Wilton House

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Wilton House
Wilton House.jpg
The south front of Wilton House
Grid reference: SU099310
Location: 51°4’41"N, 1°51’22"W
Village: Wilton
Country house
Owned by: The Earl of Pembroke
Website: Wilton House

Wilton House is a grand country house at Wilton near Salisbury in Wiltshire. It has been the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke for over 400 years.

The first recorded building on the site of Wilton House was a priory founded by King Egbert around 871. Later, this priory, due to the munificence of King Alfred, was granted lands and manors until it became wealthy and powerful. However, by the time Wilton Abbey was dissolved during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII, its prosperity was already on the wane. Following the seizure of the abbey, King Henry presented it and the estates to William Herbert in around 1544; he was later made Earl of Pembroke in 1551.

William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke

William Herbert, the scion of a distinguished family in the Welsh marches, was a favourite of the king. Following a recommendation to King Henry by King Francis I of France, whom Herbert had served as a soldier of fortune, Herbert was granted arms after only two years. In 1538, Herbert married Anne Parr, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and sister of the future queen consort Catherine Parr (1543–1547) and Sir William Parr, 1st Baron Parr of Kendal (later Marquess of Northampton).[1][2]

The granting of an estate such as the Abbey of Wilton to Herbert was an accolade and evidence of his position at court. The first grants dated March and April 1542, include the site of the late monastery, the manor of Washerne adjoining also the manors of Chalke. These were given to "William Herbert, Esquire and Anne his wife for the term of their lives with certain reserved rents to King Henry VIII."[3] When Edward VI re-granted the manors to the family, it was explicitly "to the aforenamed Earl, by the name of Sir William Herbert, knight, and the Lady Anne his wife and the heirs male of their bodies between them lawfully begotten."[4] Lady Anne had been a joint creator of the enterprise.

Herbert immediately began to transform the deserted abbey into a fine house and symbol of his wealth. It had been thought that the old abbey had been completely demolished; however, following renovations after the Second World War traces of the old abbey were found at lower levels of the existing walls.

Hans Holbein

It has long been claimed, without proof, that Hans Holbein the Younger re-designed the abbey as a rectangular house around a central courtyard, which is the core of the present house. Holbein died in 1543, so his designs for the new house would have to have been very speedily executed indeed. However, the great entrance porch to the new mansion, removed from the house and later transformed into a garden pavilion in the 19th century, is to this day known as the "Holbein Porch" — a perfect example of the blending of the older Gothic and the brand-new Renaissance style. If not by Holbein, it is certainly by the hand of a great master.

Whoever the architect, nevertheless a great mansion arose. Today only one other part of the Tudor mansion survives: the great tower in the centre of the east facade. With its central arch (once giving access to the court beyond) and three floors of oriel windows above, the tower is slightly reminiscent of the entrance at Hampton Court. Flanked today by two wings in a loose Georgian style – each topped by an Italianate pavilion tower, this Tudor centrepiece of the facade appears not in the least incongruous, merely displaying the accepted appearance of a great English country house, which has evolved over the centuries.

Inigo Jones

Engraving of Wilton House

The Tudor house built by William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, in 1551 was to last but eighty years. On the succession of the 4th Earl in 1630, he decided to pull down the southern wing and erect a new complex of staterooms in its place. It is now that the second great name associated with Wilton appears: Inigo Jones.

The architecture of the south front is in severe Palladian style, described at the time as in the 'Italian Style', built of the local stone, softened by climbing shrubs. While the remainder of the house is on three floors of equal value in the British style, the south front has a low rusticated ground floor, almost suggesting a semi-basement. Three small porches project at this level only, one at the centre, and one at each end of the facade, providing small balconies to the windows above. The next floor is the piano nobile, at its centre the great double-height Venetian window, ornamented at second floor level by the Pembroke arms in stone relief. This central window is flanked by four tall sash windows on each side. These windows have low flat pediments. Each end of the facade is defined by 'corner stone' decoration giving a suggestion that the single-bay wings project forward. The single windows here are topped by a true pointed pediment. Above this floor is a further almost mezzanine floor, its small, unpedimented, windows aligning with the larger below, serve to emphasise the importance of the piano nobile. The roofline is hidden by a balustrade. Each of the terminating 'wings' is crowned by a one storey, pedimented tower resembling a Palladian pavilion. At the time, his style was an innovation. Just thirty years earlier, Montacute House, exemplifying the Renaissance, had been revolutionary; only a century earlier, the juxtaposing mass of wings that is Compton Wynyates, one of the first houses to be built without complete fortification, had just been completed and was considered modern.

