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Wilton House – country seat of the Earls of Pembroke

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about Wilton House originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Wilton House, picture, image, illustration

Wilton House

The most beautiful house in England . . . that is the claim made by the publicists of Wilton House, the Wiltshire home of the Earls of Pembroke. It is perhaps a dangerous claim.

Yet any visitors – be they from Missouri, Manchester or Margate – are likely to agree completely when faced with the beauty of Wilton House, near Salisbury. Quite simply, it is stunning.

The fortunes of the Pembroke family were founded by a tough Welshman called William Herbert.

In 1534, Herbert married the sister of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. Yet even before that marriage, William Herbert held a high position in the royal esteem – he was given Wilton and its lands by the King.

The first Wilton House was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1647, when all but the centre of the east front was burned down. Already it had seen much history, however. Elizabeth I had stayed there and the poet and valiant soldier Sir Philip Sidney was the brother-in-law of an early Pembroke. Many poets and playwrights visited the house and it is highly probable that Shakespeare and his company performed two of his plays there.

The new house was built soon after the fire by the famous architect, Inigo Jones, and after his death in 1652 John Webb completed his work. Since that time, many Earls of Pembroke have had distinguished careers. One of the family, Sidney, later Lord, Herbert, was the man who helped Florence Nightingale to start and complete her great work ministering to the sick and wounded in the Crimean War. And down the centuries, many of our kings and queens have been entertained at Wilton House.

The main entrance, a splendid triumphal arch, was originally not an entrance at all, but a monument perched on top of the hill on the park’s south side. The park itself has lovely lawns containing superb cedars. There is also an enchanting Palladian bridge built in 1737 over the River Nadder, which flows through the estate.

As befits a home where poets, writers and artists have always been welcome, the interior is an artistic paradise. Its most famous features are the Double Cube and Single Cube rooms, prosaic names for two of Inigo Jones’ most breathtaking creations. Both are state rooms, the Double Cube being 60ft long, 30ft wide and 30ft high and the Single Cube being 30ft long, high and wide. It is therefore half the size of the Double room.

The Double Room was once a dining room but is now a sitting room and a ballroom. Elizabeth II has been entertained there, and many foreign sovereigns. During the Second World War, it was Southern Command’s Operations Room, where D-Day was partly planned.

The walls are of pine, painted white and decorated with gilded flowers and fruit, but words can hardly convey the beauty of the ceiling. There are also some splendidly stylish examples of Chippendale furniture – and then there are the Van Dycks . . .

Every picture in the room except one is by the famous Dutch painter Van Dyck. The biggest is his portrait of the Herbert family; yet perhaps the most moving is that of the children of Charles I. In all Britain, there are surely few rooms which can match this one.

Room after room contains magnificent paintings, among the artists being Rubens, Rembrandt, Lely, Andrea del Sarto, Reynolds and a host of others. And the halls and cloisters are full of treasures as well, including busts of famous members of the family and distinguished visitors.

Charles I so loved the old Wilton House that he visited it time and again, and Inigo Jones’s creation has exercised an equal appeal. The fact that it is not too vast adds to its charm. Some stately homes are so huge that it is impossible to do them justice because exhaustion can set in. Like everything else at Wilton House, its size is perfection.

The house is open from early April to early October, except on Mondays. Opening hours should be checked before a visit, but the house is open all day and on Sunday afternoons. As an added attraction, there is a large exhibition of model soldiers. This glorious spot is a mere three kilometres west of Salisbury.

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