Hatfield, a Prodigy House in Hertfordshire

Victoria here, peeking into another great country house, this one the home of the Cecil family, the Marquesses of Salisbury, Hatfield House. 

When I took the course on English Country Houses at Worcester College, Oxford University, our don, Geoffrey Tyack, took us to a number of historically significant houses, beginning with medieval manors and carrying into the Tudor houses, the most lavish of which are known as Prodigy Houses. These were the estates acquired by the “new” men who served the crown because of their intelligence,  education, and ability rather than by familial ties and nepotism. Once these “new” men got into positions of power, however, they did all they could to advance the interests of their families, particularly at court. One part of this quest was to have a large, profitable and magnificent estate at which to entertain, impress, and achieve strategic partnerships, whether by friendship, marriage or intrigue.  These houses, naturally, had to be large and luxurious enough to accommodate both royalty and its entourage.

One of the most important of the men who served Elizabeth I was William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), who was Lord High Treasurer. He built Burghley House (above) between 1555 and 1587 in a more-than-grand scale. His eldest son, 1st Earl of Exeter, carried on the family at Burghley.
Robert Cecil (1563-1612), a younger son of Lord Burghley, made his own way in the world and did a bang-up job of it, becoming a chief minister to Elizabeth I and Lord Treasurer to her successor, James I. As Professor Tyack has written, Robert Cecil “also inherited his father’s taste for magnificent building.”

Robert Cecil was made the 1st Earl of Salisbury and took over, by exchange with the King for another house called Theobalds, the estate at Hatfield. The Old Palace there, above and right, had been the childhood home of Elizabeth I. The building you see in the pictures was only part of the huge complex, most of which the Earl demolished. The Old Palace now serves as a tourist attraction and a venue for meetings, conferences, banquets and weddings.

Lord Salisbury created for himself the foremost example of Jacobean architecture in Britain. Carpenter and Surveyor (the profession of architect was barely in its infancy) Robert Lyminge laid out the house to the earl’s preferences, incorporating familiar Tudor features (e.g. the capped cupolas at the corners and the oriel windows), and newer styles such as the classical loggia on the south front.

Entering the Marble Hall, I could see that the 1st Earl had indeed achieved his goal of creating a gathering place of incomparable and extravagant richness. It could not fail to impress friends or enemies, retainers or royalty. The ceiling is original though enhanced in the Victorian era with more colorful paintings. Tapestries from Brussels cover the walls, illustrating stories from mythology. This room has always been used for entertaining whether banquets, balls or masques.

Left is the rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I, which contains the motto Non sine sole iris, translated as “no rainbow without the sun.” The anonymous painter was heavily into flattery, one imagines. The portrait hangs in the Marble Hall, where no visitor could mistake its significance.

The Grand Staircase is a fine example of Jacobean wood-carving expertise. Finished in 1611, it includes gates at the bottom step to keep the dogs from lounging around in the state rooms upstairs. One of the figures carved into a newel post is John Tradescant (c.1570-1638), the great plant collector on behalf of Robert Cecil and his new garden. Tradescant brought back from his world travels many fruit trees, vines, seeds and bulbs, greatly expanding the scope of English gardening, all of which enhanced his employer’s prestige.

On the first floor (what we in the U.S. would call the second floor), the magnificent State rooms are divided into two apartments, one each for the king and queen. In King James’s Drawing Room a life size statue of the king stands above the fireplace. The walls are hung with old master paintings.
Long galleries were required in all Jacobean houses but few are as splendid as this one, with its fine cabinetry holding treasured gemstones and its gilded ceiling. Two gigantic fireplaces heated the gallery, where one could enjoy a morning stroll without combating the elements.

Many more rooms are open to the public, including a chapel with fine old stained glass, some of it more than 400 years old.

The house is much the same today as it was when first built, though one wing was destroyed by fire in 1835, taking the life of the first Marchioness of Salisbury, nee Emily Mary Hill, then age 85. The dowager, as she was known, was writing by candlelight, it was said, and her hair caught fire, eventually engulfing the entire west wing of the house.  Emily (1750-1835), wife of the first Marquess, portrayed here by Sir Joshua Reynolds about 1780, was a famed Tory political hostess and sportswoman.

