The Telegraph, 11 October 2021
Life inside Britain’s grandest country houses is ‘prehistoric’ — but modern aristocrats are adapting
The National Trust has lost its way, but private owners are bringing new life to old traditions of power, wealth and status
By Eilidh Hargreaves11 October 2021 • 5:00am
The esteemed writer, historian and former editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet, 66, has harboured a love of British country houses since his first years on the scene in the ‘80s.
“In those days there weren't emails or the internet,” he tells me over the phone. “So I would just drive down, cheekily, and have a quick look. If I saw somebody I would try and charm them. Or I might get told off. [Once] I ran into the car of a guest who was leaving - that was very embarrassing.”
It is easy to imagine Aslet, with his received pronunciation and gift for storytelling, charming the drawers off aristos from Cape Wrath to Dover. After 40 years of visiting and writing about their grand homes, he has poured his knowledge into a new book, The Story of the Country House, published last week by Yale. While his proficiency can hardly be bettered, his passion for the topic is shared by many. Urged on by the popularity of such television shows as The Crown, Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, the general public is going quite mad for the country house and the lifestyles of their occupants.
Clive Aslet and his new book, The Story of the Country House
“The people who lived in these houses behaved in a way that was totally unlike that of the population at large, or the way that we would behave now,” says Aslet. “[What] makes the life of the Royal family sometimes seem rather strange is that they still live as they might've done in the Edwardian period. It’s completely prehistoric. That has a fascination. The Royal family from the outside appears to be extraordinarily privileged and have amazing artworks and plates of gold and silver and all the rest of it, but actually, does it make human happiness?”
From the tall windows in the great hall of Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, to the incredible Baroque stylings of Burghley House in Peterborough, the white domes of Chiswick House in London and the newly completed Folly at Wolverton House, built for publishing titan and author Nicholas Coleridge, the book tells the history of myriad exceptional British houses and the families that inhabited them. Each reveals themes of power and expectation that cut to the core of society.
The Baroque Heaven Room at Burghley House Credit: The Burghley House Collection
Indeed, the country house has existed as an expression of might for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, tapestries lining the walls were status symbols, due to their fantastic cost. Some were extraordinarily coloured, woven with rare gold or red thread, in contrast to ordinary houses, which would have been gloomy. Furniture was hand-crafted and therefore a symbol of wealth. King Henry VIII, lord of 63 palaces, had a particularly intricate system of chests labeled according to the rooms that he occupied. Every time he arrived at a new palace, they were unpacked and he had exactly the same furniture in exactly the same rooms as the last. When he left, the rooms became shells until his return.
In the Tudor period, great displays of gold and silver plates were laid out, buffet style, for the world to see. It was part of the notion of ‘magnificence’, championed by James I. The King was keen that lords lived in their country estates and ensured the tables of their great halls were groaning with delicacies to treat friends, travellers and the poor. “That was good for everybody because the lord was spending money, he was employing people. It justified extravagant senators,” says Aslet. “I don't think it was a very democratic view.” That idea endured until the Regency period, when luxury was defined by lavish, week-long parties and Bridgerton-style opulence.
Stansted Park stands in 1800 acres of extraordinary landscaped parkland and ancient forest
Horses have always been symbols of refinement but having your home resemble a castle was often the ultimate sign of prestige. Even before the end of the Middle Ages, there was a revival in chivalry, and landowners wanted to erect battlements; later, in the period of Charles I, people re-romanticised the idea of castle living, which lasted until the early 19th century. In present times, the dial has changed again. Luxury in the age of the mobile phone is defined by privacy, and that has spurred on a revival in country houses. “People don’t really know what you’re doing. If you have an estate, then you have a very nice area of your own, which you can turn into your own personal Arcadia.”
While today, showing too much wealth can be considered vulgar, The Story of the Country House shows the opposite was true of the past. “If you were in court, you had to buy these houses to show that you were in the game,” says Aslet. “If you didn’t, it looked as though you were rather insignificant.”
Hopetoun House in South Queensferry Credit: Dylan Thomas
This proliferated a panic-inducing dilemma for noblemen who lacked the appropriate finances. Around 1600, the Lord De L’Isle of the time was absolutely broke, explains Aslet. With building in progress at his family seat, Penshurst in Kent, Christmas was coming on along with pressure to live it up in the expected manner.
