We’ve toured the British Isles to bring you 25 of our most magnificent manor houses and stately homes, each with their own story to tell.
The number of heritage buildings still standing proudly across our land never fails to amaze us. Many are ancestral seats that have stayed in the same family for centuries – though some may be showing signs of faded grandeur and the fall in fortunes of their owners – others are ostentatious declarations of wealth, and most have hosted kings and queens, prime ministers, actors, poets – all manner of illustrious guests.
Here, we bring you some of the most fascinating of these buildings, from examples of architectural brilliance surrounded by acres of grounds, to lesser-known places that hide unbelievable stories. So read on, enjoy, and start planning your next trip.
1 Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
We simply couldn’t not mention Blenheim, the sprawling Oxfordshire estate that was built for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on the park gifted to him by Queen Anne, along with a sum of £240,000, in thanks from a ‘grateful nation’ for his victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.
It was at Blenheim almost two centuries later that one of the duke’s descendants, Sir Winston Churchill, was born and such was the hold that the estate had on the future prime minister that he chose to propose to his darling Clementine Hozier here, by the Temple of Diana, in 1908.
The house itself – the only non-royal or non-episcopal country house in England to be called a palace – is a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, with beautiful features such as the painted ceiling in the Saloon. However, Blenheim’s 2,000 acres of gardens – one of the most exquisite works of 18th-century landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown – are what really make the place special. It’s small wonder UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1987.
2 Highclere Castle, West Berkshire
As the world bids farewell to Downton Abbey, surely it’s time to revisit the glorious Berkshire ancestral home that has formed the backdrop to so many scenes of the Crawley family and their household.
The ‘real’ Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is actually the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon and it was the current countess, Lady Carnarvon, a close friend of Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, who saw the value in opening the house up to the period drama that has revived the estate’s fortunes.
Although Highclere has been in the hands of the Carnarvon family since 1679, (and its gardens were also designed by Capability Brown), the current house was remodelled in the Jacobean style in 1838 for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon by Sir Charles Barry, the man who famously rebuilt the Palace of Westminster.
Highclere Castle became the focus of a media circus in 1922 when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his associate Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The earl died shortly after the discovery, leading to the story of the ‘Curse of Tutankhamun’, though his death could be explained by blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite.
3 Chatsworth, Derbyshire
Few English estates draw such delight as this one in the heart of the Peak District. Chatsworth (opening pages and above) is recognisable to many as Mr Darcy’s home of Pemberley in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, but eagle-eyed viewers may also remember it from another Knightley film, The Duchess.
Chatsworth has been the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire since 1549 and has passed through the hands of 16 generations of the Cavendish family.
The house is famed for its art collection, which spans four centuries, but its state apartments, overhauled to accommodate a visit from King William III and Queen Mary II that never actually happened, are extraordinary.
4 Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Bess of Hardwick was one of the most influential figures in Elizabethan times – she was second in wealth only to Queen Elizabeth I – and Hardwick Hall was one of her homes.
It is a magnificent example of a prodigy house – showy Tudor and Jacobean properties that were
built with a view to housing the queen on her annual progresses.
The large and plentiful windows, which were an extravagance as glass was expensive, led to the rhyme, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.’
5 Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire
The largest private residence in Europe – Wentworth is twice the width of Buckingham Palace – this 18th-century mansion, created by wealthy Whig magnates, is currently up for sale, so book a tour while you still can.
Once the home of Charles I’s ill-fated administrator, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, who was tried and beheaded for treason in 1641, the house also hosted a visit by King George V and Queen Mary in 1912.
6 Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
This quirky country house, near the historic town of Lacock, was built on a former nunnery and represented the ‘real’ Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymours, in the recent TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels.
Scenes depicting King Henry VIII’s bedroom and his lodgings at Calais were also filmed here. In real life, Henry sold Lacock to one of his courtiers, Sir William Sharington, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and it is now in the care of the National Trust.
7 Stonor, Oxfordshire
Although it is one of our oldest manor houses, Stonor is also one of our lesser-known stately homes, despite the fact that one of the most significant religious events in British history took place here. In 1581 Edmund Campion hid in the roof space while he printed 400 copies of his famous treatise, Decem Rationes, arguing for Catholicism. However, he was soon caught and tortured before being hung, drawn and quartered.
