Once one of the grandest houses in Jacobean England, Audley End House has reflected events and fashions in English history over five centuries.
This stunning Grade I listed property near Saffron Walden Essex is one of the best examples of early 17th-century architecture in England.
Built by one of the leading courtiers of King James I’s reign, it later became a new palace for Charles II and has been worked on by the leading architects and designers of their day.
Its successive owners have all influenced the style of the house and grounds according to their wealth and taste.
We take a closer look at this fascinating country house.
While vast and impressive today, Audley End House is about one third of the size of the huge mansion built in 1605-14 by Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, which was designed to accommodate royal guests – James I visited twice in 1614. Symmetrically arranged separate state apartments were built for the king and queen at the front of the house, linked by a long gallery.
While the house and its spacious gardens have undergone many alterations over the years, the exterior retains its Jacobean style and many of the original fittings remain in situ. Its 18th-century and 19th-century neoclassical and Jacobean Revival additions, interiors, and landscapes are of equal importance. The hall screen and plaster ceilings are some of the best of their time to survive in England.
Today, Audley End House and gardens are owned by English Heritage and are open to the public. As well as the historical importance of the house and its state rooms, the 18th and 19th-century buildings including the service yard and Victorian service wing are of great interest as they retain their layout and fittings, especially the kitchen, dairy, and laundry. The kitchen garden and working stable block are also well preserved, along with the Lancelot `Capability’ Brown-designed parkland grounds.
History of Audley End House
Thomas Howard built the house on land where a former house created by his grandfather stood, on the site of Walden Abbey. The abbey was founded by Benedictine monks, in a steep-sided valley next to the river Cam. Parts of Audley End House were built on the footprint of the abbey’s medieval cloister with symmetrical additions influenced by French and Flemish designs. The house was then surrounded by ornate formal gardens.
However, the cost of creating the house left the 1st Earl and his successors with huge debts, and Charles II bought it from the 3rd Earl in 1667 for £50,000 – of this sum, £20,000 remained on mortgage, and the Suffolk family was allowed to live in the outer court. Audley End House appealed to the King because of its proximity to Newmarket races, but after 1670 it was little used and deteriorating. It was returned to trustees on behalf of the 3rd Earl’s heirs in 1701 in settlement of the mortgage.
The house was reduced in size to its inner court over the early 18th century by successive Earls of Suffolk who engaged architects John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Dubois. The tenth earl – and last in the direct line – undertook more improvements but after his death in 1745, the estate was divided among the Howard family.
In 1751 Elizabeth, Countess of Portsmouth, bought the house and park to add to her inherited share of the estate. She demolished the long gallery building and updated the formal gardens, preferring an informal planting scheme. Her nephew Sir John Griffin Griffin inherited in 1762 and engaged Robert Adam to add galleries behind the great hall to connect the two sides of the house. He also created new ground-floor rooms on the south front. At this time, the fashionable garden landscaper Lancelot `Capability’ Brown remodelled the grounds and Adam designed garden buildings, including the Temple of Victory and Palladian bridge.
When Sir John’s claim to the Barony of Howard de Walden was accepted in 1784, he created a new state apartment, and the east ends of the north and south wings were built back to their original height after being reduced by Lady Portsmouth. When he died in 1797, Richard Aldworth Neville inherited the house and title of Baron of Braybrooke. His son, also Richard, 3rd Baron Braybrooke, inherited the house from his father in 1820 and restored its original Jacobean features. As well as investing in alterations in the house, 17th-century formality returned outside with the hiring of garden designer William Gilpin who was commissioned to lay out formal parterre gardens.
The 20th and 21st centuries
When the 3rd Lord Braybrooke died, the house passed to his surviving sons until the death of Latimer Neville, 6th Baron Braybrooke in 1902. The house was then let to Lord Howard de Walden, a cousin, from 1904-1912. When Henry Neville, 7th Lord Braybrooke, died in 1941, the house’s story took another twist as the Ministry of Works requisitioned it for military use.
Audley End House was occupied by British army units and became the headquarters for the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive, who were secretly trained there before being parachuted into Poland which was under German occupation.
The house was returned to the 9th Lord Braybrooke in 1945. It was bought for the nation in 1948, for £30,000 through the National Land Fund, and was opened to the public: Lord Braybrooke left many of the house’s contents in place on loan. A memorial was built in the park to the 112 Polish parachutists who died in the war, and today it’s a place of pilgrimage for Poles. Since 1984, English Heritage has been researching, repairing, and conserving the house and beautiful gardens.
The original interior has been much altered by its many owners over the years. However, the Jacobean great hall retains its voluminous roof and carved oak screen, and Jacobean plaster ceilings survive in parts of the state apartments: the saloon has the most notable example featuring mythical sea creatures and ships.
Robert Adam created reception rooms for Sir John Griffin Griffin in the mid-1760s in the neoclassical style, involving plasterwork by Joseph Rose, carving and gilding by William and Robert Adair, decorative painting by Biagio Rebecca, and furniture by Gordon and Tait.
The 3rd Lord Braybrooke created more formal rooms in the 1820s, retaining the surviving Jacobean ceilings. In the great hall, paint was removed from the oak screen and panelling was repaired. The gothic chapel made for Sir John in about 1768 by John Hobcraft is little altered today.
The landscape at Audley End House
Today, the spacious grounds still showcase the designs of `Capability’ Brown and Robert Adam, notably naturalistic planting, a serpentine lake, and bridges over the river Granta which divides the landscape. English Heritage restored the parterre gardens and the kitchen gardens in the 20th century.
Audley End House and gardens today
It’s been used in television programmes such as Antiques Roadshow, and as a film location: films including `Trust’ and `Woman of Straw’ were made there, and scenes for `The Crown’ were shot at Audley End in 2018.
The house is of great historic interest. All the family can enjoy a great day out here, and explore life at one of England’s great houses. Tour guides can be arranged and visitors can view the state rooms, the Victorian service wing, the service yard, and the stable block, and meet Audley’s resident horses.
Other attractions include the organic kitchen gardens, miniature railway, and beautiful grounds. There’s also a children’s play area and gift shop.
Audley End House and gardens are also used as a wedding venue, and events such as music concerts are held in the grounds. For details of events and opening times, visit the English Heritage website here.