Montacute House is a late Elizabethan country house situated in the South Somerset village of Montacute. This house is a textbook example of English architecture during a period that was moving from the medieval Gothic to the Renaissance Classical; this has resulted in Montacute being regarded as one of the finest houses to survive from the Elizabethan era. It has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building, and Scheduled Ancient Monument. It was visited by 110,529 people in 2009. Designed by an unknown architect, the three floored mansion, constructed of the local Ham Hill stone, was built circa 1598 by Sir Edward Phelips, Master of the Rolls. His descendants occupied the house until the early 20th century. Following a brief period, when the house was let to tenants, it was acquired by the National Trust in 1927. Today, it is fully open to the public. Since 1975, the mansion's Long Gallery, the longest in England, has served as a regional outpost of the National Portrait Gallery and displays an important collection of oils and watercolours contemporary to the house.

Montacute House was built circa 1598 by Sir Edward Phelips, whose family had been resident in the Montacute area since at least 1460, first as yeomen farmers before rising in status. Edward Phelips was a lawyer who had been in Parliament since 1584. He was knighted in 1603 and a year later became Speaker of the House. James I appointed him Master of the Rolls and Chancellor to his son and heir Henry, Prince of Wales. Phelips remained at the hub of English political life, and his legal skills were employed when he became opening prosecutor during the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters. Sir Edward's choice of architect is unknown. although it has been attributed to the mason, William Arnold, who was responsible for the designs of Cranborne Manor and Wadham College, Oxford, and had worked at Dunster Castle, also in Somerset. Dunster has architectural motifs similar to those found at Montacute. Phelips chose as the site for his new mansion a spot close by the existing house, built by his father. The date work commenced is not documented, but generally thought to be circa 1598/9; this assumption is based on dates on a fireplace and in stained glass within the house. The date, 1601 engraved above a doorcase, is considered the date of completion. Sir Edward Phelips died in 1614, leaving his family wealthy and landed; he was succeeded by his son, Sir Robert Phelips, who represented various West Country constituencies in Parliament. Robert Phelips has the distinction of being arrested at Montacute. A staunch protestant, he was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London as a result of his opposition to the " Spanish Match" between the Prince of Wales and a Catholic Spanish Infanta. The family's fame and notoriety were to be short-lived. Subsequent generations settled down in Somerset to live the lives of county gentry, representing Somerset in Parliament and when necessary following occupations in the army and the church. This peaceful existence was severely jolted when the estate was inherited by William Phelips (1823”“1889). In his early days he made many improvement and renovations to Montacute. He was responsible for the Base Court, a low service range adjoining the south side of the mansion. and the restoration of the Great Chamber, which he transformed into a library. Later, William Phelips was to become insane; an addicted gambler, he was eventually incarcerated for his own good. Sadly for his family, this was after he had gambled away the family fortune and vast tracts of the Montacute Estate. In 1875, when his son, William Phelips (1846”“1919) took control of the estate, agricultural rents from what remained of the mortgaged estate were low, and the huge house was a drain on limited resources. Selling the family silver and art works delayed the inevitable by a few years, but in 1911 the family were forced to let the house, for an annual sum of £650, and move out. The Phelips never returned. By 1915, the original tenant, Robert Davidson, had departed and the house was let to George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston. A later tenant was the American writer, Henry Lane Eno, who died at the house in 1928. Finally, in 1929, the house was sold to philanthropist Ernest Cook who presented it to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and from that Society, it passed to the National Trust. It was one of the Trust's first great houses. Just a few years later, in 1932, it featured on the cover of the very first National Trust Bulletin.

