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A stately home is a "great country house". It is thus a palatial great house or in some cases an updated castle, located in the British Isles, mostly built between the mid-16th century and the early part of the 20th century, as well as converted abbeys and other church property (after the Dissolution of the Monasteries). They are in form and substance palaces by another name, yet that term in England is generally reserved for royal or episcopal residences, however modest in comparison to the stately home.
Stately homes are always located in the countryside, and their owners generally owned palatial homes in London also, in proximity to the royal court and parliament. These London residences, known as townhouses, corresponding to the hôtel particulier of Paris, generally took for their name the title or family name of their owner, such as Devonshire House, Grosvenor House, Spencer House, Northumberland House etc. Stately homes may include parts of true fortified "castles", if the buildings have been extensively extended, as at Belvoir Castle and Warwick Castle. Castle Howard is a misnomer, not being a castle, but a palatial residence.
These houses were status symbols for the great families of England, generally headed by great statesmen, who competed with each other to provide suitably grand settings in which to entertain members of the royal family. They were also the settings where affairs of state and party political matters were discussed informally among the ruling elite. They are termed the "seat" of their owner if he bears a title of nobility, the implication being the seat of a political powerbase, as was the true seat on the benches in the House of Lords where he had a right to sit and help determine the political destiny of the nation.
Famous architects and landscape architects such as Robert Adam, Sir Charles Barry, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir John Vanbrugh, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton were employed to incorporate new styles into the buildings. Great art and furniture collections were built up and displayed in the houses.
The agricultural collapse towards the end of the 19th century, the First World War and then World War II changed the fortunes of many houses and their owners, and now they remain as a curious mix of living museums, part-ruined houses and castles and grand family estates. The introduction of inheritance tax caused many owners to relinquish ownership to the National Trust, being no longer able to afford their upkeep.
Many stately homes are still owned and managed by private individuals who are descendants of their original builders, or by family trusts. The costs of running a stately home are naturally extremely high. Many owners let their properties for use as film and television sets as a means of gaining extra income, thus many of them are familiar sights to people who have never visited them in person. The grounds often contain other tourist attractions, such as safari parks, funfairs or museums. The Marquess of Bath at Longleat House in Wiltshire was the first to establish the commercial venture of a safari park in its grounds, followed by Woburn Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Bedford.
The following organisations own and are responsible for the upkeep of some stately homes:
- English Heritage
- National Trust
- Treasure Houses of England
- The Landmark Trust
- Historic Scotland
- National Trust for Scotland
Origin of the term
- The stately Homes of England,
- How beautiful they stand,
- Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
- O’er all the pleasant land!
- The stately homes of England,
- How beautiful they stand,
- To prove the upper classes
- Have still the upper hand.
In the later, Las Vegas phase of his career, Coward revised his lyrics:
- The stately homes of England,
- We proudly represent;
- We only keep them up
- For Americans to rent....
Usage of term
Modest owners do not usually use the phrase "stately home" but are more likely to call their property a "country house", which might seem an understatement to the objective observer. "Stately home" should be a term reserved for the truly palatial residence alone, but is nowadays often misused by estate agents wishing to aggrandise houses which are grand but not palatial. The term is also used imprecisely by commentators on modern society such as Robin Leach in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and parodists such as Dame Edna Everage.
List of English Stately Homes
The following is a list of some of the largest stately homes of England:
- Audley End House
- Attingham Park
- Badminton House
- Belton House
- Blenheim Palace
- Blickling Hall
- Bowood House
- Burghley House
- Calke Abbey
- Carlton Towers
- Castle Howard
- Chatsworth House
- Easton Neston
- Harewood House
- Hatfield House
- Highclere Castle
- Holkham Hall
- Houghton Hall
- Kedleston Hall
- Knebworth House
- Knowsley Hall
- Knole House
- Longleat House
- Lyme Park
- Mentmore Towers
- Montacute House
- Petworth House
- Stowe House
- Welbeck Abbey
- Wentworth Woodhouse
- Wilton House
- Woburn Abbey
The following illustrations seek to show stately homes at their maximum expanses, in approximate descending order of size:
|Portrait||Name||County; Date of design; Patron|
Derbyshire; 1687; William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Devonshire
|Blenheim Palace||Oxfordshire; 1705; Queen Anne for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough|
|Longleat House||Wiltshire; c.1570; Sir John Thynne (d.1580)|
|Castle Howard||N. Yorkshire; 1699; Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle|
|Wentworth Woodhouse||S. Yorkshire; 1723; Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Marquess of Rockingham|
|Kedleston Hall||Derbyshire; 1759; Sir Nathaniel Curzon (later 1st Baron Scarsdale)|
|Wilton House||Wiltshire; 1630; Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke|
|Petworth House||West Sussex; 1688; Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset. (Altered in 1870's)|
|Holkham Hall||Norfolk; 1732; Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester(d.1759)|
|Woburn Abbey||Bedfordshire; 1744; John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford|
|Seaton Delaval Hall||Northumberland; 1718; Admiral George Delaval|
- Guinness Book of Records, 1966, p.175
- Oxford English Dictionary, vol.XVI, Oxford, 1989, p.559: "stately home: originally in allusion to quotation of 1827 (i.e. Blackwood's Magazine, as mentioned in WP article); now a fixed phrase designating a great country house".
- The term is not used for large houses located elsewhere in the English-speaking world, i.e. USA, Australia etc. The corresponding French term might be "grand chateau"
- Larousse Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise, Lexis, 1993; immeuble entierement occupe par un riche particulier et sa famille (building entirely occupied by a rich private individual and his family)
- Nicholson, Nigel. Great Houses of Britain, Book Club Associates, London, 1978.
- Peter Mandler, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-07869-2.