More Like A Town than a House

During the days of Queen Elizabeth I, a new style of great house was built and named as the  Elizabeth Prodigy House. These style of houses were enormous and were meant to show the power and influence of the person behind them. In the case of Burghley House, it is easy to say mission accomplished. Daniel Defoe, the author behind Robinson Crusoe, thought that this house was so enormous that it was “more like a town than a house”.

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The man behind the house was William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s powerful Lord High Treasurer and Chief Minister. Burghley estate had belonged to his family since the days of his grandfather, but it was he who had the wealth and the vision to not only create this amazing house, but also to create not one, but two great dynasties: the Marquessate of Exeter from Burghley house (the current Marquese is actually Canadian, but his niece still live in the house and manages it) and the Marquessate of Salisbury from Hatfield House. 

Cecil decided to express his power by building a new house at Burghley in 1555 and in order to make sure he made the right statement, he designed the house himself. The works on the house took more than 30 years to complete until they were finished in 1587. Cecil himself did not have much opportunity to visit his new masterpiece and so it became the home of his elder son from his first wife, Thomas Cecil, the first Earl of Exeter. 

Like many great houses in the country, Burghley House evolved along with its owners, and some were more influential than others. In the case of Burghley, it was John Cecil, the 5th earl, at the end of the 17th century who purchased more than 300 paintings, tapestries and furniture on no less than four different trips he made to Europe (known in those days as “the grand tour”). 

The 5th earl also remodelled the house, turning the original Elizabethan gallery into a series of six staterooms (one of them is called the Elizabethan bedroom, but obviously the queen herself never used it since it was built decades after her death). The earl also employed the famous painter, Antonio Verrio (who previously painted Charles the 2nd’s state apartments at Windsor Castle), to decorate these six rooms. It took the Italian 11 years to complete the job and the most impressive paintings of the series were the “Heaven Room” and “Hell Staircases”. These were the first features every visitor to Burghley saw when they entered the great house. 

Another important figure in Burghley’s history was Brownlow Cecil, the 9th earl, who succeeded to his title in 1754 and not only modified the interior of the house, he also employed England’s most famous landscape designer, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, to modernise the gardens (two of the only known remaining portraits of “Capability” are still hanging in the house). Like Verrio, Brown spent no less than 25 years on the commission (although he did work on several projects at the same time) and during that period, not only did he change the parkland and the landscape, he also was in charge of building the stables and the Orangerie which is now used as a restaurant. 

The 9th earl was childless and so the title and the house moved to his nephew, Henry, who became the 1st Marquess of Exeter. Henry was a very colourful character who broke the heart of his first wife, who eloped with her chaplain assistant. He then adopted a fake identity and remarried a woman who did not know his real identity and title, meaning that one day she discovered that she was a countess. You can read about both of his marriages in our stories. 

Burghley continued to be the home of the Cecil family, who held major roles in government and entertained almost every monarch. Most famously, Victoria and Albert, who were the guests of the 2nd marquess. Their visit took place in 1844, four years after their wedding, and it seemed that they enjoyed their time at Burghley so much that they managed to miss every single breakfast time sitting during their stay!

During WWII, Burghley House was bombed only once, apparently ‘by mistake’. Supposedly, prior to the war, Herman Goering, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi party and the commander of the German airforce, visited Burghley and fell in love with the house and the artworks in it. He probably planned to loot the house, or even to take it as his private residence, and so when he heard about the bombing (that mainly caused many windows to shatter) he was so furious that no German pilot thereafter dared to go near the house again and it was saved. 

Today, Burghley House is still lived in by Miranda Rock, a descendant of the Cecil family, and an art historian who takes an active part in the management of the house. Burghley Park is open to the public, and the house is open to visitors and associated with the Historic House Association. 

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One of the Best Houses to Visit in the Country

Chasing Castles Review

I would like to start the review of Burghley by saying that this is a three-star house. Burghley House is a large house sitting in a vast park in Lincolnshire. It is so big that you might find it impossible to explore it all in a single day.

The house itself is an Elizabethan palace and amazingly, in its 450 years of existence, it has only been remodelled twice. The first time took place during the days of the 5th Earl of Salisbury and the second one, during the days of the 9th earl.  However, the house still carries the spirit of William Cecil, its original builder and the man who created the Cecil dynasty. 

The current marquise lives in Canada, but his niece, Miranda Rock, still lives in the house. Miranda is an art historian, and she is the leading force behind the perfect visitor experience to be had at Burghley. 

A guided tour was on offer in the late afternoon, but we chose to skip this. Instead, I opted to pay a little extra and get an audio guide. There are two tours on offer with the additional family-friendly tour. My children were busy having fun (and getting wet!) in the pleasure gardens and so I opted for the standard tour. Later, I learnt that the family-friendly tour includes some fascinating anecdotes about the house and the art collection which are not included in the standard tour. Even without them, this was probably one of the best audio-guided tours I have ever had the chance to use so far. It not only gave rich and unique information about the house and its art collection, but it also included some tips on what questions one should ask the guides in the rooms. This is the first time I have encountered this type of interactivity and it really elevated the tour and the entire experience. The guides in the rooms did their job brilliantly and you could clearly see how much they loved the house and its history. 

Burghley is so large that it is easy to get overwhelmed. On the day we visited, we had dinner with some friends in the evening afterwards and we could not stop talking about the house. Apparently, we were very persuasive as they chose to visit it the next day. They came back and shared their experience and I was surprised to hear about so many things that I had missed on my visit (well, they took the family-friendly audio guide).

While the house can easily fill up your day, there are two extra attractions that I must mention. The first one is the “Garden of Surprises” which includes a series of fountains and water-based activities  (did I mention you should bring an extra set of clothes for the kids?). The next is the Sculpture Garden which is home to an extremely unique set of massive sculptures, including a life-size Star Wars fighter and a massive floating bracelet: not quite the traditional sculptures you would expect to see in a great house. 

What makes Burghley so unique is the fact that you are made to feel extremely welcome. A small example of this is that not only can you take pictures all around the house, but some of the paintings are also lit in a special way to make them look even better in photographs. We visited so many private houses last summer that did not permit photography, and in one of them, Althorp, we were even rudely reprimanded by one of the staff because my wife dared to carry a tripod into the stables (are you sure you understand that we live in the 21st century?). Do you need another example of the hospitality of Burghley? If so, you should be aware that if you buy a single day ticket, you can change it into a season ticket with no extra charge (and perhaps on day two, you can visit the park and the lion bridge).

To sum things up, Burghley should be the ultimate example to any great house in the country that wants to attract guests and make them feel good about their visit (so they will immediately tell that their friends over dinner). Since we try to grade our visits in the same way that the Michelin Guide ranks restaurants, Burghley deserves three stars and, if possible, you should plan to see the house and even plan a short break in the area around it.