Chatsworth House is one of very few English country houses still owned by the family that built it and a brief history of this family – their triumphs, their trials and their scandals – offers snapshot of life in the uppermost echelons of society that spans over 500 years.
It’s also a great place to visit.
Here’s our guide to the history of the house, the Cavendish family that owns it and the how to visit.
The story of Chatsworth House begins with the formidable matriarch, Bess of Hardwick. Bess was born in 1527 and over the course of her 81-year life rose through the ranks of the British nobility by marrying four husbands, each more powerful than the last, and outliving them all.
With her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, Bess bought Chatsworth Manor in 1549 at a cost of £600. The manor was nowhere near grand enough for Bess and the couple immediately set about building a large country house on the land.
Bess was often referred to as the second most powerful woman in England, after Queen Elizabeth I, and she had a complicated relationship with the Queen.
On the one hand, Bess’s grandaughter, Arbella Stuart had a legimitate claim to Elizabeth’s famously unstable throne. On the other, Bess did Elizabeth the great service of acting as custodian of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was intermittently held prisoner at Chatsworth House.
The rooms in which Mary was held at Chatsworth were located on the east side of the house and are still known as the Queen of Scots Apartments although their interiors are dramatically changed.
Through The Generations
Chatsworth House passed through generations of the influential Cavendish family and, as is common in aristocratic families, some individuals built on their inheritance while others did their best to squander it.
The 2nd Earl of Devonshire stands out in this regard. Cavendish died aged just 35 from what was described as “excessive indulgence in good living” (1) and left little but debts and lawsuits in his wake.
1st Duke of Devonshire
It was the 1st Duke of Devonshire (born the 4th Earl) who transformed Chatsworth House from an Elizabethan manor to the stately country house we see today. The 1st Duke was elected MP for Derbyshire aged 21 and, just like his Grandfather before him, was described as “a libertine both in principle and practice” who ran himself into debt in his late twenties and fled to France to avoid his creditors. (2) By the time the 1st Duke inherited his title in 1683, Chatsworth was in a state of disrepair.
The 1st Duke employed William Talman to design and execute a complete remodelling of the south front of Chatsworth House. Talman’s vision for Chatsworth was based on an unexecuted design by Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, intended for the Louvre in Paris.
The 1st Duke subsequently transformed the East Front, West front and finally North Front of Chatsworth but remodelling only offered so much excitement and the 1st Duke took a leading role in British politics.
A prominent Whig, the 1st Duke was known as an agitator, a staunch anti-Catholic who openly denounced the workings of the court of Charles II and later that of James II. Fined and imprisoned for his behaviour at James’ court, the 1st Duke was a key contributor to the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) and was one of seven men who signed an invitation to William of Orange to invade England and take the throne. (3)
The 1st Duke’s contribution to Chatsworth House can be felt most keenly in the chapel. Completed in 1693, the chapel features an breath-taking reredos (large altarpiece) carved from local alabaster by Derbyshire craftsman, Samuel Watson.
The monumental changes the 1st Duke made to Chatsworth House were completed in 1707 but the 1st Duke didn’t have long to enjoy them as he died a few months later.
4th Duke Of Devonshire
The next few Dukes of Devonshire remained active in British politics but made no changes to Chatsworth House, perhaps unable to improve on what the 1st Duke had created.
The 4th Duke, who was for a short time Prime Minister of Great Britain left the house alone but left his own mark on Chatsworth by remodelling the park and garden.
Enlisting the help of famous landscape architect Capability Brown, the 4th Duke changed the view from Chatsworth, razing stables, offices and a whole village of cottages to ensure the scene from his windows was as pleasing as possible.
Gone were the over-pruned formal gardens of the 17th century and 18th century gardens of cultivated wilderness were introduced. The 4th Duke’s marriage to Lady Charlotte Boyle, daughter of the 3rd Earl of Burlington, is also notable as Charlotte was the heiress of five huge estates and a staggering collection of books, drawings, paintings and sculpture.
