The mansion is surrounded by formal gardens and a series of avenues leading to follies within a larger wooded park. Belton has been described as a compilation of all that is finest of Carolean architecture, the only truly vernacular style of architecture that England had produced since the Tudor period. Jackson-Stops called the house the most complete example of a typical English country house. Only Brympton d'Evercy has been similarly lauded as the perfect English country house.
For three hundred years, Belton House was the seat of the Brownlow and Cust family, who had first acquired land in the area in the late 16th century. Between 1685 and 1688 Sir John Brownlow and his wife had the present mansion built. Despite great wealth they chose to build a modest country house rather than a grand contemporary Baroque palace. The contemporary, if provincial, Carolean style was the selected choice of design. However, the new house was fitted with the latest innovations such as sash windows for the principal rooms, and more importantly completely separate areas for the staff. As the Brownlows rose from baronets to barons upward to earls and then once again became barons, successive generations made changes to the interior of the house which reflected their changing social position and tastes, yet the fabric and design of the house changed little.
Following First World War (a period when the Machine Gun Corps was based in the park), the Brownlows, like many of their peers, were faced with mounting financial problems. In 1984 they gave the house away—complete with most of its contents. The recipients of their gift, the National Trust, today fully open Belton to the public. It is in a good state of repair and visited by many thousands of tourists each year.
The Brownlow family, a dynasty of lawyers, began accumulating land in the Belton area from approximately 1598. In 1609 they acquired the reversion of the manor of Belton itself from the Pakenham family, who finally sold the manor house to Sir John Brownlow I in 1619. The old house was situated near the church in the garden of the present house and remained largely unoccupied, since the family preferred their other houses elsewhere. John Brownlow had married an heiress but was childless and left the estate and money to his grand-nephew and grand-niece John and Alice Brownlow, who had married in 1676. On inheriting in 1679, they bought a town house in the newly fashionable Southampton Square in Bloomsbury, and decided to build a new country house at Belton, which became Belton House.
Work on the new house began in 1685. The architect thought to have been responsible for the initial design is William Winde, although the house has also been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren.
Whoever the architect, Belton follows closely the design of Clarendon House, a grand London town house completed in 1667 (now demolished).
Belton was designed in the restrained almost Palladian-inspired architecture of the time immediately before the full emergence in England of the ornate Baroque, known as the Carolean style from King Charles II. Belton is faced with the local Ancaster stone, with a lighter ashlar from Ketton for the quoining.
The plan of the rooms at Belton was passé for a grand house of its time as it does not follow the fashions brought from Europe at the Restoration, which prescribed a suite of state rooms consisting of a withdrawing room, dressing room, and bedroom proceeding from either side of a central saloon. While Belton does have a saloon at its centre, enfilades of state rooms of lessening grandeur do not flank it, but of course the Beltons, though immensely wealthy, were gentry not aristocracy. The lack of a fashionable and formal suite of state apartments coupled with the Brownlows' lack of social credentials did not prevent a visit from King William III to the newly completed house in 1695. The King occupied the "Best bedchamber", a large room with an adjoining closet, directly above the saloon, that led directly from the second floor Great Dining Chamber.
This design followed the older style of having reception rooms and bedrooms scattered over the two main floors. The layout used followed Roger Pratt's theory that guest and family rooms should be quite separate. As a consequence of this philosophy, the family occupied the rooms on the first and second floors of the west and east wings, with the state rooms in the centre. The great staircase, designed to be grand and imposing, rose to the east side of the house, and formed part of the guest's state route from the Hall and Saloon on the first floor to the principal dining room and bedroom on the second. This older concept is more clearly exemplified at the Elizabethan Hardwick Hall in neighbouring Derbyshire.
One of the most Carolean features of the house is the balustrade and cupola surmounting the roof, another element introduced to English architecture by Roger Pratt. The cupola at Belton does not light a lofty domed hall, as is often the case in Europe, but houses a staircase which gives access to a large viewing platform on top of a lead roof, concealed from the ground by the balustrade which tops the more conventional and visible hipped roof. From this vantage point, the owners of Belton could admire the perfect symmetry of their avenues and formal gardens spreading from the house. This feature of the house was removed by the architect James Wyatt when he modernised the house in the 18th century. It was restored to its original form in the 1870s by the 3rd Earl Brownlow.
Gardens and the park
In 1690, Sir John Brownlow was granted permission to enclose an area of 1000 acres to transform into a park, with a grant to keep deer. There is evidence to suggest that some of this area had been a park since at least 1580. The park was laid out with avenues, including the still surviving Eastern Avenue which led east from the house. Brownlow also had a large pond or lake dug and planted 21,400 ash trees, 9,500 oak trees, and 614 fruit trees. It is thought that William Winde may have advised on the layout of the gardens. Closer to the house were a series of more formal gardens, including canal ponds bordered by plantations containing symmetrical walks resembling the "rond-points" (circular clearings in a garden from which straight paths radiate) introduced by the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre. By the end of the eighteenth century, these formal parterres had been removed and the canal ponds filled in.
