The Enduring Appeal of the English Stately Home: from Medieval Castles to Downton Abbey

The library at Chatsworth House

Vividly brought to life in popular culture by television series such as Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey, Britain’s stately homes have long been a focus of our collective imagination.

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Given the glimpse that stately homes offer into a world of decadence and luxury that few of us will ever experience first-hand, it’s no surprise that National Trust memberships are more popular than ever, with millions of us each year flocking to this remarkable, nationwide collection of the country’s best houses — many of which have changed little since the days of their former glory.
In this article, we provide an introduction to the fascinating world of the stately home, exploring some of the things that make them so endlessly intriguing.

A brief history of the English stately home

Image shows the 13th century Harlech Castle, in Wales.
Earlier castles like Harlech, built in the 1280s, were designed for defensive purposes rather than for comfort, though they also played a role as status symbols.

The English stately home as we know it today developed from Medieval fortified castles, which, by the Elizabethan period, had evolved to focus on comfort rather than defence. The most prolific period of country house building took place in the 18th century, a period that spawned some of Britain’s most famous and best-loved houses. These great houses were built to impress and entertain important guests, and as time went on and aristocrats strove to out-do each other in the opulence of their houses, a number of architectural styles went in and out of fashion, resulting in a rich variety of designs. The houses were extravagantly decorated with tapestries, art and ornate furniture, with French and Italian furnishings particularly fashionable.
During the 19th century, it became popular for English landowners to go on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Italy and Greece, and this had a major impact on the architectural styles we see in country houses of this period. Neoclassical designs, with columns reminiscent of Greek and Roman temples and public buildings, became the vogue, and it was popular to have pretend temples in the grounds as ‘follies’ (impressive structures or faux-ruins designed for architectural show rather than serving a practical purpose). The influence of Ancient Greece and Rome was also felt in the decor of these houses, with ancient sculptures and vases plundered from archaeological sites in the Mediterranean brought back to grace the rooms and gardens of the country’s wealthiest aristocrats.
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It was the First World War that was to spell the beginning of a period of decline for the English stately home. The war brought huge changes to society, with the class system having had a thorough shaking up as aristocratic gentlemen fought side by side with their servants. The war also saw many English stately homes serving a new purpose, being turned into hospitals or convalescent homes for injured soldiers. In the wake of the Great War, and with the introduction of inheritance tax, many landowners could no longer afford the upkeep of their estates, which were consequently broken up, their opulent furnishings auctioned off and the houses themselves demolished.
Luckily, plenty of these magnificent houses survive because their owners bequeathed them to the National Trust, and they’re now thriving tourist attractions. Others have been turned into hotels, still others into flats, and some are now owned by modern-day celebrities. Some are even still lived in today by their original families, though the owners usually occupy only part of the house (as many are open to the public to fund their upkeep), and the huge teams of servants that characterised the heyday of the stately home are now largely consigned to history.

What was the stately home intended to say about its owner?

Image shows Blenheim Palace at dawn, seen through mist.
Blenheim Palace is the ancestral home of the Churchill family.

Britain’s magnificent stately houses were not just built as homes; they were power symbols. Owned and occupied by the country’s leading noblemen, they were a visual statement of the landowner’s power and status, and competition was rife to build bigger and better houses in which to entertain and impress. Many of these landowners were politicians, whose houses provided a less formal setting for the discussion of the political issues of the day, and many of them also owned property in London in addition to their country pile.
Stately homes were not just the reflection of the person who owned them, though — they were the focus of entire communities of people and formed a vital part of the local economy, providing jobs for local villagers and labourers, and owning much of the land on which crops were cultivated and livestock supported to feed the nation.

Life in the English stately home

Image shows Highclere Castle, which is used as Downton Abbey in the popular ITV series.
Viewers of ‘Downton Abbey’ – filmed at Highclere Castle – will be familiar with the social politics of the stately home.

Life in the English stately home was rigidly hierarchical, both upstairs and downstairs. A large team of servants was responsible for the day-to-day running and upkeep of the house, with a strictly defined social structure ranging from the kitchen or scullery maid at the bottom to the butler and housekeeper at the top. Gentlemen’s valets, ladies’ maids and private tutors were also near the top of the servants’ pecking order, as they mixed far more with the family upstairs, while several ranks of footman and housemaid formed the large part of the servant population. A cook — or in some households, a top chef — would be the most important person in the kitchen, and would often have a team of kitchen assistants to help in the preparation of the elaborate meals demanded by the family upstairs. In addition to house staff, large stately homes also employed a team of gardeners and groundskeepers, chauffeurs and grooms.
Upstairs, the male landowner was the head of the house, with the eldest male son being his heir and therefore the next most important person in the house. Unmarried daughters, and even sisters of the landowner or his wife, would often reside in the house, and the latter in particular were sadly viewed as the least socially important members of the family.

Who’s who in the world of stately homes?

The fashion for English stately homes saw numerous architects and landscapers rise to lasting fame. Here are just a few of the famous names you should be aware of.

Image shows Inigo Jones as painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
The work of Inigo Jones, painted here by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, can be seen at Milton Manor House near Oxford.

Recognised as the first major architect of the modern era, Inigo Jones applied the principles of proportion and symmetry laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius to the buildings he designed. Perhaps his most notable achievement is Whitehall in London.
Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726)
The architectural genius behind Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, Sir John Vanbrugh was a noted playwright when he decided to turn his attention to architecture, a career change that provoked comment at the time, but resulted in some of Britain’s most popular stately homes.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)
The original landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown rose to fortune in the 18th century and is responsible for some of the country’s most impressive gardens, including those of Blenheim Palace and Warwick Castle. His famous nickname arose not because of his obvious capabilities in the garden department, but because of his habit of telling clients that their estates had great “capability” for improvement.
Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944)
Sometimes referred to as “the greatest British architect”, Lutyens was responsible for the design of a great many of Britain’s country houses, and was known for bringing traditional architectural styles up-to-date to meet the needs of the time.