The house is open at select times from April to September and holds a rare copy of the Decem Rationes.
8 Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
So ambitious was the vision for Castle Howard, the private residence of the Howard family for more than 300 years, that the Baroque building took over 100 years to complete but the result was astounding, with two symmetrical wings and a central dome.
Although much of the building was devastated by fire in the 1940s, over the years many rooms have been restored, though when the house was used as the backdrop for the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in 2008 parts were superficially restored and the East Wing remains a shell.
9 Crag Hall, Derbyshire
Until recently this sandstone Georgian country house with views over the Peak District National Park was the private shooting lodge and holiday home of the Earl and Countess of Derby, but now you can hire it for your own gathering.
Located amid historic royal hunting ground – legend has it the last wild boar of England were hunted here – this 12-bedroomed property can accommodate up to 21 guests – perfect for living out the Downton Abbey fantasy.
10 Kenwood House, London
Hidden in London’s Hampstead Heath, Kenwood House is a Robert Adam’s house, remodelled by the architect in 1764 to include a new entrance, attic-storey bedrooms and one of his most famous interiors – the Great Library, which was restored to its original colours during a major restoration project in 2013.
The grounds are home to ancient woodland and landscaped gardens, probably designed by Humphry Repton, and feature sculptures from the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
11 Lyme Park, Cheshire
Best known for its starring role as Mr Darcy’s Pemberley in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (yes, that scene when Colin Firth emerges from the lake), Lyme Park is a fine example of an Italianate palace.
Outside, the 1,300 acres are home to a medieval herd of red and fallow deer, while inside you’ll find an incredible collection of English clocks and the famous Mortlake tapestries. The Edwardian era was when Lyme Park was in its heyday and the house is a time capsule of that period.
12 Buscot Park, Oxfordshire
Built in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture between 1779 and 1783 for Edward Loveden Townsend to designs by James Darley, this resplendent stately home houses the Farringdon Collection, with paintings by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Rubens and Van Dyck.
13 Great Chalfield Manor and Garden, Wiltshire
The stand in for Thomas Cromwell’s home of Austin Friars in TV’s Wolf Hall, Great Chalfield is as pretty an English country house as you can imagine.
The 15th-century moated manor house is set in tranquil countryside and features a gatehouse and stunning oriel windows, all of which withstood a siege by Royalists during the English Civil War. The private residence offers guided tours or you can book into one of the reasonably priced gorgeous four-poster bedrooms for the night.
14 Burghley House, Lincolnshire
Described as ‘England’s greatest Elizabethan house’, Burghley was built and designed by William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, between 1555 and 1587, and includes 2,000 acres of Capability Brown gardens, (which were added later), and a deer park.
The interior is lavish and features sumptuous fabrics and carvings by Grinling Gibbons, while the Pagoda Room has portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, her father, Oliver Cromwell and members of the Cecil family.
Some say that beneath its foundations lie the remains of the medieval settlement of Burghley, mentioned in the Domesday Book, which so far has evaded archaeologists.
15 Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute
It may come as a surprise that the first house in Britain to have an indoor heated swimming pool is hidden on the tiny Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, but then Mount Stuart is no ordinary place. It was also probably the first property in Scotland to have electric lighting, central heating and a passenger lift – a horse-drawn railway was needed to build the house.
The Gothic Revival building, which replaced an earlier Georgian property, is a feat of Victorian engineering, created for John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who, in the late 19th century, was
the richest man in Britain.
16 Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
Woburn has been in the hands of the Russell family since King Edward VI gifted it to John Russell in 1547, for his service to his father, King Henry VIII – in 1550 John was made the first Earl of Bedford.
Ever since the 4th Earl moved his family in during the 1620s, it has been the family seat and in the 18th century it was turned into the English Palladian home that you see today. The estate first opened to the public in 1955 and its impressive art collection includes the largest private collection of Venetian views painted by Canaletto on public view and the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.
17 Longleat House, Wiltshire
Completed in 1580, Longleat is another of our great Elizabethan houses, set in 900 acres of parkland landscaped by Capability Brown. Inside you’ll find one of the largest book collections in Europe and the bloodstained waistcoat King Charles I was wearing when he was executed in 1649, which sits in the Great Hall.