Her son, James, the 2nd Marquess, married Frances Mary (1802-1839), known as the Gascoyne Heiress, and changed the family name to Gascoyne-Cecil. The story of Frances, often known as Fanny, is told in the book The Gascoyne Heiress: the Life and Diaries of Frances Mary Gascoyne-Cecil by Carola Oman, published in1968 by Hodder & Stoughton in London. These diaries are full of exciting political news, for Fanny became a close confidante of the Duke of Wellington, who had long been a family friend. Hatfield House is home to much Wellington memorabilia; both with her husband and children or solo, Fanny often visited Wellington, listened to his every word and recorded most of them for posterity.
This black and white reproduction of Fanny’s portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence does not do justice to her charm.

Like many country houses, Hatfield is also a business enterprise. Many events takes place here and no doubt you have caught a glimpse of the house or garden in one of the doszens of movies which shot scenes on the premises, such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), or The Golden Age (2006).

The current dowager marchioness is well-known as a gardener, though she claims to be entirely an amateur. Not only did she redo entirely the gardens at Hatfield, she also has designed gardens for many others, including the Prince of Wales at Highgrove.  She has been associated with a number of books on gardening, though she no longer lives at Hatfield.

I took so many pictures in the Hatfield Garden that I could almost do a book myself. But have you ever come home and realized that your pictures completely failed to capture the essence of the subject matter? Below is a shot of a rose against the brick of the Old Palace followed by some lovely wisteria blossoms. Somehow it was all so much more beautiful on site!

                              Finally, an aerial view of Hatfield House.

Results of the "Althorp Attic Sale" Christie's, London

It seems as though Earl Spencer has been cleaning the tat out of his attics, and oh, what tat it is. Here are just a few of the items sold last month at Christie’s Auction Room, King Street, London.


Mrs. Dora Jordan (1761-1816), mistress of William IV. Acquired at a sale of her effects by Frances Isabella, Lady Clinton (d. 1875) who placed it in the Dining Room at 28 St. James’s Place. By descent to her niece Lady Sarah Spencer (1838-1919) and by descent to Albert Edward John, 7th Earl Spencer (1892-1975), by whom removed to Althorp, Northamptonshire, in 1923.

Price Realized £775 ($1,178)

Silver-mounted tapering Doccia porcelain étui of round section, the porcelain body decorated with antique scenes moulded in relief, the cover decorated with sea shells and rocaille in relief, within hinged brown fitted leather case; together with, another porcelain étui of round section mounted in gilt-metal, the porcelain body decorated with painted flowers; together with, another gilt-metal mounted porcelain étui of oval section, the porcelain body and lid decorated with foliage and masks, centred with circular cartouches containing bows and arrows, the cover cartouche painted with ‘Souvenir’ and, on the body, with ‘d’amitié’, gilt borders and swags to both cover and base, together with, another gilt-metal mounted enamel étui of rounded reeded body decorated with diamond pattern with a flower depicted at the centre of each (4)

Price Realized  £5,625 ($8,550)


Undergown of cream silk taffeta applied with a heavily embroidered silk satin front panel, a short sleeved robe of crimson silk velvet, fitted and trimmed in miniver and embroidered with stylized ‘S’ shapes in gilt, and a train of crimson silk velvet with a short ermine capelet and gilt cordons to the shoulders; together with the remains of a peeress’ coronation train.

Possibly worn by Charlotte, Countess Spencer (1835-1903) wife of John Poyntz, 5th Earl Spencer (1835-1910) to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.

Price Realized £6,250 ($9,500)

The later arms on the doors are those Spencer accoll with Spencer impaling Baring for Charles, 6th Earl Spencer, K.G., (1857-1922) and his wife Margaret (d.1906), daughter of Edward, 1st Baron Revelstoke, whom he married in 1887. These arms were possibly applied for the coronation of King George V on 22 June 1911, at which Earl Spencer presided as Lord Chamberlain.