5th Duke Of Devonshire
The 5th Duke of Devonshire hardly visited Chatsworth but did make one addition to the property – the Blue Drawing Room. In the Regency period, the drawing room had become the centre of the country house and the 5th Duke had architect, Carr of York transform the space into a haven of Louis Seize elegance.
The drawing room was hung with family portraits from every period, an interesting flourish considering the 5th Duke’s own unconventional home life.
In 1774, the 5th Duke married Lady Georgina Spencer but this was not a happy match. Famous for her beauty, wit and active role in politics, the Duchess maddened the Duke with her socialite lifestyle and headstrong ways.
The 5th Duke retaliated by inviting his mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster to live with the couple creating an uncomfortable menage a trois. After the Duchess’s death, the 5th Duke married Lady Foster.
6th Duke Of Devonshire
The 6th Duke, perhaps recoiling from the type of domestic unrest he must have witnessed as a child, preferred to stay single and dedicated his time and energy to transforming Chatsworth House.
Known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’, the 6th Duke enlisted Sir Jeffry Wyatville to realise his dream of making Chatsworth House a worthy setting for the world-class collection of paintings, sculptures and antiques it contained.
In the 1830s Wyatville made huge alterations to Chatsworth including creating a new wing with a state dining room, Dome Room and, its crowning glory, a purpose-built, skylit sculpture gallery.
One of the last to be built in an English country house, the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth contains works by Canova, Thorwalden and their Roman contemporaries that show the Bachelor Duke to be “one of the most sensitive connoisseurs as well as one of the most opulent collectors of his day.” (4)
In 1812 the 6th Duke acquired the entire library of the Bishop of Ely and made purchases at the famous Roxburghe auction. A space was needed to house these treasures and the many others in his posession and so between 1815 and 1830 the 6th Duke had the 1st Duke’s Long Gallery transformed into a library.
With Crace & Co designed carpet, curtains and upholstery, the library is a welcoming space with books lining every wall and today contains some of the rarest volumes in any country house. Like other country house libraries of the time, the library at Chatsworth House features job-doors covered with false book-backs that lead to secret passageways.
The Dining Room is also the work of the 6th Duke and was designed by Wyatville around 1830 and completed in 1832. Designed in a Neoclassical style with a high, curved roof, the 6th Duke described the space as “Like Dining in a great trunk, and you expect the lid to open,” according to Harold Macmillan, adding that it “Answers perfectly, never feeling over large.” (5) The very first dinner given in the Dining Room at Chatsworth was in honour of thirteen year-old Princess and future-Queen, Victoria.
The next few Dukes to reside in Chatsworth house entertained lavishly and enjoyed the lifestyle afforded by their huge inheritances. Perhaps sensing that the age of the aristocrat was nearing its end, these Dukes allowed Chatsworth House to slide gradually into disrepair.
In 1908 the 9th Duke, Victor Cavendish took over Chatsworth House and with his wife, Lady Evelyn Fitzmaurice, intended to renovate it back to its former glory. The introduction of staggering death duties soon killed this dream and the family were forced to begin selling objects from Chatsworth’s collection.
After The War
During the Second World War, Chatsworth House, like many stately country homes, was taken over by the people and became a girl’s boarding school. Post-war, it became clear that there was no hope of Chatsworth House ever being a completely private residence again and it was opened to the public.
In 1957 the 11th Duke decided he and his family would move back to Chatsworth and an attempt was made to modernise and make the house habitable for a mid 20th century family.
Finally, in 1981 the 11th Duke founded the Chatsworth House Trust, a charitable foundation with the mission of preserving the house, garden and park for the benefit of the general public.
Now, Chatsworth House relies on income generated by visitors to maintain its buildings and its grounds. A popular attraction in the area, Chatsworth House’s story continues and within its walls the many inhabitants who once called it home live on.
(4) Jackson Stops (1984) The English country house : a grand tour
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