The Light and Shade of England’s story

The National Trust aims to tell England’s story through its properties. Last week-end, Rita and I visited three of its most popular properties. The stories they tell are fascinating.

We first went to Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. Now a prestigious hotel, this magnificent stately house overlooks the River Thames and the sedate Berkshire countryside, surrounded by gardens and woodlands designed to impress. The first house was built by the Duke of Buckingham, a childhood friend and favourite of Charles II, who purchased the property after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. A flamboyant and fashionable aristocrat, he wanted a glamorous residence near London to entertain his friends. It also became the place where he engaged in various illicit sexual encounters, for which he was well known. His most infamous affair was with the Countess of Shrewsbury, whose husband the Earl challenged him to a duel as a result. The unfortunate Earl was fatally wounded by Buckingham.

The house was rebuilt and changed hands several times, and in 1893 was purchased by the American tycoon William Waldorf Astor. It remained the London home of the Astor family until 1966, when the National Trust took over its management. Scandal accompanied its closing as well as its opening years. The rich and famous were entertained here by the Astors. One of them was John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s cabinet. It was by the swimming pool at Cliveden in 1963 that Profumo met Christine Keeler, an encounter that led to his resignation and the downfall of the Conservative Government.

One wonders just how many other sexual liaisons among the rich and famous have taken place in Cliveden’s glamorous rooms and grounds.

Our second visit was to Polesden Lacey in Surrey. It was the home of Margaret Greville, the illegitimate daughter of the Scottish brewer and multimillionaire William McEwan. She inherited a large fortune from McEwan, and developed the house as a country retreat for royalty, government ministers and other prominent people. With a reputation for generosity and discretion, she became a famous hostess in the Edwardian and inter-war years, entertaining, among others, Edward VII, together, at times, with his mistresses. In 1923 she welcomed the Duke and Duchess of York (the future George VI and Elizabeth the Queen Mother) for their honeymoon. Polesden Lacey was a secluded and luxurious country estate where political, and other kinds of deals, could be made in private by the power-brokers of the day.

Margaret Greville was made a Dame as a reward for her efforts. No doubt she carried many secrets to the grave when she died in 1942, leaving her considerable wealth to royalty, and Polesden Lacey, where she is buried, to the National Trust.

Visit number three was to Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire. The oldest and historically probably the most important of the three properties. After Henry VII’s dissolution of the local Priory, the property passed into the hands of the Dryden family. A substantial Tudor house was built by them in the 1590’s, largely using masonry from the old monastic buildings. ¬†The National Trust took responsibility for the house and grounds in 1981, and in recent years several fascinating discoveries have been made, dating back to Tudor times. These include some previously hidden Elizabethan wall paintings, and most interestingly a Freemason chamber. The sixteenth century Drydens had Puritan sympathies, and the combination of this with Freemasonry, at such an early date, is surprising. The symbols of Freemasonry were painted over at an early date, probably to keep them from the eyes of the uninitiated.

The complex background of these properties casts a fascinating light on our history. They are all popular tourist destinations, presenting England as a country of majestic stately houses, stylish gardens and grand country estates. The English heritage and countryside is shown off in all its landscaped and architectural glory, to be wondered at and enjoyed. But under the surface there are stories of intrigue, deception and activities deliberately hidden from public view. It is to the credit of the National Trust that at least some of these can now be told. Our national story contains much to be admired, and even to take pride in, but there are also dark corners. In the interests of honesty and truth, these must be acknowledged as well.

Peter Shepherd (August 2016)