The stately home in popular culture today

Image shows Chatsworth House, which was used for Pemberley in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Chatsworth House has been repeatedly used as Mr Darcy’s country house, Pemberley, in TV and film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

Today’s popular culture has gone a long way towards fuelling the public interest in stately homes. We Brits love a good costume drama, and that means that the English country house is something we’re frequently exposed to without necessarily even consciously realising it. Many of the country’s best-loved period dramas, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, depict life in the English stately home to a greater or lesser degree. P.G. Wodehouse’s much-loved series of Jeeves and Wooster books — and their subsequent TV adaptations starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles — are set in the heydey of the English country house, a time when (for aristocrats) life was one long series of shooting weekends and lavish parties given in a different fine house each week.
Most recently, the phenomenal success of ITV’s Downton Abbey has demonstrated the enduring appeal of the English stately home as we follow the fortunes of the Crawley family and their plethora of servants in the fictional world set in real-life Highclere Castle. But Downton is by no means the first house to take a starring role in a TV series or book. Arguably the most famous is Brideshead in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, later adapted into a hugely popular television series starring Jeremy Irons. Though Brideshead, like Downton, focused on the family who owned it, a recurring theme throughout the book was the decline of these great English stately houses. Its protagonist, Charles Ryder, makes a living by painting these homes before they were demolished.
Julian Fellowes’ pre-Downton offering, a film by the name of Gosford Park, brought to life another aspect of what many people enjoy about English country houses — murder mystery. Depicting an aristocratic dinner party at a stunning stately home, Gosford Park is a good old-fashioned ‘whodunit’ that plays to the public’s taste for intrigue, particularly in the context of the opulence and luxury enjoyed by the upper classes. It’s even possible these days to participate in murder mystery weekends at country houses that have been converted into hotels — the closest any of us is likely to come to finding out what aristocratic life was like in Britain’s greatest houses.

What to look out for when you visit a stately home

Image shows the ornately decorated dining room at Chatsworth House.
The dining room at Chatsworth House.

There’s so much to see when you visit any of Britain’s stately homes that the experience can be a little overwhelming, so here are a few things you should look out for as you make your way around the house and grounds of the estates you visit.
– The ‘State’ rooms — these were the grandest rooms of the house, designed to accommodate important visitors (sometimes even royalty). These were the focal point of the ‘upstairs’ part of the house, richly decorated with priceless works of art and designed to impress.
– The artwork — you’ll notice a huge number of paintings adorning the walls of any stately home, and among them there can be some examples of very famous artists — Rembrandt, Rubens, Stubbs…the list goes on, so look out for famous names among the artists decorating the state rooms.
– The kitchens — the ‘downstairs’ part of the house is often every bit as interesting as upstairs — this is where the nitty gritty of running the house took place. Look out for different rooms used to store various kinds of food in the days before fridges.
– The ice house — in the days before fridges and freezers, most stately homes had an ‘ice house’ in the garden. These look a little like grass-covered igloos on the surface, and these structures cover a deep, concrete-lined pit in which ice would be kept frozen. Over the winter, ditches would be dug out in the fields and filled with water, which would then freeze. The ice would then be harvested and layered between straw in the ice house. The ice would remain frozen for many months and would be used in the kitchen to store perishable foods and to make ice creams and sorbets.

Stately homes you must visit

Image shows Castle Howard, which is frequently used in adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Castle Howard was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect also responsible for Blenheim Palace.

Hopefully this short introduction to the fascinating world of the English stately home has made you want to visit a few, so here is a brief list of must-see stately homes.
– Highclere Castle — also known as Downton Abbey, this architectural tour de force is in fact located in Berkshire, not Yorkshire as depicted in the popular series.
– Chatsworth — this Derbyshire stately home featured in the recent big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and is frequently voted Britain’s favourite stately home.
– Castle Howard — said by some to be the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited, and playing the part of Brideshead in the TV adaptation, this grand home in North Yorkshire is set in a thousand acres of stunning grounds.
– Hampton Court — half Tudor in style and half Baroque owing to a period of inactivity during its building, this royal residence in Richmond-upon-Thames is one of only two of Henry VIII’s surviving palaces.
– Brighton Pavilion — this bizarre, Oriental-themed pleasure palace was built for George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), and as well as featuring some highly unusual architecture (notably its famous onion-shaped domes), also has magnificent kitchens in which huge meals were prepared by famous French chefs of the day.
– Blenheim Palace — the birthplace of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace is an exceptionally grand stately home on the outskirts of Woodstock in Oxfordshire.
– Longleat House — famous for its adjoining safari park and eccentric landowner, Lord Bath, this Elizabethan country house in Wiltshire is a superb and early example of the then-new style of English stately home.
– Warwick Castle — part Medieval castle, part stately home, Warwick Castle has come a long way since the original structure built by William the Conqueror. Now owned by the company behind Madam Tussauds, and marketed as Britain’s “Ultimate Castle”, the main living quarters of the castle feature waxwork models bringing to life an opulent Victorian weekend party.


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Image credits: banner; Harlech; Blenheim; Highclere; Inigo Jones; Chatsworth; dining room; Castle Howard