Woburn Abbey: The Wonders of Woburn

Woburn Abbey stands on the site of an abbey founded by Hugh De Bolebec in 1145 with monks from Fountains Abbey, and is without doubt one of the most sumptuous and beautifully kept stately houses in the country.

Sadly the East Wing, Indoor Riding School and Tennis Court no longer stand, they were demolished in 1949 when dry rot was discovered in these areas of the Abbey. But what remains is remarkable.

The Abbey came into the Russell family, who originated from Weymouth in Dorset, when Sir John Russell, who was a member of Henry VIII’s Privy Chamber, was granted the Woburn, Tavistock and Thorney (the one near Peterborough) abbeys’ in 1547 for his services to the Crown. Three years later he was created the 1st Earl of Bedford.

Family fortunes blossomed with Covent Garden, Long Acre and Bloomsbury being added to the Russell portfolio. Then disaster, in 1683 William Russell was charged with being involved in the Rye House Plot, a conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, and was executed. Eleven years later he was pardoned and the hereditary Earldom elevated to a Dukedom.

The history and tactical Russell marriages are fascinating but it is the quality of what you can see inside Woburn Abbey that impresses. But where do you start? Probably the most famous single painting is The Armada Portrait painted to commemorate the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588.

It shows Queen Elizabeth I wearing an array of pearls, jewels and symbolic badges and bows, in front of two scenes; one showing the English ships attacking the Spaniards, and another recalling how the rest of the fleeing Spanish fleet was wrecked by storms.

The dining room must be the most expensively furnished room in the entire abbey for on the walls hang 21 Canaletto’s; the largest private collection of Venetian views by the famous Italian artist on public display.

Queen Victoria’s bedroom, both the Queen and Prince Albert stayed at the house in 1841, is eye-watering with pale blue wallpaper and furnishings amid a riot of gold. Perhaps the saddest room is the Flying Duchess’ Room, which remembers Mary, wife of the 11th Duke, who died in a flying accident in 1937 when she flew over The Fens to view the flooded countryside.

There is far more to admire but you might find the last rooms on your visit the most spectacular. They include The Crypt and Porcelain displays and the Silver and Gold vaults. Stunningly displayed, the family’s china collection is probably the best you will see in this country, and it includes china from the great Meissen, Chelsea, Wedgewood and Davenport factories with the best being the huge Sevres Gift Service given to John, the 4th Duke, by King Louise XV of France in recognition of his part in negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

Space means we don’t have room for the full tour, so why not visit the grand Abbey for yourself?

Mel Russ