Britons have been building grand houses for centuries. Hudson's Historic Houses & Gardens suggests a trip through the ages, taking in 8 of the best – though not necessarily the best known – historical houses from each century, for you to visit this year
The 12th century was the best period for Norman castle building and Hedingham Castle in Essex is perhaps the best-preserved keep from this period in the country. The foundation stone of the keep was laid in 1140 by Aubrey de Vere, Lord Chamberlain of England to King Henry I in the first generation after the Conquest. It is a square keep with corner towers, much like the White Tower in the Tower of London, and the architect was probably the same as the builder of Rochester Castle which looks very similar.
It is massive, with walls 12 feet thick, 110 feet high and finished with the finest stone from Northamptonshire. But inside it is also graceful and beautiful with chevron patterns cut into the tops of soaring rounded arches, mason’s marks scored into the walls and, in the banqueting hall, a great sense of space.
Living here was a pretty communal experience. The ground floor was vulnerable to attack, so has no windows and was used for stores. Above is the garrison floor where the soldiers lived with arrow slit windows and a garderobe [toilet] in the corner tower. Up the spiral stairs to the banqueting hall, a magnificent chamber where the de Vere family spent the day, entertained by minstrels from a great gallery above. The upper floor is where the household slept, with private chambers in the corner towers for the family.
The de Vere family did well out of the Norman conquest. A century later, the de Veres were created Earls of Oxford by the Empress Matilda, who was keen to build support against her rival for the throne, her cousin Stephen of Blois. King Stephen’s wife, another Matilda, was at Hedingham Castle in 1152 when she died of fever, a year before Stephen made peace. Two generations later, Robert, 3rd Earl of Oxford was in the spotlight as one of the barons rebelling against King John. From 1216 to 1217, Hedingham was right at the centre of the action and was besieged twice – first by King John and then by the invading army of the Dauphin of France – before peace was restored under Henry III and the de Vere lands returned.
The most interesting member of the de Vere family was Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford. In the 19th century, he was a candidate for writer of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I and the perfect courtier. He had a brilliant mind, studied literature and law, was acclaimed as the best poet of the age, travelled extensively and was in receipt of a pension from the Queen. If you believe that Shakespeare did not really write the plays attributed to him, there are several literary clues that make Edward de Vere a good alternative author of the plays and sonnets.
Today, Hedingham has been recently restored by the Lindsays, whose family have owned the castle since 1725, and can be visited on advertised dates, beginning with ‘Snowdrop Sundays’ in February 2017.
Markenfield Hall, North Yorkshire
Markenfield Hall sits quietly in the fields of North Yorkshire as it has done since about 1310. It is not a castle but a moated, fortified manor house, remarkably unchanged and incorporating part of an even earlier house of about 1230.
The early Markenfield family were skilled survivors, basing their fortune on service to the King, initially as tax collectors for Edward II, then as knights fighting for the Crown at Agincourt, Flodden Field and Bosworth, having cannily negotiated both sides in the Wars of the Roses. Things only started to go wrong under the Tudors. In 1536, in the Pilgrimage of Grace against the dissolution of the monasteries and again in 1569, in the Rising of the North, a catholic rising against Queen Elizabeth, the Markenfields were on the losing side. Their lands were forfeit to the Crown, so Markenfield Hall began a long slumber and a new life as a lowly farmhouse. In the 1980s, the present owners began a sensitive restoration programme which has revealed the medieval house behind a later range of farm buildings.
It is a courtyard house – Sir Richard Norton, standard bearer to the Rising of the North, was reported by contemporaries to ride around the courtyard “his white hair streaming in the wind”. Encircling the buildings and reaching under the arch of a brick gatehouse is the surviving moat. An inventory commissioned by Robert Cecil for Elizabeth I gives us the original uses of the buildings, the great hall, the great kitchen with a vast fireplace, and ‘lodginges’. Today you enter the house through the elegant vaulted undercroft, although originally there would have been a defensive entrance at first floor level. The main rooms are all on the first floor: there’s a remarkable great hall, now a comfortable drawing room; an atmospheric chapel, where mass was said for 250 years for the devoutly catholic Markenfields; and the great chamber, now a four-poster bedroom.
