Retired ambassador’s row over £15m stately home
The wife of a retired ambassador locked in a £20m inheritance fight has denied claims he ‘abdicated’ his £15m mansion to his ‘surrogate daughter’ and moved to Cumbria ‘to die’.
David Gladstone, former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, is suing lawyer Leigh White, a longtime family friend who he says is squatting in his £15m Grade-I listed stately home Wotton House, near Aylesbury, and refusing to leave.
But Mrs White, who says the now frail ex-diplomat once treated her as his own child, insists she is the rightful heir to his mansion and £20m estate, insisting that he made clear and binding promises that Wotton would be hers.
Mr Gladstone’s wife Mary Gladstone, 84, told the High Court that it would be ‘intolerable’ for them to move back into Wotton unless Mrs White leaves, adding: ‘We are too old and tired to deal with the confrontation and drama’.
Leigh White, pictured, is claiming in the High Court that former ambassador to Sri Lanka David Gladstone, 87, intended to leave his £15m Grade II Listed mansion to her upon his death
David Gladstone, former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, is suing lawyer Leigh White, a longtime family friend who he says is squatting in his £15m Grade-I listed stately home Wotton House, near Aylesbury, and refusing to leave
Mr Gladstone’s wife Mary Gladstone, 84, told the High Court that it would be ‘intolerable’ for them to move back into Wotton, pictured, unless Mrs White leaves, adding: ‘We are too old and tired to deal with the confrontation and drama’
She also told Mr Justice Trower that Mr Gladstone, 87, had become ‘less relaxed’ in his home once Mrs White started living there with him in 2017 following the death of his son.
And she denied claims that, when the couple moved to her home up north during the first Covid lockdown, she told Mrs White she was ‘taking David to Cumbria to die’ and that he had ‘abdicated from Wotton’.
Mr Gladstone, who is still at his wife’s home in Cumbria, has gone head to head against Mrs White in a two-week trial in which he is seeking possession of Wotton House, while she claims he cannot go back on alleged promises that she would inherit it.
Eighteenth century Wotton House, near Aylesbury, was originally bought by Mr Gladstone’s first wife April’s family in the 1950s, but he inherited it following her death in 2014.
Rebuilt in the early 19th century by leading architect Sir John Soane following a major fire, it boasts extensive grounds, including pleasure gardens and two lakes, which were modelled by the celebrated landscape architect, Capability Brown.
They met Mrs White 30 years ago and their friendship bloomed due to a shared passion for Sri Lanka, classical music and theatre, and she became part of their inner circle, managing Wotton as Mr Gladstone got older.
But Mrs White claims that, from 2007 onwards, Mr Gladstone repeatedly assured her that Wotton House and two other properties making up his £20m estate would go to her when he died.
It was only after he moved north to Cumbria to shield from Covid-19 with his new wife, Mary, that the relationship and Mr Gladstone’s inheritance plans changed unexpectedly, Mrs White claimed.
He demanded she move out so he could move back in and announced he had written a new will, placing his estate into a discretionary trust for the benefit of his family – and leaving nothing and no role for Mrs White.
The court heard that Mr Gladstone accepts initially giving Ms White wide scope to manage Wotton House on his behalf, but he says she went too far and ‘treated Wotton as her own’ and that he now wants her out.
Mrs Gladstone, who married David in 2020 following the death of his first wife in 2014, told the judge that once Mrs White had started living in Wotton during the week she ‘began to take charge more,’ insisting that his long-term cleaners were fired.
She said her husband appeared to become ‘less relaxed around Leigh once she moved into Wotton’.
Mrs Gladstone denies telling Ms White that she was bringing her husband to her home in Cumbria ‘to die’ during the Covid epidemic and instead wanted him in a secure location to wait out the disease
‘Leigh treated Wotton as her own,’ said Mrs Gladstone in her witness statement.
‘David had always been very sociable, but I felt that Leigh discouraged visits from David’s family, particularly his nephews Ben and Matt Gladstone, and his brother Robert and sister-in-law Sally.
‘She made heavy weather of needing to make beds up and changing sheets.
‘If Wotton was full of Leigh’s guests, people David did not know, he appeared to find it stressful.