The degree to which Inigo Jones was involved has been questioned. Queen Henrietta Maria, a frequent guest at Wilton, interrogated Jones about his work there. At the time (1635) he was employed by her, completing the Queen's House at Greenwich. It seems at this time Jones was too busy with his royal clients and did no more than provide a few sketches for a mansion, which he then delegated for execution to an assistant Isaac de Caus (sometimes spelt 'Caux'), a Frenchman and landscape gardener from Dieppe in Normandy. A document found at Worcester College library in Oxford in the 1960s confirmed not only de Caus as the architect, but that the original plan for the south facade was to have been over twice the length of that built; what we see today was intended to be only one of two identical wings linked by a central portico of six Corinthian columns. The whole was to be enhanced by a great parterre whose dimensions were 1,000 feet by 400 feet. This parterre was in fact created and remained in existence for over 100 years. The second wing however failed to materialise – perhaps because of the 4th Earl's quarrel with King Charles I and subsequent fall from favour, or the outbreak of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; or simply lack of finances.

Inigo Jones returned to see what had become of his original ideas: seeing De Caus' completed wing standing alone as an entirety, it was considered too plain, and Jones took a hand. The resultant south front has been deemed an architectural triumph of Palladian architecture in Britain, and it is widely believed that the final modifications to the work of De Caus were by Inigo Jones himself.

Within a few years of the completion of the new south wing in 1647, it was ravaged by fire. The seriousness of the fire and the devastation it caused is now a matter of some dispute. The architectural historian Christopher Hussey has convincingly argued that it was not as severe as some records have suggested. What is definite is that Inigo Jones now working with another architect John Webb (his nephew by marriage to Jones' niece) returned once again to Wilton. Because of the uncertainty of the fire damage to the structure of the house, the only work that can be attributed with any degree of certainty to the new partnership is the redesign of the interior of the seven state-rooms contained on the piano nobile of the south wing; and even here the extent of Jones' presence is questioned. It appears he may have been advising from a distance, using Webb as his medium.

The state rooms

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, with his family (van Dyck)

The seven state rooms contained behind the quite simple Mannerist south front of Wilton House are equal to those in any of the great houses of Britain. While many of the suites of state rooms in country houses have lost their form to accompany the changing requirements of later ages, those at Wilton retain the magnificence of Inigo Jones's work. They include:

  • The Single Cube Room
  • The Double Cube Room
  • The Great Anteroom
  • The Colonnade Room (formerly the state bedroom)

Other rooms are:

  • The Corner Room
  • The Little Ante Room
  • The Hunting Room

In 1705 following a fire the 8th Earl rebuilt some of the oldest parts the house, making rooms to display his newly acquired Arundel marbles, which form the basis for the sculpture collection at Wilton today. Following this Wilton remained undisturbed for nearly a century.

19th century and James Wyatt

Jones and de Caus's south front and the Palladian bridge (1736-37), in a view of circa 1820

The 11th Earl (1759–1827) called upon James Wyatt in 1801 to modernise the house, and create more space for pictures and sculptures. The final of the three well-known architects to work at Wilton (and the only one well documented) was to prove the most controversial. His work took eleven years to complete.

James Wyatt was an architect who often employed the neo-classical style, but at Wilton was engaged to employ the Gothic style. He swept away the Holbein porch, reducing it to a mere garden ornament, replacing it with a new entrance and forecourt. The forecourt was bounded by the house on one side, with wings of fake doors and windows extending to form the court, all accessed by Chambers's repositioned arch, crowned by a copy of the life-size equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Lord Palmerston addressing a crowd at Wilton House c. 1865

The original Great Hall of the Tudor house, the chapel and De Caus painted staircase to the state apartments were all swept away at this time. A new Gothic staircase and hall were created in the style of Camelot. The Tudor tower, now the last remnant of William Herbert's house, escaped unscathed except for the addition of two 'mediæval' statues at ground floor level.

