Britain’s 7 most amazing stately homes

Britain's stately homes are as diverse as they are impressive. With their soaring ceilings, landscaped gardens, and secret corridors, there is plenty to explore in these impressive buildings. Here, we round up seven of the best

Chatsworth House, where Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. (Photo by Chatsworth House Trust)


1

Bodrhyddan Hall, North Wales

The Bodrhyddan Hall that stands today was built in the 17th century, although some surviving parts suggest a building stood in its place in around the 15th century.

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Bodrhyddan Hall has been owned by the land-owning Conwy family for more than 500 years. The family decided in the 1600s to expand the building in order to transform it into an impressive country manor.

Architect William Eden Nesfield redesigned the Welsh residence in 1874. The front of the house was renovated in the revived baroque style that was popular in the late 19th century, and a longer driveway was created. Nesfield also added an extra wing to the main house. Nesfield’s father, William Andrews Nesfield, who was a landscape architect, recreated the gardens, which span around eight acres in total.

Bodrhyddan holds extensive private collections, which include paintings, armour, and even an Egyptian mummy dating back 3,000 years. A well sits by the driveway up to the house, which has an inscription accrediting to the 17th-century architect Inigo Jones. This inscription suggests that Inigo may have contributed to the design of the gardens in the early 1600s.

To find out more about Bodrhyddan Hall, click here.

2

Castle Howard, Yorkshire

The 3rd Earl of Carlisle began the construction of Castle Howard in 1699, but the work was not completed until more than 100 years later. Over time, the design of the house changed as the house came into the possession of three consecutive earls. The 3rd Earl overlooked the construction of the east wing in the 17th-century elaborate Baroque style by Sir John Vanbrugh, while the 4th Earl commissioned the west wing to be built in the classical Palladian style, creating an imbalance in the house’s symmetry.

In 1709, Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini was commissioned by the 3rd Earl to paint the house’s impressive hallway and saloon. Pellegrini also painted the inside of the dome of the house with a magnificent depiction of the Greek myth The Fall of Phaeton.

Fast-forward to 1940 when, on 9 November, a fire began in the south front of the house. Strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly throughout all levels of the rest of the building, and even the great dome at the centre of the house collapsed and was destroyed. The fire service, along with schoolgirls from Queen Margaret’s School, who had been evacuated to the house following the outbreak of the Second World War, worked tirelessly to put out the fire and save some of Castle Howard from damage.

Restoration work following the fire did not begin until the 1960s. While a great deal of the house has now been reconstructed, the east wing remains a shell.

Castle Howard has been in the possession of the noble Howard family since its construction by the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, and the family continue to live there today. The house is open to the public to explore its corridors and extensive grounds.

To find out more about Castle Howard, click here.

Photograph showing Castle Howard, a stately home in North Yorkshire.
Castle Howard has been in the possession of the noble Howard family since its construction by the 3rd Earl of Carlisle – and the family continues to live there today. (Getty Images)
3

Mellerstain House, Scottish Borders

Mellerstain House was designed as a classical-style home for George Baillie, a Scottish member of parliament, and his wife, Lady Grisell. Work began in 1725.

Baillie employed architect William Adam to build the wings of the house first, meaning there was no connecting building between the wings for 40 years while they were under construction. While the house was being built, the couple lived in the east wing, while the servants used the west wing as their quarters.

Following George Baillie’s death in 1738, his widow, Lady Grisell, continued to control the running of the household in a very strict fashion. She created a collection of volumes of records, known as Lady Grisells Household Accounts, which reveal a great deal of insight into the running of a Georgian country house in the 18th century.

In 1759, George Baille, the second son of nobleman Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning, inherited the Scottish estate. Since then, the house has remained in the possession of the earls of Haddington. George commissioned architect Robert Adam in 1770 to design the main building in order to connect the two wings in the castle style.

The house is set in 80 hectares of parkland and gardens, which were created by Sir Reginald Blomfield in the early 20th century. The house also boasts an impressive collection of paintings by the likes of Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Ruysdael, and Ramsay.

To find out more about Mellerstain House, click here.

Photograph showing Mellerstain house and gardens.
Mellerstain House was designed as a classical-style home for George Baillie, a Scottish member of parliament in the 18th century, and his wife, Lady Grisell. (Image by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
4

Burghley House, Lincolnshire

Construction began during the 1550s on Burghley House, built for Sir William Cecil, who went on to become Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, lord high treasurer, and one of her closest confidants. The house was originally built in an ‘E’ shape, to reflect Cecil’s loyalty to the queen. However, in the 18th century, Brownlow Cecil, the 9th Earl of Exeter ordered that the north-west wing be demolished, and therefore the original shape of the house was lost.

The 5th Earl of Exeter, John Cecil, (1648–1700) built up an extensive art collection for Burghley House after he toured Italy on four occasions in the late 17th century. It is today considered to be one of the finest collections of privately owned original 17th century paintings.

Among the collection are The Pieta with St Mary Magdalene and St John the Evangelist by Giovanni Remigio [an interpretation of Christ’s dead body being supported by Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist] and The Mocking of Christ by Francesco Trevisani [a depiction of Christ being mocked by Roman soldiers before his crucifixion]. The collection also includes portraits of Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell, and Henry VIII, which are on display in the Pagoda Room of the house.

In 1754, the 9th Earl of Exeter employed renowned landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to redesign the house’s gardens and parkland, along with some parts of the house including the stables and the orangery.

While aspects of the house have been redesigned or built upon over the centuries, Burghley House continues to be recognised as one of the most impressive surviving examples of Elizabethan architecture.

Photograph of Burghley House and its surrounding grounds.
Burghley House, one of the most impressive surviving examples of Elizabethan architecture. (Image by Ohmaymay/Dreamstime.com)

To find out more about Burghley House, click here.

