Travel – Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is the beautiful country house of the Earl of Carnarvon and is located in Hampshire, England.  The 5,000 acre estate features the house and the gardens which are generally open to the public during the months of July and August.  For more details about times, prices and additional tourist information about Highclere Castle, please click on the link

Highclere Castle is perhaps most famous as the fictional home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their family in the British television series “Downton Abbey” which has been shown on ITV in England and on PBS in the United States as a “Masterpiece Classic” program.  Portions of the show are filmed on location at Highclere.  Other scenes are filmed at Ealing Studios located in London with several sets designed to replica the interior of Highclere, such as the kitchen and other working areas as well as the servant quarters and several of the upstairs bedrooms of the Crawley family.  (For more on the Downton Abbey television series, please click on the link)   

In this post, I will discuss the history of Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family that include Lady Almina who is responsible for turning Highclere into a military hospital during World War I, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon that funded archaeologist Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutukanhamun in 1922 through to the current Lord and Lady of Carnarvon that continue to run the estate in modern times.  I will also give a brief tour of the interior rooms of Highclere as well as the exterior areas of the large estate including the gardens and outbuildings on the property.

The History of Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon Family

During the twelfth and thirteenth century the Bishops of Winchester built a medieval palace near the site of the current Highclere Castle.  Several centuries later a red brick Tudor-style house was built.  Then, in 1692 Highclere was bequeathed to the only daughter of Samuel Pepys, Margaret.  She was the first wife of the 8th Earl of Pembroke and later the estate would be inherited by her second son, Robert Sawyer Herbert, who throughout the years added a lovely art collection which was displayed in the home and built the stone temples in the garden of Highclere.  With his death in 1769, his nephew and heir Henry Herbert (1741-1811) would inherit the estate and later become Lord and then Baron Porchester.  In 1793, King George III would honor him with the title of the 1st Earl of Carnarvon.  Henry married Lady Elizabeth Wyndham on July 15, 1771 and they had five sons and one daughter. 

Their oldest son, Henry George Herbert (1772-1833) would later inherit the estate from his father and become the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon.  He was educated at Eton and later became a British peer and a Whig politician.  He married Elizabeth Acland on April 26, 1796 and they had three daughters and two sons.   Upon Henry’s death in 1833 his oldest son, Henry George Herbert (1800-1849), inherited the titles and properties of the estate. 

The 3rd Earl of Carnarvon was educated at Eton like his father and also Christ Church in Oxford.  He later became a British peer, a Whig politician and also a very good cricket player!  In 1839 the 3rd Earl commissioned Sir Charles Barry (he had just finished the construction of the House of Parliament in London) to redesign a large Jacobethan-style house of Bath stone combined with several towers built in an Italianate-style, it was completed in 1842.  In 1830, Lord Carnarvon married Henrietta Howard-Molyneux and they had three sons and one daughter.  When he died in 1849 his son, Henry Howard Herbert (1831-1890) would become the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. 

The 4th Earl of Carnarvon was a prominent Conservative politician and under the reign of Queen Victoria he served twice as the Secretary of State for the Colonies and later as the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.  The 4th Earl commissioned architect Thomas Allom to continue the work started by the 3rd Earl and Sir Barry and he would finish the interior design and provide the lavish furnishings of Highclere.  Meanwhile, the 4th Earl had married Lady Evelyn Stanhope in 1861 and they had one son and three daughters.  After the death of his first wife in 1875, Lord Carnarvon married his first cousin, Elizabeth, in 1878 and had two more sons.  It was during this time that the lavish interior decorations and furnishings of Highclere were completed.   

After Henry died in 1890, his eldest son George Edward Herbert (1866-1923) inherited the titles and the property.  The 5th Earl of Carnarvon married his first wife, Almina Wombwell, she was the illegitimate daughter of the millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschild in June 1895 and her money helped to fund improvements to Highclere.  The couple had two children, a son named Henry and a daughter named Evelyn.  Immensely wealth, the couple lived an extravagant lifestyle and with the start of the opulent Edwardian period the house was always full with parties for Tory politicians.  The couple also indulged in the expensive pursuit of horse racing and in 1902 Carnarvon became the owner of the Highclere Stud, a business that breed thoroughbred race horses.  But the couple was also aware of their civic responsibilities and during World War I Almina converted Highclere into a hospital for sick and injured soldiers returning home from the battlefields of Europe starting in September 1914 (shown below is a photo of the south facing windows of Highclere with blinds to shield the patients from the mid-day sun).  Almina had become an excellent nurse taking care of the wounded soldiers and there are many documented letters from patients and their families that express gratitude and appreciation for her kindness and care in opening her home to them while the soldiers recovered.  Later, after the war concluded, Highclere returned to the private home of the Carnarvon family.   

World War I - Highclere as a military hospital World War I - Laady Almina at Highclere with convelesing soldiers

The 5th Earl is perhaps best known as the English aristocrat who financed the archeological work of Howard Carter.  Carter is credited as discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt in 1922.  Carnarvon was present when the tomb was opened and the discovery became a worldwide media event.  Sadly, a few months later, Carnarvon suffered a severe bacterial infection caused by a razor cut to a mosquito bite and he died shortly thereafter on April 5, 1923, he is buried on Beacon Hill overlooking Highclere.  It has been said that on the night that the 5th Earl died, by a bizarre coincidence, the family dog strangely started to howl in an unprovoked manner back at Highclere and then suddenly died some say in an act of sympathy for his beloved master.  Thus, the story of the “Curse of Tutankamun” began and continued when several other members of the archaeological team also died seemingly mysterious deaths.  Almina, the 5th Earl’s widow went on to scandalously remarry only eight months later and she went on to have two more children.  (For more information about the courtship and marriage Almina and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and life at Highclere, I would highly recommend the book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey”)

5th Earl of Carnarvon Tutankhaman tomb - 5th Earl of Carnarvon, daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter 1

Following the death of the 5th Earl his son, Henry George Herbert (1898-1987), became the 6th Earl of Carnarvon.  Henry married the American-born Anne Catherine Wendell in 1922 and they had one son and one daughter.  The couple divorced in 1936 and the 6th Earl remarried an actress and dancer named Tilly Losch.  Henry died in 1987 and his son inherited the titles and properties of the estate.  (For more information about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his beautiful first wife, I would recommend the book “Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey”)

1922 Catherine Wendell marriage to Lord Porchester aka Porchey 1924 Henry's christening

The 7th Earl of Carnarvon, Henry George Herbert (1924-2001), also married an American named Jean Wallop in January 1956 and they had three children, two sons and a daughter.  Henry served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Guards and later became an Honorary Colonel.  In 1969, Henry became the Racing Manager to Queen Elizabeth II and throughout the years they have developed a close friendship with the Queen calling him “Porchy” and she visited Highclere often at the invitation of the 7th Earl.  In 1982, the Queen invested Henry as a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, an honor which is given to those that are in personal service to the sovereign.

When the 7th Earl died in 2001 his oldest son, George Reginald Herbert (1956-current) became the 8th Earl of Carnarvon.  He is the godson of Queen Elizabeth II, studied at Eton and graduated from St. John’s College in Oxford.  George married Jayne Wilby in December 1989 and they had two children, a daughter and then a son.  George divorced Jayne in 1998.

The 7th Earl remarried in February 1999 to Fionaa Aitken and they have one son.  The couple is very active in the daily running of the estate and family live in a small section of Highclere while the rest of the house is opened for tours and as a venue for special occasions, such as weddings.  Sadly by 2009, the upkeep of Highclere had become very costly and water damage throughout the years had caused the stonework to crumble and in other areas the ceilings had collapsed. Over 50 rooms of the house were in need of extensive repairs with some of the rooms on the main floors of Highclere remaining occupied and in daily use.  With luck, the ITV/PBS television series “Downton Abbey” had begun filming and paid to use Highclere for exterior and some interior scenes and with the popularity of the show it also created an increased interest in tours providing much needed funding for the repair work.  During the renovation, the 8th Earl and his family moved into a small cottage nearby but as the work was completed they moved back into Highclere occupying the house during the winter months but moving back to the cottage during the summer months when tours were ongoing.

8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and staff

The current Countess of Carnarvon is the author of the two books mentioned above and shown below about her predecessors.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey book  Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey book

A Brief Tour of Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is open to the public for a limited time during the year, generally during the months of July and August.  Tours of the house are available; the venue is also opened for special events such as weddings.  Visitors will find that many of Highclere’s interior rooms look familiar from the Downton Abbey television series.  The beautiful gardens were designed by the famous landscape architecture Capability Brown.  For more details about times, prices and additional tourist information about Highclere Castle, please click on the link

The Entrance Hall and Main Staircase –

The Entrance Hall of Highclere Castle instantly sets a grand, elegant and lavish style of interior decorations.  This area of the house is credited to the Gothic-style design of George Gilbert Scott in 1870 (the same person responsible for the design of the Prince Albert Memorial in London) features graceful columns and a vaulted ceiling.  The Main Staircase was finished in 1862 and in the past would have only been used by the Carnarvon Family and their guests, the servants would have used a different stairway to the upper floors.   The oak carved staircase was designed by Thomas Allom and built by Cox and Son of London.    

