This column is not about the cozy little cottages that dot the English countryside. Instead we’re focusing on those grand English country homes that were the power houses for the country. When I was younger, in addition to devouring Jane Austen novels, I spent an absurd amount of time pouring through my parents’ copy of the 1978 book, Life in a Medieval Castle. But the ultimate was I Capture the Castle – a childhood favorite of my mom’s – written in 1948 by Dodie Smith about a young girl who lives in a rundown castle and dreams of being a writer (It was also adapted into a movie in 2003). I thought it would be fun to take a look at the history behind these grand homes! After all, the custom of afternoon tea? Developed in an English country house. The American love affair with a green lawn? Imported from the English country house, of course!
great chalfield manor completed in 1480 has a moat, a gatehouse, oriel windows and a great hall. the manor is part of the national trust.
For centuries, the ownership of land was the only means to power. These ambitious land-owners were not farmers, but secured power and wealth as the ultimate landlords. Not only did they collect rent from their tenants, but they could also call on those tenants to, in the early days of the country house, fight for them, and to vote for them in the latter days. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, anyone who acquired wealth built a country house to insure their power. The kind of house built was the absolute advertisement of that power and ambition.
As a nod to the tea drinking English, I have a mini tutorial on creating a rubberized tea set! Yep, those pretty pink handles have been rubberized!
CLICK HERE for the full post complete with a “books to read” and “facts to know”(and the rubberizing diy project!)
oakham castle, rutland. the great hall (c.1180-90). 240 horseshoes hang on the walls of the great hall. the 500 year-old custom at oakham is that, on their first visit, every aristocrat must give a horseshoe to the lord of the manor.
The Medieval Estate
A great medieval household would have been a familiar site on the roadways as households frequently moved from one castle to another. The castles were merely shells – the furniture, the tapestries, the kitchen equipment and all the necessities of life were moved from one home to another. The great household usually consisted of 100 – 500 people and only a handful of them were women. (A striking example is that in the Northumberland household the proportion of women to men was 9 to 166!). In many ways, life in the medieval country house was more casual than it would be in later years. For example, all members of the household from the lowest servant to the master of the house ate together.
godmersham park, jane austen’s brother Edward’s home via austenquotes
The 18th Century Country House
The 18th century was the golden age of the English country house. It’s also the time period depicted in the novels of Jane Austen where we can get a sense of how important the great house was to the village life. One of the greatest differences between the 18th century country household and the medieval one was the separations between the classes. No longer did everyone eat together like one happy family. Instead those in “polite society” would stay within their circle. Improved roadways meant that they could mingle together during the London season, before heading down to Bath and could travel to stay at the various country houses of friends or just to visit the country houses of strangers. (Don’t roll your eyes here, I’m about to bring up another Jane Austen connection. I promise – this will be the last. OK, not really. There’s one more. Remember when Elizabeth visits Mr. Darcy’s home? During the 18th century within the polite society clique, the grounds and interiors of all the country homes were open to view.)
The Chatsworth House is one of the most visited country estates in the UK. It is also thought to be Jane Austen’s inspiration for Mr. Darcy’s home – Pemberley – in Pride and Prejudice. Chatsworth was used for the exterior scenes in 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley. (OK, now that’s the last Jane Austen mention.) Chatsworth is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, and has been home to their family, the Cavendish family, since Bess of Hardwick settled at Chatsworth in 1549.
The late 18th century was the era of the house-party. Between breakfast and dinner, guests were usually left to amuse themselves with the men usually out hunting. Everyone would assemble in the drawing room at 6:30 or 7 pm, and then proceed to the dining room. After a dinner served by footmen, the ladies would return to the drawing room, while the men smoked, drank and talked. The men would then return to the drawing room to join the ladies and perhaps play cards.