Now home to the 7th Marquess of Bath and run by his son, Viscount Weymouth, it’s come a long way from the property bought by MP John Thynne in 1540 for £53.
18 Llancaiach Fawr Manor, South Wales
Built circa 1550 for Dafydd ap Richard, this house is one of the best examples of a semi-fortified manor in Wales. It’s laid out much as it would have been in 1645 when King Charles I visited, when he must have angered the owner, Colonel Edward Prichard, who switched to the side of the Roundheads.
19 Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire
A house has stood on the site of Luton Hoo since at least 1601 when merchant Sir Robert Napier, 1st Baronet, purchased the estate, but the house as it stands dates from the late 18th century when it was the seat of the 3rd Earl of Bute, then prime minister to King George III, and it too has Capability Brown designed gardens.
Luton Hoo is now a lavish hotel where guests can enjoy the Edwardian Belle Epoque interiors introduced in 1903 by architects Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, who built the Ritz – one highlight is the Wernher Restaurant, named after the owner who ordered the works. Over the years the estate has fulfilled many roles, including testing tanks during the Second World War and hosting a visit by Sir Winston Churchill in 1948 during which he thanked a crowd of 110,000 people for their wartime support.
Today it’s a fantastic place to get a taste of the English country life, from taking afternoon tea to indulging in a spot of clay pigeon shooting or archery, much as past guests of its distinguished owners would have done.
20 Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
Within easy reach of London, this beautiful Jacobean-style property was built for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, son of statesman William Cecil, on the site of Hatfield Palace, which he had exchanged with King James I for the nearby Cecil family home of Theobalds.
Like the king, Robert Cecil wasn’t keen on the rather old-fashioned Hatfield Palace, which had been owned by King Henry VIII, and so he rebuilt it as Hatfield House.
The estate has strong provenance – it was here that Henry VIII’s offspring, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward played as children – Elizabeth was even supposedly told of her ascension to the throne at Hatfield.
The Marble Hall, with ornate oak carving on the walls, takes its name from the chequered black and white marble flooring where past guests would have danced at opulent balls. Guests were overlooked by the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I – perhaps the most colourful portrait of the Tudor era – whose inscription ‘Non sine sole iris’, meaning ‘no rainbow without the sun’ reminds viewers that only the queen’s wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity.
21 Norton Conyers, North Yorkshire
It is one of the most enduring images in English literature, that of the mad woman locked away in the attic in Thornfield Hall by Mr Rochester, and it was here at Norton Conyers that Charlotte Brontë is said to have taken inspiration for her novel, Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Brontë, who was born 200 years ago this year, visited the medieval house in 1839, before she wrote her seminal novel, and it is surely no coincidence that Norton Conyers has its own legend of a woman hidden in an attic. The discovery of a blocked staircase in 2004, much like the one in the novel, seemed to confirm the theory. The house has recently been restored and reopened to the public on a few select days each year.
22 Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Was this red brick mansion built on the site of the birthplace of Anne Boleyn? The house as it stands today was built on the ruins of the former Boleyn home during the reign of King James I. Anne’s parents lived here from 1499 to 1505, so if Anne’s supposed birth date of 1501 is right, the theory is highly probable.
On the staircase of the Great Hall there are reliefs of Anne and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, while
her ghost is said to appear in white carrying her severed head every year on 19 May, the anniversary
of her execution. The South Drawing Room, with its Jacobean-style chimneypiece and ceiling, is also highly impressive.
23 Montacute House, Somerset
This late Elizabethan house stood in for Greenwich Palace in the recent TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. The house’s biggest draw by far is its Long Gallery, the longest of its kind in England, which displays over 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits loaned to the house by the National Portrait Gallery, and the gardens are simply beautiful.
24 Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire
The final resting place of King Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr, this beautiful private castle is perhaps as well known for its colourful gardens as its restored Tudor buildings.
Situated in the heart of the Cotswolds, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, just a few miles from Broadway, Sudeley lay in ruin for almost 200 years following the English Civil War when Cromwell ordered its ‘slighting’, until an ambitious restoration project began in 1837.
25 Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk
This gorgeous Tudor palace, which opens to the public from April to September, features one of Britain’s finest yew hedge mazes amid its spectacular gardens, which also includes a 70ft-long pergola.
For this article and more about Britain’s most inspiring places in the BRITAIN 2016 Guide, on sale in May.