Markenfield is a small house, not a stately home – but for a glimpse of life in a manor house in late medieval England, this is the place. Visit in May and June.
Parham House, Sussex
The builders of Parham House in Sussex in 1577, the Palmer family, were typical of the up-and-coming gentry of the Tudor period. Robert Palmer was granted land by Henry VIII which was forfeit by the Monastery of Westminster, and Palmer commissioned a fashionable ‘E-shaped’ house in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. Sold to another family of local gentry within a generation, Parham then remained with the only mildly distinguished Bysshopp family until the early 20th century. Rescued from decline by the Pearson family in the 20th century, Parham was restored with impeccable taste with the injection of a few American oil dollars and is today one of the most atmospheric Elizabethan houses in the land.
The great hall retains its panelling and carved screens passage leading from the old front door. Portraits of Elizabethan noblemen and Elizabeth herself are dwarfed by a rare and extraordinary canvas by Robert Peake which shows Prince Henry, King Charles I’s older brother, depicted shortly before his untimely death and holding ‘Father Time’ by the forelock. As Henry died at 18, it’s an image that expresses a great ‘what if?’ in history. The great chamber and solar are restored to their Elizabethan form and the glory is the long gallery, which spans the whole length of the house and has a ceiling entwined with foliage like a tapestry, decorated in the 1960s by artist and stage designer Oliver Messel. The house is filled with treasures such as an exceptional collection of Tudor and Stuart needlework, which includes tapestries and bed hangings. The walled gardens are justly celebrated and don’t miss the ‘Wendy house’ built into the wall to delight the children of the family. Parham is open from Sunday to Wednesday, from Easter to September.
Ham House, Surrey
The 17th century brought civil war to Britain, but it also brought long periods of prosperity. The National Trust’s Ham House near Richmond, Surrey, was a gift from Charles I to his boyhood friend William Murray in 1636. Murray and his wife Catherine shared a love of fine craftsmanship with the king, and commissioned grand new interiors for the house, including a magnificent great staircase and a picture closet to display a fine collection of miniatures. The family managed to lease the house to a parliamentarian cousin so that despite their royalist sympathies, the estate was kept intact under Cromwell. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, William’s daughter Elizabeth was restored to the Ham estate and her marriage to John, Duke of Lauderdale, established one of the great political powerhouses of the Restoration. She continued to embellish the house in extravagant baroque style with painted ceilings by Antonio Verrio and lavish furnishings, including several lacquer pieces that reflected the import of exotic goods from the east. The National Trust have restored Elizabeth’s formal gardens and the wilderness and walled kitchen gardens. The house is open daily.
Dumfries House, Scotland
In 1803, John Crichton-Stuart, 7th Earl of Dumfries, drew up an inventory of the contents of his newly inherited home, Dumfries House in Scotland, built just 50 years earlier. Nearly all the works of art, furnishings and precious objects in that list are still in the house today. It is a complete ensemble of mid-18th-century taste of the best possible quality.
Scotland’s most famous 18th-century architect, William Adam, had just died when the 5th Earl of Dumfries commissioned his new house, so his sons Robert, James and John found they had landed their first independent commission. John ran the site while Robert travelled the continent on a grand tour, sending back designs for a radical new neo-classical interior for the house, which was completed in 1759. The interiors at Dumfries House set the fashion for style in grand houses all over Britain for the next 30 years.
The collection of furniture was bought in the 1750s from the greatest maker of the day, Thomas Chippendale, but also commissioned from the finest Scottish cabinet makers at work in Edinburgh, Alexander Peter, Francis Brodie & William Mathie. The Chippendale bookcase, which cost £47.5s in 1759 had a sale estimate of up to £4 million in 2007, making it then one of the most valuable pieces of furniture in the world.
The Earl of Dumfries started work on his great house in 1754 but his wife Anne died just a year later. As the Earl had no heir, he certainly wanted to remarry and his new house would have been an important way of showing his wealth and taste to prospective brides. Who wouldn’t want such a perfectly fashionable drawing room to show off in? In 1762, he married Anne Duff, but still no heir was born and only a year after they wed she was reported ‘behind the curtain’ with a certain Colonel Montgomery. When the inventory was made, the house was about to become far less important as the family rose to become Marquesses of Bute. In 2007, HRH Prince Charles was instrumental in the establishment of a trust to preserve the house for the future.
Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland
Mount Stuart is just one of the extraordinary houses built for John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute. Inheriting a fortune derived from coal as an infant in 1848, Bute grew up to explore the limits of architecture. At Mount Stuart, he created a neo-gothic fantasy house on the edge of the Firth of Clyde that was as innovative as it was extravagant. The house had early electric light, central heating, a telephone system, a passenger lift and even a heated indoor swimming pool. It reflected Lord Bute’s fascination with astronomy and astrology, with heraldry and with Catholicism. The 80-foot tall marble hall at the heart of the house has an astrological theme, with stained glass signs of the zodiac and crystals set into the roof of the vault. The astrological theme crops up again in the horoscope room, Lord Bute’s private sitting room, this time displayed on a painted ceiling filled with planets. The drawing room is resplendent with heraldic stained glass and portraits, while coats of arms cover the glinting ceiling inlaid with mica. The family lineage was further reinforced in the painted frieze of the history of St Margaret which runs around the walls of the family bedroom. Competing with the hall as the centrepiece of Bute’s architectural creation is the chapel, where tall gothic arches of white marble are bathed in warm light from ruby red glass in the clerestory windows. Mount Stuart is open from March to October.
Manderston, Berwickshire, Scotland
No expense was spared in the rebuilding of Manderston near Duns in the Borders for Sir James Miller in 1903. Sir James’ father had made a fortune trading herring and hemp with Russia and, as he had made an advantageous marriage, Sir James wanted a house to reflect his new status. Sir James was a perfect Edwardian gentleman: a great sportsman, an excellent shot, a horse racing enthusiast and soldier, and the Edwardian era was arguably the heyday of the British country house. With changes in society after the First World War, great houses were rarely as luxurious again and many foundered in the 20th century; visiting Manderston is a little like stopping time.
The style is neo-classical revival, inspired by the interiors at Lady Miller’s childhood home, Robert Adam’s Palladian house at Kedleston, Derbyshire. The arrangements are symmetrical, with large ante rooms leading to hidden servants’ passages that allowed the family and guests to be looked after by the 22 staff then needed to run the house. Only the best materials – marble, alabaster, rare Derbyshire blue john – and stucco artists from Italy were employed. Space was made for fashionable Edwardian domestic requirements, a house organ off the hall and a billiard room; this was a house that was designed for entertaining. The crowning glory is the staircase, silver-plated and originally requiring three men to keep it polished but now cared for by volunteers. Upstairs the bedrooms are elegant and restrained and the furnishing Louis Quinze. Below stairs, the basement is divided into hierarchies for the butler and the housekeeper. Architect John Kinross began work here on the stables, fitting them out in teak and brass to house the finest riding horses for a man who had remarkable success on the racing circuit. Similarly magnificent are the dairy and head gardener’s house. Manderston is open Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays from May to September.
Eltham Palace, London
Come full circle in time at Eltham Palace, which boasts one of the finest 20th-century interiors in the country within a far older building. This medieval palace, where Henry VIII was a boy, was ruined by the time it was leased by Virginia and Stephen Courtauld, wealthy socialites in 1933. Inspired by the magnificent hammerbeam roof of Edward IV’s great hall at Eltham, they employed modernist and traditional decorators to design their dream home.
The style is art deco and the finishes are flamboyant. The entrance hall is top lit and lined with blackbean panelling. Elsewhere, figured maple keeps the panelling light and the liberal use of lacquer and gilding generates luxury from the spacious dining room to the fittings in Virginia Courtauld’s bathroom. This is a highly personal house. Upstairs is a room especially designed for the couple’s beloved pet, a ring-tailed lemur called Mah-Jongg, who could reach the flower room downstairs by ladder. In the recently discovered map room, the couple planned their travels all over the world. The Courtaulds left Eltham to escape the bombing in 1944, but the house is now maintained by English Heritage and is open Sunday to Thursday from April to September and some Sundays in winter.
Hudson’s publishes Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, a UK guide to heritage places to visit, and www.hudsonsheritage.com.
This article was first published on History Extra in February 2017