English country house

An English country house is a large house or mansion in the English countryside. Such houses were often owned by individuals who also owned a town house. This allowed 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 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 numbers of indoor and outdoor staff, country houses were important as places of employment for many rural communities. In turn, until the agricultural depressions of the 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 swansong of the traditional English country house lifestyle. Increased taxation and the effects of World War I led to the demolition of hundreds of houses; those that remained had to adapt to survive.

While a château or a schloss can be a fortified or unfortified building, a country house, similar to an Ansitz, is usually unfortified. If fortified, it is called a castle, but not all buildings with the name "castle" are fortified (for example Highclere Castle).

Latimer House - geograph.org.uk - 139070
Latimer House in Buckinghamshire; an English country house

Stately homes of England

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

The term stately home is subject to debate, 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 Noël Coward,[4] 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 dominate the landscape, and were most certainly intended to be "stately" and impressive.[5] 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 minuscule 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.[6]


Forde Abbey 06
Forde Abbey in Dorset. 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 became private houses during this period. Other terms used in the names of houses to describe their origin or importance include palace, castle, court, hall, mansion, park, house, manor, and place.

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 examples of the showy prodigy house, often built with the intention of attracting the monarch to visit. By the reign of Charles I, Inigo Jones and his form of Palladianism had changed the face of English domestic architecture completely, with the use of turrets and towers as an architectural reference to the earlier castles and fortified houses completely disappearing. 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 dEvercy 03
Brympton d'Evercy in Somerset 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".[7]

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. While the latter two are ducal palaces, Montacute, although built by a Master of the Rolls to Queen Elizabeth I, was occupied for the next 400 years by 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 different 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 provide space for the owner's twelve children. Canons Ashby, home to poet John Dryden's family, is another example of architectural evolution: a medieval farmhouse enlarged in the Tudor era around a courtyard, given grandiose plaster ceilings in the Stuart period, and then having Georgian façades added 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.

Sizes and types

Wealthy and influential people, often bored with their formal duties, go to the country in order to get out of London, the ugliest and most uncomfortable city in the world; they invented the long week-end to stay away as long as possible. Their métier is politics; they talk politics; and they make politics, quite spontaneously.

— John Gunther, 1940[8]

There are no written terms for distinguishing between vast country palaces and comparatively small country houses; the 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.[9] Therefore, for ease or explanation, Britain's country houses can be categorised according to the circumstances of their creation.

Power houses

Kedleston Hall 20080730-04
Kedleston Hall designed by Matthew Brettingham and Robert Adam, one of the great power houses.

The great houses are the largest of the country houses; in truth palaces, built by the country's most powerful – these were designed to display their owners' power or ambitions to power.[10] Really large unfortified 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 House, and continued until the 18th century with houses such as Castle Howard, Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall.[11] 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 of paramount importance in establishing and maintaining the power of the owner. The common denominator of this category of English country houses 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, for the highest echelons of English 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 staged.

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 this category of 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 from malnutrition or lack of medicine, 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,[12] 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 house near Epsom just for the racing season.[13] 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.

Minor country houses

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

In the second category of Britain's country houses are those that belonged to the squirearchy or gentry. These tend either to have evolved from medieval hall houses, with rooms added as required, or were purpose-built by relatively unknown local architects. Smaller, and far greater in number than the "power houses", these were still the epicentre of their own estate, but were often the 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 having high political influence and power in national government, or in the day-to-day running of their own localities in such offices as lord/deputy lieutenant, magistrates, or occasionally even clergy.[14]

Victorian houses

Following the industrial revolution of the 19th century, a third category of country houses was built as newly rich industrialists and bankers were eager to display their wealth and taste. By the 1850s, with the English economy booming, new mansions were built in one of the many revivalist architectural styles popular throughout the 19th century.[15] 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.[15] This new wave of country house building is exemplified by the Rothschild properties in the Home counties.


Trentham. 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 not just of taxation, but also of modern industry, along with the agricultural depression of the 1870s. By 1880, this had led some owners into financial shortfalls as they tried to balance maintenance of their estates with the income they provided. Some relied on funds from secondary sources such as banking and trade while others, like the severely impoverished Duke of Marlborough, sought to marry American heiresses to save their country houses and lifestyles.[16]

The ultimate demise began immediately following World War I. The members of the huge staff required to maintain large houses had either left to fight and never returned, departed to work in the munitions factories, or filled the void left by the fighting men in other workplaces. Of those who returned after the 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 estate owners, 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 had dropped. Thus, the solution for many was to hold contents auctions and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling. This is 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, donated for sole use of high-ranking ministers of the Crown.


Today, many country houses have become hotels[17], schools, hospitals, museums and prisons, while others have survived as conserved ruins, but from the early 20th century until the early 1970s, hundreds of country houses were demolished. Houses that survived destruction are now mostly Grade I or II listed as buildings of historic interest—and only the most faithful, most accurate, and most precise restoration and re-creation is permitted. Such work, however, is usually very expensive, although the system does ensure that everything is done correctly and authentically. The negative side is that many owners cannot afford the work, so a roof remains leaking for the sake of a cheap roof tile. The first stately home to open to the public in England in the modern style is said to be Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.

