Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

The glory that is Chatsworth House today

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Wikipedia)

The modern era has, in many ways, not been kind to our country houses.  Faced with massive social changes in the early part of the 20th-century staff became harder to find leading to reduced maintainence.  Often this started a spiral of decline which led to the demolition of hundreds of our largest and finest country houses.  Even today, faced with the costs of conservation standard repairs, it can be a struggle for owners to keep their houses looking at their best.   This is why the recently completed £14m restoration of possibly England’s finest country house, Chatsworth, is such an achievement.

Chatsworth House exemplifies the best in the fine tradition of the development of our country houses.  Passed down through generations of the Dukes of Devonshire, the south and east fronts of the house we see today were built for the 1st Duke by the architect William Talman in 1696 in a grand Baroque style around the origianal Elizabethan courtyard.   The west and west fronts are thought to be the work of another great architect Thomas Archer, with further work in the 19th-century by Jeffry Wyattville to modernise the house for the 6th Duke.  Within the fine exterior the Devonshires also had acquired one of the finest art collections in the world.  Unfortunately many have been sold off in the 20-th century to meet the rapacious demands of death duties but the house still holds works by some of the finest artists of the day.

With its spectacular interiors, grand exteriors and palatial grounds, the responsibilities are immense for the 12th Duke.  Happily for this wonderful example of the glory of the English country house, the wealth of the Devonshires allows them to maintain the house in a way many other owners can only dream of, and is allied with his own determination to ensure that the house and estate is maintained in the best possible condition.  Considering the ravages that economics and circumstance have visited on so many of our houses, it’s a remarkable testament to the care of the Devonshires that this house looks as fine as it does, as the covers come off and the house opens again to the curious public this weekend for another season.

More details: ‘Chatsworth reopens to public with exhibition amid £14m restoration‘ [The Times]

‘Aristocracy is dead’ says Duke of Devonshire *Updated*

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: wikipedia)

Although the country houses are often impressive in themselves there is always heightened interest when they are associated with a grand title.  Unfortunately the 12th Duke of Devonshire, in an article in today’s Sunday Times magazine, believes that the concept of aristocracy is dead and that if the current government succeed in removing the last remaining hereditary peers he will take this as a sign from the public and would be willing to give up his own.

To me this seems very sad as his own title comes with 300 years of history and in some ways it’s not his to declaim as his heirs may be willing to keep it going.  The family seat of Chatworth in Derbyshire is synonymous with the Devonshire title following the recent films and books and to lose it is as much a commercial loss as it is one of heritage.  Perhaps he might consider just not using it and placing it in abeyance until his death and then it can be used or not as his son wishes. I can’t believe that the current legislation is a fair reflection of the will of the people who generally have a greater respect for the nations heritage and traditions than those currently in charge.

Full story: ‘Aristocracy is dead, says Chatsworth’s duke‘ [Sunday Times]

Update issued on behalf of the Duke of Devonshire  [22 Feb 2010]


Further to reports in the press I would like to clarify my position on the use of the Devonshire title. Should hereditary peers be removed from the House of Lords I would indeed strongly consider dropping the public use of my title, as I believe that I would have to consider and respond to any future democratic mandate against hereditary peerage. However, my principle duty will continue to be to preserve and enhance Chatsworth itself for future generations and I remain immensely respectful of my Devonshire predecessors who have bequeathed us this very special place.


Stoker Devonshire

The Duke of Devonshire, KVCO, CVE, DL

Chatsworth, Bakewell, Derbyshire”