Entrance HallMain Staircase

The Saloon –

The Saloon of Highclere was commissioned by the 4th Earl and designed by the architect Thomas Allom.  It decorated in a distinct Gothic-style featuring leather wallcoverings dated from 1631 and imported from Cordoba, Spain and originally purchased by the 3rd Earl and hung in the house in 1862.  A vaulted ceiling soars 50 feet high and provides excellent acoustics for when singers and musicians would be brought in and positioned on the second- floor gallery that surrounds the Saloon to entertain guests on the main floor. 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ilpo Musto/REX (3442840e) Highclere Castle, The Salon Downton Abbey and Highclere Castle, Hampshire, Britain - Nov 2013 Highclere Castle is the location used for the TV series 'Downton Abbey'.  Saloon 1

Saloon from upstairs balcony

The Dining Room –

The Dining Room is used frequently by the Carnarvon family for daily meals and also on occasion for larger dinner parties.  The main feature in this room is the massive 1635 equestrian portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck which is hung over a sideboard seemingly dominating the room’s décor, it is one of several copies and the original portrait is part of the Royal Collection   Displayed in the room are several other important pieces of artwork such as the portrait of Henry Herbert, the First Earl of Carnarvon, by Gainsborough and a portrait of Anne Sophia, the Countess of Carnarvon, by van Dyck.   

Dining RoomCharles I_Anthony_Van_Dyck

The Library –

The Library of Highclere was first used by the 4th Earl of Carnarvon as a type of private office for meetings with his Tory political friends; the 4th Earl was a member of Prime Minister Disraeli Cabinet during the reign of Queen Victoria.  The room is decorated in a very definite masculine style and there are over 5,600 books with come dating back to the 16th century.   Another portrait of Henry Herbert, the First Earl of Carnarvon, this time done by Beechey is displayed over the fireplace.  Later, the room was used by the Carnarvon family for drinks and conversation before and after meals. 

Library 3  Library 1

The Music Room –

The Music Room features a Baroque-style ceiling by Francis Hayman in the 1730s and the walls are hung with 16th Century Italian embroideries.  The main item of interest in this room is the mahogany desk and chair which is said to have belonged to Napoleon.  The two pieces of furniture were taken to Longwood house on St. Helena where Napoleon would die in exile, the set was bought by the Third Earl of Carnarvon in 1821.  The windows of the Music Room open to the south side of Highclere and offer a wonderful view of Heaven’s Gate located on the summit of Sidown Hill.  

The Drawing Room –

The Drawing Room was originally beautifully decorated in a Rococo-Revival style by Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, with lovely green French silk curtains made from material provided by her aristocratic father, Alfred de Rothschild.  There are several portraits of the Carnarvon family displayed on the walls of the room, such as a portrait of the children of the First Earl of Carnarvon by Sir William Beechey depicting them in the window of Highclere.  The room was used for entertaining guests but during World War I, when Highclere was converted into a military hospital under the direction of Lady Almina, the furniture of the Drawing Room was removed, stored and replaced with hospital cots filled with wounded soldiers.  Found recently in a hidden narrow cupboard between the double doors from the Drawing Room to the Smoking Room was a collection of Egyptian artifacts acquired by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.    

Drawing Room 1

Painted by Sir William Beechey. Children of the 1st Earl of Carnarvon, 1795

The Smoking Room –

Adjacent to the Drawing Room is the Smoking Room where the Carnarvon men and their male guests would go for after dinner drinks and to smoke.  During the Crimean War between the Russians and British, French & the Ottoman Empire (October 1853 to February 1, the 856) the soldiers enjoyed smoking Turkish tobacco and when they returned to England the habit continued.  Since the room was used specifically by men it was decorated in a very masculine style with heavy velvet curtains that served a dual purpose of absorbing the smoke and prevent it from going into other areas of the house, men would also change into velvet “smoking jackets”.

Highclere Castle, Smoking Room

Upstairs Bedrooms –

Visitors to Highclere are able to see a very limited number of bedrooms on the upper floors.  Some of the rooms are now being used as offices and the current Lay Carnarvon is in the process of renovating some of the other rooms to recreate the former children’s nursery rooms.  During World War I when Highclere was used as a hospital the Arundel bedroom and adjoin dressing room were converted into an operating and recovery room.  Another bedroom of note is the Mercia bedroom which is furnished with a four-poster bed covered with 18th century silks.


Downstairs –

Behind the green baize door of the Saloon, there is a stone staircase that leads to the old staff dining room and sitting rooms, the kitchens, cellars and the other utility areas used by the servants of Highclere.  (The green baize wool material, generally used to cover the surface of a pool table, was used effectively for soundproofing the noises coming from the servant areas)  A long time ago, Highclere would have a large staff of over 50 servants that included butlers, footmen, housekeepers, maids, stewards and kitchen staff. 

Egyptian Exhibition –

A portion of the downstairs area of Highclere has been used for a special exhibit which highlights the 5th Earl of Carnarvon interest in the ancient Egyptian culture.  Starting in 1898, Carnarvon made many trips to Egypt sponsoring archaeological excavations throughout the region.  The most famous one was when he accompanied Howard Carter in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.  During Carnarvon’s time in Egypt he acquired a substantial collection of artifacts and after his death in 1923 his widow, Lady Almina, sold the collection to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.  Unknown at the time, the 5th Earl had a small private collection which was keep in a hidden narrow cupboard located between the set of double doors leading from the Drawing Room to the Smoking Room which was found in 1987.  The re-discovered items are part of the new exhibit now located at Highclere, the British Museum and the Newbury Museum have also loaned additional items to the Carnarvon family for the special exhibition. 

Egyptian Exhibit 1  Egyptian Exhibit 2

The Grounds and Outdoor Areas of Highclere Castle –

In 1771, the First Earl of Carnarvon commissioned Lancelot “Capability” Brown to create the lovely formal gardens and surrounding areas of the estate.  Initially a small village on the property was moved to make space for Brown’s grand plans for a park that would cover over 1,000 acres of the estate with rolling lawns and placid lakes.  Brown directed that 56 Lebanon Cedars be planted on the road leading up to the house; it is believed that the seeds for the trees were brought to England from Lebanon in the 17th century by the renowned seed collector Bishop Stephen Pococke.  (The planting of these trees are a wonderful and unique addition to the landscape of the Highclere estate and please kept in mind that at the time there were no commercial nurseries in which to obtain plants or seeds)  

Highclere gardens

There are several follies (costly ornamental building with no practical purpose built in a park) scattered throughout the grounds of the estate.  These follies were created so that during walks around the estate one would have a quiet place to pause, reflect or perhaps contemplate the beauty of the surrounding landscape.   Located in an area east of the house is the Temple of Diana which was built circa 1743 in the north-west near Dunsmore Lake, the lovely structure features Corinthian columns.  Another structure located to the south on Sidown Hill is Heaven’s Gate which was built in 1749.

Temple of Diana  Heaven Gate

Lastly, another interesting horticultural fact regarding Highclere is the cultivation of a hybrid holly known as the Highclere holly (llex x altaclerensis).  It was developed at the estate circa 1835 and is a hybrid of the Madeiran holly (llex perado) with a local native holly (llex aquifolium)

Highclere Holly

Highclere Castle is open to the public for tours of the house on a limited basis during the year, generally during the months of July and August.  For more details about times, prices and additional tourist information about Highclere Castle, please click on the link

Additional Note:  I would highly recommend the “Secrets of Highclere Castle” DVD, which offers a wonderful glimpse into the estate and house.

Secrets of Highclere Castle DVD

Travel – St. Paul’s Cathedral

In honor of Sir Christopher Wren (born: October 20, 1632 died: February 25, 1723) this Travel post is about St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wren’s architectural masterpiece and one of the most iconic churches in London, England.  I will begin by discussing the history of the Cathedral and give a brief tour of the interior of the building.  Then to concluded this post, I will briefly discuss the personal and professional life of Sir Christopher Wren who is also responsible for the building of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and a portion of Hampton Court Palace.

The History of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Dating back centuries ago, the Roman episcopal see (site of a religious leader’s principal church) was located in London on Tower Hill; recent archaeological excavation in 1999 may have revealed the remains of the church.  Then, moving forward a few centuries, a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Diana was possibly located at the site of the current St. Paul’s Cathedral but there has been no archaeological evidence found to support this theory.  Records indicate that approximately 604 AD the first Anglo-Saxon bishop of London established a church at the same site but it is uncertain what happened to the building after the country reverted back to paganism.  Several centuries passed and the main religion of the country was once again based in Christianity and a new church was built on the site but it was ultimately destroyed in a fire in 962 and rebuilt that same year.  Then, there was another fire in 1087 that severely damaged the existing church.