5

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Bess of Hardwick was one of the most prominent women in Elizabethan society. After she married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, in 1547 the couple bought Chatsworth manor in 1549. In 1552, the construction of Chatsworth House began.

While Bess of Hardwick lived at Chatsworth, Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned at Chatsworth after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. At numerous times between 1569 and 1584, Bess’s fourth husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, acted as Mary’s warden on behalf of the English queen.

Chatsworth House also played a part in the Civil War: Bess of Hardwick’s great-grandson William Cavendish, the 3rd Earl of Devonshire, fled to the continent, but continued to finance the raising of troops for the king’s side throughout the war from abroad. During the conflict, both royalists and parliamentarians occupied Chatsworth at different times. The earl did not return to Chatsworth until after the monarchy was restored by Charles II in 1660. By this point, Chatsworth was beginning to crumble, and was too dangerous to occupy.

It was the 4th Earl, William Cavendish, who began to rebuild the house in the late 17th century with the help of architects William Talman and Thomas Archer. In 1694, Cavendish was made the 1st Duke of Devonshire, and he died in 1707 just after Chatsworth’s magnificent building work had been completed.

The 5th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who lived at Chatsworth during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, are arguably two of its most famous residents. The Duchess, Lady Georgina Spencer, was one of the most famous women of her day, and was renowned for her beauty and her dedicated campaigning on behalf of the Whig party. The couple had a tempestuous relationship, and the duke’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, also lived at Chatsworth.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire hosted lavish parties at Chatsworth throughout the autumn and winter months, which were attended by Edward VII and his wife, Queen Alexandra.

Chatsworth House, where Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. (Photo by Chatsworth House Trust)
Chatsworth House, where Elizabeth I ordered for Mary, Queen of Scots to be imprisoned after she abdicated and fled from Scotland to England in 1567. (Image by Chatsworth House Trust)

To find out more about Chatsworth House, click here.

6

Witley Court, Worcestershire

Witley Court was developed into a mansion during James I and VI’s reign. In 1655, the Foley family, who made their fortune in the iron industry, purchased the estate. As the family’s wealth and social prominence developed, the 1st Baron Foley expanded the house greatly throughout the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Over time, the Foley family lost great sums of their fortune. However, Thomas, 3rd Baron Foley, married Lady Cecilia Olivia Geraldine FitzGerald in 1806 in what was an advantageous match. After receiving his wife’s dowry, Foley was able to commission the prominent Regency architect John Nash to develop the Witley estate. Nash added two imposing porticos to the north and south fronts of Witley Court house in the early decades of the 19th century.

After the estate was sold to the trustees of William Ward (later the 1st Earl of Dudley) in 1833, Witley reached the heights of its social prominence. The exterior of the house was recasted in Bath stone, while the Georgian interior was transformed into an ornate decorative style. Ward’s increasing wealth meant that he could entertain large parties of some of the most eminent members of society in the second half of the 19th century, including the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII).

Like other houses featured in this article, Witley Court fell victim to fire. On 7 September 1937, a blaze broke out in the servants’ rooms of the house. Strong winds blew the fire to the main rooms of the house on the lower floors. By the next morning, the house, apart from the west side, had experienced such extensive damage that the owner, Sir Herbert Smith, decided to sell the estate. As a result, what was left of the interiors was stripped, and the house was left as a ruin.

Photograph of Witley Court taken from behind a fountain situated in the grounds.
Witley Court, which was developed into a mansion during James I and VI’s reign. (Image by Davidmartyn/Dreamstime.com)

To find out more about Witley Court, click here.

7

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

After succeeding at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was awarded a manor house called Woodstock Manor in Oxfordshire by Queen Anne to build a palace to thank him for his military success.

Blenheim Place was constructed over the course of nearly 20 years, following the designs of English architect Sir John Vanbrugh. Upon its completion in the 1720s, the Churchills – a prominent noble family – moved in, and a Column of Victory was erected in the palace’s parkland displaying the duke as a Roman general in recognition of his successful military career.

The ownership of Blenheim was then passed down to the duke’s eldest daughter, Henrietta Godolphim, in 1722, and she became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough. As Henrietta’s children predeceased her, the ownership of Blenheim then passed to the duke’s youngest daughter, Anne Spencer, in 1733. Anne’s second son, Charles Spencer, consequently became the 3rd Duke of Marlborough in 1733. His son and grandson then inherited the title of Dukes of Marlborough and Blenheim Palace in 1758 and 1817, respectively.

The death of the 5th Duke of Marlborough in 1840 left the noble Churchill family in increasingly financial difficulty. As a result, the proceeding dukes were forced to sell the palace’s extensive art collections, including Van Dyck’s famous Equestrian Portrait of Charles I [c1637-38] and Raphael’s Ansidei Madonna [c1505] in order to maintain the financing of the palace.

The dukedom was nearly bankrupt when Charles Spencer-Churchill inherited the title as the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1892. However, his advantageous marriage to wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895 meant that Charles gained $2,500,000, which he used to save the palace from ruin. The marriage was not a happy one, and the couple separated in 1906, before divorcing in 1921.

In 1914 the palace became a convalescent hospital for soldiers who had been wounded while serving in the First World War. The 9th Duke became concerned about the low levels of foodstuffs available on the home front during the war, and decided to use Blenheim’s 2,000-acre estate to produce necessary crops and to raise livestock. After voicing his fears about the state of agriculture during the conflict, the duke became the president of the Women’s National Land Service Corps after its establishment in early 1916.

Blenheim Palace opened to the public in April 1950, and continues to be the home of the dukes of Marlborough.

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To find out more about Blenheim Palace, click here.

This article was first published on History Extra in November 2015