The Victorians and the Country House
The largest force of change in the 19th century was money. Namely, the flood of money brought in by the industrial revolution. Families with newly acquired money built and remodeled country houses as a way to gain entry into an elite world. The old families built and remodeled to keep up with the new ones. The arrival of the middle class into the world of the elite had the effect of tempering the behavior of an upper-class that was criticized as arrogant, immoral and inefficient.
edwardian servants via english heritage
What was different for Victorian country living was the intense separation of the classes and the incorporation of children into the lives of the adults. Victorian country house owner expected a certain level of privacy. This meant that the servant relied on a warren of back stairways and passage ways. Housemaids in Suffolk had to flatten themselves, face to the wall, when they saw family or guests coming. (Some houses were a little less strict!)
minley manor, hampshire. the nursery in 1899 from life in the english country house
The family apartments for the Victorians were designed for a husband, wife and children. Prior to the 19th century, children hardly figured into the space configuration. The Victorians planned their country houses with great attention to the children. The family wing, usually on two or three floors, contained nurseries above the parents boudoir, study, bedroom and dressing room with a little private staircase for the mother to check on the children.
wakehurst place mansion tops the list of “most visited” national trust properties
The slow decline of the country house began when middle class servants began to seek easier jobs in the cities. But the real blow dealt to the country house was World War I, when much of the staff in a country house went to work for the war effort and never came back. During World War II many country houses were requisitioned during the war and were returned to the owners in poor repair. The high rate of taxes meant that many estate owners were forced to auction off the contents of the house, and then demolish the house and sell its stone, fireplaces, and boiserie. Many other properties were donated to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. The Trust now owns two hundred historic houses that are open to the public.
rear view of Audley End House. the gardens were designed by lancelot “capability” brown around 1763.
Facts to Know
- In 1944 Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy, married William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington, the elder son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire (The family home is Chatsworth House). The marriage was opposed by the Kennedy family because William wasn’t Catholic and only Kathleen’s elder brother Joseph attended the ceremony. William died in World War II only 4 months after the couple’s wedding, and Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948.
- English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716 – 1783) was responsible for approximately 170 gardens surrounding many of the finest country houses in Britain. His trademark was a mass of smooth rolling grass that would run up straight to the house and replaced the more formal English garden. Grazing animals kept the lawns mowed and provided fertilizer. Americans who traveled to England in the 18th century returned home thoroughly inspired by the lawns at the greats houses.
- Tea has been imported into Britain since the mid-17th century, but the custom of afternoon tea didn’t begin until the 1840s when gap between dinner and lunch widened. The ladies began to take a small meal of tea and cake in the afternoon to hold them over until 7:30 or 8:00pm. Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford – close friend of Queen Victoria – is thought to be the first person to have transformed afternoon tea in England into a late afternoon meal rather than a simple refreshment.
Books to Read
–The English Country House is a popular topic so it was a little difficult to narrow down the list this week!
- The English Country House from the Archives of Country Life – This huge glossy book looks at homes that had been featured in Country Life magazine. Although I loved the photographs, my favorite part of the book are the inserts that provide some historical context. If you have an Anglophile on your gift list, this is the book for you!
- The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession – If the history of the lawn fascinates you, this is the book to put it all in context!
- Life in the English Country House by Mark Girouard – It’s a little dense, but definitely a great book on the ins and outs of English country house living from the medieval through the 1940s.
- Jane Austen in Style – If you want to dig a little more into the world of Jane Austen, this is a must-have! (Note: the book is out of print, but Amazon has plenty of used copies!)
create a rubberized tea set! (warning! once you start rubberizing, you won’t want to stop! I’m already looking around the house for new things to rubberize!)
- Plasti Dip is the key to any and all rubberizing. This 22 oz can also come with 5 tints so that you can create any color!
- your object of choice to be rubberized – I decided to dip a white ceramic teapot and a teacup that I already had on hand.
- dipping container – I used an old tupperware container that I no longer used for food
Then you follow the instructions on the back of the container! Your goal is to apply a relatively thin layer of rubber. If the layer you apply is too thick, the drips will bubble and you won’t get that smooth rubber surface. The best way to achieve the thin layer is to not hold the object in the rubber for too long. You should be dipping it slowly in and back out – one fluid motion. (Practice with something you don’t care about first!)
Be sure to think about how you’re going to let the rubber dry. Because I was only dipping half of the teacups, I could lay them down on the opposite side.
Time for tea!