Researching the history of country houses

Before the Industrial Revolution most wealth came from the land. Even nouveau riches Tudor lawyers and merchants liked to marry into the gentry and/or buy country estates. Land gave security, status and a stake in county affairs. So money was lavished on the country houses from which great estates were run.

As a rule the most substantial house in a medieval village belonged to the lord of the manor. This was the manor house. In East Anglia and northern England they were generally called halls - a reminder that the great hall was their central feature. They would also have a solar or chamber (a private room for the lord and his family), storerooms and a kitchen. Nearby would be stables, a barn, dovecote and other farm buildings. Essentially it was the chief farm of the manor. Often it had a chapel or church alongside and the complex could be surrounded by a moat with a gatehouse.

Hatfield House, Herts. 1812 by John Buckler (British Library )A castle would have been built by a baron or earl. Such a man owned many manors, often in several counties.

The Dissolution was a bonanza both for the established aristocracy and Tudor new men hungry for lands. Monasteries could be converted into country houses. Some great men close to the Elizabethan or Jacobean Court built on a palatial scale to accommodate the monarch and royal entourage on their progresses around the country.

By the 18th century a castle might be transformed into a grand country house, while the family could have a town house in London, Dublin or Edinburgh. Those seeking royal favour or a part in government needed to live part of the year away from their country estates. The more modest country squire looked after his acres, played a part in local government, and improved his manor house as finances permitted. The more prosperous the family, the more likely they were to replace an older house with a spanking new Georgian mansion in parkland with lodges at its gates. The manor farm could be completely separate by this time, but the mansion would need a stable block and coach house - see Worsley, G., and Rolf, W.C., The British Stable (2004). Other outbuildings could include an ice house, conservatory, and other garden buildings from the mundane to the decorative.

As the fortunes of industrial magnates and the merchant classes began to eclipse wealth from land, some country estates were sold to another generation of nouveau riches, or maintained by marriages to merchant heiresses. The result was much Victorian remodelling of country houses and a wave of new ones built in mock-Gothic or other nostalgic styles.

But as taxation levels and wage bills rose over the first half of the 20th century, many of the grandest country houses became white elephants. Some were demolished. Others have been preserved by opening them to the public, granting them to the National Trust or converting them into hotels.

Gazetteers

Studies

Descriptions

Much has been published on country and town houses of architectural merit. Modern scholarly studies and much primary material can be traced through Colvin's Biographical Dictionary of Architects.

Medieval descriptions of manor houses are rare and usually brief (see manors), but there is a wealth of later material. There are often 18th and 19th-century descriptions with engravings in county histories, and books on castles and country seats, many of which can be traced through published indexes. The Gentleman's Magazine (1731-) may also be useful; its earliest issues can be read online. A published list and alphabetical index to its illustrations 1731-1818 is available online. Published and MS diaries and tour descriptions may have descriptions, comments and even sketches.

From the later 19th century Country Life and local learned journals have descriptions and photographs. Country Life periodically publishes a cumulative index. Local journals may have their own indexes and/or be included in a local studies library index. In recent years a series of books has been published drawing on material from Country Life, including:

Family archives

Family papers may include deeds, architect's plans, building accounts, letters from architects, room-by-room inventories, and photographs. Such archives may remain in private hands, or be deposited in the British Library or the local record office most convenient to the family. Large private archives may have a catalogue published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission or the owner.

Estate papers: a family with a large country house generally also owned a large estate with many other buildings on it: lodges, houses, farms, pubs, mills, forges. One family could own several villages or a city suburb. Their estate records are often held in the same archive as the more personal family papers, but some may be retained by an estate office.

Guides to locations of family and estate papers:

Family history

There may be a published family history: see T.R. Thomson (ed), A Catalogue of British Family Histories (3rd edn 1980). Otherwise see GEC, The Complete Peerage; Burke's Family Index (1976); The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); The History of Parliament (biographies of MPs). Harleian Record Society volumes (listed in Mullins) give many pedigrees, along with the family coat of arms. For the latter see also Sir B. Burke, The General Armory of England, Scotland and Wales (1884).

Images

See also general sources for houses. Where the house was fortified, see castles. For Scotland see Scottish Baronial.