St Pauls - old photo 2

After the 1087 fire, the Normans began repairs to restore the church but unfortunately another fire slowed the restoration.  This church is now referred to as the “Old St. Paul’s” and building’s style of architecture changed from the previous Romanesque to Gothic.  During the reign of King Henry VIII, the ties with the Roman Catholic Church were severed and the newly formed Church of England was established.  King Henry gave the order that all Catholic and Protestant churches and monasteries properties were to be seized by the Crown and either sold or destroyed.  As a result of this order many interior and exterior religious ornamentation was removed from these buildings including St. Paul’s.  (Perhaps ironically, in 1561 lightning destroyed the 489 foot tall spire of St. Paul’s which was interpreted by Protestants and Roman Catholics as a sign from God indicating displeasure directed at the King and the newly formed Church of England)

By 1661, “Old St. Paul’s” was in a severe state of neglect and King Charles II had requested the advice on the extensive repairs required to restore the building from an upcoming architect named Christopher Wren.  Before any significant repairs were started, the Great Fire of London in 1666 swept through the city destroying everything in its path, it is said that in the aftermath of the devastating fire only a third of the buildings remained standing in London.  Following this crisis, Wren was now appointed by the King to oversee the rebuilding of over 50 churches including “Old St. Paul’s”.


The decision was made that “Old St. Paul’s” would be demolished in 1670 and a new larger cathedral would be built on the site.  Wren’s original design plans for the new cathedral changed several times during the lengthy planning process from a simple building shown in his first drawings in 1669 to a more elaborate design with a grand dome to reflect the importance of the building to the Church of England which were made possible the increase in the building funds through a recently implemented coal tax.  The new St. Paul’s Cathedral was officially completed in 1711.

St Pauls - panorama

Several centuries passed, until the next significant event in the history of St. Paul’s occurred.  On May 7, 1913 St. Paul’s narrowly missed being destroyed by an act of aggression when a bomb was found in the east end of the church under the Bishop’sThrone placed there by members of the Suffragettes.  At this time in history, women in England were literally fighting for the right to vote and unfortunately the actions of the Suffragette organization used to achieve this goal turned violent with various forms of aggressive acts including burning and later bombing of buildings.  Luckily the bomb found in St. Paul’s was able to be defused and ultimately several years later in 1928 the Representation of the People Act gave the right for women to vote.        

Then, during World War II, German military planes attacked England in a series of devastating bombings which became known at the Blitz.  On the night of December 29, 1940 the German planes destroyed the area surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, but the building miraculously survived!  A famous photograph by Herbert Mason was taken the morning after the attack and was featured on the front page of the Daily Mail.  The picture, which became known as “St. Paul’s Survives”, shows the dome of the Cathedral illuminated by the searchlights with the smoke from the burning buildings rising into the sky. 

St Pauls - Blitz bombing newspaper

A Brief Tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Christopher Wren in a Baroque style of architecture and is built on Ludgate Hill which is the highest point in London.  The Cathedral building is 574 feet long and 227 feet wide, the two bell towers are 212 feet high and the spectacular dome is 365 feet high.

The ground of Ludgate Hill was formed of soft clay soil and this was a considerable challenge for Wren when he was planning and designing the rebuilding of St. Paul’s in the late 17th century.  To support the massive Cathedral a large area was excavated, this would eventually become the crypt.  Inside this part of the Cathedral large piers were erected to support and evenly distribute the weight of the new Cathedral.

Exterior of St. Paul’s Cathedral –

The magnificent Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is constructed with layers consisting of the exterior dome and the decorative interior dome.  Between the exterior and the interior domes is a brick cone 18 inches thick which provides support for the heavy leaded exterior dome and the stone lantern at the top.   To provide additional support for the exterior dome, Wren designed a series of columns which create an open colonnade that encircles the base of the exterior dome allowing it to soar to the height of 95 feet, the columns also serve to support the inner dome and the brick cone located inside the building to support the Lantern section.  The 850 ton Lantern rises above the dome in several sections; the first section is square in shape, the second section is the tallest and is formed with four columns each facing in the direction the main points of a compass and the third section is topped with a small dome which rises into a golden ball and cross.  In 1708, Christopher Wren, Sr. was 76 years old and unable to place the final stone of the Lantern so it was done by his son Christopher Wren, Jr. who had also become an architect and assisted his father in the final stages of building St. Paul’s.  (Special Note: Several centuries later, in 1996 an extensive restoration project of St. Paul’s dome involving copper, lead and slate work and it took 15 years to complete and was finished in June 2011)

St Pauls - exterior 1

The West Front of St. Paul’s is considered the main entrance and has a columned portico which is topped by an upper columned colonnade; it is topped by the pediment which features a bas-relief sculpture known as the Conversion of St. Paul by Francis Bird.  Above the pediment is the statue of Saint Paul in the center with statues of Saint James and Saint Peter on either side.  Two Baroque-style bell towers, known as the West Towers, frame the portico on either side.  The southwest tower holds the clock known as “Big Tom”; made by John Smith and installed in 1893, the bell connected to the clock is known as “Great Tom”.  The northwest tower holds a set of 12 bells, the largest is known as the “Great Paul” bell originally cast in 1882, it the largest bell in England and weights almost 17 tons.

St Pauls - west front

Interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral –

As visitors enter St. Paul’s Cathedral they will see the 30 feet high Great West Door which is only opened for special occasions.  After passing through the vestibule, to the left is the Chapel of St. Dunstan dedicated to the former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury and located near the northwest door is the All Soul’s Chapel dedicated to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and all the British serviceman who lost their lives in World War I.  To the right is the Chapel of St. Michael and St. George and located near the southwest door is the Geometrical Staircase.  (Shown below is a photo of the Geometrical Staircase and it may look familiar to fans of the Harry Potter movies.  Check out the interesting facts sections below to find out more information!)

Located directly ahead is the Nave which is 223 feet long and 121 feet wide with a ceiling that soars to the height of 91 feet.  The black and white marble floor was laid by William Dickinson and completed in 1710.  Several piers decorated with Corinthian pilasters separate the Nave from the north and the south aisles.  Special Note: Located halfway down the north aisle is the Wellington Monument.  (More information about the Wellington Monument can be found in the interest facts section later in this post) 

Wellington Mounment

At the end of the Nave there is a wide area that bisects this part of the Cathedral forming a cross which was commonly used in the design of churches throughout the years, this area measures approximately 246 feet wide from the North Transept to the South Transept.  One item of note is located in the North Transept and it is the Italian marble baptismal Font which dates back to 1727.  Then, in the South Transept visitors can access two sets of stairs, one leads down into the Crypt and the other staircase allows visitors to climb to the Whispering Gallery for one of the best views of the Dome, there are 259 steps from the floor of the Nave to the Whispering Gallery.  For the more adventurous visitors, they can climb 117 steps further to the Stone Gallery which goes round the outside of the Dome and then an additional 166 steps to the Golden Gallery into the Lantern located at the top of the Dome.  (Shown below are two photos; the first is taken from the center of St. Paul’s looking back toward the Nave and the second is looking forward to the choir and the high altar)

Center - looking back at the NaveCenter - looking towards the nave

As visitors look down from the Whispering Gallery they will see the flooring of the Cathedral in the Transept area directly below the Dome, it is decorated with an intricate pattern made with colored marble ti

les.  At the center is a large brass grill which had an interesting function during the 19th century, it was used for heating St. Paul’s.  Stoves were lit in the Crypt area below the main floor and hot air would rise up through the metal grating and heat this area of St. Paul’s, other similar but small grates can be found in other areas of the Cathedral.  Circling the grate is a section of flooring with a Latin inscription which pays tribute to the builder of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren.  (Below is a photo of the Transept area as seen from the Whispering Gallery)

Whispering Gallery

From the Transept area of the Cathedral, visitors can look up to see the great Dome of St. Paul’s and at almost 65,000 tons it is one of the largest in the world.  The magnificent Dome of St. Paul’s raises high above the main floor of the Cathedral supported by eight piers made of Dorset stone with eight arches used to evenly disperse the weight of the massive dome, located within the niches are several statues.  The interior Dome features a beautiful fresco painting by James Thornhill which depicts eight scenes from the life of St. Paul; it was started in 1716 and completed three years later in 1719.  The upper area of the Dome is lit by openings in the outer Dome and the brick cones which are both used to support the weight of the interior Dome.  At the apex of the Dome is an oculus, a round opening, and through which visitors will be able to see the decorated interior cone that supports the Lantern.

