Wycombe’s Centaur

Nominated by: Jackie Kay

I wish to nominate “The Centaur” weathervane in High Wycombe as one of the hundred objects which help tell the story of Buckinghamshire.

“The Centaur” weathervane sits atop the Guildhall, at the heart of Wycombe, one of only two Grade I listed buildings in the town (the other being the Parish Church).  “The Centaur” serves to remind us of the pivotal role played in the development of the town by successive holders of the title “Earl of Shelburne”, who resided during the eighteenth century just outside the ancient boundary of the Borough of Chepping Wycombe, at Loakes Manor (better known today by its later name of Wycombe Abbey).

More specifically, the Centaur weathervane commemorates John, Earl of Shelburne, who represented the Borough of Chepping Wycombe in the House of Commons from 1754 to 1760.  In 1760 he became the first Lord Wycombe, Baron of Chipping Wycombe in the County of Buckingham, in the Peerage of Great Britain, and thereby the first Earl of Shelburne entitled to sit in the House of Lords (in England).  Sadly he died soon after.

Born John Fitzmaurice in 1706, son of the 1st Earl of Kerry whose family crest was a centaur, John had represented the County of Kerry in the Irish House of Commons before he came to Wycombe in 1751 (aged 45).  He was elected an Alderman and took an active part in the Common Council of the day, arguably doing more for the town during his relatively brief local residence than either his little-known predecessor, Henry, or his more famous successor, William.

He was initially raised to the Irish Peerage holding the titles Baron Dunkeron and Viscount Fitzmaurice, until the title “Earl of Shelburne” was recreated for him, as his uncle Henry, the first Earl of Shelburne, had outlived all his legitimate direct descendants.  To gain his inheritance, John was obliged to change his family name to Petty, that of his deceased uncle; but he continued to use the Centaur from the Fitzmaurice family crest.

The Centaur weathervane’s location on the Guildhall is appropriate as John financed its construction in 1757 as a Town Hall, taking pride of place at the end of the High Street.  He also paid for enhancements to the outer appearance of the Parish Church including finials on the church tower; and inside the church he diligently fulfilled his uncle’s wish for an elaborate memorial close to the family vault.

John’s son, William, the second Earl of Shelburne (of the second creation), achieved greater fame as Prime Minister for his role in peace negotiations for the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which ended the American War of Independence.  He became the first Marquis of Lansdowne and coincidentally the first Earl of Wycombe; but William also sold the Wycombe estates electing to spend his retirement at Bowood House in Wiltshire where his successors to the Marquessate still use the Centaur both in their crest and as the symbol of the Bowood estate.

Wycombe’s Centaur was nominated by Jackie Kay.