Price Realized  £133,250 ($202,540)

Each comprising salmon pink breeches, scarlet tailcoat and salmon pink waistcoat, all set with silvered metal buttons embossed with the Spencer cypher, scarlet wool caped greatcoat and tricorn hat

Price Realized £4,750 ($7,220)
With two tiers of four bells dependent and bright-engraved with bands of trailing leafage, coral teething stick, engraved later with a viscount’s coronet below initial ‘A’, in later fitted box Brothers, 22 Old Bond St.

The initial is almost certainly that of Edward John Spencer, Viscount Althorp and later 7th Earl Spencer.

Price Realized £3,000 ($4,560)
You can see all 24 pages of the sale results at the Christie’s site.
In all, the sale realized just over two million pounds.

Victoria Visits Woburn Abbey, Part 2

Woburn Abbey is the home of the Dukes of Bedford. When I visited in May, 2009, I thoroughly enjoyed the vast grounds, lovely gardens, deer park and most of all, seeing the house itself. At one point in our tour, the escort stopped just as we entered a room. “Excuse us, Your Grace,” she said to the Duchess of Bedford.  “Oh, come right in,” said Her Grace and continued her photo session with one of her two children.  We gaped a while, then slipped away for the tour guide to fill us in on what we should have looked at in that room. But we had been much too busy watching the photographer, the tot and Her Grace, to notice the furnishings. A picture of the present duchess and her family is at the end of this blog.

Which brings me to the many stories of the fascinating  women who were Duchesses of Bedford.  This is Henrietta, dowager Duchess of Bedford, mother-in-law of the duchess I saw at Woburn.  Born in 1940, she was a debutante of the year, a fashion model and remains a dedicated horse lover. She and her husband, Robin, 14th Duke, ran a prosperous and successful bloodstock operation at Woburn.  A wonderful blog called The Esoteric Curiosa has a collection of pictures of Henrietta throughout her life here.

Henrietta reminds me quite a bit of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The dowager duchess continues to live on the Woburn estate.  Reaching back a bit farther, at left, Georgina Gordon (1781-1853) was the daughter of the Duke of Gordon and his wife, Jane, a great rival of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, for social and political entertaining. Georgina was the third daughter of Jane Gordon to marry a duke. Georgina’s story is told on one of my favorite blogs, Scandalous Women, by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon here.

For a book length story of Georgina’s life, I recommend Rachel Trethewey’s 2002 Mistress of the Arts: The Passionate Life of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford.   Georgina was the second wife of John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford (1766-1839); his first wife was Georgiana Byng, Duchess of Bedford. Don’t be surprised if writers get them mixed up. That pesky A is a problem! Late in her life Georgina reputedly had a long affair with the artist Sir Edwin Landseer, who was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite artists.

A more refined story is that of Lady Anna Maria Stanhope (1783-1857), wife of Francis, the 7th Duke of Bedford (1788-1861).  It is to Duchess Anna that we owe the tradition of  afternoon tea. Since evening meals had been pushed later and later, she wanted a light snack in the afternoon, just tea and sandwiches or little cakes.  She often invited her friends for this repast and the custom spread to the middle classes.

 Mary (1865-1937), known as the Flying Duchess, had an adventurous life. She married Herbrand Russell, then aide-de-camp to the Viceroy of India, at Barrackpore in 1888. When her husband’s brother died without issue in 1893, the couple and their son returned to England as the 11th Duke and Duchess with son Hastings, then Marquess of Tavistock as the heir to the dukedom is styled.  Mary and her husband were avid ornithologists and travelers. During WWI she established a hospital at Woburn where she worked with wounded soldiers. She learned to fly airplanes in the 1920’s and after many long trips, some showing considerable daring, at age 71 she and her plane were lost over the North Sea in March 1937.  Three years later, her husband passed away and her son Hastings (1888-1953) became the 12th Duke.

Presently, Andrew Ian Russell is 15th Duke of Bedford.  He and Louise, the present duchess, have (at last report) two children, Lady Alexandra Lucy Clare, born in 2001, and Henry Robin Charles, Marquess of Tavistock, born in 2005.