St Pauls - dome

For this tour of St. Paul’s, we are going to take a side trip down into the Crypt which can be access through a staircase in the South Transept.  As visitors enter the Crypt, overhead is a carving that depicts the faces of death which is a grim reminder that this section of the Cathedral is a burial place.  The St. Paul’s Crypt is the largest one in Europe and visitors will find numerous tombs: such as those of Christopher Wren, the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson.  In the farthest section of the Crypt is the Chapel of the Order of the British Empire and it was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1960.  Also located in the Crypt is the Treasury Room which displays some of the items that have been used within the Cathedral over the centuries and a small gift shop for those visitors wishing to buy souvenirs.

St Pauls - crypt

Back to the main floor of the Cathedral, we will continue the tour into eastern portion of the building where the Quire, the Choir, High Altar and the Apse are located.  The Quire forms the upper portion of the cross shape of the building and it is the most elaborately decorated area of the Cathedral.  As visitors proceed into the Quire, please be sure to look up to the beautiful ceiling which is a series of three smaller domes which depict creation and is created with intricate mosaics of birds, fishes, cattle and other animals of the earth. A frieze surrounding the ceiling of the Quire depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with several more animals; such as tigers, lions, panthers and peacocks.

The Choir area of the Cathedral holds the beautiful carved organ and wooden stalls used by the clergy and the choir during the religious service.  The large organ located near the Transepts was commissioned with Bernard Smith and installed in 1695.  It is one of the largest organs in England with a console of five keyboards and there are 138 stops that operate 7,189 pipes, the working of the organ are enclosed in a wooden case designed by Wren and wonderfully carved by the famous Grinling Gibbons.  Also located in the Choir area is the brass eagle lectern made by Jacob Sutton in 1719 and on the other side is a carved oak pulpit which was installed in 1964 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the completion of the Cathedral.  The Choir Stalls were also carved in oak by Grinling Gibbons and the Bishop’s Throne is decorated with carved wooden floral garlands, winged cherubs and the arms of the Bishop. 

St Pauls - organ

Located near the High Altar are the Tijou Gates and balustrades created in an intricate design of wrought iron by the French metal worker Jean Tijou.  The High Altar is based on original sketches by Wren and featured in this 20th century version is the beautifully carved slab of Italian marble that weighs nearly four tons and was commissioned by the British people after the previous one was damaged in the German Blitz, it is a memorial to those that lost their lives in World War II.  Placed on the High Altar is a large cross that stands nearly 10 feet tall with a silver enameled base embellished with amethyst and flanked by two five feet tall gilded candlesticks.  The High Altar is covered by a large carved oak canopy that was installed in 1958.  (Special Note: Located in the south Choir aisle in the Lady Chapel is a statue of poet John Donne which is the only item from the “Old St. Paul’s” that survived the Great Fire of 1666.  

altar Interesting facts about St. Paul’s Cathedral

  • “Borrow from Peter to pay Paul” – One explanation of this old English saying goes back to before King Henry VII broke ties with the Catholic Church of Rome to form the Church of England.  It is said that in order to pay the church taxes to St. Paul’s in London the funds were not paid to St. Peter’s in Rome.  Another explanation originated back to the 16th century when the money intended for St. Peter’s in Westminster was used to pay for repairs to St Paul’s in London.
  • Christopher Wren tomb – Sir Christopher Wren the English architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral is buried in the Crypt.  On the wall next to the grave there is a plaque written in Latin that reads: “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723”.  This same epitaph is repeated in the flooring of the Transept area as previously mentioned.  (For more information about the personal and professional life of Sir Christopher Wren, please see the last section of this post)

St Pauls - Christopher Wren 1  St Pauls - Christopher Wren 2

  • Lord Horatio Nelson tomb – Lord Nelson (September 29, 1758 – October 21, 1805) Vice Admiral of the British Navy died heroically at the Battle of Trafalgar and he is buried in the center of the crypt directly beneath the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  His funeral procession had over 32 admirals and an escort of 10,000 servicemen who progressed through the streets of London to St. Paul’s, he was buried within a stone sarcophagus that was originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey.  The sailors that were in charge of folding the flag that covered Nelson’s coffin and then placing it in the grave instead tore it into fragments to keep as a memento.

St Pauls - Nelson

  • Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington tomb – Wellington (May 1, 1769 – September 14, 1852) the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was given a state funeral which is normally reserved for British Royalty but on occasion a high ranking British subject can be given the honor.  It is said that almost 1 million people watched the Duke’s funeral procession to St Paul’s before he was interred in a luxulyanite (a type of granite) sarcophagus.  Wellington’s final resting place was decorated with banners from various European countries which were specially made for his funeral procession, during World War I the banner of Prussia was removed and never replaced.  Located between the Nave and the North Aisle of St Paul’s is a massive bronze and stone memorial was sculpted by Alfred Stevens and features at the top a figure of Wellington on his horse and farther before two sets of statues representing valor defeating cowardice, truth over falsehood.

St Pauls - Wellington

  • Sir Winston Churchill memorial – The State funeral for Sir Winston Churchill (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965) the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on January 30, 1965, it was broadcast both on radio and television in England.  There is a bronze memorial plaque that marks the spot in St. Paul’s at the Quire steps where the catafalque was placed during the funeral service, it was designed by John Skelton.  There is also the Winston Churchill Memorial Screen located in the crypt, it was designed and made by the blacksmith James Horrobin in 2004.  Churchill’s final resting place is not within St. Paul’s but at St Martin’s Church in Bladon in Oxfordshire, England, located nearby is Churchill’s birthplace and ancestral home of Blenheim Palace.  (For more information about Blenheim Palace, please click on the link)

Churchill funeral 1a

  • 1981 Royal Wedding – Charles, Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer in a grand Royal Wedding on July 29 1981 at St Paul’s Cathedral, it became known as the “wedding of the century”.  Since it was the marriage of the heir to the British throne St. Paul’s was chosen as the venue instead of the Westminster Abbey because it would hold the 3,500 guests.  (For more information regarding the Royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana the Princess of Wales, please click on the link to Royal Weddings – Part Four post)

Royal Wedding

  • Mary Poppins – St. Paul’s Cathedral was featured in several scenes in Disney’s 1964 film, “Mary Poppins”.  At the beginning of the movie, Mary Poppins is seen flying over the city of London and the beautiful dome of St. Paul’s designed by Wren is shown dominating the skyline. Then, in another scene, Mary Poppins holds a snow globe that features a miniature St. Paul’s Cathedral and she is about to tell the children the story of the Bird Woman who sells crumbs for “tuppence a bag”.  As she begins singing the song, “Feed the Birds”, the scene changes from the Bank’s house to the top of St. Paul’s and pans down the front of the church to the Bird Woman sitting on the steps surrounded by the birds she is feeding.  (For more information on Mary Poppins – the book, movie and play, please click on the link)

practicallyperfect  Mary-Poppins-St Pauls snowglobe
mary-poppins-feed-the-birds 1Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – The third movie in the Harry Potter series of films is the 2004 “Prisoner of Azkaban”.  The Warner Brother’s film features the Geometric Staircase which is located in the South West Bell Tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In the movie, the students of Hogwart’s need to climb to the top of the “Divination Staircase” to gain access to Professor Trelawney’s Divination classroom.  (For more information about the Harry Potter book series, please click on the link to J.K. Rowling)

St. Pauls - Harry Potter Divination Stairwell

The Personal and Professional Life of Sir Christopher Wren

Christopher Wren (October 20, 1632 – February 25, 1723) the acclaimed architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral also designed the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and a portion of Hampton Court Palace as well as overseeing the rebuilding of 52 churches in London after the Great Fire of 1666.


Christopher Wren was born in East Knoyle in Wiltshire, England.  His father, Christopher Wren Sr., was a rector in East Knoyle and his mother was Mary Cox who died when Wren was a small boy.  In March 1635, Wren Sr. became the Dean of Windsor and they spent part of each year there.  Little is known about Wren’s early education except that he was tutored by Rev. William Shepherd and possibly attended the Westminster School, he also studied mathematics under the guidance of his brother-in-law, Dr. William Holder.

In June 1650, Wren entered Wadham College in Oxford where he studied a variety of subjects such as Latin, mathematics and science. Wren graduated in 1651 with a B.A. and a M.A. in 1653.  In 1657, Wren became a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College located in London and later a Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.  Wren also continued to meet with a group of mathematics, scientists and philosophers that he had meet through his association with John Wilkins, the Warden of Wadham College.  By 1660, these weekly meetings eventually evolved into the beginning of the Royal Society of London and in 1662 they were granted a royal charter by King Charles II.  Wren played an important role in the early years of the organization due to his expertise on a variety of subjects (ranging from general medicine, astronomy, meteorology and mechanics) which was helpful in motivating the exchange of ideas between the various groups of scientists.

