History of the English country house

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History of the English country house

Pastoral view from Blickling Hall, Norfolk / alisonweirtours.com

Pastoral view from Blickling Hall, Norfolk / alisonweirtours.com

Classic English country houses, mansions, castles etc. have alweays symbolized wealth, and have therefore been vulnerable to socialist assaults, taxation, death duties and poverty. Despite the ancient rule of primogeniture – inheritance of entire estates by oldest sons – historic houses have often ruined the families that built and lived in them.

The custom of primogeniture came with the Normans in 1066, replacing the purely Anglo-Saxon division of estates into equal parts. The idea behind it was to keep baronial lands intact and powerful. Nineteenth century radical liberals found this barbaric. But the system survives to this day and has undoubtedly proved vital in preserving estates which, in other European countries, have disappeared into dozens of sub-divisions after the death of an owner.

The fact remains that many great houses bankrupted their owners. Castle Howard, a vast Yorksire pile twice used as the background to TV and film versions of Brideshead Revisited, was left three-quarters finished by Lord Carlisle, but saved by the family of the Dukes of Norfolk, the Howards. The Temples had to get out of the country fast for debts accumulated during the building of Stowe (which luckily survived as a great English public school). It was the same with the Vernons and Claydon. Wimpole ruined three families in succession, the Chicheleys, Harleys and Hardwickes.

In the nineteenth century, the architectural profession did more to undermine the English upper class than any war, revolution or socialist government.

In the first years of the twentieth century, a gloom seemed to have settled, like London smog, on the historic houses. The coming of income and inheritance taxes, the huge loss of sons during the First War, the crippling cost of labour and domestic service, and the Economic Depression were followed by widespread government requisition of great houses during the Second War. It seemed that the historical houses were condemned to become barracks, hospitals, schools or lunatic asylums. In 1952, Gerald Seymour, at twenty-one the new Marquess of Hertford, was advised by his own trustees to demolish Ragley, the Palladian masterpiece near Rugby. Seymour sensibly refused, but some time later, when the time came for him to hand over to his own son he referred to Ragley as ‘a life sentence’. But the house was there for the tourists to gawp at, and still is, though Gerald and his illustrious ancestors are dead and buried.

The National Trust arrived just in time. This private institution (it is not government-controlled) has a subscription membership of millions, and exists to accept the maintenance of British country and town houses where owners cannot possibly face the cost. In return for handing over the estates to the Trust, owner’s families may live in suites in the house, and are held partly responsible for the running of the house and estate, and its opening to the public (including hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists) who visit on payment of a fee. No such organisation exists in Spain, where hundreds of castles and fortified manors have fallen into decrepitude because owners cannot afford to keep them up. This is extremely sad, as such places are not only historically and nationally important, but they are, or should be, part of the national heritage.

In 1974, some twenty years after the founding of the National Trust, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London produced a remarkable show called ‘Destruction of the Country House’. Listed were more than 600 country houses demolished since 1870; the great majority immediately before or after the Second World War. In London, the loss of famous town houses was appalling, especially in Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Admittedly many fine houses had been bombed flat in the war, but this did not apply to historic piles which suddenly became hotels or blocks of flats. Many of the owners had by no means lost their fortunes in the war; but they decided that ‘the house in London had to go’, while they concentrated their resources in the country.

This exhibition awoke strong feelings in leaders like Marcus Binney, who with a group of powerful friends founded Save Britain’s Heritage. Barlaston in Staffordshire was among the first great houses to be saved from demolition. People across England decided that destruction should be replaced by restoration. Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, Thoresby in Nottinghamshire, and Tyntesfield in Somerset are examples of what can be done by thoughtful restoration backed by sufficient funds.

By the mid 1980s, there was established in England a general feeling that country houses with no future in the private hands of their owners should be taken over with public money (by subscription).

The result of this is that in 2011 England retains far more castles, palaces, mansions, fortified manors, rectories and ancient cottages than any other country in the world, including Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria. This is due in part to a truth that dare not speak its name – de facto ‘nationalization’. Almost half of the great houses of England are firmly in the public sector, thanks to the National Trust (private company) and English Heritage (local government). From the late Forties and Early Fifties distressed, frequently desperate owners have been relieved of their ancestral homes, yet allowed (if they are prepared to do their part) to remain living in them. Succeeding conservative governments have done their part by forgiving colossal death duties, or accepting valuable fine art etc. in lieu. James Lees-Milne, who arranged many of the original deals between the National Trust and the owners, has said that many owners released their property only because it was not going to the government, but to custodians they considered not unlike themselves. Successive socialist governments have always done their worst to ruin owners of heritage properties, by the introduction of paralysing death duties and inheritance taxes. This is naturally a custom with socialist governments.

