English country house

English country house
The English country house can be vast or comparatively small and of great or little architectural merit.

The English country house is a large house or mansion in the English countryside. Such houses were often owned by individuals who also owned a London house. This allowed to them to spend time in the country and in the city—hence, for these people, the term distinguished between town and country. However, the term also encompasses houses that were, and often still are, the full time residence for the landed gentry. These people were central to the squirearchy that ruled rural Britain until the Reform Act 1832.[1] Frequently, the formal business of the counties was transacted in these country houses.

With large indoor and outdoor staffs, country house were important as places of employment for many rural communities. In turn, until the agricultural depressions of 1870s, the estates, of which country houses were the hub, provided their owners with incomes. However, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the swan song of the traditional English country house lifestyle, increased taxation and the results of World War I were to result in the demolition of thousands of houses, those that remained had to adapt to survive.


The stately homes of England

Longleat House was the first country house to open to the public, and also claims the first safari park outside Africa.[2][3] As such it became the first property in what later was known as the Stately Home Industry.

The term "stately home" is subject to debate and indifferent use, and avoided by historians and other academics. As a description of a country house, the term was first used in a poem by Felicia Hemans, The Homes of England, originally published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1827. In the 20th century, the term was later popularised in a song by the late Noel Coward, and in modern usage it often implies a country house that is open to visitors at least some of the time.

In England, the terms "country house" and "stately home" are sometimes used vaguely and interchangeably, however, many country houses such as Ascott in Buckinghamshire were deliberately designed not to be stately, and to harmonise with the landscape, while some of the great houses such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall were built as "power houses" to impress and dominate the landscape, and were most certainly intended to be "stately" and impressive.[4] In his book, Historic Houses: Conversations in Stately Homes, the author and journalist Robert Harling documents nineteen "stately homes", these range in size from the vast Blenheim palace to the miniscule Ebberston Hall and in architecture from the Jacobean Renaissance of Hatfield House to the eccentricities of Sezincote. The book's collection of stately homes also includes George IV's Brighton town palace, the Royal Pavilion.[5]


Forde Abbey. Many country houses have evolved and been extended over several centuries. Here, the architecture runs from Medieval ecclesiastical to Palladian and on to Strawberry Hill Gothic, while at sometime an attempt at unity has been made by the use of crenelation.

The country houses of England have evolved over the last five hundred years. Before this time, larger houses were usually fortified, reflecting the position of their owners as feudal lords, de facto overlords of their manors. The Tudor period of stability in the country saw the building of the first of the unfortified great houses. Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries saw many former ecclesiastical properties granted to the King's favourites, who then converted them into private country houses. Woburn Abbey, Forde Abbey and many other mansions with Abbey or Priory in their name often date from this period as private houses. Other terms used in the name of houses to describe their origin or importance include Palace, Castle, Court, Hall, Mansion, Park, House, Manor, Place and Tower.

It was during the second half of the reign of Elizabeth I and under her successor James I that the first architect-designed mansions, thought of today as epitomising the English country house, began to make their appearance. Burghley House, Longleat House, and Hatfield House are among the best known. Hatfield House was one of the first houses in England to show the Italianate influence of the Renaissance, which was eventually to see the end of the hinting-at-castle-architecture "turrets and towers" Gothic style. By the reign of Charles I, Inigo Jones and his form of Palladianism had changed the face of British domestic architecture completely. While there were later various Gothic Revival styles, the Palladian style in various forms, interrupted briefly by baroque, was to predominate until the second half of the 18th century when, influenced by ancient Greek styles, it gradually evolved into the neoclassicism championed by such architects as Robert Adam.

Brympton d'Evercy evolved from the Medieval period; its provincial architects are long forgotten. Yet, Christopher Hussey described it as "The most incomparable house in Britain, the one which created the greatest impression and summarises so exquisitely English country life qualities".[6]

Some of the best known of England's country houses were built by one architect at one particular time: Montacute House, Chatsworth House, and Blenheim Palace are examples. It is interesting that while the latter two are ducal palaces, Montacute, although built by a Master of the Rolls to Queen Elizabeth I, spent the next 400 years in the occupation of his descendants who were gentry without a London townhouse, rather than aristocracy. They finally ran out of funds in the early 20th century.

However, the vast majority of the lesser-known English country houses, often owned at different times by gentlemen and peers, are an evolution of one or more styles with facades and wings in various styles in a mixture of high architecture, often as interpreted by a local architect or surveyor and determined by practicality as much as by the whims of architectural taste. An example of this is Brympton d'Evercy in Somerset, a house of many periods that is unified architecturally by the continuing use of the same mellow local Ham Hill stone.