There was however one huge improvement created by Wyatt – the cloisters. This two-storeyed gallery which was built around all four sides of the inner courtyard, provided the house with not only the much needed corridors to link the rooms, but also a magnificent gallery to display the Pembroke collection of classical sculpture. Wyatt died before completion, but not before he and Lord Pembroke had quarrelled over the designs and building work. The final touches were executed by Wyatt's nephew Sir Jeffry Wyatville. Today nearly two hundred years later Wyatt's improvements do not jar the senses as much as they did those of the great architectural commentators James Lees-Milne and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell writing in the 1960s. That Wyatt's works are not in the same league of style as the south front, and the Tudor tower, is perhaps something for future generations to judge.

The gardens and grounds

The Palladian bridge
Wilton estate gardens

The house is renowned for its gardens. Here Isaac de Caus began landscaping in 1632, laying out one of the first French parterres seen in Britain. An engraving of it made the design very influential after the Restoration in 1660, when grand gardens began to be made again. Later, when the parterre had been replaced by turf, the Palladian Bridge over the little River Nadder was designed by the 9th Earl, one of the "architect earls," with Roger Morris (1736-37). A copy of it was erected at the much-visited garden of Stowe in Buckinghamshire, and three more were erected, at Prior Park, Bath, Hagley and Amesbury. The Empress Catherine the Great commissioned another copy, known as Marble Bridge, to be set up at the landscape park of Tsarskoye Selo.

In the late 20th century the 17th Earl had a garden created in Wyatt's entrance forecourt, in memory of his father, Sidney Herbert, 16th Earl of Pembroke. This garden enclosed by pleached trees, with herbaceous plants around a central fountain, has done much to improve and soften the severity of the forecourt.

For younger visitors there is an adventure playground with trampoline, swing boats and climbing ropes.

The park includes an area formerly occupied by much of the village of Fugglestone, which was cleared away, including the site of a mediæval leper hospital called the Hospital of St Giles.[5]


The house and gardens have been open to the public since 1951.[6] Salisbury Racecourse and South Wilts Golf Course are also on the 14,000 acre estate. The estate is often described as Britain's most beautiful country house. Wilton was described by the architectural writer John Summerson in 1964 as:

...the bridge is the object which attracts the visitor before he has become aware of the Jonesian facade. He approaches the bridge and, from its steps, turns to see the facade. He passes through and across the bridge, turns again and becomes aware of the bridge, the river, the lawn and the façade as one picture in deep recession. He may imagine the portico; he will scarcely regret the curtailment. He may picture the formal knots, tortured hedges and statues of the 3rd. Earl's garden; he will be happier with the lawn. Standing here he may reflect upon the way in which a scene so classical, so deliberate, so complete, has been accomplished not by the decisions of one mind at one time but by a combination of accident, selection, genius and the tides of taste.

Film and television set

Filming which has taken place at Wilton includes scenes from:

  • Barry Lyndon (1975), filming in the Double Cube Room
  • The Bounty (1984), the Double Cube Room representing the Admiralty for the court martial of Captain Bligh
  • Blackadder II: the Palladian bridge and gardens in the episode "Bells" and the end titles of all episodes.
  • The Madness of King George (1994)
  • Mrs. Brown (1997)
  • Pride & Prejudice (2005)
  • The Young Victoria
  • Romance with a Double Bass (1974, a John Cleese featurette)

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Wilton House)


  1. Susan James. Catherine Parr: Henry VIII's Last Love, The History Press, 2009.
  2. Katherine Parr, editor Janel Mueller. Katherine Parr: Complete Works and Correspondence, University of Chicago Press, 30 June 2011. pg 6.
  3. Sir Nevile Rodwell Wilkinson. Wilton House Guide: A Handbook for Visitors, Chiswick Press, 1908. pg 80.
  4. Anthony Nicolson. Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War, Harper Collins, 3 November 2009. pg 63-4.
  5. Edward Thomas Stevens, Jottings on some of the objects of interest in the Stonehenge excursion (1882), p. 158
  6. "History", Wilton House, accessed 24 May 2012
  • Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects
  • Bold, John, Wilton House and English Palladianism. London, HMSO. 1988. ISBN 0-11-300022-7