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Houghton House: a 17th century mansion and associated courtyard and formal garden remains

A Scheduled Monument in Houghton Conquest, Central Bedfordshire

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Latitude: 52.0437 / 52°2'37"N

Longitude: -0.4865 / 0°29'11"W

OS Eastings: 503899.221847

OS Northings: 239450.201577

OS Grid: TL038394

Mapcode National: GBR G33.XGJ

Mapcode Global: VHFQM.JW5N

Entry Name: Houghton House: a 17th century mansion and associated courtyard and formal garden remains

Scheduled Date: 9 October 1981

Last Amended: 22 January 1996

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1013522

English Heritage Legacy ID: 27114

County: Central Bedfordshire

Civil Parish: Houghton Conquest

Traditional County: Bedfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bedfordshire

Church of England Parish: Ampthill

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans


Houghton House, described by Daniel Defoe in 1720 as a noble and magnificent
palace, stands in a prominent position on the Greensand ridge overlooking the
vale of Bedford, some 1.5km to the north of Ampthill. The monument includes
the ruined remains of an early 17th century house (which was partly demolished
in the late 18th century), the principal carriageway to the south, and part of
the surrounding terrace which is considered to retain evidence of contemporary
formal gardens and courtyards.

The house (a Listed Building, Grade I) was built to an H-plan design, typical
of the Jacobean period, with maximum dimensions of c.37m east to west and 25m
north to south. It is constructed in Ampthill brick; with quoins, window
moulding and other details in limestone quarried at nearby Totternhoe. Plans
and illustrations from the late 18th and early 19th century show the building
prior to the demolition work, when it stood to three storeys. Although the
roofs and most of the third storey walls have since been removed, the
remaining elevations provide a clear impression of its former appearance. Of
the two projecting bays on the north side, the eastern example still exists
retaining the lower of two oriel windows with its limestone frame and
mullions. The elongated wings to the south and intervening walls were pierced
by similar rectangular windows, examples of which survive at both the first
and second storey levels. The building had four corner turrets, the two at the
western corners remaining to second storey level. These are considered to be
an unusual feature for a house of this period, and were formerly capped by
concave pyramidal roofs. The remainder of the roof line terminated in
triangular or Dutch-style gables. The main entrance is provided by a porch
within a tower in the centre of the south elevation, which in part survives to
just below the roof line. The rectangular doorway is surmounted by a massive
triple keyblock and segmental pediment in limestone. The more impressive `show
fronts' of the house face to the north and west, in the centre of which are
the remains of ornamental facades. The northern facade consisted of a two
storey, three bay loggia, of which only the lower colonnade and the
approaching flight of brick steps now remain. The round arches of the bays are
constructed in unusually small bricks, rubbed to produce a smooth surface. The
arches are flanked by attached, Doric columns in limestone, formerly
supporting a decorated entablature, only part of which survives. The columns
of the second level were Ionic, and the loggia motif was carried to the third
storey by a matching attic window and two round headed niches below a
pedimented gable. The western entrance had a loggia of three colonnades, one
on top of another, although again, only the lower section of six Doric
columns remains. Above this is a carved frieze which, despite considerable
erosion, still retains the heraldic devices of the Sidney and Dudley families.
The second tier was similar but less tall, with a carved balustrade separating
the columns; and the third tier, of matching design, had four columns
supporting a neo-Classical pediment.

The floors within the house have long since been removed. However, most of the
internal walls shown on an architects plan in 1793 remain, together with
fireplaces and flues at various levels indicating the principal rooms. An
inventory compiled in 1728 records the names of the rooms, including the Great
Dining room, the boarded hall, withdrawing and smoking rooms, and the Lord and
Lady's bedchambers and dressing rooms. The ground floor is thought to have
originally been tiled, and areas of the plaster surface still adhere to the
internal walls, which also retain the beam slots for the upper floors.
In its heyday Houghton House employed over 40 servants, requiring further
space for domestic quarters and service rooms. An additional range was
attached to the eastern side of the main house, which the inventory records as
containing two kitchens, two brewhouses, a cellar, laundry, dairy, still-house
and scullery. This range was mostly demolished in the 19th century, and later
replaced by a farm house (now Houghton Park House) which is not included in
the scheduling. The foundations of the connecting passage are, however, still
visible within the exposed cellars on the eastern side of the main building.

