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country houses

country houses. The country house was the focal point and symbol of the ascendancy of the gentry and aristocracy in the period between the Glorious Revolution and the First World War. It no longer had military significance. It was not a castle, did not need moats or peel towers, and had no fortifications, unless the owner in the late 18th cent. had a taste for mock Gothic and battlements. It was large enough to accommodate the family and its dependants, and the bevy of servants who supported them. Ideally it could give hospitality to a considerable number of guests since it often served as a political headquarters. It stood in its own park, with a lodge and a drive, partly to give privacy, partly to impress or even overawe visitors. The minimum requirements were a large dining room, good stables, and a reception room: the larger houses ran to long galleries, libraries, orangeries, and lakes. Follies and eye-catchers were optional extras.

Country house does not seem the right term for Tudor residences. The great palaces—Hatfield, Longleat, Burghley, Hardwick—were rather too grand: ‘prodigy houses’ has been suggested. Many of the rest were modest, often in the middle of a medieval village, squalid rather than picturesque. The fields surrounding the villages were still, for the most part, communally cultivated on a strip system, giving the house little space of its own. One of the objects of enclosures in the 18th cent. was often to round off a park, eliminate an irritating intrusion, or divert a footpath. Until 1693, the main road from Deptford to Woolwich ran right through the middle of the Queen's House at Greenwich.

Most of the land released by the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s found its way into the hands of the gentry and nobility and many of the estates were future country houses, betraying their origins as Woburn abbey (Beds.), Newbattle abbey (Lothian), or Hitchin priory (Herts.). The great building period followed the Restoration in 1660 and particularly the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Good examples of the modest 17th-cent. manor house are Washington Old Hall, south of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Woolbridge Manor (Dorset), where Thomas Hardy made Tess spend her unlucky honeymoon. On a grander scale are Capheaton, Northumberland (1668), Milton, Oxfordshire (1670), and Uppark, Sussex (1685–90). With Chatsworth, Derbyshire (1687), Castle Howard, Yorkshire (1699), Stowe, Buckinghamshire (1720), and Mellerstain, Borders (1725) we are moving towards palaces.

The style of life within the walls depended greatly on the wealth and interests of the owner. After 1688, Parliament met annually, usually in November, and members were not keen to stay in London long after Easter. The country house season was the summer and early autumn. Leading politicians held conclaves—Lord Temple had a ‘grand congress’ at Stowe in October 1783 to concert opposition to Fox's India Bill; county members cultivated their neighbours and freeholders with dinners, balls, and races, the lesser gentry took advantage of the light evenings to visit within a radius of 10 miles or so. Though the vision, particularly for the old, was a country retreat, there were many, especially among the young, who were bored in the country and pined for the London season. The comfort of the house depended greatly on the quality of its servants. Augustus Hervey at Stowe in 1765 ‘never saw so large a house so well conducted … servants all attention and respect’. But Horace Walpole at Houghton, much neglected, in 1773 found three old servants drunk before breakfast. The problem of finding reliable and cheap servants became acute in the later 19th cent. and was one of the factors undermining the country-house way of life.

The mid-18th cent. was an age of improvement. A large number of country houses were rebuilt in classical style and much money spent on embellishing parks. At Kedleston, Milton, Chippenham (Cambs.), Nuneham Courtenay, and Wimpole, whole villages were removed to give greater privacy. Visiting the new seats and inspecting the improvements became a favourite pastime and housekeepers turned the honest penny by showing tourists round when the family was not in residence. The internal arrangements were remodelled to give much greater privacy and comfort than had existed in the semi-communal house of medieval times, with its great hall. Water closets began to be installed in the late 17th cent. though progress was slow.

Though the 18th cent. was the heyday of the country house, more were built in the 19th cent. than ever before. Disraeli, who surprisingly became leader of the Tory Party, had no country house of his own and had to borrow money from the Bentincks to buy Hughenden Manor in Buckinghamshire. Sir William Armstrong, the north-eastern armaments king, built himself an extraordinary country retreat at Cragside in the Northumbrian hills, where elegance gave way to comfort. The Rothschild family covered the vale of Aylesbury with large and ornate country houses—Aston Clinton (1840), Mentmore (1852–4), Tring (1873), Ascott (1874), Waddesdon (1880), and Halton (1884). The spread of the railway network made visiting country houses, particularly for the weekend, easier than ever before.

The decline in the later 19th cent. had a variety of causes. Country gentlemen no longer dominated politics, at Westminster or in the shire, and the country house lost its raison d'être as a political centre. The agricultural depression after the 1870s struck the landed interest hard and for decades land ceased to be an attractive investment. The cost of running households and estates escalated just as death duties and discriminatory taxes were beginning to bite. Though many country houses survive, others have been transformed into hideous parodies of former greatness, and serve as conference centres, reform homes, cult headquarters, and even fun-fairs and amusement parks.

J. A. Cannon

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