The house of the real “Romeo and Juliet”

It is a real challenge to think about Longleat House without picturing lions roaming in a safari, but although the house is located not far from the safari entrance, they are two entirely separate worlds.

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The story of Longleat is fascinating. On one hand, the house is still home to the same family who purchased it during the dissolution of the monasteries in the middle of the 16th century. It was never abandoned, and it is home to an incredible amount of historical artefacts. On the other hand, to keep and manage it, the Thynne family always had to be innovative and creative.

The history of the estate dates back to the 13th century when the Longleat Priory was established. In 1540 Sir John Thynne purchased the estate during the dissolution of the monasteries. He managed to buy this vast estate for the modest sum of £53 which is worth around £30K today. It was an incredible discount. Take for example the nearby estate of Lacock Abbey which was purchased at an amount 16 times higher in the same period. How did Thynne get this special discount? I am not sure, but I guess it was helpful that he served John Seymour, the 1st Duke of Somerset, who was the brother of Jane Seymour, King Henry’s favourite wife (and the only one who managed to bring him a male heir). Serving a powerful duke in those turbulent times was a double edged sword and when the Duke fell out of power and was executed, Thynne was sent to the Tower of London twice.

The original house that Sir John Thynne built was burned down in the 1560s and the current house was built in its place and it became the first Elizabethan Prodigy house (i.e. a mansion that was created to show off and impress the new powers of the elite). You could say, unequivocally, that the result was very useful.

The Thynne family continued to hold Longleat, and in 1594 they were the inspiration of one of the greatest love stories of all time – Romeo and Juliet. Thomas Thynne, the grandson of Sir John, and the man who would inherit Longleat a decade later met Maria Touchet while both of them were only 16. They fell in love immediately and married on the same day. Unfortunately, their parents hated each other, so the two had to keep their marriage a secret.

The son and heir of the love-struck Thomas Thynne was the first family member who managed to save Longleat from being destroyed in the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, by not supporting any side, and at the same time bribing both. You could argue with the ideology but not with the result.

After the restoration of the monarchy, Longleat was home to another interesting character (also named Thomas, of course). He was known by his nickname “Tom of Ten Thousand”, which referred to his immense wealth. Thomas had great aspirations, and he managed to win the richest heiress from one of the most powerful families in the land; Elizabeth Percy, only to be murdered a few weeks later by her lover. The story about “The Virgin Widow and the Swedish Assassin” is probably one of the best stories I encountered during our castle chases…

During the hundreds of years, the Thynne family have owned Longleat, several branches of the family have held ownership, and one of these branches brought the peerage title with it. They started as Barons and were elevated to Viscounts in 1682. It was the first Viscount, also named Thomas of course, who began to develop the gardens at Longleat, and to do so he commissioned none other than George London who was the most famous landscape designer of his time, and is mainly known for the work he has done for the royal family at Hampton Court Palace.

Thomas’s son, the second viscount, is mainly famous for marrying Louisa who became the house ghost – The Lady in Grey, whilst his grandson (also named Thomas if you ever thought otherwise) was the one who raised the family to the second highest peerage rank of Marquess, a title that the family manages to keep today. Alexander, the 7th Marquess, still lives at Longleat.

I already mentioned that the family showed great innovation in keeping and maintaining Longleat, and the best examples happened during the 20th century with the 6th Marquess.

After World War II many of the owners of grand houses met with an impossible task, having to pay an astonishing amount of death duties which led to the majority of them giving over their homes to the National Trust. A minority of house owners started trusts to keep the house within the family although it was not owned by it anymore, and then there was the Thynne family… Henry Thynne, the 6th Marquess of Bath decided to deal with these costs in 1946 when he inherited Longleat from his father, but he did so in a completely different way to anyone else. He opened Longleat to the public, making it the first great house people could visit. As you can imagine it became a top-rated attraction and the admission fees paid the death duties. Later in the 1960s when the visiting number dropped, as more and more houses became available, he thought about creating a new attraction for visitors, and this is how the Longleat Safari was built.

Longleat is open for visitors and offers free entry to the house for HHA members. For more information please check Longleat official website

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You will have to work hard to explore this one

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Longleat twice. The first visit took place during a Christmas period when we could enjoy its beautiful festival of light. Unfortunately, it also meant that only the first floor of the house was open to visitors. Our next visit took place during a February half-term holiday, and this time everywhere that is on display to the public was available.

When most people think about Longleat, they think about Safari rather than the house, so although on both occasions the parking lot was full, the house itself was half empty. We visited the house using our HHA membership, so we did not explore the Safari Park (well, we chase castles, not safaris…), but there is plenty to discover about both the exterior and interior of Longleat.  It is one of the most extraordinary houses we have ever visited. The fact that has stayed in the hands of one family since the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century has enabled it to retain so many original artefacts, pieces of furniture and works of art. The 2nd Marquees had an interest in Italian art and this influenced the interior design of the house. Some of the rooms will make you feel like you are exploring a palazzo in Venice.

On my first visit, I was impressed by the downstairs dining room with its gilded Italian ceiling, but then, I discovered the first-floor dining room, where the ceiling included some very old Italian paintings embedded in it, so in the end, I couldn’t decide which room was my favourite. Another impressive room is the drawing room which is also designed in an Italian style and includes the original art collection (as well as some rare and massive books). The highlight of the room is a painting by Titian that was stolen during the mid-90s. The family had to pay £150,000 to get it back (it was left in a shopping bag at a bus station). This picture now is estimated to be worth £12M.

I have several issues with the Longleat visiting experience, however. One of which is that some of the stories of these incredible treasures and the interior design could possibly be overlooked by visitors. There was no tour on offer and when I asked, the guide at the entrance about it, he told me someone could take me on a guided tour but at an extra cost. This was disappointing as Longleat is not a cheap place to visit. If we did not have HHA membership, we would have paid about £60 to visit the house alone (Safari Park not included) and with this price tag, you would at least expect to get a guided tour.

I always do research in advance and discovered many of the extraordinary Longleat stories. As I walked around the house and started to speak with the guides, you could instantly see other visitors gathering in eagerness to learn more about each room we visited. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and full of stories, but I always had to prompt these conversations into life.

One of the stories I found the most fascinating was about the creative way the Thynne family managed to keep hold of their estate when many other great families could not (e.g. they felt financially obliged to hand over their estates to the National Trust or start a family trust).  In order to be able to pay death duties after World War II, the family opened Longleat to visitors in 1949 and when they needed to attract more visitors to ensure the upkeep of the estate, they opened the first Safari Park outside of Africa in the 60s. With this amount of entrepreneurial spirit, you might have expected a little more creativity in the way they encouraged visitors to engage with their magnificent house.

To sum up: Longleat’s potential is far higher than its current visitor experience. When I compare it to a similar house such as Beaulieu Palace which is home to the National Motor Museum, you can see how the house itself has created a visiting experience to suit the different types of visitors who might come because of the museum. The guides in the rooms wear a periodic costume and give tours of the house, plus you have much more information available, as well as interactive displays. In the case of Longleat, the house management seems as if it is trying to ignore the fact that the Safari Park is a family attraction, and it makes the house uninviting for children. (the only attraction for them would probably be the sweet shop in the basement).

Longleat House is considered one of the elite stately homes, like Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth or Alnwick Castle, but at the moment, visiting it is not as rewarding. It is still a great place to explore (especially if you are an HHA member) but to gain even more from the experience why not read about its history in advance so you can chat with the guides on hand there? If Longleat was a restaurant in the Michelin Guide, I would award it one star, but I  believe that it could attain much more.

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