Built in what came to be considered the English Renaissance style, the east front, the intended principal façade, is distinguished by its Dutch gables decorated with romping stone monkeys and other animals. The architecture of the early English Renaissance was far less formal than that of mainland Europe and drew from a greater selection of motifs both ancient and modern and less emphasis was placed on the strict obervance of rules derived from antique architecture. This has led to an argument that the style was an evolution of Gothic rather than an innovation imported from Europe. This argument is evident at Montacute, where Gothic pinnacles, albeit obelisk in form, are combined with Renaissance gables, pediments, classical statuary, ogee roofs and windows appearing as bands of glass. This profusion of large, mullioned windows, an innovation of their day, give the appearance that the principal façade is built entirely of glass; a similar fenestration was employed at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. However, despite the Dutch gables, a feature of the English Renaissance acquired as the style spread from France across the Low Countries to England, and the Gothic elements, much of the architectural influence is directly Italian. The windows of the second floor Long Gallery are divided by niches containing statues, a feature copied from the Palazzo degli Uffizi in Florence(1560-1581), which at Montacute depict the Nine Worthies; the bay windows have shallow segmented pediments ”“ a very early and primitive occurrence of this motif in England ”“ while beneath the bay windows are curious circular hollows, probably intended for the reception of terracotta medallions, again emulating the palazzi of Florence. Such medallions were one of the Renaissance motifs introduce to English Gothic architecture when Henry VIII was rebuilding Hampton Court and supporting the claim that the English Renaissance was little more than Gothic architecture with Renaissance ornament. At Montacute, however, the Renaissance style is not confined to ornament, the house also has perfect symmetry. Paired stair towers stand in the angles between the main body of the house and the wings that project forward, a sign of modern symmetry in the plan of the house as well as its elevation, and a symptom of the times, in that the hall no longer had a "high end" of greater state. Montacute, like many Elizabethan mansions, is built in an 'E' shape, a much-used plan in this era, often said to be a tribute to Elizabeth I. On the ground floor was the great hall, kitchens and pantries, on the upper floors, retiring rooms for the family and honoured guests. Over the centuries, the layout and use of rooms changed: drawing and dining rooms evolved on the ground floor. The original approach to the house would have been far more impressive than the picturesque approach today. The east front was then the entrance façade and faced onto a large entrance court. The two remaining pavilions flanked a large gatehouse; this long demolished structure contained secondary lodgings. In turn, the entrance court and gatehouse was approached through a larger outer court. The courts were however not fortified, but bordered by ornate balustrading which, with the ogee roofs of the pavilions, were a purely ornamental and domestic acknowledgement of the fortified courts and approaches found in earlier medieval English manors and castles. As in all houses of the Elizabethan era, Montacute had no corridors: the rooms led directly from one to another. This changed in 1787 when stonework from a nearby mansion at Clifton Maybank (which was being partly demolished) was purchased by Edward Phelips (1725”“1797) and used to rebuild Montacute's west front. This provided the much-needed corridor giving privacy to the ground floor rooms and first floor bedrooms. Now, with the new frontage in place, the house was virtually turned around: the 'Clifton Maybank' façade becoming the front entrance of the house, and the impressive former front elevation now overlooking a lawn surrounded by flower borders, rather than the original entrance courtyard. The small pavilions, probably banqueting houses, that flanked the demolished gatehouse still remain, resembling twin summer-houses with their ogee shaped roofs.

