Wilton House

Wilton House

Wilton House, home to the Earls of Pembroke since 1544, contains one of the finest art collections in Europe and offers a fascinating insight into British history.

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The 21 acres of landscaped parkland, including four formal gardens, run down to the River Nadder. An exciting playground provides fun for younger visitors.

Wilton House is an English country house situated 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 circa 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 of England, its prosperity was already on the wane — following the seizure of the abbey, King Henry presented it and the estates to William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke (in the 1551 creation) in c.1544.

William Herbert

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.

Returning to England circa 1543, Herbert married Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and sister of King Henry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr. The granting of an estate such as the Abbey of Wilton to Herbert was an accolade and evidence of his position at court. 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 World War II 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.

Inigo Jones

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, it is quintessentially English to our eyes today. While the remainder of the house is on three floors of equal value in the English 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.

The state rooms

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. State rooms in English country houses were seldom used; being reserved for the use of only the most important house-guests, often a monarch and his consort, or another high ranking member of state, hence the name. They are nearly always of an odd number for the following reason.

19th century and James Wyatt

Jones and de Caus’s South Front and the Palladian Bridge (1736/7), in a view of circa 1820The 11th Earl (1759–1827) called upon James Wyatt in 1801 to modernise the house, and create more space for picture 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 as an architect who often employed the neo-classical style, but at Wilton for reasons known only to architect and client he used the Gothic style. Since the beginning of the 20th century his work at Wilton has been condemned by most architectural commentators.

Secondary rooms

Wilton is not the largest house in England by any means: compared to Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, Hatfield and Burghley House it is relatively small. However the magnificent state rooms are not the only rooms worthy of mention, a few of these are:

The gardens and grounds

The house is renowned for its gardens — Isaac de Caus began a project to landscape them in 1632, laying out one of the first French parterres seen in England. An engraving of it made the design very influential after the royal Restoration in 1660, when grand gardens began to be made again. The original gardens included a grotto and water features. 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 (1736/7). 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. Tsarina 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, the 16th Earl. 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.


The house is often described as England’s most beautiful country house, in a land of beautiful country houses where judgment has to be made by each individual. An accurate way to describe Wilton today is a direct quote from the architectural writer John Summerson writing in 1964, it is as true today as it was then:

…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.

The house is open to public during the summer months. Full information can be obtained from www.wiltonhouse.com.

Film and television set

  • Scenes from the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon (1975) were filmed in the Double Cube Room.
  • The Double Cube Room was used in The Bounty (1984) to represent the Admiralty building for the court martial of Captain Bligh for the loss of the Bounty.
  • The palladian bridge and gardens were featured in the Blackadder II episode “Bells” and the end titles of all episodes.
  • Rooms from the palace appear as rooms of Windsor Castle in The Madness of King George (1994) (specifically, the concert with the bell-ringers, and 2 later scenes with the Prince of Wales, all shot in the Double Cube Room).
  • Scenes from Mrs. Brown (1997) were filmed in the Double Cube Room, once again portraying interior of Windsor Castle.
  • Rooms from the palace forms the inside set of Pemberly (Chatsworth) in Pride and Prejudice (2005).
  • Scenes from The Young Victoria, a film about the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, have been filmed at Wilton.

For the latest information please contact:

The Estate Office, Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP2 0BJ
Telephone: 01722 746714
E-mail: tourism@wiltonhouse.com


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Posted on

9 January 2015