Ruins of Houghton House
|Location||Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire|
Houghton House is a ruined mansion house in the parish of Maulden, Bedfordshire. It is a Grade I listed building, positioned above the surrounding countryside, and commands excellent views. It is said that the house was the model for House Beautiful in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). It is today the property of English Heritage, and is open to free public access during daylight hours.
The estate of Houghton was granted by King James I (1603-1625) to Mary Herbert, Dowager Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), née Sidney, a courtier, writer, translator, and literary patron, who commenced the building of the surviving house in about 1615. Two architects were very likely responsible for the design, John Thorpe, who worked in the Jacobean tradition, and Inigo Jones, who introduced the classical style into England. The Countess was visited there by King James I in 1621, soon after its completion. Shortly afterwards on 25 September 1621 she died of smallpox. The surviving Jacobean-style frieze on the western side of the house displays heraldic elements relating to the Sidney family and to the Countess's relations the Dudley family.
Following the death of the Countess, the estate was granted in 1624 by King James I to Thomas Bruce, 1st Earl of Elgin (1599–1663), whose family used it as their seat for three generations. In the churchyard of nearby Maulden Church, the advowson of which was owned by the Bruce family, is the Ailesbury Mausoleum, the earliest free-standing mausoleum in England, built in 1656 by Thomas Bruce, 1st Earl of Elgin in memory of his 2nd wife Diana Cecil. The Bruce family resided in the house until Thomas Bruce, 3rd Earl of Elgin, 2nd Earl of Ailesbury went into exile on the Continent in 1696 on account of his loyalty to the deposed King James II (1685-deposed 1688, died 1701).
Thomas Bruce, 3rd Earl of Elgin, 2nd Earl of Ailesbury never returned to Houghton and in 1738 sold the house to John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, whose principal seat was Woburn Abbey, about seven miles from Houghton. His son and heir apparent, Francis Russell, Marquess of Tavistock (d.1767), lived at Houghton from 1764 until he died in a hunting accident in 1767. Thus the 4th Duke's estates, including Houghton, and titles passed to his grandson, Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford (d.1802), who having let the deerpark to a neighbour found he was unable to let the house without its grounds. Considering the house as a liability, in 1794 he ordered Houghton to be dismantled, and accordingly the furnishings were stripped out and the roof removed to be sold as building materials. The staircase survives in The Swan Hotel in Bedford. The 5th Duke never married and thus did not produce a legitimate male heir. He died in 1802 by which time the house, by then long open to the elements, was already in decay.
The ruins were acquired by English Heritage, and is open to free public access during daylight hours. Conservation work was undertaken in 2006 to help maintain safety and improve the understanding of the site and new visitor information boards were installed. By 2007 several of these have been vandalised leaving empty boards behind.
- Collett-White, J, Inventories of Bedfordshire Country Houses 1714–1830, Historical Record Society, 74, 1995, pp.103–22
- Curtis, E, Life in the "Palace Beautiful": Houghton House, near Ampthill, Elstow Moot Hall Leaflet, No 5, 1958
- Foster, AJ, Bunyan's Country: Studies in the Topography of Pilgrim's Progress, London, 1891
- George, M.S.F., The Mansion of the Fair – the Story of Houghton House 1, Bedfordshire Magazine, 1:5 (1948), pp.169–74
- Hannay, M.P., Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, Oxford, 1990
- Smith, E., Houghton House, Bedfordshire, Designed by Inigo Jones, The Builder, 19, 1846
- In the churchyard of Maulden Church is the Ailesbury Mausoleum, built by Thomas Bruce, 1st Earl of Elgin in memory of his 2nd wife Diana Cecil
- Colvin, Howard, Architecture and the After-Life, 1991, pp.312-3, quoted in 
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Houghton House.|
- Houghton House at britainexpress.com
- An illustration of what the West and North side of the house would have looked like
- Illustration of the house in 1784, ten years before the roof was removed
- Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke
- The Bruce Family
- The Russell Family
- Houghton House at Bedfordshire Libraries
- English Heritage page