Wren had been developing an interest in architecture as a form of applied mathematics since his years as a student in Oxford.  Then in 1661, through his connection with the Royal Society, King Charles II became aware of Wren’s work and he requested his advice on the extensive repairs that St. Paul’s Cathedral required after many years of neglect.  Coincidentally, during a trip to Paris, France in 1665, Wren became inspired by the works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous Italian architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.  It was shortly after returning home from Paris that the city of London was almost entirely destroyed by the Great Fire of September 1666.  Wren was appointed by the King to oversee the rebuilding of 51 churches and one of those was the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In regards to Wren’s architectural career, St. Paul’s Cathedral took about 36 years from the start of the rebuilding in 1667 to its completion in 1711.  Wren left the teaching profession and was now a fully established architect.  Other major architectural commissions included the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (1675-76), the Wren Library at Trinity College in Cambridge (1676-84), the Chelsea Hospital (1682-92) the reconstruction of the state rooms at Windsor Castle, a new chapel and Queen’s apartments at Whitehall (1685-87), various rooms at Kensington Palace (1689-96) and a large addition to Hampton Court (1689-1700).  In addition, Wren was appointed Surveyor the Greenwich Naval Hospital in 1696 and the Surveyor of Westminster Abbey in 1698.

On a personal note, Wren waited until the age of 37 before he married Faith Coghill in 1669, they had two children.  Gilbert was born in 1672 but died at the age of 18 months old and Christopher was born in 1675 but sadly later that same year Faith died of smallpox.  Christopher was sent to live with Faith’s mother in Oxfordshire for a period of time.  Then, in 1677 Wren married Jane Fitzwilliam and they had two children, a daughter named Jane born in 1677 and died in 1702 and a son William born in 1679.  His second marriage was also very brief and Jane died of tuberculosis in 1680.  In lieu of salary owed for part of his work on the building of St. Paul’s, Wren was given a home near Hampton Court and he also leased a house located on St. James Street in London.  Wren died at the age of ninety-one at his home in London and he is buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Travel – Balmoral

Balmoral - exterior

The British Royal Family lives by tradition and for centuries now they have been spending the summer months, August to October, at Balmoral in the Highlands of Scotland.  Balmoral has been a Royal private residence since the time of Queen Victoria when it was purchased by Prince Albert in 1852.  Initially, when the Royal couple visited Edinburgh as newlyweds, the Highlands reminded Prince Albert of his home back in Germany and they decided it would be a perfect place to bring their young family.

Balmoral has been enjoyed by several generations of the Royal family throughout the years and it was happily where Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent part of their honeymoon in 1981.  But sadly, after their divorce fifteen years later, it is where Prince Charles and his sons heard the tragic news of Diana’s death in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

The History of Balmoral

Prior to the mid-1600s, the first structure on site was a small hunting lodge used by King Robert II of Scotland and in 1451 a larger house with a tower was built by Alexander Gordon and the estate became known as “Bouchmorale”.  In 1662, the estate passed to Charles Farquharson and then in 1798 James Duff the 2nd Earl Fife purchased the property and several years later it was leased it to Sir Robert Gordon in 1830.

Balmoral 1853

Then in 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Highlands of Scotland and stayed in Edinburgh.  They loved the area so much that they returned again several times over the following years, Prince Albert in particular loved the region as it reminded him of his beloved German homeland.   For this reason the Royal Couple were considering a home in Highlands and decided it would be a perfect for their young family to escape London during part of the hot summer months every year.

Balmoral - Queen Victoria and family

Prince Albert purchased Balmoral in 1852 which meant that the property was held privately by the Royal Family and that it was not part of the Crown.  In addition to Balmoral, the adjacent property known as Birkhall was purchased at the same time to further afford the Royal Family more privacy.  But with their family growing quickly, the Balmoral house proved to be too small and the decision was made to build a larger house.  More room was also needed to accommodate visitors of the Royal Family and also Queen Victoria’s official cabinet members.  William Smith, an architect from Aberdeen, was commission for the building project and he worked closely with Prince Albert who has some very definite opinions on the new home’s designs.  In the summer of 1853, a site not far from the original building was chosen and Queen Victoria laid the corner stone that September.  By waiting to demolish the old building, the Royal Family was able to stay there while the new house was being built.  (Interesting Note:  Located on the expansive front lawn, opposite the tower and about 100 yards from the path, is a stone marker that was placed on the site of the original house at Balmoral that was demolished in 1856)

Balmoral 1897

The architectural design is known as Scottish Baronial style and Balmoral was built with granite found on the property. The home floor plan is symmetrical in design with two blocks of rooms arranged around a central courtyard with a tall 80 foot turret topped clock tower at one end of the block.  The interior of the house was decorated in the distinctive Highland style with plenty of tartan featured throughout the many rooms.  The construction of the main house was finally completed in 1856.

Balmoral - Queen's drawing room 1857

Upon spending increasing amounts of time at Balmoral, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert immersed themselves in the Highland culture.  The interior of the house was uniquely decorated with plenty of distinctive Highland tartan and taxidermy stag heads which were featured throughout the many rooms of Balmoral.  Queen Victoria enjoyed long hours spent walking on the moors and Prince Albert spent days hunting deer on the property.  The Royal Family also attended the Highland games at nearby Braemar and hosted the annual Ghille Ball held at Balmoral.

Balmoral 2

In addition to the new home at Balmoral, improvements were made on several cottages and outbuildings as well as the gardens and woodlands on the property.  Prince Albert supervised the planting of conifers on the grounds, the building of a new bridge and the establishment of a farm and dairy.

After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria went into period of deep mourning and spent an increasing amount of time at Balmoral where she spent so many happy times with her beloved husband and far away from her Royal duties in London.  Several memorials were erected on the property; the pyramid- shaped cairn at the top of Craig Lurachain erected a year after his death and a statue of Prince Albert which was placed on the event of the twenty-eighth anniversary of the engagement of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Balmoral - Prince Albert memorial cairn    Balmoral - Prince Albert statue

Since Queen Victoria was staying at Balmoral for a lengthy amount of time during the year, the perpetually mourning Queen came to depend on a local ghillie (a Highland gamekeeper and servant) named John Brown.  Brown was able to meet Queen Victoria’s dark moods and he ultimately encouraged her to move forward with her life.  His constant companionship with the Queen greatly comforted her, some say their relationship was intimate, but still their closeness caused hostility among her family members.  Much like she did when Prince Albert died, when John Brown in 1883 the Queen commissioned a statue of him which was placed on the estate.  After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 her son, now known as King Edward VII, had many of the Brown memorials destroyed and the Brown statue was moved to a remote place on the property.  (Special Note:  If you are interested in more information about Queen Victoria and John Brown, I would recommend the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown” starring Judi Dench as the Queen and Billy Connolly as Brown)

Balmoral - Queen Victoria and John Brown 1868    Balmoral - John Brown statue

King Edward VII continued the tradition of the Royal Family annual trip to Balmoral during the autumn months.  His successor and son, King George V also enjoyed the annual trip to the Highlands.  After the death of King George V his son, known as King Edward VIII, acquired the ownership of Balmoral when it was passed to him in 1936.  Later that same year when he abdicated the throne to his brother, now known as King George VI, part of the negotiated settlement was the sale of both Balmoral and Sandringham (properties personally owned and not part of the Crown) to King George VI.  After the death of King George VI in 1952, his daughter, the current reigning Queen Elizabeth II inherited Balmoral and she continues the Royal Family tradition of annual trips to Balmoral during the months of August to October.

Balmoral - Queen Elizabeth and family 1972 a

Tourist Information Regarding Balmoral

Balmoral is open to the public daily from the end of March to the end of July, closed from August to October when the Queen is in residence and then opened again on a limited number of days during the months of November and December.  For more information on specific days, times and admission fees, please see the official website at

Balmoral offers visitors a variety of activities for visitors and the price of admission includes parking, a one hour guided tour including the Castle’s Ballroom and access to the gardens, the exhibitions and also an audio tour.  There is also a small restaurant and gift store for visitors.  It is advised that a minimum of at least one and a half hours is reserved when planning a trip.

Points of Interest at Balmoral

The Balmoral Castle Ballroom –

Ballroom is the largest room at Balmoral and it is the only room is open to the public; there is no access to the other rooms of the Castle because they are considered the Queen’s private rooms.  Displayed in the Ballroom are several paintings by Edwin Landseer (an English painter who specialized in Highland landscapes and portraits) and Carl Haag (a Bavarian-born painter for the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who later became a naturalized British citizen).  Also displayed in the Ballroom are silver statues by John Boehm and several pieces of Minton China (the famous bone china produced in Staffordshire, England)

The Ballroom is probably most famously known as the setting for the annual Ghillie Ball, Queen Victoria started the tradition in 1852 when she wanted to thank her servants and other members of her staff for their good service.  The ball is a much anticipated event for everyone at Balmoral because of opportunity for the servants to socialize and even dance with the Queen and her family.  Historical Note:  In 2014, the Ghillie Ball was postponed for one day by Queen Elizabeth to allow the vote on Scottish independence referendum.  The end result was a decisive 53% vote against independence.