“There are letters saying he wanted to create a deer park so that there could be hunting and that perhaps the King would come, and his steward was saying to him, ‘you just don't have the money to do it’,” says Aslet. “But he drove himself on, living on a knife edge. He possibly sold some land [to finance it], which was a bad thing to do [because it showed] you were slightly on the slide. But if you did well at court, you could make it up with huge privileges that you were given, including means of taxing. So people thought it was worth spending astronomical amounts of money. It was a gamble.”
Penshurst Castle in Kent from 1891 book "Picturesque England" Credit: Getty
As the landed gentry began to lose its power over the course of the 19th century, income obliterated due to the agricultural depression of the 1870s, followed by two world wars, it turned to other means. “People tried to marry American heiresses, but there weren't enough to go round,” says Aslet.
His favourite tale begins at sea. “Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh inherits unexpectedly from his brother,” he says. “He goes on a world cruise: they go shooting in Africa, buy masses of stuff in Japan, and then they went to San Francisco and met all these girls — and some of them were really rich!” As luck would have it, Fermor-Hesketh successfully wooed Florence Emily Sharon, daughter of US Senator William Sharon and heiress to empires in gold, silver, banking and hotels. She followed him back to England where her American fortune enabled the family’s two homes, Easton Neston and Rufford Old Hall, to be updated.
Blenheim Palace looking regal in the mist Credit: Blenheim 2021
Then, there was the New York socialite Jennie Jerome, who married Sir Randolph Churchill, and prominent Vanderbilt, Consuelo, who wed Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. “A lot of these marriages were not terribly happy. The American girls didn’t find life in these houses easy. From their point of view the attitudes people had were from the dinosaur age,” says Aslet.
Country house owners these days are more savvy, with varying income streams from holiday lets to agriculture, wind turbines, filming and revenue from the visiting public. The houses that have remained in private hands, not sold out or bequeathed to the National Trust, are the best surviving.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are greeted by Rose Cholmondeley, the Marchioness of Cholmondeley, at Houghton Hall Credit: Getty
“The National Trust is accused of having rather lost its way,” Aslet says. “In the eighties, when I started off, [it] was a subject of huge public excitement, because it was leading the world in the display of these great artifacts and country houses. Its role has been overtaken by private houses. The National Trust thinks people aren't so interested in the houses [as] the outdoors. I'm not sure that's entirely true: look at the huge success of things like Downton Abbey. People are so fascinated. It's useless in terms of engaging the public with anything that's beyond questions of access.”
There’s the nature reserve for Holkham House, owned by Thomas Coke, 8th Earl of Leicester, the art exhibitions at Houghton Hall, belonging to Lord Cholmondeley the 7th Marquess, and Chatsworth House, home to The Duke of Devonshire. Weddings are spectacular at Hedsor House, owned by the Shephard Family. Manderston House, home to the 4th Baron Palmer, in the Scottish borders has a silver-plated staircase to marvel at. Highclere Castle, family seat of the Carnarvons, is the subject of much fascination as the location of Downton Abbey. The privately owned houses are, “completely fresh and new and exciting, but the National Trust is in a bit of a muddle,” Aslet concludes.
Holkham House has an incredible nature reserve Credit: Getty
All the blood, sweat and tears are in a bid for the continuing success of each dynasty to survive. “There is a huge pressure on the people who own these houses,” says Aslet. “They’re the representatives for their lifetime. A very common thing that people say is that they don't want to be the person who drops the ball. If your family has been seated in this place for 500 years, you don’t want to be the [one] who messes up and everything has to be sold. Yet, it's not easy to do. That is a huge burden on some of these people who may not be necessarily temperamentally very suited to it.”
Enduringly, there is a duty of tradition. “We think of [these houses] in terms of the architectural style or the different styles of decoration. I'm not sure whether to the people who were building them, that was their first consideration. The statement was the important thing. People in this country wanted to have things that looked traditional.”
Left: Lady Kinvara Balfour, daughter of the Earl of Balfour, has spoken out about scrapping the rules of primogeniture. Right: Earl Spencer plans to uphold it at Althorp Credit: Getty
But today, ensuring the survival of these houses and dynasties means questioning which traditions should remain and which should evolve — whether that’s the Queen facing calls to adapt to a more modern, pared back Royal system, or young aristocrats challenging the misogynistic rules of primogeniture in the hope that their family homes are left to the most fitting child, as opposed to the eldest son. Real life period drama.
The Story of the Country House: A History of People and Places, £18.99 hardback, yalebooks.co.uk