Ground floor
  • 1: East terrace, the columns are lamp posts added in the 19th century.
  • 2: Servant's hall, a staircase in the bay window descends to the basement. This room became the servant's dining room at the beginning of the 18th century. In a period of social change in country houses, staff began to be confined to their own designated areas of the house. In the 19th century, when servants quarters of monumental proportions became the norm, a low base court was built on to the southern end of the house providing extra domestic accommodation.
  • 3: Kitchen
  • 4: Service rooms
  • 5: Originally two rooms comprising both the " pannetry" and " buttery." In a large household the buttery and "pannetry" were part of the offices pertaining to the kitchen. As at Montacute, they were generally close to the Great Hall. The buttery was traditionally the place from which the yeoman of the buttery served beer and candles to those lower members of the household not entitled to drink wine. Montacute's buttery is typical, as it had a staircase to the beer cellar below. The "pannetry" was the room from which the yeoman of the pantry served bread. By the time of Montacute's completion, upper servants often dined and entertained visiting servants in the pantry. This layout was a medieval concept and later, as custom dictated that servants withdraw from the principal areas of the house, these rooms became used by the family as reception and private dining rooms. Eventually, in the early 20th century, Lord Curzon amalgamated the two rooms to create the grand, and socially necessary, dining room, that Montacute had lacked since the Great Chamber had been abandoned over 100 years before.
  • 6: The Clifton Maybank corridor, built from stone brought form another house undergoing alteration in the 18th century. It allowed the principal ground and first floor room to have privacy and linked the two staircases.
  • 7: The west-facing principal entrance, the addition of the new corridor allowed the house to be turned around, creating a new entrance facade.
  • 8: The Great Hall: in a medieval house this was the most important communal eating and living room, but by the time Montacute was completed the traditional Great Hall was largely an anachronism. However, such halls continued to be built, albeit, as at Montacute, on a smaller scale. For the first few years after its completion, the servants continued to dine in the hall, but the family and honoured guests now ate in the Great Chamber above. The hall now served as a room to receive and also for processions to commence to the grander rooms above.
  • 9: The Drawing Room, originally a bedroom known as the White Chamber, it later became a drawing room, the "Round Parlour." The National Trust imported an incongruous 18th century fireplace, from Coleshill House to this room in the mid 20th century. It is now furnished in 18th century style.
  • 10: The Parlour. In the 16 and early 17th centuries, in a house such as Montacute, the parlour was where the family would dine, possibly with some of their upper servants. It allowed them not only privacy from dining publicly in the hall, but also less state and pomp than if dining in the Great Chamber above. Like its grander cousin above, the parlour also had an adjoining principal bed chamber (room number 9, now the Drawing Room). As fashions and uses changed, and privacy from servants became desirable, like the later Baroque state apartments, these ground floor rooms lost their original purpose and became a series of seemingly meaningless drawing rooms.
First floor
  • 1: Today, the Library. Formerly as the Great Chamber, it was one of the grandest rooms in the house. In a 16th century mansion, such as Montacute, the Great Chamber was the epicentre of all ceremony and state: hence, its position at the head of the principal staircase, making it the finale of a processional route. This is where the most important guests would have been received, and where the Phelips dined formally with their guests and where musical entertainments and dancing would take place. The Great Chamber at Montacute contains the finest chimney-piece in the house, however, its classical statuary depicting nudes are long gone, victims of Victorian prudery. During the 18th century the room was shut up and used a store and permitted to decay; this explains why in the 19th century it was completely restored in "Elizabethan style." The strapwork ceiling, panelling and bookcases all date from this period. The only original features remaining are the heraldic stained glass in the windows and the Portland stone chimney-piece. The room contains an ornate carved wooden porch; installed in the library in the 1830s, it was originally in the parlour below.
  • 2: Anteroom. This small room at the head of the principal staircase divides the former Great Chamber from what would have been a principal bedroom. During the 19th century, the Ante-room was furnished as an armoury.
  • 3: Garden Chamber. Originally one of the principal bedrooms, during the early 20th century it became Lord Curzon's bedroom and as such was equipped with a plumbed bath hidden in a wardrobe, one of the few in the house.
  • 4: Crimson Chamber, originally this room and its small adjoining dressing room formed one room accessed from the Great Chamber. Described in 1638 the "withdrawinge roome", it was used by the family to withdrew from the more public ceremonies held in the Great Chamber and also could be used to form a suite with the neighbouring bedroom (room 5) when eminent guests were entertained in the house.
  • 5: The Hall Chamber. At the time of Montacute's building, it was customary to have a principal bedchamber adjoining the Great Chamber. Reserved for the most important of guests, the best bedchamber, as this room was described in 1638, would be one room of a suite. This was the case at Montacute where the present Crimson Chamber (4) served as the bed chamber's "withdrawinge roome", the suite being accessed from a now-blocked door in the Great Chamber. If a very important guest came to stay, they would then take over the entire suite including the Great Chamber. Although Montacute was equipped for a visiting sovereign, by the time it was completed Elizabeth I was dead and the family's prominence was waning.
  • 6: Brown Room
  • 7: Jerusalem Chamber
  • 8: Print Room, when required used as a nursery.
  • 9: Blue Parlour, later the children's school room.
  • 10: Green chamber
  • 11: Yellow Chamber
  • 12: Blue Chamber.
  • 13:Upper floor of the Clifton Maybank corridor.
Second floor On the top floor, the windows of the gallery are interspaced by statues of the Nine Worthies dressed in Roman costume. Inside, two broad stone staircases give access to each floor. This floor remains completely unaltered from the its date of completion.
  • 1: The Long Gallery. A notable feature of the house is the 172ft second floor Long Gallery, spanning the entire top floor of the house, it is the longest surviving long gallery in England. Long galleries were a feature of large 16th and 17th century houses and had many purposes from entertaining to exercise during inclement weather; the Phelips children would lead their ponies up these stairs to ride here. Today, it is used by the National Portrait Gallery to display part of their collection.
From the Long Gallery lead various former bedchambers. Today, these rooms, like the Gallery, are hung with paintings on loan from the national portrait gallery
  • 2: Today, an exhibition room. In 1635, it was the "Blew Chamber"
  • 3: Today, an exhibition room. In 1635, it was the "Wainscott Chamber"
  • 4: Former bedroom, not open to the public.
  • 5: Today, an exhibition room. In 1635, it was the "Primrose Chamber"
  • 6: Today, an exhibition room. In 1635, it was the "White Chamber"
Above the second floor is an attic floor (not open to the public); this contains some garret rooms which would always have been secondary bedchambers. In the 16th and 17th century, these are likely to have been inhabited by senior servants; the lower servants would have slept in any vacant corner or space on the ground or basement floors.

The garden planting, laid out within the former forecourt and in the slightly sunken grassed parterre square, was the work of Mrs Ellen Phelips, who lived at Montacute from the 1840s to her death in 1911, and her gardener, Mr Pridham. The avenue of clipped yews that reinforces the slightly gappy mature avenue of trees stretching away from the outer walls of the former forecourt to end in fields, and the clipped yews that outline the grassed parterre date from that time, though the famous "melted" shape of the giant hedge, was inspired by the effects of a freak snowfall in 1947. The sunken parterre garden design, with its convincingly Jacobean central fountain, designed by Robert Shekelton Balfour (1869”“1942), is of 1894; Balfour's dated design is conserved in the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Mixed borders in the East court were replanted by Phyllis Reiss of Tintinhull in powerful hot colours when the earlier tender colour scheme laid down by Vita Sackville-West proved insipid to modern taste.

Present-day Montacute
During the last quarter of the 20th century, the gardens and grounds were restored and replanted. The house and village have often featured as locations for films. Several scenes of the 1995 film version of Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility were filmed at Montacute, while it was used as Baskerville Hall for a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles filmed in 2000 for Canadian television. In 1975, London's National Portrait Gallery formed the first of its regional partnerships, a partnership which marries large antique, but empty spaces, with the many painting the National portrait Gallery has insufficient space to display. This has seen Montacute's Long gallery redecorated and restored and hung with an important collection of 16th and 17th century old master portraits. Each year, from March to October the house and grounds are opened to the public.


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