According to Wikipedia, Duke Andrew has a fortune of about 490 million pounds. Like most families owning a huge country estate, he must see that the properties continue to make an income adequate to support repairs and projects, not an easy task. Some, but not all of the original Bedford Estate in Bloomsbury remains in the Bedford’s hands.

Tavistock Square was the site of some of the terrorist bombs in London in 2005.

But not to end on such a depressing thought, we’ll have a last look at Woburn Abbey, a magnificent treasure house and a joy to visit.

Victoria Visits Woburn Abbey, Part 1

As a collector of experiences at English country homes, I longed to see Woburn Abbey, a center of Whig politics in the 18th and 19th centuries, a great house full of treasures with its grand deer park and lovely gardens.  I finally realized this ambition in May of 2009, staying in the village of Woburn and touring the estate, but not the safari park (about which more later).

 As you can tell from this aerial view, the estate is thousands of acres. Click here to visit WOBURN ABBEY.  I wish I could have spent several more days exploring every corner, but alas, the next leg of the trip had its temptations.

Woburn Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Bedford, was the site of a Cisterian Abbey founded in the twelfth century. After he dissolved the Roman Catholic abbeys, Henry VIII gave the property to John Russell, who served as Lord Privy Seal.

The titles of Earl and Duke of Bedford have a complicated history. The titles were bestowed by the reigning monarch then lost through forfeiture or lack of issue at least six times before the 16th century. Edward VI honored John Russell, his close advisor, with the earldom of Bedford in 1551. The Russell family home remained in Cheshire until the time of the 4th Earl who began to build at Woburn in the early 17th century.

 The 5th Earl was awarded a dukedom by William and Mary for his service in the Glorious Revolution. The family remained devoted Whigs throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Above, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), third son of the 6th duke, Prime Minister for two periods during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Besides the 3,000-acre deer park, the extensive gardens are enchanting. 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of completing Humphry Repton’s (1752-1818) redesign of the park, only some of which was taken for the safari park. Repton (right) is often considered the heir of the English Landscape Garden tradition from Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783).  Repton is particularly well-known for his Red Books, in which his designs are overlaid on pictures of the original landscape. Repton’s Woburn Red Books are preserved in its library, dated 1804.

Repton followed Brown’s general scheme of undulating hills, clumps of trees, irregularly shaped lakes and meandering streams, an idyllic recreation of the natural English countryside, complete with grazing sheep and gamboling lambs.  Repton often added romantic elements, such as grottoes, and themed “rooms” of contrasting garden styles. His taste for the picturesque was fully realized in Woburn’s Chinese Dairy, above.

The house, once much larger than it is today, was designed by architects Henry Flitcroft and Henry Holland in the mid-18th century. In 1950, part of the house was demolished due to dry rot and the facades of the remaining wings were restored.

A tour of the interior is one feast for the eyes after another. Queen Victoria’s Bedroom is part of the State Apartments, used for visiting royalty, which included Elizabeth I while the house was still a monastery. Albert and Victoria came in 1841 and the Queen wrote of her enjoyment of the fine collection of pictures.

 One of the most famous in the Woburn Collection is the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, by George Gower, 1588, which celebrates the great English victory over the Spanish fleet. Many great Russell family portraits by such artists as VanDyke, Reynolds, and Gainsborough, hang throughout the rooms on public view.

The State Dining Room, left, shows a selection of these portraits as well as the delicate Meissen dinner service adorned with birds and dating from about 1800.

Further along the house tour, another dining room contains the collection of more than twenty views of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768), commissioned by the Fourth Duke on his Grand Tour about 1730. The view to the right is Entrance to the Arsenal.

The Russell family is also renowned for its development of properties in London. 

At Covent Garden, the fourth Earl of Bedford engaged architect Inigo Jones to develop the grounds of the old convent garden. Jones designed a market place, based partly on the Place des Vosges in Paris, the kind of place we would call mixed use today, with shops, entertainment and residences. Jones also designed St. Paul’s Church, above.