Balmoral - Gillis Ball 1859

Garden Cottage –

Located not far from Balmoral is the Garden Cottage were visitors will be able to view a short film that shows how the 50,000 acre estate is managed.  The original Garden Cottage was built in 1863 but by 1894 it had fallen into disrepair and was demolished.  The current structure was built with stone and wood supplied by the materials on the property and it was completed in 1895.  In her later years, Queen Victoria often used the cottage in the morning to have breakfast or in the afternoon to work on State papers, correspondence and to write in her journals.

The gardens adjacent to the cottage were originally planted under the guidance direction of Prince Albert.  Several years later, during the reign King George VI, Queen Mary re-designed the garden with a fountain surrounded partially by a rock wall, the garden gate still bears the monograms of King George and Queen Mary (GR &MR).  More recently, the Duke of Edinburgh planted a large vegetable garden to supply the Royal Family during the summer months.    Balmoral - Garden Cottage

Birkhall –

The Birkhall property was purchased by Prince Albert in 1849 in addition to the Balmoral estate, it was set aside for the exclusive use of his eldest son, Prince Edward (the Prince of Wales and later King Edward VII).  Later, in 1884 Queen Victoria bought the property back from her son and used it to provide housing for her staff.

When King George V inherited Balmoral after the death of his father, he lent Birkhall to his second son, the Duke and Duchess of York (the parents of the current Queen Elizabeth II).  The Royal couple enjoyed their time at Birkhall with their two daughters and during the time they occupied the house they redecorated the interior and replanted the gardens.  In 1936, when King George VI ascended to the throne, Birkhall was lent to Princess Elizabeth and during the summer months it was occupied by her, Prince Philip and their small children.

After the death of King George, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth moved to the main house at Balmoral during their summer visits and her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, returned once more to Birkhall and she continued using it until her death in March 2002.

After the Queen Mother’s death, Prince Charles (the Prince of Wales) inherited Birkhall.  When he married Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, in 2005 they spent their honeymoon at the Birkhall.

Balmoral - Birkhall

Craigowan Lodge –

Craigowan Lodge is located on the Balmoral estate about one mile from the main house.  The seven bedroom stone house was frequently used by Prince Charles and Princess Diana when they would visit Balmoral during the summer months.  Now the lodge is used for the housing of very important guests or sometimes various Royal Family members and when the Queen arrives at the estate in mid-July, she uses the lodge while the main house is being prepared for her extended stay during the summer months.

Balmoral - Craigowan Lodge

For more information about another privately owned British Royal residence, please click on the link to Sandringham.

Travel – Althorp (Part One)


In honor of Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales birthday (born: July 1, 1961  died: August 31, 1997, in Part One of a two part series I will discuss the history Althorp which is the Spencer ancestral home located in Northamptonshire, England which is about 75 miles from London.  The Spencer family has lived there for more than 500 years and Diana spent her childhood years there.  Althorp is now currently the home of Charles Spencer the 9th Earl of Spencer; Diana’s brother famously spoke out against the treatment of his sister at her funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1997.  Today, Althorp is best known as the final resting place of Diana, the Princess of Wales and has become a tourist destination for many visitors to England. (Please click on the link to Part Two for more information about Althrop including a tour of the various rooms of the house, the grounds and Diana’s gravesite on the island of the the Round Oval)

The History of Althorp And The Spencer Family

Althorp has existed since medieval times as a small hamlet which was originally situated on the southwest side of the property just east of the current West Lodge.  By the 15th century the small population had dwindled and eventually all the residences had moved away.

In 1508, John Spencer purchased the Althorp property from the Catesby family with money earned from his sheep business.  The land consisted of 300 acres of grassland and another 100 acres of woodland with 40 acres covered with water.  Over the next four years, Spencer worked hard and the property was divided into four large sheep pastures.

When John Spencer died in 1522, the estate passed to his youngest son, William.  William was the Sheriff of Northamptonshire and he owned it until his death in 1532.  Over the next several years the property remained in the Spencer family with ownership passing from father to son.  By 1603, Robert Spencer had been made the 1st Baron of Wormleighton and King Charles I had planned a Royal visit to the estate.  Althorp was enlarged to accommodate the King and his court, a new drawing room was built and the main hall was enlarged for a grand banquet.

After Robert Spencer’s death in 1627, Althorp went to his son William.  Several more years passed and the estate ownership went from father to son.  Henry Spencer, the eldest son of William was rewarded the title of Earl of Sunderland after his honorable military service, unfortunately he was killed in battle at the age of 23.  At the time of his father’s death, his eldest son, Robert, was only two years old.  Robert soon grew into a temperamental young man and because of his controversial views on the monarchy he was eventually forced to leave the country.  Almost ten years had passed when he returned from the Netherlands and at that time there had been a drastic reversal of his political opinions.  He had quickly regained favor with the King and subsequently became Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household in April 1697.  During his time as owner and custodian of Althorp, Robert had rebuilt the house and also made many improvements and changes to the grounds.

Robert died in 1702 and his son Charles inherited the estate and held Althorp for twenty years and he greatly expanded the library by adding several hundred volumes of books.  In 1700 Charles brought a higher level of notoriety to the family when he married Anne Churchill, the daughter of John Churchill the first Duke of Marlborough; the marriage brought an important connection between the Spencer and the Churchill families.


Over the next fifty years, Althorp passed through several more generations from father to son to brothers to son again.  The rules of British inheritance were very strict regarding property and aristocratic titles, so for this reason the title of Duke of Marlborough came to the Spencer family through their connection with the Churchill family.  Also the monetary value of the estate had increased dramatically throughout this period, when John Spencer died in 1746 his son, also named John, received the largest inheritance in England at the time.

John, the 7th Earl of Sunderland and 4th Duke of Marlborough, served as a Member of Parliament representing Warwick from 1756 to 1761.  John lived a lavish lifestyle, dressing in expensive clothes and entertaining in a grand manner.  When he turned 21 years old, there was a large ball for 5,000 guests held at Althorp in December 1755 and during the party John secretly married Margaret Poyntz and they waited to announce their marriage until a few days after the party.  The good fortune of John continued and in 1761 King George III made him a Baron and he became Viscount Spencer, then in 1765 he became Earl Spencer.


In 1783, upon the death of his father, George Spencer (2nd Earl of Spencer) inherited Althorp and he went onto have a very successful political life.  He served as Whig MP for Northampton from 1780 to 1782 and then for Surrey from 1782 to 1783.  George was also very interested in Althorp’s library and, through his literary pursuits, turned it into the one of the largest private libraries in Europe.  As George became an old man, his book collecting became an obsession as he attempted to collect every volume published in Britain.  Unfortunately, after starting out as one of the richest men in England, by the time of his death in 1834 he was deeply in debt.


John, the 3rd Earl of Spencer, was able to work through his father’s debts without losing Althorp’s large book collection.  He was also to maintain the estate as well as the additional Spencer houses and properties which had become quite extensive.  There was Spencer House in London, a home in Wimbledon, a farm in Wiseton and a hunting lodge in Norfolk.  John drastically reduced his living expenses and reduced the staff of Althorp by living the majority of the year at the small house in Wiseton.  The other Spencer lands and properties were leased or sold and gradually by the time of John’s death in 1845, the Spencer estate was profitable once again.  By the time of John Spencer, the 5th Earl of Spencer also known as the Red Earl, inherited the estate in 1857 it was once again in financial debt.  To clear the debt and maintain the estate’s many holdings, the majority of the large book collection was sold to be used in the University of Manchester.

John Spencer - Viscount Althorp, 3rd Earl Spencer (1782-1845)

The financial problems of the Spencer family continued through the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, so many of the estate’s properties and assets were sold.  By the time of Albert Spencer, the 7th Earl of Spencer, inherited in 1922 the fortune of the estate was still financially troubled and despite his heightened interest in art, he needed to sell many of Althorp’s paintings and other pieces of artwork to help decrease the debt owed.  Fortunately, during World War II Althrop was not used as a military barracks or converted into a hospital for the wounded soldiers but Albert did grant them permission to use the estate’s stable instead and the main house at Althorp remained used for the duration of the war.    With Spencer House being located in London, during the Blitz and the frequent German bombing and the decision was made to move most of the furniture and valuable items to Althorp for safekeeping.