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. In addition, increasing numbers of country houses hold licences for weddings and civil ceremonies. Another source of income is to use the house as a venue for parties,[18] a film location and a corporate entertainment venue. While many country houses are open to the public, they remain inhabited private houses, in some cases by the descendents of their original owners.

The lifestyles of those living and working in a country house in the early 20th century were recreated in a BBC television programme, The Edwardian Country House, which was filmed at Manderston House in Scotland.

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 18 February 2011
  3. ^ New Scientist 2 Dec 1982 Retrieved 18 February 2011
  4. ^ "The Stately Homes of England" by Noël Coward (1938) was featured in his musical "Operette", which premiered in the same year.
  5. ^ Girouard, p.
  6. ^ Harling, p 1–16.
  7. ^ Country Life, Saturday, 7 May 1927.
  8. ^ Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 287.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Girouard, p2-12.
  11. ^ Girouard, p. 2-12.
  12. ^ Worsley, p. 10.
  13. ^ McKinstrey, p181.
  14. ^ Girouard, p2, describes a squire as "like a little king in his village.
  15. ^ a b Hall, p25.
  16. ^ Stuart, p. 135.
  17. ^ "Staying at an English Manor House". AGLAIA Magazine. 2018-11-06. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  18. ^ "Large Houses to Rent for Parties". Mansions & Large Houses for Rent for Parties & Weddings UK. 2012-06-09. Retrieved 2017-03-22.
  • Airs, Malcolm (1975). The Making of the English Country House, 1500–1640. London: Architectural Press. ISBN 0-85139-378-0.
  • Girouard, Mark (1978). Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02273-5. Details the impact of social change on design.
  • Hall, Michael (2009). The Victorian Country House. London: Aurum Press Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84513-457-0.
  • Kroll, Alexander, ed. (1969). Historic Houses: Conversations in Stately Homes. Discussions with Robert Harling. London: Condé Nast. ISBN 0-900303-05-0.
  • Lewis, Lesley (1997). The Private Life of a Country House. Stroud: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-1678-8. 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 1-85145-551-5.
  • McKinstry, Leo (2005). Rosebery: A Statesman in Turmoil. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6586-3.
  • Murdoch, Tessa (2006). Noble Households: Eighteenth-Century Inventories of Great English Houses: A Tribute to John Cornforth. Cambridge: John Adamson. ISBN 978-0-9524322-5-8.
  • Stuart, Amanda Mackenzie (2005). Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and Mother in the Gilded Age. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-0-06-093825-3.
  • Worsley, Giles (2002). England's Lost Houses. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-820-4.

External links

Birley Old Hall

Birley Old Hall is a small English country house situated in the Birley Edge area of the City of Sheffield, England. The hall stands in an exposed situation at almost 200 metres above sea level on Edge Lane, some six km NW of the city centre and has been designated a Grade II listed building by English Heritage as has the Falconry which stands in the garden.


Champneys is an English country house and its associated estate near Tring, Hertfordshire. The mansion is run as a destination spa by a business using "Champneys" as the brand name for a group of spa resorts and day spas.

Downham Hall

Downham Hall is an English country house in Downham, Lancashire, England.

Elvetham Hall

Elvetham Hall is a High Victorian Gothic style English country house in the parish of Hartley Wintney, Hampshire. It is a Grade II* listed building.It was built in 1859–1862 to the design of architect Samuel Sanders Teulon, who was noted for his polychrome brickwork, and therefore not unnaturally constructed of red brick and stone dressing, with bands and decoration in black brick. An ornate design, it has hipped and mansard roofs with gables and dormers, tall brick chimney-stacks and an entrance front dominated by a tall tower. The interior is remarkable for its fireplaces.

Frogmore House

Frogmore House is a 17th-century English country house owned by the Crown Estate. The house is situated within the Frogmore Estate, which is itself located within the grounds of the Home Park, Windsor, Berkshire. Half a mile south of Windsor Castle, Frogmore was let to a number of tenants until the late 18th century, when it was used intermittently as a residence for several members of the royal family.

The house is currently uninhabited, but it is used by the royal family to host both private and official events. It is a Grade I listed building.

Fulwood Hall

Fulwood Hall, (archaic: Fullwood Hall) is an English country house situated on Harrison Lane in the suburb of Fulwood in Sheffield, England. It is a Grade II listed building. The hall stands in a lofty position on the north side of the Mayfield Valley at a height of 270 metres (885 feet). The hall is referred to as Fullwood Hall on old maps and the gate to the hall uses this spelling with two Ls.

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Glyndebourne Festival Opera is an annual opera festival held at Glyndebourne, an English country house near Lewes, in East Sussex, England.

Knebworth House

Knebworth House is an English country house in the parish of Knebworth in Hertfordshire. It is a Grade II* listed building. Its gardens are also listed Grade II* on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. In its surrounding park is the medieval St. Mary's Church and the Lytton family mausoleum.

