Home Improvements

The development of the English Country House

Mention “country houses” to most people in this country and the chances are they will imagine something along the lines of Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs or Brideshead Revisited - the Victorian and Edwardian golden age of shooting parties and croquet on the lawn. However, the country house was more than a place of entertainment; it was a symbol of power which has its origins in medieval baronial allegiances.

This exhibition looks at a few of the changes to the English country house over the past seven centuries and details the history of some of our local power houses.

Until the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century, England’s power base was the countryside, rather than the towns and cities. The landowning classes outnumbered the merchants or businessmen and anyone with any wealth invested in land. At the centre of these vast estates was the country house, be that a medieval manor house or a 17th century Palladian villa. For centuries the country house was the engine, driving the estate as a tangible display of strength, wealth and importance.

The Medieval House

Almners Priory, Chertsey, still has at its core a medieval priory

From the time of the Norman Conquest the nation’s power base was the land: those with it ruled over those without. However, the power and wealth did not come from the sale of crops grown on it but from the people who inhabited it. It was the number of tenants that denoted a lord’s power, as they were the people he could summon to fight on his behalf in times of conflict. The more land one acquired the more powerful a person was, the more people wanted to be associated with them, the more influential they became, the more land they were likely to acquire through allegiances and marriage. The great medieval households would include 100 or more people, closer to 500 for royalty, and for every household of any size this number would include a chaplain with some having priests and choirboys too.

In the large houses of early medieval England all society could be found, with servants and the family all together under one roof. The great hall was a communal dining room with the lord at one end and his servants the other. In violent, unpredictable times, there was great safety in numbers. The hall was the centre of the house, both physically and socially, with a collection of smaller rooms clustered around it. However, as time passed more privacy was sought by the lord and lady and so began the process of re-modelling the country house which would continue for the next seven hundred years. By the mid-14th century the great hall was only used for special occasions, with the hosts preferring to eat and entertain in more private rooms. Instead the upstairs Great Chamber, used both in the way a sitting room would be used today and as a bedroom, became the ceremonial centre of the house.

In early medieval houses the kitchen was linked to the great hall, but with the passage of time it became a symbol of wealth and power to have a separate kitchen. These great centres of cuisine were as elaborately decorated as the hall, with high ceilings to aid the reduction of heat and odours, brick-lined ovens for baking and open fires for everything else. At first these fires were fuelled by wood, but from the 14th century turf became increasingly common. Fireplaces only appeared in homes in the late 11th century but by the end of the Middle Ages they were a standard feature in every room in the country house. Food would be processed from the kitchen, through the hall where the outer circle of guests would still dine, upstairs to the state rooms of the great chamber where the host and his confidants awaited its arrival.

Even in the 14th century few noblemen could afford running water within their great house, it remained a luxury only royal palaces enjoyed. Instead there was a reliance on rainwater or spring water which was brought into the house by servants as required. Moats were still common around later medieval houses, a throwback to the need for castle-style security which came in handy as a destination for household waste. Most houses of any size had privies, arranged on each floor in vertical shafts leading to sewage pits or moats.

Until the 17th century when the royal household began to spend more time in London, the people of great medieval households moved about the country together, following their monarch to remain literally close to power. The household would move about the country in three waves, the first group announcing the imminent arrival of the others and checking that all was ready for their lord and master. The next wave consisted of the lord, his wife, footmen, the chaplain, attending gentlewomen, between 30 and 100 gentlemen, yeomen and grooms and trumpeters. Bringing up the rear were the cooks, scullions, children, priests and servants. An excessive number of individuals would be paraded around the country, but what better way of displaying a person’s power and prestige? Especially when the entourage would be clothed in a livery denoting their loyalties.

This was the age of feudal loyalties whereby land was held from the lord of the manor or the king, who in return for land and food, expected his tenants to fight for him if required. With the development of written law from the 14th century onwards, this was increasingly unnecessary as the statute book gave landowners rights and privileges, set out in English law. At first landowners released, for a fee, these expensive would-be warriors and instead moved to having retainers; people paid to be on stand-by to fight, just in case. Even this disappeared with time as it was cheaper to pay mercenaries to do the job, when and if necessary. By the 15th century Edward IV had become distrustful of those who, with little or no ongoing cost, could raise up a large army any time they desired, and so in 1468 it became illegal to have retainers unless given royal permission. Unsurprisingly permission only seems to have been granted to those who supported the king!