7th Earl of Spencer

After the war, the Althorp estate was opened to the public for tours in 1953 to raise revenue for taxes.  Upon the death of his father in 1975, Edward Spencer, the 8th Earl of Spencer, inherited the estate.  (Edward served as Equerry to King George VI and later for Queen Elizabeth II)  It was a this time that Edward and his young family of three girls and one boy came to live at Althorp, the youngest daughter was destined to marry Prince Charles the heir to the British throne in 1981 and she became Diana, the Princess of Wales.  Diana and siblings enjoyed their childhood at Althorp despite the fact that their parents had gone through a bitter divorce in 1969 and their mother’s subsequent abandonment when Edward was awarded custody of the children.

By the time of his death in 1992, the Althorp estate was still losing money regardless of the fact that many pieces of antique furnishings were sold.  Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl of Spencer and current owner of Althorp, has been able to slowly pay off some of the debt to keep the estate running.  To pay for an extensive restoration project to repair the roof and stonework of Althorp, Charles auctioned hundreds of furnishings and other items which had long been in storage.  After the death of his sister, Diana, in tragic car crash in Paris in 1997 and her burial on a small island on Round Oval Lake at Althorp visitors flocked to the estate to pay tribute.  Despite the increased funds that this recent tourism has brought to Althorp is unsure as to whether it can be sustained over an extended period of time to provide the massive expenses needed to run the large estate.

Charles Spencer

Please click on the link to Part Two for more information about Althrop including a tour of the various rooms of the house, the grounds and Diana Princess of Wales final resting place.

Travel – Althorp (Part Two)

Althorp - exterior

As previously mentioned in Part One of the two part series on Althorp, I will discuss the history of the Spencer ancestral home located in Northamptonshire, England.  Althorp was also the childhood home of Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales birthday (born: July 1, 1961 died: August 31, 1997).  Althorp is now currently the home of Charles Spencer the 9th Earl of Spencer; Diana’s brother who famously spoke out against the treatment of his sister at her funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1997.  Today, Althorp is best known as the final resting place of Diana, the Princess of Wales and has become a tourist destination for many visitors to England.

Althorp is located in Northamptonshire, England about 75 miles from London.  The Spencer family has lived there for more than 500 years and has paid host to various Kings and Queens throughout its long history.  In 1603, Robert Spencer held a grand banquet for King Charles I.  In 1761, King George III made John Spencer a Viscount and later the first Earl of Spencer.  In 1913, King George V and Queen Mary visited the estate and stayed in the room at Althorp that is now known as the Queen Mary bedroom.  Edward Spencer, the 8th Earl of Spencer served as Equerry to King George VI and later for Queen Elizabeth II.  The current 9th Earl of Spencer is the brother of the late Princess Diana and is the uncle of her children, Prince William and Prince Harry.

The original home built at Althorp in 1677 was a classic Tudor style red brick building.  The current building dates back to 1688 with alterations made in 1788 with Yorkshire stone and four Corinthian pilasters or columns and large sash windows surrounded in stone which were added to the front exterior.  Historical Note:  It has been said that the stone used for the pilasters was originally intended by Sir Christopher Wren to be used for the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The interior of Althorp features well-appointed rooms with a central grand staircase leading to the upper floor.  The rooms are beautifully decorated with furniture, paintings and objects of art including numerous pieces of priceless porcelain.  In World War II during the Blitz antique furniture, marble fireplaces and other valuable items from the Spencer House in London were moved to Althorp for safekeeping.  Some interesting and unique items included doors from the Spencer House dating back to the 18th century which featured curled “S” (for Spencer) doorknobs.  Sadly, throughout the years as the Spencer family estate became severely in debt and large portions of furnishings and part of Althorp’s large book collection were sold.

The Althorp estate included not only the elegant house and adjacent beautiful garden but all the surrounding 13,000 acres property.  There are 28 other buildings or structures on the estate grounds including the large building known as the Stable Block.  The Althorp Park area of estate is wonderfully landscaped with rows of trees and a large pong with a small island positioned in the middle.  On this remote island, not accessible to the general public, is the final resting place of Diana, the Princess of Wales who died in a tragic car accident in Paris in 1997.  Located nearby the lake is the Diana Memorial and, when the estate is opened annually to visitors during the months of July and August, the Stable Block has been converted into an exhibition center (unfortunately the Diana: A Celebration exhibit permanently closed in 2013)

Interesting Fact:  Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl of Spencer and the current owner of the Althorp estate was a tour guide at the house was he was a boy.  This when Charles gained his extensive knowledge about the Spencer ancestral history and most importantly how he developed his steadfast desire to maintain Althorp for future generations.

A Tour of Althorp

Wootton Hall –

The grand entrance area located on the ground floor of Althorp is known as Wootton Hall, the name honors the English equestrian painter John Wootton.  The Spencer family commissioned Wootton in 1733 to create several fox hunting paintings that still hang in the entrance hall.  The space is beautifully proportioned with ceilings that rise two-stories high.  The 18th century plaster floral ceiling by Colen Campbell and the floor is made of black and white Italian marble time laid out in a checkerboard style during the 1910.  It has been said that the entrance hall of Althorp was one of the most grand of the Georgian style country homes in England.

ALthorp - Wootton Hall

Special Note: Before leaving Wootton Hall, please notice the dozen elegant hall porter chairs lining the perimeter of the space.  One of the original chairs was found discarded in the Stable Block in 1911; the chair was brought from Spencer House in London for safekeeping during the Blitz.

Interesting Fact:  The acoustics in the Wootton Hall are excellent and for this reason a teenage Diana Spencer (the future Princess of Wales) liked to practice tap dancing in this area of Althorp.

The Saloon –

The Saloon is located adjacent to Wootton Hall and was originally the open inner courtyard of Althorp where carriages would arrive and guests would disembark into the house.  In the 1660s, a roof was put over the area and as a result of the courtyard enclosure a beautiful walnut staircase was installed.   In the late 1800s, the chandeliers were wired for light and the Saloon became the first room in Althorp to have electricity.

Althorp - Grand Staircase     Althorp - the Saloon

The South Drawing Room –

The South Drawing Room is located in the west wing of Althorp.  The room retains an elegant Georgian style; the walls are a beautiful shade of blue, there are dark green window curtains, a large gilded framed mirror is positioned between the windows and the room is furnished with peach floral patterned sofas.  The stone fireplace was built in 1802 and the plaster ceiling was done in 1865.  This room is also known as the Rubens Room because there are four paintings by Peter Paul Rubens hanging on the walls, there are also fifteen Joshua Reynolds portraits.

Althorp - South Drawing Room    Althorp - South Drawing Room - miniature collection

Special Note:  Located in one of the room’s alcoves is a collection of miniature portraits displayed in a cabinet, take a close look to find one of Admiral Lord Nelson.

The Sutherland Room –

The Sutherland Room is located in the east wing of Althorp.  When the house was first built centuries ago, it was once customary for the owners to occupy the ground floor to use as bedrooms and the guest bedrooms would be on the upper floor.  The room has the original moulding and the fireplace in the room was originally from the Spencer House in London.  The current paintings in the room were chosen to honor John “Jack” Spencer, the 3rd Earl of Spencer, and reflect his passion for foxhunting.  After the room ceased being used as a bedroom was used as just another reception room in the house.

Althorp - Sutherland Room

Interesting Fact:  Traditionally, the Sutherland room has been decorated specifically for the children of Althorp on Christmas Day.  There would be a fully decorated Christmas tree and mechanical Santas, snowmen and angels would be placed around the room as festive holiday decorations.  As a special treat for the children, individual cakes were set out in the room with the names of the children written in icing.

The Marlborough Room –

The Marlborough Room is located next to the Sunderland Room and adjacent to the Library.  The room is named to honor Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.  Since the 1900s, the room has been used for large formal dinners, the Victorian rosewood dining table can accommodate up to 42 guests.  Previously, the space had been divided into two different rooms, one was used as a reception room and the other was the old billiard room.  In the 1950s as part of a restoration project at Althrop, two chimney pieces from Spencer House were installed in the room.

Althorp - Marlborough Room

Special Note:  The portraits of various Spencer ancestors painted by famed artist such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney are hung in the Marlborough Room.

The Great Dining Room –

The Great Dining Room was part of the east wing extension which was built back in 1877.  The relatively small room is said to have gotten inspiration for the red damask silk wall coverings from the much larger and grander ballroom of Buckingham Palace.  The two large tapestries cover the oak paneling that was originally from another property of the Spencers owned and it was brought to Althorp specifically for installation in this room.

The Library –

The Library is located on the first floor in the west wing of Althorp, it is sometimes referred to as the “Long Library”.  When George Spencer (2nd Earl of Spencer) inherited the estate, he was very interested in his literary pursuits and his book collection turned the Althorp library into the one of the largest private libraries in Europe.  As George became an old man, his book collecting became an obsession as he attempted to collect every volume published in Britain.  Five rooms at Althorp were needed to store the large collection and eventually the rooms were combined into one long 200 feet by 20 feet room, hence the name of “Long Library”. The ceiling of the original library collapsed in 1773, it was replaced and a new floor was also installed.