In a long list, the National Trust has saved properties such as Knole in Kent, Lyme Park in Cheshire, Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire, and Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. The Trust’s programme has been a success beyond all prediction. By the year 2000, ten million British people per year were visiting country houses, to which one can add another five million foreign tourists. It would be difficult to think of anything that has so comparatively inexpensively benefited the public realm as the National Trust’s country house scheme.

Historically speaking, visiting other people’s much grander house lies within a tradition of accessibility that goes right back in time. It was rooted in the hospitality of the Great Hall and the custom of courtesy to strangers. Monarchs used to terrify (or bankrupt) owners by announcing an imminent visit. Ordinary people from the seventeenth century would not usually be turned away by a proud steward anxious to show off the glories of his employers. Many owners spent took much abroad on fine paintings and sculptures, in order to fill their country house with them and show off to friends and visitors alike. Queues of ordinary people surrounded Holkham Hall (Norfolk) from the day it was finished. There are even longer queues these days, during most of the year, at Houghton, Blickling and Oxborough in Norfolk, Chatsworth, Hardwick and Kedleston in Derbyshire. In Wiltshire in the west, crowds gather at weekends to see Stourhead, Wardour and Longleat. In fact a hotel for visitors has been built near Kedleston (the family of Lord Curzon, once Viceroy of India). At Blenheim (Oxfordshire), built by a grateful nation to celebrate Marlborough’s victories in Europe, the average daily visitors number six hundred.

At Chatsworth (Dukes of Devonshire) in Derbyshire the public has been made welcome since the 17th century. In 1844 it was open to the public every day of the year from 1000 to 1700 hrs. The Duke’s instruction to his staff was that ‘the humblest individual is not only shown the whole (house), but the Duke has expressly ordered the waterworks (fountains) to be played for everyone’. With the arrival of the railway in the 1850s, Chatsworth received 80,000 visitors a year.

But many of these great houses closed between the Wars. This was mainly because of a lack of staff, but also because of a withdrawal of many aristocratic owners from the public realm, and/or their emigration to other countries where their dwindling resources went further. Woburn in Bedfordshire (Russell Dukes of Bedford), Haddon (Yorkshire) and Harewood (Yorkshire) closed during this period. After the War, and with the gradual recovery of the nation from hardship and near starvation, great houses were slow to re-open, but open they did. Longleat in Wiltshire (the Thynne family, Marquesses of Bath) was the first to open its doors again in 1949, and shortly afterwards the family introduced lions wandering fitfully about – in the open. Many people thought the current Marquess mad, but then most people know that the Thynnes are very high up on the list of eccentrics anyway. The present Marquess was a hippy when young and not so young, and still maintains his remaining long hair in a bob.

Beaulieu (Hampshire) and Woburn (Beds) decided on an aggressive sell, combining theme park and family history (plenty of that in both cases). Montagu of Beaulieu built the finest old car museum in the world in his grounds, and the Duke of Bedford followed the idea of lions at Longleat by turning most of his extensive grounds into a huge zoo.

The opening of a private house to the public is a unique kind of contract. It is decidedly not a philanthropic gesture. An owner receives a total stranger into the intimacy of his home. The intrusion is invited and paid for, but it can perhaps be said that it is a kind of violation, especially in the smaller kind of country house, occupied by the owner’s family. One owner in Suffolk says, “I treat the public as an untidy and disagreeable great aunt, whom I must humour for the sake of her legacy!” In the same house, which I have visited, a grandmother refused to leave a sitting room where she watched horseracing on TV. She remained static in her armchair as the holiday crowds filed by. The old lady was voted by the public the best exhibit in the house.

By | 2011-03-03T11:38:28+00:00 March 3rd, 2011|English History, World History|4 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


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    • Dean Swift July 25, 2013 at 8:55 am - Reply

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    • Dean Swift September 6, 2014 at 4:24 pm - Reply

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