The main approach to the house was from the south following a natural spur
which projects outward from the general slope of the hillside. A plan of the
house and estate dated 1733 shows a formal avenue of trees extending for
approximately 160m to the south of the main entrance flanking the carriageway.
The 1733 map also shows the layout of rectangular formal gardens and
courtyards surrounding the house, separated by fences or walls; and records
the names of the component areas. The formal approach from the south entered
the gardens at the south court, a rectangular area located between the corner
turrets on this side. A broad artificial scarp parallel to, and some 45m from
the south elevation, indicates the edge of this courtyard and the level
terrace on which the house stands. The elaborate entrance to the west
overlooked the west court which extended across the width of the building, and
continued across the terrace for approximately 45m, descending in the natural
slope on this side. The northern and southern boundaries of this courtyard are
marked on the 1733 map with small rectangular structures, situated about 35m
from the house. These may have been wooden buildings, such as the temple
bought by John Morris during the demolition, and relocated to Avenue House,
Ampthill. The position of the southern structure is indicated by an earthen
mound, 10m in diameter and c.1m high; and the second location of the southern
structure is suggested by a corresponding level area to the north. The
courtyard continued approximately 10m further to the west where it was entered
by an avenue ascending the wooded slope. This avenue is still visible as a
slight hollow measuring c.10m across, and a sample, 10m in length, is included
in the scheduling. The north court, in front of the northern entrance
similarly extended between the corner towers, and continued for some 34m
toward the edge of the terrace overlooking the northern slope of the Greensand
ridge. The 1733 map shows a small projection in the centre of the northern
boundary which is thought to represent a gateway related to a tree-lined
avenue shown running to the east of Houghton Conquest on a map dated 1765.
The rectangular area within the angle of the north and west courts was termed
the well garden in 1733, bounded by a wall or fence to the west and by the
natural scarp of the hill to the north. Between the south and west courts lay
the `best garden', an area measuring approximately 40m square, the southern
edge of which is still defined by the continuation of the scarp on the
southern side of the terrace. These courts and gardens are now overlain by
pasture and lawns and are considered to retain buried features, including the
surfaces of yards and paths, and archaeological evidence for the arrangement
of borders and parterres. A kitchen garden and drying yard are also
depicted on the 1733 map, to the north and south of the domestic range. This
area, however, was significantly lowered when a new terrace was cut for the
construction of the later farmhouse, and is not included in the scheduling.

Houghton House was built within an area formerly known as Dame Ellensbury
Park, named after Alianor, the second wife of Sir Almaric de St Amand. His
family owned considerable land in Bedfordshire in the 14th and 15th centuries.
After Almaric's death in 1430, the manor passed to Lord Fanhope of Ampthill
Castle, although part of the estate was retained by Alianor until her death in
1467; and it has been suggested that Alianor's residence stood on the site of
Houghton House. Dame Ellensbury Park, together with Ampthill Park, later
passed to the crown and became a royal hunting territory. In 1606, James I
visited the area and commissioned the architect John Thorpe to draw up plans
for the reconstruction of Ampthill Castle. This project was abandoned, and it
is thought that the architect was subsequently re-directed to design Houghton
House. The house has several features unusual in buildings of the time,
particularly the arrangement and design of the central hall and corner towers
which are similar to those at Holland House, London, built by Thorpe between
1606-7. In 1615 James granted the house to Mary Herbert, Countess Dowager of
Kent. Mary was the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, and had been an outstanding
figure in her own right at the court of Queen Elizabeth. She remained a great
patron of the arts, and it is thought that she commissioned Inigo Jones
(lately returned from his researches in Italy) to design the neo-Classical
loggias for the north and west entrances. Mary's mother was a Dudley, and the
Sidney and Dudley motifs on the western entablature are therefore considered
to have been completed during her occupancy, which ended with her death in
1621. The house reverted to the crown, and was later granted to Thomas Bruce,
Earl of Elgin. Thomas's son Robert, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, succeeded to the
property after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and was in turn
succeeded by his son, Thomas, who went into exile with James II in 1688. The
elaboration of the southern entrance is believed to have been added whilst the
house was in the possession of the Bruce family. In 1738, Thomas's heir sold
the property to the 4th Duke of Bedford. The duke's son, the Marquis of
Tavistock, lived there from 1764 until his death in a hunting accident in
1767. After this the house was rented, but not occupied, by the Earl of Upper
Ossory, who's main residence, Ampthill Park, stands about 1km to the east. In
1794 the Duke of Bedford ordered the house to be un-roofed and partially
dismantled, with some items taken for reuse elsewhere. The main staircase was
placed in the duke's new Swan Hotel in Bedford. The remaining structure was
abandoned until 1923, when it was purchased with a view to preservation by the
Bedford Arts Club. The necessary consolidation work proved to be extensive and
in 1935 the ruin was taken into Guardianship by the Commissioners for His
Majesty's Works and Public Buildings. Repairs and maintenance were begun by
the Ministry of Works in 1938, and have since been continued by its
successors, the Department of the Environment and English Heritage.