Ockham Park

Ockham Park is a seventeenth century English country house in Ockham, Surrey.

The house is a square two-storey block in red brick with 7 bays on each side with a hipped tiled roof. The nearby two-storey stable block is grade II* listed and is now converted into flats.


A portico is a porch leading to the entrance of a building, or extended as a colonnade, with a roof structure over a walkway, supported by columns or enclosed by walls. This idea was widely used in ancient Greece and has influenced many cultures, including most Western cultures.

Some noteworthy examples of porticos are the East Portico of the United States Capitol, the portico adorning the Pantheon in Rome and the portico of University College London. Porticos are sometimes topped with pediments.

Palladio was a pioneer of using temple-fronts for secular buildings. In the UK, the temple-front applied to The Vyne, Hampshire, was the first portico applied to an English country house.

A pronaos (UK: or US: ) is the inner area of the portico of a Greek or Roman temple, situated between the portico's colonnade or walls and the entrance to the cella, or shrine. Roman temples commonly had an open pronaos, usually with only columns and no walls, and the pronaos could be as long as the cella. The word pronaos (πρόναος) is Greek for "before a temple". In Latin, a pronaos is also referred to as an anticum or prodomus.

Revell Grange

Revell Grange is a Grade II listed English country house situated on Bingley Lane in the suburb of Stannington overlooking the Rivelin valley within the City of Sheffield, England. The house played an important role as a focal point of early Catholicism within the city and still houses a private chapel to this day.


Sant'Olcese (Ligurian: Sant'Orçeise) is a comune (municipality) in the Province of Genoa in the Italian region of Liguria, located about 6 kilometres (4 mi) north of Genoa. As of 31 December 2004, it had a population of 5,945 and an area of 21.9 square kilometres (8.5 sq mi).The municipality of Sant'Olcese contains the frazioni (subdivisions, mainly villages and hamlets) Manesseno, Comago, Arvigo, Torrazza, Casanova, Trensasco, Piccarello, and Vicomorasso.

At Comago, the Comune holds the Park & c. 1850 Victorian English country house, the Villa Serra.

This house, built by the Marquis F. Orso Serra, an Anglophile, is one of very few Victorian period English country house designs to be found in Italy. The Park is a member of the Great Gardens of Italy Foundation (Grandi Giardini Italiani) and is open to the public.

Sant'Olcese borders the following municipalities: Genoa, Montoggio, Serra Riccò.

St Paul's Walden Bury

St. Paul's Walden Bury is a large English country house and surrounding gardens in the village of St Paul's Walden in Hertfordshire. A home of the Bowes-Lyon family, it is best known for its connection to the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. One of her childhood homes, it was possibly the site of her birth and was where she accepted Prince Albert's proposal of marriage. It is a Grade II* listed building.The house was built of red brick with stone dressings and slate roofs in the early 18th century for Edward Gilbert (1680-1762). His daughter Mary married George Bowes of Gibside, Durham, and the estate has been in the possession of the Bowes-Lyon family since 1720.

Stumperlowe Hall

Stumperlowe Hall is a small English country house situated in the City of Sheffield, England. It is located on Stumperlowe Hall Road at its junction with Slayleigh Lane in the suburb of Fulwood. The hall is a Grade II listed building.

Sugworth Hall

Sugworth Hall is an English country house on Sugworth Road in Bradfield Dale, near Sheffield, England. It is situated approximately 8 miles (13 km) west from Sheffield City Centre. The hall is a Grade II listed building which stands within the Peak District National Park at a height of 984 feet (300 m) above sea level.

The Towers (Sheffield)

The Towers is a small English country house situated in Sheffield, England. The house stands on Sandygate Road close to the junction with Coldwell Lane in the suburb of Crosspool. It is a Grade II listed building as is the lodge and attached gateway and the concave garden wall. It has been described as “an extraordinary Scottish baronial fantasy”.

Thornbridge Hall

Thornbridge Hall is a large English country house situated near the village of Great Longstone in the local government district of Derbyshire Dales in Derbyshire. It is a grade 2 listed building.

Whiteley Wood Hall

Whiteley Wood Hall was an English country house which was demolished in 1959. It stood off Common Lane in the Fulwood area of Sheffield, England. The hall’s stables and associated buildings are still standing and along with the surrounding grounds now serve as an outdoor activities centre for Girlguiding Sheffield. The stables are a Grade II listed building.

Wrotham Park

Wrotham Park (pronounced "Rootam") is a neo-Palladian English country house in the parish of South Mimms, Hertfordshire (formerly in Middlesex). It lies south of the town of Potters Bar, 17 miles (27 km) from Hyde Park Corner in central London. The house was designed by Isaac Ware in 1754 for Admiral John Byng, the fourth son of Admiral George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington, and remains in the family at the heart of a 2,500-acre (10 km2) estate. It is one of the largest private houses near London inside the M25 motorway. Its distinctive exterior has been used over 60 times as a filming location.

The house is listed as a Grade II* building on the National Heritage List for England, and its landscaped park and gardens are Grade II listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

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