The fashionable William Kent redesigned Rousham House only to have it quickly and drastically altered to accommodate space for the owner's twelve children. Canons Ashby, home to poet John Dryden's family, exemplifies this: a medieval farmhouse enlarged in the Tudor era around a courtyard, given grandiose plaster ceilings in the Stewart period and then given Georgian façades in the 18th century. The whole is a glorious mismatch of styles and fashions that seamlessly blend together. These could be called the true English country house. Wilton House, one of England's grandest houses, is in a remarkably similar vein; although, while the Drydens, mere squires, at Canons Ashby employed a local architect, at Wilton the mighty Earls of Pembroke employed the finest architects of the day: first Holbein, 150 years later Inigo Jones, and then Wyatt followed by Chambers. Each employed a different style of architecture, seemingly unaware of the design of the wing around the next corner. These varying "improvements", often criticised at the time, today are the qualities that make English country houses unique. Scarcely anywhere else in the world would an elite class have allowed, or indeed pursued, such an indifference to style.

Sizes and types of country house

Confusingly, there are no written terms for distinguishing between vast country palaces and comparatively small country houses; all descriptive terms, which can include castle, manor and court provide no firm clue and are often only used because of a historical connection with the site of such a building.[7] Therefore, for ease or explanation, England's country houses can be categorised according to the circumstances of their creation.

Power houses

Kedleston Hall designed by Matthew Brettingham and Robert Adam, one of the great power houses.

The great houses are the greatest of the country houses; in truth palaces, built by the country's most powerful - these were the "power houses" designed to display their owners power or ambitions to power.[8] Really large un-fortified or barely fortified houses began to take over from the traditional castles of the crown and magnates during the Tudor period with vast houses such as Hampton Court Palace and Burghley and continued until the 18th century - with houses such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall.[9] Such building reached its zenith from the late 17th century until the mid 18th century; these houses were often completely built or rebuilt in their entirety by one eminent architect in the most fashionable architectural style of the day and often have a suite of Baroque state apartments, typically in enfilade, reserved for the most eminent guests - the entertainment of whom was paramount to maintaining and gaining the required power of the owner. The common denominator of this category of English country house, is that they were designed to be lived in with a certain degree of ceremony and pomp. It was not unusual for the family to have a small suite of rooms for withdrawing in privacy away from the multitude that lived in the household. These houses were always an alternative residence to a London house.

During the 18th and 19th centuries to the highest echelons of British society the country house served as a place for relaxing, hunting and running the country with one's equals at the end of the week, with some houses having their own theatre where performances were held.

The country house however, was not just an oasis of pleasure for a fortunate few; it was the centre of its own world, providing employment to hundreds of people in the vicinity of its estate. In previous eras when state benefits were unheard of, those working on an estate were among the most fortunate, receiving secured employment and rent-free accommodation. At the summit of these fortunate people was the indoor staff of the country house. Unlike many of their contemporaries prior to the 20th century, they slept in proper beds, wore well-made adequate clothes and received three proper meals a day, plus a small wage. In an era when many still died for lack of medicine or malnutrition, the long working hours were a small price to pay.

As a result of the aristocratic habit of only marrying within the aristocracy, and whenever possible to a sole heiress, many owners of country houses owned several country mansions,[10] and would visit each according to the season: Grouse shooting in Scotland, pheasant shooting and fox hunting in England. The Earl of Rosebery, for instance, had Dalmeny House in Scotland, Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire and another near Epsom just for the racing season.[11] For many, this way of life, which began a steady decline in 1914, continued well into the 20th century and for a very few continues to this day.

Squire's Houses

Waddesdon Manor. During the Victorian era, vast country houses by wealthy industralists and bankers were built in a variety of styles

The second category of England's country houses are those that belonged to the squirearchy or gentry. These tend to either have evolved from Medieval hall houses, with rooms added as required or were built by relatively unknown local architects. Smaller and far greater in number than the power houses, these smaller houses, like their grander counterparts the power houses were still the epicentre of their own estate, but were often the principal or only residence of their owner.

However, whether the owner of a power house or a small manor, the inhabitants of the English country house have become collectively referred to as the Ruling class, because this is exactly what they did in varying degrees, whether by holding high political influence and power in national government or in the day-to-day running of their own localities in such offices as magistrates, or occasionally even clergy.[12]

Victorian Houses

Following the industrial revolution of the 19th century, a third category of country houses were built as newly rich industrialists and bankers were eager to display their newly found wealth and taste. By the 1850s, with the British economy was booming, new mansions were built in one of the many revivalist architectural styles popular throughout the 19th century.[13] The builders of these new houses were able to take advantage of the political unrest in Europe that gave rise to a large trade in architectural salvage.[13] This new wave of country house building are exemplified by the Rothschild properties in the Home counties.


