Houghton House: a 17th century mansion and associated courtyard and formal garden remains


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Houghton House: a 17th century mansion and associated courtyard and formal garden remains
© Crown Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Houghton Conquest
National Grid Reference:
TL 03900 39469

Reasons for Designation

The remains of Houghton House stand in good condition, and are sufficiently substantial to illustrate the former appearance of this high status residence with royal associations. The building represents both fashionable and more advanced concepts in the architecture of the early 17th century. The house typifies conventional late 16th and early 17th century design as exemplified by the eminent architect John Thorpe, who was also responsible for Burleigh House, Cambridgeshire, Montacute in Somerset and Kirkby Hall, Northamptonshire. The layout and design of the house itself, however, is in marked contrast to the design of the loggias, which are attributed to Inigo Jones, one of the most influential architects of the time, whose later works included the Banqueting House at Whitehall and the Queen's House at Greenwich. Jones is credited as being the first English classical architect, and was largely responsible for the introduction and translation of the designs of the 16th century architect, Palladio. The north entrance at Houghton is closely based on Palladio's Conventa della Carita in Venice. It is one of the earliest examples of Palladian architecture in the country, and includes the first known use of rubbed brickwork.

Houghton House therefore represents an important transitional period between Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, and the neo-Classicism which was to follow. The past owners and occupiers of the house are well documented, and in the case of Mary, the Dowager Countess, the biographical details provide insights into the development of the design. The significance of the structural remains is increased rather than reduced by the limited period of occupation, since the house has no significant later alterations or elaboration.

Documentary and surviving buried and earthwork evidence provides a clear picture of the setting of the house. Paths, surfaces and other features will survive buried within the areas of the courtyards, and the gardens will retain archaeological and paleo-botanical evidence for borders, parterres and other elements of their planting and design.

The monument is accessible to the public.


Houghton House, described by Daniel Defoe in 1720 as a noble and magnificent palace, stands in a prominent position on the Greensand ridge overlooking the vale of Bedford, some 1.5km to the north of Ampthill. The monument includes the ruined remains of an early 17th century house (which was partly demolished in the late 18th century), the principal carriageway to the south, and part of the surrounding terrace which is considered to retain evidence of contemporary formal gardens and courtyards.

The house (a Listed Building, Grade I) was built to an H-plan design, typical of the Jacobean period, with maximum dimensions of c.37m east to west and 25m north to south. It is constructed in Ampthill brick; with quoins, window moulding and other details in limestone quarried at nearby Totternhoe. Plans and illustrations from the late 18th and early 19th century show the building prior to the demolition work, when it stood to three storeys. Although the roofs and most of the third storey walls have since been removed, the remaining elevations provide a clear impression of its former appearance. Of the two projecting bays on the north side, the eastern example still exists retaining the lower of two oriel windows with its limestone frame and mullions. The elongated wings to the south and intervening walls were pierced by similar rectangular windows, examples of which survive at both the first and second storey levels. The building had four corner turrets, the two at the western corners remaining to second storey level. These are considered to be an unusual feature for a house of this period, and were formerly capped by concave pyramidal roofs. The remainder of the roof line terminated in triangular or Dutch-style gables. The main entrance is provided by a porch within a tower in the centre of the south elevation, which in part survives to just below the roof line. The rectangular doorway is surmounted by a massive triple keyblock and segmental pediment in limestone. The more impressive `show fronts' of the house face to the north and west, in the centre of which are the remains of ornamental facades. The northern facade consisted of a two storey, three bay loggia, of which only the lower colonnade and the approaching flight of brick steps now remain. The round arches of the bays are constructed in unusually small bricks, rubbed to produce a smooth surface. The arches are flanked by attached, Doric columns in limestone, formerly supporting a decorated entablature, only part of which survives. The columns of the second level were Ionic, and the loggia motif was carried to the third storey by a matching attic window and two round headed niches below a pedimented gable. The western entrance had a loggia of three colonnades, one on top of another, although again, only the lower section of six Doric columns remains. Above this is a carved frieze which, despite considerable erosion, still retains the heraldic devices of the Sidney and Dudley families. The second tier was similar but less tall, with a carved balustrade separating the columns; and the third tier, of matching design, had four columns supporting a neo-Classical pediment.