All fences and fence posts are excluded from the scheduling together with the
gravel surfaces of the driveway within the ruin; although the ground beneath
these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The remains of Houghton House stand in good condition, and are sufficiently
substantial to illustrate the former appearance of this high status residence
with royal associations. The building represents both fashionable and more
advanced concepts in the architecture of the early 17th century. The house
typifies conventional late 16th and early 17th century design as exemplified
by the eminent architect John Thorpe, who was also responsible for Burleigh
House, Cambridgeshire, Montacute in Somerset and Kirkby Hall,
Northamptonshire. The layout and design of the house itself, however, is in
marked contrast to the design of the loggias, which are attributed to Inigo
Jones, one of the most influential architects of the time, whose later works
included the Banqueting House at Whitehall and the Queen's House at Greenwich.
Jones is credited as being the first English classical architect, and was
largely responsible for the introduction and translation of the designs of the
16th century architect, Palladio. The north entrance at Houghton is closely
based on Palladio's Conventa della Carita in Venice. It is one of the earliest
examples of Palladian architecture in the country, and includes the first
known use of rubbed brickwork.

Houghton House therefore represents an important transitional period between
Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, and the neo-Classicism which was to
follow. The past owners and occupiers of the house are well documented, and in
the case of Mary, the Dowager Countess, the biographical details provide
insights into the development of the design. The significance of the
structural remains is increased rather than reduced by the limited period of
occupation, since the house has no significant later alterations or

Documentary and surviving buried and earthwork evidence provides a clear
picture of the setting of the house. Paths, surfaces and other features will
survive buried within the areas of the courtyards, and the gardens will
retain archaeological and paleo-botanical evidence for borders, parterres and
other elements of their planting and design.

The monument is accessible to the public.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Fisher, A J, Bunyans Country: Studies in the Topography of Pilgrim's Progress, (1891)
Parry, I D, Select Illustrations Historical and Topographical of Bedfordshire, (1827)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough, (1968)
Sampson, G, Concise Cambridgeshire History of English Literature, (1942), 290
George, M S F, 'The Bedfordshire Magazine' in The Story of Houghton House, Part 2: Proud Dwelling Desolate, , Vol. 6, (1948), 209-216
George, M S F, 'The Bedfordshire Magazine' in The Story of Houghton House, Part 1: The Mansion of the Fair, , Vol. 5, (1948), 169-174
Gomme, A, 'Archaeological Journal' in Houghton House, , Vol. 139, (1982), 39-42
Ancient Monuments Terrier, (1984)
Architect's plans, CRO R1/1013, (1793)
CRT 130 AMP 34 (draft Copy), Curtis, E, Life in the Palace Beautiful, (1958)
Details of Guardianship Area, Ancient Monuments Terrier: Houghton House, (1984)
Estate map for the Duke of Bedford, Evans, T, CRO 27/19, (1803)
Estate Map for the Duke of Bedford, Evans, T, CRO 27/19, (1804)
Includes copy of the original map, Wiils, R, Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733, (1991)
Notes for visit by Post-Med Arch Soc, Cox, A, 729, (1985)
Notes in CRO parish file, Gomme, A, Houghton House, (1982)
Title: Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733
Source Date: 1991
Includes copies of 1733 & 1765 maps
Title: Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733
Source Date: 1991
Includes copy of original map
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Edition
Source Date: 1974

Title: The Estates of Charles, Lord Bruce.
Source Date: 1733
Copy held in Bedford Record Office

Source: Historic England

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