Treasures of England: Chatsworth House

Story and photos by Margaret Rodgers

Chatsworth House: Click to enlarge

From time to time we've all seen glimpses of them on T.V. or in a movie—some of those Great Treasure Houses of England (ten altogether), which comprise England's finest historic houses. They make magnificent settings for any film, although nothing can compare with a personal visit.

Located in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire in north-central England, Chatsworth lies in the middle of a splendid 1,000-acre parkland encircled by a deer fence 9 miles long. Sheltered at the foot of the moors in the lush Derwent Valley, it is known as "The Palace of the Peak". The total estate encompasses 12,000 acres of farmland, woods and moorland. In fact, everything about it is on a grandiose scale.

Everything about Chatsworth House is impressive. The entrance, via its long picturesque driveway, beckons you to yet greater sights. This grand, monumental, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire is indeed one of England's most famous Treasure Houses. Mere words cannot do justice to its magnificent interior. To give you some idea of the size of Chatsworth House: there are 175 rooms, 51 of them extremely large. There are 17 staircases, 359 doors, 24 baths, 52 hand basins, 53 toilets, 21 kitchens, and the house uses over 2,000 electric light bulbs. Seventy-six fabulous antique clocks simultaneously chime every hour in every small corner of the house, and an impressive private library houses over 17,000 books. However, ironically, until the 1930's seven of the most opulent bedrooms had only one bathroom and toilet amongst them!

Chatsworth was the first house built in 1552 by Bess of Hardwick and her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, one of Henry VIII's commissioners during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. "Bess of Hardwick," as she later became known, was married at the age of fourteen to a neighbour's son who died a few months later leaving her a very rich widow. She then married William Cavendish who left her a second fortune. After losing him and gaining yet another fortune, she finally married the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury who left her the richest woman in England after the Queen—perhaps not surprisingly as she obviously chose her husbands well!

Bess had an obsession about building marvellous houses, and now, being fortunate to be able to afford it, she spared no expense and allowed no incompetence. Chatsworth is certainly one of her original masterpieces although many changes have been made to the house since then. (Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield was her last and most lavish effort, started when she was 70 years old.)

William, second son of Bess and Lord Cavendish, was created first Earl of Devonshire in 1618, and to date we are up to the 12th duke. The 4th Duke started landscaping the park: he changed the course of the river and, objecting to a large mound, had it dug out to form the present lovely Canal Pond. In 1826, at the age of 23, Joseph Paxton (who later became one of England's most famous gardeners) was appointed head gardener, with Chatsworth's Rock Garden becoming one of his most acclaimed creations. In 1843 he installed a magnificent fountain in the canal in preparation for a visit from the Czar of Russia. The Czar never arrived, but the Emperor Fountain has been forever named after him.

In May 1944, President Kennedy's sister, Kathleen, married the 10th Duke of Devonshire. Unfortunately, after he was tragically killed in action in Belgium only four months after the wedding, his heirs had to pay a crippling 80% in death duties. To save the house, the family gave up the property to a private Trust, although it still remains a private residence. They now pay rent to live there, and money from the endowment is added to the income from visitors to cover the cost of running and maintaining this marvellous house—which could certainly benefit from more of the kind of income of its original creator!

On entering the house, the visitor is stunned by the Great Staircase and spectacular Painted Hall, and from there on you are continually likely to be dazzled by the decor and superb furniture, the tapestries and art contents of the rooms. In the State Bedroom is the bed in which George II died. It's easy to get neck ache from staring at the incredible paintings on the ceilings, many by the famous artists Laguerre and Verrio. Many of the figures in the ceilings and cornices appear to be three-dimensional, an illusion made by the clever use of shadows. A magnificent china collection includes a fascinating design created by using knives and forks.

History abounds at Chatsworth. Many rooms were used for royalty until the days of Queen Victoria, and Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned here in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1939 many of the sumptuous rooms originally intended for royalty were taken over for the duration of the Second World War by 300 girls from a nearby college. What a truly marvellous place in which to be evacuated.

The house presently employs 19 full-time and three part-time people, with Trust volunteers always available to help visitors—to explain and answer the myriad of questions put to them about the many beautiful items displayed within the house. An army of twenty gardeners maintain the grounds, and a short exploration will soon show why so many are required. The gardens are gorgeous: everywhere there is water and reflections, lakes, pools, cascades and fountains. Chatsworth is perhaps the ultimate water garden of England.

Most employees live in the nearby picturesque villages of Edensor, Bealey and Pilsley, and over the years they have obviously been extremely loyal to their place of employment. In 1963 the Duke of Devonshire gave a party for all the people who had served the house or estate for 25 years or more: 175 people attended. In 1992, 186 people received 25-year tankards and 99 received a pair of silver candlesticks for 40 years' service. As you explore it, you can feel that this is indeed a happy stately home.