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Tours >  > Southwest Lincolnshire > Burghley House

Michael Ford, History Editor

Southwest Lincolnshire Country Houses
by Michael Ford, Country House Editor

Burghley House
Day 1 - In the afternoon we visited Burghley House.

Burghley House

Burghley House, although on the outskirts of Stamford, is not in Lincolnshire but is across the border in the Soak of Peterborough.

This is the largest and grandest Elizabethan house in England. Building started in 1555 for Sir William Cecil (1520-1598), later to become Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer of England, to his own designs but was not completed until 1587. One of the reasons for this was that Sir William purchased Theobald's Manor in Hertfordshire in 1563 and spent over a decade building a mansion there, leaving Burghley uncompleted. Another factor was that those in high office during Elizabeth's reign became very much richer as time passed and were thus able to keep adding to their original house plans. Burghley started off in a fairly conservative way but over the 32 years it took to build, became the fabulous mansion we see today.

It is built of local stone around a courtyard plan. The inner east front has a massive clock tower to balance the height of the magnificent West front whose gatehouse has an additional storey and four turrets.

Burghley was stormed by Cromwell's forces in 1643, having been used as a Royalist refuge, but survived the threat of destruction. Between 1756 and 1779 alterations and additions were carried out by Capability Brown including the building of the orangery and the Lion Bridge over the lake and also the landscaping of the garden.

The inside is quite magnificent with its 60ft high great hall with hammer-beamed roof and a series of staterooms with both decorative plastered and beautifully painted ceilings. The four 'George' rooms all have elaborately painted ceilings by Antonio Verrio as has the 'Heaven Room', which with its painted walls completing the picture of the gods at play, is considered to be his greatest masterpiece. Verrio also painted the dark and lofty 'Hell Staircase' as souls in torment. The 'Bow Room' is equally spectacular with walls and ceiling painted by Louis Laguerre. There are many fine plastered ceilings by Edward Marten, bedrooms with superbly draped beds and hung with beautifully bright tapestries and nearly 400 pictures on the walls of the 18 rooms open for viewing.

William Cecil's eldest son Thomas (1542-1622) became the 1st Earl of Exeter and inherited Burghley while his youngest son Robert (1563-1612) became the 1st Earl of Salisbury and lived at Theobalds until he exchanged it with James I for Hatfield Palace where he created another Cecil dynasty by building a new home, Hatfield House. It was John Cecil (1648-1700) the 5th Earl of Exeter who dramatically changed the interior of Burghley to what we see today. He was one of the first to popularize the 'Grand Tour' of Europe. During his four trips he collected most of the paintings which are still in place at Burghley. He had married Anne Cavendish the only daughter of the 3rd Earl of Devonshire and widow of Lord Charles Rich. As daughter of one of the richest men in England and widow of another, she brought further wealth into the Cecil family, which included a large collection of jewellery, furniture, plate and porcelain inherited from her mother.

David Cecil (1905-1981) the 6th Marquis of Exeter was an athlete and sportsman culminating in his winning an Olympic gold medal, in 1928, for the 400 metres hurdles. He has been immortalised in the film 'Chariots of Fire'.

In 1981 a Preservation Trust was set up dedicated to the maintenance of the house and contents. Lady Victoria Leatham, a well-known television personality with an in depth knowledge of antiques, and her family are the current occupiers, while the 8th Marquis of Exeter lives in Canada.

Burghley was used as a setting for the television series 'Bleak House'.

A visit to Burghley House is indeed a memorable experience. The family monuments can be seen in the church of St. Martin at Stamford.

Burghley is a Member of the Historic Houses Association.The house is open daily from 11am - 4:30pm, 1st April to 3rd October.

Take heed: if you like guided tours visit during the week or weekend mornings but if you like to find your own way round with a guide book, as we do, then visit on weekend afternoons.)

Close by at Wothorpe is a lodge built around 1610 by Thomas Cecil (1542-1622) the 1st Earl of Exeter, for him to retire to while Burghley was being spring-cleaned. It was built on the plan of a Greek cross and has four corner towers. Although it is one of the best lodges of its time it is now in a ruinous state.

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