Wilton House

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

Chapter 2 : History

A Benedictine Abbey was founded in Wilton at some time in the ninth century. It was a royal foundation, connected to the Saxon kings Edgar, Alfred and Athelstan, and many of the nuns were members of the royal family, or the highest nobility. According to legend,  Edith Godwinsdaughter, the wife of Edward the Confessor, was educated at the abbey and replaced the wooden church with a stone building. Following the Norman Conquest, it remained one of the highest ranking abbeys, with the abbess holding a barony.

The abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII on 25 March 1539, by Abbess Cicely Bodenham – some felt with indecent haste. She retired on a comfortable pension, to a small manor in Wiltshire. The lands were granted to Sir William Herbert in 1544. Herbert’s wife, Anne Parr, was the sister of Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife. Being the king’s brother-in-law was a profitable business, and Sir William soon set about building a handsome new house.

Both Herbert and his wife were Reformers, and he came to the fore during the minority of Edward VI, as a friend of the Duke of Somerset. He was granted the Earldom of Pembroke in 1551, although his countess did not live to enjoy her new status for more than a few months. Somerset’s circle was interested in architecture, and many of his friends and colleagues patronised Robert Smythson. Smythson had a hand in Somerset House, Longleat, probably Burghley House, and Hardwick Hall. There is no record of a connection with Wilton, but there are distinct similarities of style.

With the fall of Somerset, Pembroke transferred his loyalty to Sir John Dudley, soon to be Duke of Northumberland, and the most powerful man in government. At the same time as Northumberland’s son, Guilford, married the king’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey, Pembroke arranged for his own son, Henry Herbert, to marry Lady Jane’s sister, Lady Katherine Grey. The couple were young, and the marriage was not consummated, although Katherine lived with the Pembrokes. This enabled Pembroke to have the union annulled when the coup to place Lady Jane on the throne failed.

Eager to show his loyalty to the new queen, Mary I, Pembroke took a leading role in the defeat of Wyatt’s Rebellion, in 1554, and also played a prominent part in the French war of 1557.

The 1st Earl had two sons, the afore-mentioned Henry, and William, and a daughter, Anne. All three were from his marriage to Anne Parr, his subsequent marriage to Lady Anne Talbot, daughter of the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury produced no issue.  His son, Henry, married Lady Anne Talbot’s great-niece, Lady Katherine Talbot, in about 1563. There were no issue from this marriage, either, and, after Lady Katherine’s death, Henry, now the 2nd Earl, married Mary Sidney, daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley.

Although Mary Sidney was not of such high birth as her new husband, she was very well-connected with the most prominent members of Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Her uncle, Lord Robert Dudley, being the Queen’s closest friend.

During the tenure of the 2nd Earl and Countess Mary, Wilton House became a haven for poets, scholars and playwrights – amongst them the Countess’ brother, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s company, and not least, Mary herself. The Earl of Pembroke’s Players were the first to perform Henry VI Part 3, in 1599 at Wilton, and it was there that As You Like It was first performed.

The 2nd Earl died in 1601, but Mary continued her patronage of the arts. On the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, overtures were immediately made to the new king, James VI & I, who stayed at Wilton at the beginning of his reign, and also in Mary’s other home, Houghton Regis.

The two sons of the 2nd Earl and Mary Sidney inherited in turn. The elder, William, 3rd Earl, had three partners named Mary – Fitton, Talbot and Sidney (again), but was only married to Lady Mary Talbot, with no off-spring. His two children by his cousin, Mary Sidney, were illegitimate. Thus, on his death, his brother Philip, already Earl of Montgomery, inherited.  The 3rd and 4th Earls are the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

The 4th Earl had been a great favourite with James VI & I, who had installed him as a Knight of the Garter, a Privy Councillor and given him the Montgomery earldom. He remained in favour under Charles I, to whom he was Lord Chamberlain, and whom he frequently welcomed as a guest. According to the seventeenth century memoirist, John Aubrey, King Charles recommended the refurbishment of the south wing of Wilton, under the over-all control of Inigo Jones, with Isaac de Caux as his second. The works were carried out in the 1630s, but the south section burnt down in 1647-8. It was replaced under the direction of Inigo Jones’ nephew, Webb, to the same design.

Despite the good terms on which the 4th Earl had been with Charles I, their religious views diverged, and Pembroke, of a Puritan turn of thought, had sympathy with the Scots during the 1639 – 1640 conflict over the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer. As the political situation deteriorated, Pembroke either could not, or would not, continue to support Charles, who dismissed him from his post as Lord Chamberlain.

During the Civil Wars, he was a moderate member of Parliament, and always saw a compromise with the king as necessary for a final solution. He refused to take part in the trial of the king, but did not speak publicly against it. Following the execution of Charles, he became a member of the Council of State, but survived his old master for less than a year, dying in January 1650.

By his first wife, Lady Susan de Vere (granddaughter of Sir William Cecil), the 4th Earl had five children. The oldest son, Philip became 5th Earl, but left no mark on Wilton. His son, the 6th Earl was known as the ‘Infamous’ earl, for his murderous temper. Even Charles II, a man of easy-going nature, was so shocked by the earl’s violence and blasphemy that he had him sent to the Tower of London. He killed at least two men, but escaped the gallows on each occasion – once claiming the privilege of a peer, and once on receipt of a royal pardon. He had little time for home improvements!

In 1705, the old Tudor north range was destroyed by fire. The 8th Earl – a more respectable character than his elder brother the 6th Earl - commissioned the re-building in Palladian style, and began the magnificent collection of art and sculpture that fills Wilton House.

The 8th Earl, who had held numerous high offices of state, including Lord President of the Privy Council, and Lord High Admiral, was succeeded by his son, the 9th Earl. He too, was a man of taste and culture, with a strong interest in architecture. He designed the Palladian Bridge in the gardens, and made various internal changes. His son, the 10th Earl was responsible for the grand entrance gate, mentioned above, and also worked with ‘Capability’ Brown on the landscaping.

During the ownership of the 11th Earl, extensive remodelling was undertaken by James Wyatt, one of the most popular architects of the day. He re-arranged the entrance, to be on the north face, and replaced some of the eighteenth century building. From a practical point of view, the addition of the two-storey cloister corridors improved circulation within the house  - prior to that, it was necessary to walk through each room to get to the next – which seemed increasingly old-fashioned by 1800.

The 11th Earl dismissed Wyatt for the problems that anyone who has undertaken renovation works will recognise – time and cost overruns, work not delivered to specification, and poor project management. His role as overseer of the works was taken on by his second countess, Catherine Woronzow, who was the daughter of the Russian ambassador to Great Britain.

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, works of renovation, improvement and redecoration continue, as Wilton continues to play its part as both a grand artistic vision, and a family home. The current owner, William, the 18th Earl, lives at Wilton with his family.