The Tudor & Jacobean House

Great Fosters, Egham

The site of Great Fosters, Egham, has been occupied since Saxon time, but the core of the present house was built by William Wareham in the 1550s

Despite the gradual decline of feudalism, which finally ended with the Tenures Abolition Act of 1660, ownership of a country house was still seen as a way of social advancement and increased fortune in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were still places of aspiration, places to which families sent their children to be educated in the hope of a better future. Indeed, until the rise of grammar schools and universities in the 17th century, large country houses or monasteries were the only places for all but the upper classes to receive an education. By this time each household would have its own written set of rules detaining its daily routine and servants responsibilities, many of which survive in archives across the country.

One important development at this time was the introduction of galleries to country houses. These began in the mid-15th century as covered walkways, open to the elements on one side, linking different areas of the household together. Within a few decades they became two storeys high, with the upper gallery totally enclosed. This upper space had little or no furniture in it, as its main function was as an area for walking and exercising. Inevitably followers of fashion wanted to show off their latest house extension, and so galleries became wider, grander and a visible display of wealth and status. Where better then to hang portraits of one’s illustrious ancestors or show loyalty to the monarch with a portrait of the king? Galleries took over from the great chamber as the new place to entertain, hold masques (balls), games and have concerts. As with the great hall before it, the great chamber then became a place used for special occasions and the family ate in a new space known as 

the parlour. The term derived from the monasteries where the parlour, from the French to talk, parler, was often the only room in which monks were allowed to speak. As the century progressed, parlours became more and more grand, usually with high vaulted ceilings elaborately decorated to rival the great chamber on the floor above. Bed chambers, which unlike the great chamber were just for sleeping, were introduced to country houses and were preceded by an anteroom or withdrawing room used for entertaining the most important guests.

With the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, many families with good connections made a fortune taking over property formerly belonging to religious organisations. These buildings were invariably well built, substantial, and came with the latest mod con – a ready supply of water, something which had been a prerequisite to founding a religious house. Established country houses, keen to keep with the fashion, quickly installed water too. This was often difficult as Tudor country houses were often built on higher ground necessitating the use of donkey-wheels or hand pumps to draw the water.

Service to the king or friends at court became an almost guaranteed route to fortune or power, but it came at a huge financial cost. The Tudor monarchy used to spend the summer months, from August to October, travelling around the countryside to be seen by their subjects - known as being on progress. The whole court would travel with them, up to 500 people in convoy and whilst the publication of the list of venues to be visited was eagerly awaited every June, the cost of hosting such a large number of visitors could be a financially crippling undertaking. The King, or Queen, was not lacking royal palaces outside of London at which they could have chosen to stay, but it was much better for the exchequer if someone else picked up the tab. It is said that Elizabeth I did little to improve or even maintain many of her royal residences for this vary reason, and even went as far as picking her hosts to cause financial pressures to those she felt aggrieved towards.

As the 16th century turned into the 17th century the royal household and Parliament became more stationary, choosing to spend more time in the capital. Therefore, the landed gentry also had to spend more time in the capital if they wanted to maintain their influence and power, but few could afford both the fashionable court life in London and maintain a medieval style household in the country. Having a large household entourage was a huge disadvantage when it came to securing lodgings for them all in the capital, and so with time households began to get smaller.

The Seventeenth Century House

The Porch House, Chertsey, built by 17th century poet Abraham Cowley

One of the most influential architects in the story of the country house, Italian Andrea Palladio, did not live long enough to see how his style became synonymous with the genre, dying as he did at the end of the previous century. However, from 1600 his classical symmetrical layout, including grand porticoes and noble pediments and elegant columns, began to be adopted for royal palaces and became the architectural style of choice for many for the next two hundred years. At first the original medieval house interior remained unchanged with a new façade built to hide the existing one, but soon his ideas spread throughout. King’s lodgings were mirrored by the queen’s lodgings as new wings were added to existing houses creating a perfectly balanced symmetry. The lower classes too were influenced by the Palladian villas of the landed gentry and whilst pediments and columns were too pretentious for smaller buildings, Palladio’s ideals were copied in a simpler form.

The new 17th century house was raised above ground level by a platform known as the rustic due to its rough appearance. Within it were the kitchens, servants’ quarters, cellars, and estate offices, whilst above stood a classic temple-like house. At the centre of the Palladian villa was a two-storey hall, leading to the parlour on the ground floor, but now it was used just as an entrance area and not a room for feasting. Instead the great chamber, still the most important room in any house, began to be called the dining chamber. It was now common to have more than one parlour, used for informal dining, for use at different times of the year. Externally, the most important rooms could be identified by their larger windows adorned with pediments and ornamental columns.