Althorp - Long Library

Unfortunately, by the time of George’s death in 1834 he was deeply in debt and a major portion of the collection was sold to the University of Manchester.  The books seen in the library today on a tour of Althorp were fairly recent acquisitions and the dark and rich colored spines of the books are beautifully displayed against the off-white painted shelving.

The Picture Gallery –

The Picture Gallery is located on the first floor of the west wing at Althorp.  The Picture Gallery is most famous for the collection of 60 portraits, 10 of those portraits are Sir Peter Lely paintings of King Charles II ten mistresses that have become known as “The Windsor Beauties”.  The 115 feet by 21 feet room is decorated with lovely oak paneling and oak flooring which at one time was painted white, fortunately the paint was removed during a restoration project in 1904

Althorp - Picture Gallery

Special Note:  The Picture Gallery has a wonderful collection of paintings, including Van Dyck painting “War and Peace”, John de Critz portrait of King James I and Mary Beale portrait of Charles II (where he is forever joined with “The Windsor Beauties”)

Interesting Fact: In Tudor times, the room’s dimensions were put good use when during inclement weather the ladies would use the Gallery to promenade (walking as a form of exercise and socialization) indoors to avoid soiling their dresses in the rain and mud.

The Oak Bedroom –

The Oak Bedroom is located on the first floor to the rear of the west wing at Althorp.  The room is beautifully decorated with crimson wallpaper, a polished oak floor and repeated in the room several times is the Spencer “S” most notably on the blue velvet bed cover, above the large bed and near the fireplace.

Althorp - Oak Bedroom

Interesting Fact:  The room was the site of an important event in the history of the Spencer family.  On the night of December 20, 1755, during a ball being held in celebration of John Spencer’s 21st birthday, the first Earl of Spencer secretly married Margaret Georgiana in the Oak Bedroom.

The Princess of Wales Bedroom –

The Princess of Wales Bedroom, as most people would assume, was not named for Diana but another beloved Princess of Wales.  It was Princess Alexandra, the wife of the future King Edward VII who came to visit the 5th Earl of Spencer (the Red Earl) at Althorp in 1863.  The room was renovated in 1911 ad retains a distinct Georgian style of decoration.  The large and luxurious bed is draped in fabric originally designed during the renovation.  Two portraits of note in the room are the painting by Spanish artist Murillo of a young princess and the other is a painting by the School of Leonardo da Vinci of a young lady that bears a striking resemblance to the Mona Lisa.

Althorp - Princess of Wales Bedroom

(For more information on Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, please click on the link)

The Queen Mary Bedroom –

The Queen Mary Bedroom is named for Queen Mary, the wife of King George V who visited Althorp in 1913.  The centerpiece of the room is the tall bed which is draped in green taffeta and designed in an 18th century style.  An item of note in the room are two antique chairs with needlework design and personally created by Albert Spencer, the 7th Earl of Spencer who was the Chairman of the Royal School of Needlework.

Althorp Queen Mary Bedroom

Interesting Fact:  As a side note regarding Queen Mary, she was a horrible houseguest in regards to the fact that when she would visit the stately homes around England she was always on the search for interesting and sometimes valuable items.  She would strongly hint at her desire for a particular item belonging to her hosts, ultimately they would feel obligated to give her the item as a gift.  In this way Queen Mary acquired many excellent pieces of furnishing and art objects at no cost which she used to decorate her own home.

The Grounds –

The Althorp estate covers over 13,000 acres of land in Northampshire.  Besides the main house there are 28 other buildings and structures located on the property.  The estate is beautifully landscaped first by Henry Holland in the 1780s and then by William Teulon in the late 1800s.  After Diana’s death in 1997, when the Memorial was moved to its current site, Dan Pearson was commissioned to upgrade the park and gardens to accommodate the increased number of visitors that would be coming to Althorp.  Pearson planted 36 oak trees along the access road to commemorate Diana’s age at the time of her death.  Over one hundred white water lilies were added to waters of the Round and one hundred white roses were planted on the island which is Diana’s final resting place.

Althorp - Round Oval Island

Special Note:  After Diana’s separation and subsequent divorce from Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, was finalized in 1996 she had considered moving to a small cottage known as the Gardener’s House, on the Althorp estate.  It seems that the request was denied by her brother, Charles Spencer, who is the current owner of Althorp.  He claimed that the Diana’s move to Althorp would cause innumerable security problems.  This decision had created a friction between Diana and her brother and their relationship was strained and intermittent at the time of Diana’s death.

Interesting Fact:  The story of the famed Spencer Sweet Pea began back in 1901 when the 5th Earl of Spencer’s chief gardener, Silas Cole, cultivated a variety of sweet pea that produced large pink flowers with wavy edged petals which he named the “Countess Spencer”.  This variety of sweet pea has been growing on the Althrop estate now for almost 115 years.

The Round Oval and Diana Memorial –

The lake located on the Althorp estate, known as the Round Oval, was constructed in 1868.  The Doric-style Temple located south of the Round Oval was original located in the gardens of Admiralty House in London.  It was commissioned by George Spencer, the 2nd Earl of Spencer, to celebrate the British naval victory led by Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson over General Napoleon Bonaparte French forces in the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

The Temple was moved to Althorp in 1926 and after the death of Princess Diana it was rededicated to her memory.  The Temple now bears the name of Diana which is inscribed at the top and it contains a large black marble silhouette of the Princess set on white marble and placed in the middle of the Temple.  The large medallion is flanked by two large stone tablets, one inscribed with a quote from Diana regarding her charity work and the other is inscribed with Charles Spencer’s speech given at his sister’s funeral in 1997.

Althorp - Diana Memorial    

The small island located in the middle of the Round Oval is the final resting place of Diana, the Princess of Wales.  After the overwhelming grief of the public over her tragic death and taking into account the endless media pursuit in her public life and lack of privacy regarding her personal life, Charles Spencer decided that the best place for her gravesite.  The choice of her burial on the island not only provided privacy that had been denied to Diana during her lifetime from the intrusive media coverage but it also gave dignity to her final resting place with some distance from well-meaning but sometimes obsessive public and the island is deemed off limits to anyone without the permission of Charles Spencer.  Her burial place is marked by a simple white memorial column with a stone urn on top; there is no headstone at the gravesite.

Althorp - Diana memorial 1

Althorp - Round Oval Island 1

The Stable Block –

The Stable Block was originally designed by architect Roger Morris in the early 1730s commissioned by Charles, the 5th Earl of Sutherland.  The building’s Palladian style of architecture was said to have been inspired by Morris’ own horse stable in Convent Garden.  The decorative fountain in the courtyard was installed to provide water for the horse troughs.  The interior included several stalls for the estates’ numerous horses, a bath area for the riders to use after hunting, a veterinarian’s room and storage area.

Althorp - Stable Block

After the death of Diana, the Stable Block was converted into an exhibition hall dedicated to the memory of the Princess of Wales.  Six separate exhibit areas were created within the old stable complex.  The first exhibit was the “Spencer Women” which highlighted the ancestral heritage of the women of Althorp with several displays showcasing jewelry, personal items and two large portraits, one painting of Sarah, Duchess of Marlbourough, and the other of Georgiana Spencer.

The second exhibit area plays a video of Diana ad a child, including rare footage of her christening and first birthday as well as additional footage showing her swimming, dancing and playing with her animals.  Displayed around the room are her old toys, ballet shoes and other childhood items.

The next exhibit focuses on the July 29, 1981  at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Displayed in this room is Diana’s voluminous wedding dress designed by Emanuel and other items of her wedding ensemble.  There is also a special display that showcases the Spencer Tiara which Diana wore on her wedding day.  (For more information about the wedding of Diana and Charles or Diana’s wedding dress, please click on the links)

Althorp - Diana's wedding dress displayAlthorp - Spencer Tiara display    Althorp - Spencer Tiara display 1

The fourth exhibit documents Diana’s extensive charity and humanitarian work.  The next exhibit, which is known as the “Tribute Room”, documents the days between Diana’s death, funeral and burial at Althorp.

The final area was the “Diana: A Celebration” exhibit with large glass display cases showing many of Diana’s most notable dresses and gowns with information cards indicating the when and where she wore the clothing items.  One unique display is filled with the condolence books that were signed by hundreds of thousands of people who express their feelings about Diana and offer their sympathy to the Spencer family.

Althrop - Diana - A Celebration exhibit

The Althorp house and estate is opened to the public annually during the months of July and August but in 2013 the Stable Block and exhibitions closed permanently.  The Princess of Wales Memorial Fund which received the profits from the exhibition had previously closed in 2012.  At that time, Althorp needed to address the concern about the exploitation of Diana and more importantly there was a need to suppress the public’s obsession with Diana.  It is said that the personal belongings that were part of the exhibition would be packed and eventually returned to her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.