The floors within the house have long since been removed. However, most of the internal walls shown on an architects plan in 1793 remain, together with fireplaces and flues at various levels indicating the principal rooms. An inventory compiled in 1728 records the names of the rooms, including the Great Dining room, the boarded hall, withdrawing and smoking rooms, and the Lord and Lady's bedchambers and dressing rooms. The ground floor is thought to have originally been tiled, and areas of the plaster surface still adhere to the internal walls, which also retain the beam slots for the upper floors. In its heyday Houghton House employed over 40 servants, requiring further space for domestic quarters and service rooms. An additional range was attached to the eastern side of the main house, which the inventory records as containing two kitchens, two brewhouses, a cellar, laundry, dairy, still-house and scullery. This range was mostly demolished in the 19th century, and later replaced by a farm house (now Houghton Park House) which is not included in the scheduling. The foundations of the connecting passage are, however, still visible within the exposed cellars on the eastern side of the main building.

The main approach to the house was from the south following a natural spur which projects outward from the general slope of the hillside. A plan of the house and estate dated 1733 shows a formal avenue of trees extending for approximately 160m to the south of the main entrance flanking the carriageway. The 1733 map also shows the layout of rectangular formal gardens and courtyards surrounding the house, separated by fences or walls; and records the names of the component areas. The formal approach from the south entered the gardens at the south court, a rectangular area located between the corner turrets on this side. A broad artificial scarp parallel to, and some 45m from the south elevation, indicates the edge of this courtyard and the level terrace on which the house stands. The elaborate entrance to the west overlooked the west court which extended across the width of the building, and continued across the terrace for approximately 45m, descending in the natural slope on this side. The northern and southern boundaries of this courtyard are marked on the 1733 map with small rectangular structures, situated about 35m from the house. These may have been wooden buildings, such as the temple bought by John Morris during the demolition, and relocated to Avenue House, Ampthill. The position of the southern structure is indicated by an earthen mound, 10m in diameter and c.1m high; and the second location of the southern structure is suggested by a corresponding level area to the north. The courtyard continued approximately 10m further to the west where it was entered by an avenue ascending the wooded slope. This avenue is still visible as a slight hollow measuring c.10m across, and a sample, 10m in length, is included in the scheduling. The north court, in front of the northern entrance similarly extended between the corner towers, and continued for some 34m toward the edge of the terrace overlooking the northern slope of the Greensand ridge. The 1733 map shows a small projection in the centre of the northern boundary which is thought to represent a gateway related to a tree-lined avenue shown running to the east of Houghton Conquest on a map dated 1765. The rectangular area within the angle of the north and west courts was termed the well garden in 1733, bounded by a wall or fence to the west and by the natural scarp of the hill to the north. Between the south and west courts lay the `best garden', an area measuring approximately 40m square, the southern edge of which is still defined by the continuation of the scarp on the southern side of the terrace. These courts and gardens are now overlain by pasture and lawns and are considered to retain buried features, including the surfaces of yards and paths, and archaeological evidence for the arrangement of borders and parterres. A kitchen garden and drying yard are also depicted on the 1733 map, to the north and south of the domestic range. This area, however, was significantly lowered when a new terrace was cut for the construction of the later farmhouse, and is not included in the scheduling.

