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country houses

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The country house was the focal point and symbol of the ascendancy of the gentry in the period between the Glorious Revolution and the First World War. It no longer had military significance. 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.

Country house does not seem the right term for Tudor residences. The great palaces—Hatfield, Longleat, Burghley, Hardwick—were 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. One of the objects of enclosures in the 18th cent. was often to round off a park, or eliminate an irritating footpath.

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.) or Hitchin priory (Herts.). Good examples of the modest 17th‐cent. manor house are Washington Old Hall, south of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Woolbridge Manor (Dorset). 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 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. 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.

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 decline in the later 19th cent. had a variety of causes. Country gentlemen no longer dominated politics, 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 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.


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