Threntham. During the 20th century, thousands of country houses were demolished, their stone and fixtures sold. During this era, many fine architectural features were transported to the US.

The slow decline of the English country house coincided with the rise in not just of taxation, but also of modern industry and the agricultural depression of the 1870s. By 1880, this had led some owners into financial shortfalls as they tried to balance maintenance of their estate with the income it provided. Some relied on funds from secondary sources such as banking and trade while others, like the severely impoverished Duke Of Marlborough, sought American heiresses to save their country houses and lifestyles.[14]

The ultimate demise began immediately following World War I. The huge staff required to maintain large houses had either left to fight and never returned, departed to work in the munitions factories, or to fulfil the void left by the fighting men in other workplaces. Of those who returned with the cessation of war, many left the countryside for better-paid jobs in towns. The final blow for many country houses came following World War II; having been requisitioned during the war, they were returned to the owners in poor repair. Many of whom having lost their heirs, if not in the immediately preceding war then in World War I, were now paying far higher rates of tax, and agricultural incomes from the accompanying estates had dropped. Thus, the solution appeared to be to hold contents auctions and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling. And this is exactly what happened to many of Britain's finest houses.

Despite this slow decline, as late as 1920, so necessary was the country house for entertaining and prestige, that following the election of the first Labour Government in 1921, Viscount Lee of Fareham donated his country house Chequers to the nation for the use of a Prime Minister who might not possess one of his own. Chequers still fulfils that need today as do both Chevening House and Dorneywood country houses, donated for sole use of high-ranking ministers of the crown.

Today's English country house

Today, many country houses have become hotels, schools, hospitals, museums and prisons, while others have survived as conserved ruins, but from the early 20th century until to the early 1970s, thousands of country houses were demolished. Houses that survived destruction are now mostly listed as buildings of historic interest, Grade I or II and can only be maintained under Government supervision—and only the most faithful, most accurate, and most precise restoration and re-creation is permitted. This is, however, also usually the most expensive. This system does, however, ensure that all work is correctly and authentically done. The negative side is that many owners cannot afford the work, so a roof remains leaking for the sake of a cheap roof tile.

Although the ownership or management of some houses has been transferred to a private trust, most notably at Chatsworth, other houses have transferred art works and furnishings under the Acceptance in Lieu scheme to ownership by various national or local museums, but are retained for display in the building. This enables the former owners to offset tax, the payment of which would otherwise have necessitated the sale of the art works, for example tapestries and furniture at Houghton Hall are now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Increasing numbers of country houses hold licenses for weddings and civil ceremonies. Another source of income is use as a film location and Corporate entertainment venue. While many country houses are open to the public, they remain inhabited private houses, and in some cases, by the descendents of their original builders.

See also


  1. ^ As documented in The Purefoy Letters, 1735–53 by L. G Mitchell.
  2. ^ The lions and loins of Longleat The Sunday Times Retrieved February 18, 2011
  3. ^ New Scientist 2 Dec 1982 Retrieved 18 February 2011
  4. ^ Girouard, p.
  5. ^ Harling, p 1-16.
  6. ^ Country Life, Saturday, May 7th, 1927.
  7. ^ The term palace is very seldom used in England at all, especially for a country house, and when it is used, it can be for a fairly small house such as Eltham Palace with former royal connections or a monumentally huge house such as Blenheim Palace.[citation needed]
  8. ^ Girouard, p2-12.
  9. ^ Girouard, p. 2-12.
  10. ^ Worsley, p. 10.
  11. ^ McKinstrey, p181.
  12. ^ Girouard, p2, describes a squire as "like a little king in his village.
  13. ^ a b Hall, p25.
  14. ^ Stuart, p. 135.


  • Airs, Malcolm (1975). The Making of the English Country House, 1500–1640. London: Architectural Press. ISBN 0851393780. 
  • Girouard, Mark (1978). Life in the English Country House: a social and architectural history. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300022735.  Details the impact of social change on design.
  • Lewis, Lesley (1997). The Private Life of a Country House. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0750916788.  Gives much detail of how a smaller country house operated in the early 20th century.
  • Lycett Green, Candida (1991). The Perfect English Country House. London: Pavilion Books ltd. ISBN 1-85145-5515. 
  • Hall, Michael (2009). The Victorian Country House. London: Aurum Press Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84513-457-0. 
  • McKinstry, Leo (2005). Rosebery, a Statesman in Turmoil. London: John Murray. ISBN 0719565863. 
  • Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age, Harper Perennial, 2005, ISBN 978-0-06-093825-3
  • Worsley, Giles (2002). England's lost Houses. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 1 85410 820 4. 
  • Edited by Alexander Kroll., Discussions with Robert Harling (1969). Historic Houses: Conversations in Stately Homes. London: Conde nast Publications. ISBN 900330305-0. 

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