The Eighteenth Century House

Palladian style Botleys Mansion, Chertsey

Country houses at this time were at their most elegant and most prolific. Adorned with porticoes and pediments houses became visual symbols of the culture and taste of the owner.  The lifestyle of the landed gentry was still somewhat itinerant at this time, with the family typically spending half the year at their country house, four months in London, one at a spa for the sake of their health and a month abroad for the sake of their mind. Spending too long in London risked being lampooned by satirists, but spending too much time on their estate risked them being labelled as country bumpkins. The ideal was having a country house that was near enough to London to be able to travel backwards and forwards just the right amount of time throughout the year, and so the Thames valley became the destination of choice. Elegant villas, which were designed purely for entertaining, began popping up throughout the area with the owners maintaining their London house as their main residence. At this time the two properties would look the same with the same style furniture regardless of its town or country location. There was no concept that a more rural property might benefit from anything different from its town counterpart.

The ease of travelling from the town to the country did not only apply to the landed gentry, but to customs and culture. Towns began to develop and now included entertainment such as theatres and assembly rooms as high society became more social than ever before. Evenings in the town were spent dancing at balls or masques, playing cards, or socialising in newly-built pleasure gardens. Naturally it wasn’t long before the same amusements were desired in the country and so the houses began to adapt to accommodate the same delights. Rooms needed to be larger to allow for dancing and assemblies, where guests would meet, drink tea and chat about issues of the day. It now became fashionable to have a suite of entertaining rooms, one leading on from the other, whilst less time was spent in private rooms so they became smaller. The entire focus of the house was on showing wealth by staging the most lavish social events. Traditionally the most important rooms in a house, the state apartments, were in a line linking one to the other and becoming ever more exclusive the nearer one got to the master’s private rooms. However, in the 18th century that changed and the most important rooms were arranged in a circular route to aid sociability, with a top-lit central staircase to ensure the elegant symmetry of the house was maintained. As a result, the stairs became a focal point, became grander and therefore unsuitable for use by the servants. Instead, smaller more practical stairs were added enabling servants to move about the house unseen.

Up to this point in history tenants and servants still marked special occasions with feasts with the landowner in the great hall of his country house, but as the century developed there was an increasing split between the gentry and the other classes in society. This change was reflected in the pedigree of servants. Service in a country house was no longer seen as a way for gentlemen to gain influence and wealth therefore the lower classes were left to the fill the role. This shift, combined with the need for larger rooms for entertainment, forced servants out of the house and into separate servants’ quarters above the stables or other outbuildings. Servants, based in areas much further away from their masters than previously, were summoned with the latest gadget – a system of bells denoting which room of the house needed their attention. More communal areas meant more domestic help was required to keep them clean and so the number of women servants increased substantially, so much so that a new role within the house was required - that of the housekeeper. In earlier times a housekeeper had only been present when the home was owned by a widower, when a woman was needed to run the house, but from the 18th century onwards housekeepers were placed in charge of all the female servants.

The 18th century was an age of great change. The population of England almost doubled, and cities grew at an unprecedented rate as more people moved away from the land to seek greater opportunities in town. The Industrial Revolution, which started in the 1760s, led to the rise in the middle classes which generate vast wealth as a result of the factories they owned. They used their wealth to emulate the upper classes and spent their money buying land and building new country houses. The wealth of the old gentry also increased when many discovered coal on their estates, a resource which was now in great demand. The new were accepted by the old as long as they followed the same rules, something which led to a fashion for books on etiquette.

For the first time country houses were changed not because more space was needed, but because the owners had vast fortunes that needed spending. For example, most houses finally installed running water, which used waterwheels or steam to take water through a network of pipes to a cistern in the roof and into the home. This technology was not new but it was still expensive, so therefore previously there had been no reason to use it when there were cheap servants on hand. Now, excess wealth made running water a basic necessity in all respectable houses. Baths became very popular, not as we would have them today, but housed in separate buildings within the gardens whilst still using the same water system. Kitchens were kitted out with new enclosed stoves which were more efficient at cooking than an open fire and let fewer smells escape into the rest of the house.

Improving modes of transport made travel further afield more pleasant, and so the Grand Tour of Europe was now something that all landed families of England could afford. This exposure to the continent’s historic sites spawned an interest in the Classics and souvenirs were brought home to show visitors how cultured and well-travelled they were. Gentlemen collectors needed somewhere to put their reference books, ancient treasures and trinkets and so libraries began to appear in houses across the country in greater numbers. These rooms, which soon became a standard feature of even the most modest country house, became places to entertain visitors with families visiting stately homes across the nation to view the treasures on display.