Houghton House was built within an area formerly known as Dame Ellensbury Park, named after Alianor, the second wife of Sir Almaric de St Amand. His family owned considerable land in Bedfordshire in the 14th and 15th centuries. After Almaric's death in 1430, the manor passed to Lord Fanhope of Ampthill Castle, although part of the estate was retained by Alianor until her death in 1467; and it has been suggested that Alianor's residence stood on the site of Houghton House. Dame Ellensbury Park, together with Ampthill Park, later passed to the crown and became a royal hunting territory. In 1606, James I visited the area and commissioned the architect John Thorpe to draw up plans for the reconstruction of Ampthill Castle. This project was abandoned, and it is thought that the architect was subsequently re-directed to design Houghton House. The house has several features unusual in buildings of the time, particularly the arrangement and design of the central hall and corner towers which are similar to those at Holland House, London, built by Thorpe between 1606-7. In 1615 James granted the house to Mary Herbert, Countess Dowager of Kent. Mary was the sister of Sir Philip Sidney, and had been an outstanding figure in her own right at the court of Queen Elizabeth. She remained a great patron of the arts, and it is thought that she commissioned Inigo Jones (lately returned from his researches in Italy) to design the neo-Classical loggias for the north and west entrances. Mary's mother was a Dudley, and the Sidney and Dudley motifs on the western entablature are therefore considered to have been completed during her occupancy, which ended with her death in 1621. The house reverted to the crown, and was later granted to Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin. Thomas's son Robert, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, succeeded to the property after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and was in turn succeeded by his son, Thomas, who went into exile with James II in 1688. The elaboration of the southern entrance is believed to have been added whilst the house was in the possession of the Bruce family. In 1738, Thomas's heir sold the property to the 4th Duke of Bedford. The duke's son, the Marquis of Tavistock, lived there from 1764 until his death in a hunting accident in 1767. After this the house was rented, but not occupied, by the Earl of Upper Ossory, who's main residence, Ampthill Park, stands about 1km to the east. In 1794 the Duke of Bedford ordered the house to be un-roofed and partially dismantled, with some items taken for reuse elsewhere. The main staircase was placed in the duke's new Swan Hotel in Bedford. The remaining structure was abandoned until 1923, when it was purchased with a view to preservation by the Bedford Arts Club. The necessary consolidation work proved to be extensive and in 1935 the ruin was taken into Guardianship by the Commissioners for His Majesty's Works and Public Buildings. Repairs and maintenance were begun by the Ministry of Works in 1938, and have since been continued by its successors, the Department of the Environment and English Heritage.

All fences and fence posts are excluded from the scheduling together with the gravel surfaces of the driveway within the ruin; although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Fisher, A J, Bunyans Country: Studies in the Topography of Pilgrim's Progress, (1891)
Parry, I D, Select Illustrations Historical and Topographical of Bedfordshire, (1827)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdon and Peterborough, (1968)
Sampson, G, Concise Cambridgeshire History of English Literature, (1942), 290
George, M S F, 'The Bedfordshire Magazine' in The Story of Houghton House, Part 2: Proud Dwelling Desolate, , Vol. 6, (1948), 209-216
George, M S F, 'The Bedfordshire Magazine' in The Story of Houghton House, Part 1: The Mansion of the Fair, , Vol. 5, (1948), 169-174
Gomme, A, 'Archaeological Journal' in Houghton House, , Vol. 139, (1982), 39-42
Ancient Monuments Terrier, (1984)
Architect's plans, CRO R1/1013, (1793)
CRT 130 AMP 34 (draft Copy), Curtis, E, Life in the Palace Beautiful, (1958)
Details of Guardianship Area, Ancient Monuments Terrier: Houghton House, (1984)
Estate map for the Duke of Bedford, Evans, T, CRO 27/19, (1803)
Estate Map for the Duke of Bedford, Evans, T, CRO 27/19, (1804)
Includes copy of the original map, Wiils, R, Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733, (1991)
Notes for visit by Post-Med Arch Soc, Cox, A, 729, (1985)
Notes in CRO parish file, Gomme, A, Houghton House, (1982)
Title: Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733 Source Date: 1991 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Includes copies of 1733 & 1765 maps
Title: Houghton House: Information from a map of 1733 Source Date: 1991 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Includes copy of original map
Title: Ordnance Survey 25" Edition Source Date: 1974 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:
Title: The Estates of Charles, Lord Bruce. Source Date: 1733 Author: Publisher: Surveyor: Copy held in Bedford Record Office


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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