Sir John Brownlow was succeeded at Belton by his brother, who was content to permit Brownlow's widow, Alice, to remain in occupation. She spent the remainder of her life at Belton arranging advantageous marriages for her five daughters. On her death in 1721, the house passed to her husband's nephew (and her son-in-law) Sir John Brownlow III (later Viscount Tyrconnel). Tyrconnel, a dilettante of no great intellect, was responsible for many of the architectural features which survive in the park and garden. Between 1742 and 1751, a series of follies, including a Gothic ruin, a cascade, and a prospect or belvedere known as the Belmount Tower, were constructed for him. When built the tower had two small wings flanking each side, since removed.
In 1754, Belton was inherited by Sir John Cust, the son of previous owner Viscount Tyrconnel's widowed sister. Cust was a distinguished politician active during the politically turbulent 1760s, and his monument at Belton blames his death at the age of 51 to the "unusual fatigues of his office". His heir was created Lord Brownlow in 1776, and Belton was owned by successive Lords Brownlow for the next 200 years.
In the last three decades of the 19th century the 3rd Earl Brownlow spent much time and money restoring Belton, and consequently the house entered the 20th century in a good state of repair and preservation. However, the 20th century was to present Belton and its estate with serious problems. These included the introduction of income tax and death duties which would leave the finances of the Brownlow family severely depleted.
At the beginning of First World War, like many other British landowners, the 3rd Earl Brownlow offered his house and park to the Government for war service. The offer was accepted, and the largest and most drastic changes were made in the park since the time of Viscount Tyrconnel's folly building. In 1915, the home depôt and training ground of the Machine Gun Corps were established in the southern part of Belton park. The lie of the land there lent itself to the development of the necessary firing ranges close to good communications by way of the Great North Road and the railway station at Grantham. The depôt was closed in 1919, the site cleared and the land restored to Lord Brownlow in 1920. Little sign of the Machine Gun Corps's stay remains in the park, but plaques and inscriptions can be followed from the south gate of Belton park to the memorial gate on the way from there to the town centre and in the north aisle of Grantham parish church.
Belton again saw war service during Second World War. From 1942, part of the Royal Air Force Regiment was housed in nissen huts at the park in a facility named RAF Belton Park. The RAF Regiment had its headquarters at nearby RAF Alma Park, with additional accommodation at nearby RAF Folkingham and RAF North Witham airfields.
The years following First World War were severely testing for the owners of many great estates. The staff both indoor and outdoor, which had previously been plentiful, essential, and cheap, were now in short supply. Millions of men had left private service to join the army, and very few returned. Female domestic staff had been called up for war service in factories, and now realised there was an easier and better paid existence outside of the gates of the great country houses. With both fortunes and staff depleted many owners of country houses now fought a losing battle to retain them.
Belton House remained relatively untouched during this period, largely owing to the failing fortunes of the Brownlow family. The 3rd Earl Brownlow and his Countess lived for only a few months of the year at Belton, where they came for the fox-hunting, and divided the remainder of their time between their house in London and Ashridge, a country house in Hertfordshire which had come to the Brownlows in the 19th century; Ashridge was sold, with its art collection and furnishings, to pay the death duties arising on the death of the 3rd Earl in 1921 (which death extinguished the earldom) and Belton became the Brownlow's sole country home. Further death duties were incurred in 1927 on the death of Adelbert Cust, 5th Baron Brownlow.
Belton was fortunate to survive after the War, when so many country houses were being torn down, but short of cash the house deteriorated until in 1961 the 6th Baron effected a large restoration programme over three years.
The 7th Baron attempted to retain the house and estate by opening to the public. An adventure playground was built in the nearby woods to attract families to the house as a tourist attraction. However, the financial difficulties were too great and in January 1984 he transferred ownership of the house, garden and some of the contents to the National Trust, and the Trust further purchased for eight million pounds 1,317 acres of parkland and much of the remaining contents with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.
The house, its contents and outbuildings were in an adequate state of repair at the time of the gift, and there has been an ongoing programme of conservation and restoration. The house now displays a silver exhibition which displays a collection of silver amassed by the Brownlow family, dating from 1698 and revenue is raised from the use of the property as a filming location, and from licensing the Marble Hall for civil weddings.
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about Belton House)
- Nicolson, 148.
- Hussey, 718, 762, and 775.
- Sash windows had first been used on a grand scale at Chatsworth House in the late 1670s but not become popular until installed at Whitehall Palace in 1685, while Belton was under construction. Jackson-Stops, 58.
- Tinniswood (1999), 5.
- Tinniswood (1999), 6.
- Marsden, 49; Tinniswood (1999), 8.
- Tinniswood (1999), 12.
- The King was reported to have enjoyed his stay so much that he was too hung over to eat any of the food provided on his state visit to Lincoln the following day (Tinniswood (2006), 49).
- Jackson-Stops, 66.
- Tinniswood (1999), 13.
- Tinniswood (1999), 21–22.
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- Tinniswood (2006), 37.
- Tinniswood (1999), 84–86.
- Her daughters became Duchess of Ancaster; Countess of Exeter; Lady Guilford; the youngest Eleanor married her cousin, John Brownlow, later Viscount Tyrconnel, who inherited Belton. Another daughter, Anne, had refused to marry her cousin Lord Sherard, saying she would rather die. Later, a marriage was arranged for her to Lord Willoughby, but Anne died of smallpox on the eve of her wedding.
- Tinniswood (2006), 50.
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- Marsden, 53.
- Later the Fifth Baron incorporated part of the former Machine Gun Corps training ground into the Belton Park Golf Club which had been founded in 1890.
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