Perhaps the greatest change to the 18th century country house was to be found outside it. In 1734 gardener William Kent, introduced a new taste in gardening which quickly became the fashionable norm. Gardens once more began to match the elegance and formality of the house itself. Even the most modest households introduced formal planting, trees to screen any neighbours, winding pathways, ponds and fountains. The larger the estate, the more elaborate the garden design could be including temples, follies and tea houses. Guests would be able to admire the grounds, taking in the carefully manicured lawns and symmetrical planting, on a circuit of paths. With so much care taken over these formal gardens it was only a matter to time before the house itself began to change so that the views could be appreciated even when the English climate made a trip outside undesirable. The use of space within the house began to change so that the main rooms gave the best views over the gardens and eventually the symmetry of the house became less important than the vistas afforded from each window.

The Nineteenth Century House

Pyrcroft House, Chertsey

Originally built in the early 19th century Pyrcroft House is known locally as one of two possible destination of Charles Dicken’s character Oliver Twist when he came to Chertsey with Bill Sikes to commit a burglary

By the beginning of the 19th century there had been a noticeable shift in balance of power across the country. The upper classes were losing their authoritative monopoly as the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the predominately town based middle classes. At the same time, society was becoming more formal between classes but less formal within each class, and this was reflected in the style and use of the country house. The division between the servants and the owners was widening, resulting in more clearly defined servants’ quarters away from the family. Servants were relegated underground to enable the family to enjoy the gardens from their rooms on the ground floor. With time, servants were assigned their own separate wing, often hidden from the main house behind a well-proportioned conservatory. The country house was changing to reflect the complicated social structures of the day. Some rooms were now deemed to be the domain of one sex or the other with women’s areas such as the drawing room, and men’s areas such as the smoking room or billiard room. There was also an increasing notion of certain spaces being used specifically at certain times of the day.

A country house was still something to aspire to and due to the increasing network of roads, fast coaches, and later in the century, the coming of the railways, it was never easier to travel from London to one’s country estate. It was also easier to bring the joys of town life; concerts, theatres and the like, to the country and so houses began to be designed with entertaining in mind. Technological advances made life in the country as fashionable and as modern as life in the town. This was the beginning of the golden age of the country house.

The outward appearance of buildings began to change, reflecting the Victorian views on piety and morality. Gothic-style buildings were adorned with stained glass and religious mottos and symbols. With the incoming of a sense of modesty out went the overtly ostentatious signs of wealth: porticoes were removed and towers were added, reminiscent of the age of chivalry of the Middle Ages. New ways of producing glass resulted in sheet glass and therefore larger windows were possible, electricity was introduced to many houses with electric lights appearing from the 1880s, and now it was not only possible but essential to have running water to all floors.

With the relocation of servants to their own wing of the house, the ground floor rooms were freed up to be redesigned as the main living rooms. They were then able to take full advantage of the gardens beyond. The bedrooms were moved to the vacant living spaces on the first floor and it became commonplace to locate the master bedroom over the drawing rooms so it could command the same views and use the top of the bay window below as a balcony area.

The country house had come of age, and house parties were all the rage. They were more relaxed affairs than the masques or balls of the previous century, and men and women were able to socialise freely. With fewer arranged marriages taking place, they became good places to be introduced to a potential suitor. This relaxed face belies the strict timetable of events that existed for such parties. The day started at 9.30 when the guests would convene for breakfast. Various activities were then catered for by the host with time occupied with shooting, fishing, music, reading, walking or possible painting until 5pm when it was time for dinner. Guests would then retire to their room to get dressed because the meal was a formal affair, after which the ladies would retire to the drawing room leaving the men in the dining room to smoke and drink. All guests would reunite in the drawing room towards the end of the evening before retiring to bed. By the 1840s many felt it was too long to wait between breakfast and dinner and so an afternoon tea on the lawn or in the drawing room, made popular by the Duchess of Bedford, became de rigueur.

All this entertaining required a great deal more staff than previously, especially gardeners and estate workers. By the end of the century technology had created a new type of servant, the chauffeur. With all the extra staff it was important that their physical and moral wellbeing was considered. Servants’ wings had separate sleeping quarters for men and women and the number of rooms increased so that instead of sleeping in dormitories, there were never more than two servants to a room. One area where there was a particular need for staff was in the Victorian country house kitchen. Here the latest developments in cooking were showcased with enormous ranges and a special type of cutlery for every conceivable use.