It is quite a memorial to the Russells and Jones that today’s Covent Garden fully reflects their original purposes.

 At right is another of the former  Russell/Bedford London holdings, Russell Square in Bloomsbury. In fact the freehold of some of this area is still held by the family. Russell Square was also designed by Humphry Repton and revitalized in the last decade.

 One of my favorite aspects of visiting great country houses is to learn about the families, and the Russell/Bedford clan has a particularly delicious set of duchesses about which to write.  But I must save that for a later post.

In closing, a few views from the Woburn Safari Park which not only entertains thousands of visitors but also particpates in several worldwide plans to preserve endangered wildlife. It was opened in 1970 by the 13th Duke of Bedford.

Do You Know About The National Trust and the Royal Oak Society?

Victoria here…a loyal member of the Royal Oak Society for quite a few years.  This is the U.S. organization that supports the National Trust in Britain. If you live in a major U.S. city, or visit one from time to time, you might find that one of the Royal Oak’s lectures could be on your agenda.

They bring historians, decorators, architectural critics and gardeners to the U.S. for programs in New York City, and several other cities, usually chosen from Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Sometimes Miami, Charleston, San Francisco and others. The programs I have attended are marvelous.

To learn more about the Royal Oak, click here. There are many other worthwhile activities, too. But the very best thing is that you are part of the British National Trust and you are admitted free to all NT properties, not to mention getting a discount at their shops.

Here is the connection to the NT. As you probably know if you are an Anglophile, the National Trust is a fantastic organization that works to protect the land and the heritage of Great Britain. I have this dream that someday I will get to all of the places run by the National Trust, particularly the stately homes.

While the NT is an exceptionally well run professional organization, with a wonderful list of publications, most of the guards/guides in the buildings are volunteers, well-trained, but nevertheless, volunteers.  I have heard some wonderful stories from these worthy souls about their experiences — and most of them are only too glad to chat with guests, especially when they find out you are a member of the Royal Oak — then you are really someone special.

One day, a pal and I were at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire  which was used for many of the interior shots of Pemberley in the 1995 Colin Firth version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There was a large display in the stable of costumes from the film.  My friend and I walked slowly through the handsome rooms, reading about them in the guidebook and listening to the volunteer guides. 

We reached a large bedchamber decorated in red satin.  I turned to my pal and said, “Oh, this is the room where Darcy changed his coat!”

Well, the poor gentleman in charge of that room had heard that remark one too many times.  “Madam!” he sputtered. “This is not only the room where Darcy (here his voice dripped with exasperation) changed his coat. THIS was the bedchamber of Queen Adelaide after her husband died. She lived in this house for part of her life and this was her room.”
He meant the wife of William IV who had a rather sad widowhood, not really welcomed to court by Queen Victoria’s Mama, who wished Adelalide far, far away to reduce her possible influence on the young Queen.

My friend and I tried not to giggle as we assured the gentleman that we appreciated his information and felt ourselves quite well corrected in our views. This was a gentleman who took his history seriously, not to be toyed with by movie fans.

Another funny story I heard from an NT volunteer guide was a Saltram House.  She had been on duty during the filming of the Emma Thompson film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Her specific assignment was to protect the Chippendale sofas in the Saloon. They are too large and fragile to be moved, so one volunteer was needed at each of the pair to keep the technicians from draping their dirty cables and cords over the delicate satin upholstery. Every day. In addition, the guide told us that during the filming, the beautiful carpeting was rolled up and replaced temporarily by a painted floor cloth, which looks exactly the same in the film. Rolling cameras and all the crew could tramp around on the floor cloth to their heart’s content.

One of my favorite parts of being a Royal Oak/NT member is getting the annual guidebook to their properties and their quarterly newsletters, just packed with information I use to plan my next visits.

So hat’s off to the NT and Royal Oak — and everyone else who works so hard to keep Britain’s cultural history and precious unspoiled land  available to all of us!  Huzzah!!

Knole, Kent (left)

Bodiam Castle, Kent (below)

Brancaster, Norfolk, salt marshes (left)


 Right, Scotney Castle and Garden, Kent