‘Although he never said anything to me or to Leigh, his stress was evident to me as he would just sit in his chair looking resigned. I would take my cue from a look from David and we would retire upstairs.’
When she and her husband left for Cumbria to shield from Covid in March 2020, they headed off ‘with just about the clothes on our backs’, said Mrs Gladstone.
‘At the time, I was extremely anxious to take David somewhere he could safely shield,’ she said.
‘That was not possible at Wotton with (Mrs White’s son) coming in and out of the house and to and from school.
‘I have been reminded that Leigh claims I told her I was ‘taking David to Cumbria to die’ and that he had ‘abdicated from Wotton’.
‘I was determined David would not succumb to Covid and die in hospital alone.
‘I never said to Leigh or anyone else that I was taking David to Cumbria to die. I also never said that David “had abdicated” from Wotton.
‘At the time, David and I thought we would be shielding for a month or so at most and would then return to Wotton. That is why we took so little with us.’
The court heard the couple are now desperate to move back to Wotton, but say they can’t until Mrs White leaves.
‘The stress of living at Wotton whilst Leigh was also living there would be quite intolerable for us both,’ she said.
The English Baroque style mansion was built in 1820 for Richard Grenville, 2nd Marquess of Buckingham. It had been purchased in the 1950s by the family of Mr Gladstone’s first wife who died in 2014
‘We are too old and tired to deal with the confrontation and drama that would entail. In any event, David’s care situation means he requires the accommodation at Wotton Leigh is currently occupying.’
Mr Gladstone ‘desperately wants to spend what remains of his life at Wotton’, explained his KC, Tracy Angus, but has been thwarted by Mrs White’s refusal to budge.
‘Mrs White is living in the house with her family and has refused to move out,’ the barrister explained.
‘David’s relationship with Ms White has broken down irretrievably. Until Mrs White agrees to leave, he and Mary cannot return to Wotton.’
Giving evidence however, Mrs White insisted she was picked out by Mr Gladstone as his heiress because he could ‘trust’ her to press on with his vision – under what he called the Wotton Charter – of making it a centre for classical music.
The trial has been heard over two weeks at the High Court, but the judge has now reserved her decision and will deliver a judgment at a later date
He and first wife April had regularly held classical music renditions in the grand house and he was keen for that to continue, with Mrs White ‘trusted’ to do that as new owner after his death, she claims.
‘He trusted me that I would take up the Wotton Charter – which I have tried to do while he is alive – making connections with people in the opera world,’ she told the judge.
The former teacher and lawyer said that she had been very close with Mr Gladstone, who referred to himself as her ‘dad’ in messages, and helped him manage the house.
‘I was spending a lot of time at Wotton and David was consulting me on a lot of things,’ she said from the witness box.
‘I was his confidante about everything. We would always talk about the issue he was having. I was his default – in the house, ‘Leigh would sort it out’.
‘I was the person who David turned to to sort things out, to handle things, and handle things well.
‘I was David’s right-hand man at the time. I was there when he made decisions on the ground for what was going to happen going forward.’
She told the judge it was wrong to say David was ‘vulnerable and didn’t know what he was doing’ or that she had taken a tight control of his affairs, although he did ask for more help in the aftermath of his son’s death.
‘He certainly wanted to pass small things to me,’ she said.
‘David was tired and I think the death highlighted the stage he had got to in life. He was willing to take the foot off the pedal, hand things over and start the whole process [of succession]. He was just very tired.’
Mr Gladstone is suing for possession of Wotton so that he can move back in with his wife, but Mrs White says it would be ‘unconscionable’ for him to go back on the disputed promises that she would inherit.
She claims that, from 2007 when the first alleged assurances were made, she had ‘positioned her whole life’ depending on a future inheritance, harming her own legal career to devote time and effort in looking after Mr and Mrs Gladstone and Wotton.
The former diplomat, who was ambassador to Sri Lanka and opened the first British embassy in Ukraine, is also suing for the return of around £800,000 in bonds which he transferred to Mrs White.
But she denies ‘unduly influencing’ him into transferring them, saying the decision was simply a form of inheritance tax planning by a man well into his 80s at the time.
The trial has been heard over two weeks at the High Court, but the judge has now reserved her decision and will deliver a judgment at a later date.