The Victorian country house kitchen was something to behold, with all modern technology proudly on show. The kitchens were kept far away from the gentile areas of the house, connected by a maze of corridors with kinks and turns in them to reduce the chances of the smell reaching the main house.   To ensure that the food was at the correct temperature after its journey through the labyrinth of corridors, warming rooms just outside the dining room became popular so that food could be reheated before serving. With servants no longer lurking in corridors to be on hand if required, hallways could be put to better use and became places to put writing desks and comfy chairs.

In the latter years of the century even the way food was served changed, something which would reduce the number of servants in a country house. Prior to the 1890s, it was common to have one serving servant to every one or two guests, ensuring that their food requirements were properly addressed. However, a dining fashion known as à la Russe saw all food, with the exception of the joint or bird which was placed in front of the master of the house, placed in the centre of the table for guests to pass to each other.  This was a welcome trend at a time of increasing taxation and rising wages and offered a way to save money whilst appearing to be the height of fashion! However, this financial saving was not enough to save many country estates from ruin.

The 1880s saw economic changes which shook the gentry’s faith in the estates they had owned for generations. When cheap imports of corn from the USA started flooding the country, land was no longer seen as the safe investment it once had been. Britain was plunged into an agricultural depression during which time many families with larger holdings found themselves financially embarrassed. In the last two decades of the 19th century, vast numbers of estates were sold or left unoccupied when no buyer could be found. Whilst there would be a short revival in the early part of the next century, this was the beginning of the end for the centuries’ old tradition of the English country house.

The Twentieth Century House

With the introduction of death duties in 1894, increasing rates of income tax and a rise in servants’ wages, the turn of the 20th century was an expensive time to own and run a large country house. Owners were usually those who had an alternative source of income, not just the rents and crops on their estates. They had been better able to weather the financial woes of the agricultural depression. The two worlds of the landowning classes and the business fraternity had merged with Peers of the Realm now sitting as company directors whilst industrialists sat in their country seat. As ownership of a rural estate was no longer a necessity for advancement in society, it was the romantic notion of the country house rather than the practicalities or kudos which drove businessmen to snap up failing estates. Country Life magazine was first published in the late 1890s, helping to further promote the notion of a romantic rural lifestyle and a more natural construction to country houses which rambled around courtyards and as Vita Sackville-West put it, “not only in the country but part of it, a natural growth”. This was the time the Edwardian country lady garden. This style was inspired by garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, whose work was often seen complimenting the naturally flowing architect of Sir Edwin Lutyens, who created country houses that blended into their surroundings with creepers enabling them to merge into the soft planting of the garden.


The “Roaring Twenties” ushered in an age of exuberance in stark contrast to the preceding years of the Great War. The country embraced its bright new future, revelling in all things modern. As cars became more common shops began to offer delivery services, including commercial laundries which all but did away with the need for a country house laundry. Servants were harder to come by with so many deaths in the trenches and women finding alternative, better paid jobs in factories and offices, but technology was reducing the need for them. Central heating, vacuum cleaners and running water were now common-place even in the average domestic home but in a country house they significantly reduced the number of servants required.


The revival of the idyllic country house was, alas, short lived. With the British Empire plunged into war in September 1939 servants were enlisted to fight overseas once more, and many of the country’s estates were commandeered by the government. The houses were converted into training centres to prepare the troops for battle or hospitals to treat them when they returned wounded, striped of their finery and neglected for years. When peace finally came and the houses were returned to their former owners many had suffered so much that they were uneconomical to return to their former glory. Families, who may have held the estate for generations, were torn between pouring what little remained of their fortunes into the family pile, or cutting their losses and demolishing it. Between 1870 and 1970 over 600 country houses were demolished; the vast majority of those met their demise in the years immediately after the Second World War. Those who hung on to them struggled to find the materials to repair them, the finances to pay for them, and the servants to run them.

Faced with this bleak future many estates opened their doors to members of the public who would pay to see how “the other half lived”. One stately home owner is recorded as saying, “I treat the public as an untidy aunt, whom I must humour for the sake of her legacy”. With a further increase in death duties to 65% by the post-war government, many families decided that they would gift their country houses to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty – or The National Trust, for short. Established in 1895 the organisation aimed to “set aside the best and most beautiful parts of Britain for the public and prosperity” and grew to become the saviour of the nation’s country houses. It now owns over 500 historic properties and over 610,000 acres of land.

The golden age of the English country house may be over, but the centuries-old tradition of visiting the nations grandest of homes lives on.