The largest house in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Constable is a romantic compendium, substantially Elizabethan but remodelled in the 18th century, set not far from the fast-eroding coastline of the North Sea. It is over this bleak strand, from Flamborough to Spurn Point, that the Seigniory of Holderness, a title held by the owners of Burton Constable, extends an eccentric fiefdom: the right – elsewhere ceded to the monarch – to “royal fish”. Any whale, dolphin, sturgeon or porpoise cast up on these shores (which have a long history of cetacean strandings) becomes the property of the lord paramount – of which [John] Chichester-Constable was the 46th.
Thus, when a 58ft male sperm whale was found on the beach at Tunstall in 1825, Sir Thomas Constable sent his steward, Richard Iveson, to claim it as a gigantic addition to his cabinet of curiosities. Relieved of its blubber, it was articulated on a metal stand in the grounds, alongside an avenue of trees. And there, over the decades, it slowly rotted and rusted into the earth, awaiting its rediscovery.