Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire: An Elizabethan Masterpiece

Started in 1555, under the instruction of Elizabethan courtier Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, it took 32 years to complete Burghley House, which sits amid a rolling deer park just minutes away from the busy A1 London to York road.

Burghley, sitting in tree-lined parkland close to Stamford, Lincolnshire, is said to be England’s greatest Elizabethan house. It is certainly impressive raising your head to the sky where you are greeted by a forest of octagonal towers topped by a fleet of glinting golden weathervanes. In the mid 1500’s, when Burghley rose from the ground, the local people of Stamford must have viewed it in wonderment. But behind closed doors the poorer people and merchants must have gossiped and asked where the money came from to build such a statement of power out of crafted stone and glass.

Sir William Cecil played a dangerous power game, not uncommon in the days of Elizabethan politics, to raise his status. Thought to be a player in the fall of Lord Protector Somerset, he fell foul of the repressive Mary 1, who almost certainly ordered court spies to keep a close eye on him and his associates. Why the intrigue? He supported the young Princess Elizabeth, favourite daughter of Henry VIII. For all her many faults Elizabeth never forgot her friends and loyal supporters and on her succession in 1558 she appointed Cecil her principle secretary and later Lord Treasurer. Created Lord Burghley 13 years later he was a man who had the Queen’s ear and wielded great power accruing grants of land and Crown positions throughout his life. This is obviously a clear clue as to where his fortunes lie.

It had always been Lord Burghley’s intention to build a great home on his Stamford estate but he had neglected it in favour of his Theobalds Manor home in Hertfordshire. But more power and growing wealth meant he could instruct his surveyor, Edmund Hall, to resume work, hiring a team of masons who commanded a combined weekly wage of £11. Cecil had his own ideas on design, although he did consult with Antwerp mason Henryk who had decorations and columns prefabricated in Holland and then shipped over to Burghley. His master mason at the time did ask for what’s known as a tryke, an architects drawing, to work to and Cecil supplied it.

Burghley is built from a particularly hard oolitic limestone, so hard that some of the square blocks of hewn stone in parts of the building still carry their original masons’ marks. The house is not only famous for its annual horse trials but its many round turrets, which are dominated by a huge obelisk, best viewed from the Inner Court, which carries a stone-faced clock dated 1585. The house grew, and was altered over the following years. One improvement the servants approved of, and one which no doubt assisted many an assignation, was the enclosing of the open gallery on the south front sometime during the 17th century. Servants and members of the family could now move freely around the building in the dry.

Capability Brown, the man who seemed to have dug up most of England, worked with the 9th Earl from around 1756 on many large architectural alterations, including lifting the roofline on the south front. One notable thing, which most visitors approve of, is the design and building of the Lion Bridge, which still spans the lake today. While Burghley is a masterpiece of the stonemason’s skill from every perspective it is also a house filled with treasures collected by later Earls of Exeter on their grand tours around the cultural centres of Europe. One avid collector and traveller was John, the 5th Earl and his wife, Anne Cavendish.

Does Anne’s surname sound familiar? It should be because she was the daughter and heiress of the 3rd Earl of Devonshire, who owned the huge Chatsworth estates in Derbyshire. Yes, they say money attracts money, and they needed a chest of cash as they purchased artwork, sculptures, paintings and furniture on their travels. They spent so lavishly, including bringing back the Italian painter Verrio who is responsible for the breath-taking ceilings, and a Frenchman who designed the Golden Gates, which are still in place today, that the spendthrifts virtually bankrupted the estate. The Countess and Earl died with outstanding debts amounting to over £8000.

Today Burghley House still stands as testament to one man’s vision and the skill of the builders over the centuries. Not a cheap house to maintain, it is one reason, like much of our great stately houses, that it has become a successful commercial enterprise. Not everyone might approve of the Orangery restaurant, café and gift shop but they all contribute to offsetting the immense cost of maintaining such a grand house, which includes three-quarters of an acre of lead on the roof and the upkeep of over 30 lavishly decorated major rooms and literally dozens of lesser ones.

To the casual eye not a lot has changed at Burghley, except for the rather brash glass, steel and oak entrance pavilion. And unlike many big houses, which are keen to rake in the cash, the huge deer park is free to roam, like the deer, and the parking is free! Not sure if William Cecil would have approved of that… he might have seen them as ways of turning an extra penny.

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Mel Russ