase, and a lower storey Crypt with 32 coffin shelves, or loculi, 24 of which are large recesses, while eight are much smaller and must have been intended for children. A special place was reserved for the 3rd Earl, however he remains, in a sense, at Cobham church, where he was temporarily interred in 1781.
Landscape designer, Humphry Repton’s plans to turn the building into a landscape folly with a viewing tower on its roof, never materialised, and it remained in splendid disuse until it was badly damaged by vandals in a fire in 1980. It looked like the mausoleum’s earthly days were also numbered, but funds were eventually forthcoming and it was sensitively restored in 2010. Thanks to the conservation architects for allowing a visit shortly after completion of works.
These days often referred to as the Cobham Mausoleum, the site has been restored by the National Trust and has been opened to the public since 2014 at certain times of the year. Refer to the National Trust.