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"the most beautiful Elizabethan house in England"


Montacute House stands among some of the most picturesque countryside in Somerset, in the south-west of England. To be precise, it is located in the village of Montacute, four miles to the west of Yeovil, one of the county's larger towns. The house is one of the finest examples of Elizabethan buildings remaining in Britain and has a very interesting history, including the accolade of having much of the 1995 film "Sense and Sensibility" filmed there, yet it is remarkably fortunate that it is still standing due to the financial problems that have plagued the house throughout its life.

The house at Montacute was built in 1588 for the Speaker of the House of Commons himself, Sir Edward Phelips. Sir Edward was a succesful lawyer before he entered politics, and also became Master of the Rolls. At the trial of the infamous Guy Fawkes (the man caught in the cellars below Parliament in connection with The Gunpowder Plot) he opened for the prosecution, and his house at Montacute was built as a symbol of his social status and wealth. The house is symmetrical and H-shaped, and built of local materials; the honey-coloured limestone taken from nearby Ham Hill gives it a wonderful appearance. Records suggest that Montacute House was designed by the architect William Arnold, who collaborated on the construction of many notable buildings, such as Dunster Castle.

Originally the house was full of sumptuous furniture and fittings installed by Sir Edward, but financial constraints following the English Civil War forced him to sell off almost all of it. By the mid 1800s the building was in a poor state of repair, and extensive renovations were carried out later that century, including the relacement of the original grand gatehouse entrance. Despite the fashion being classical at that time, Montacute retains a more Gothic/Renaissance look, with ornamental stonework dating from before the house itself being added when another local house was demolished. The formal gardens surrounding the house have always been well-kept, with old roses and mixed borders being the main features, and are surrounded by a landscaped park. Included in the land on the house's estate is St. Michael's Hill, the site of a Norman castle.

Further financial difficulties in both the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in the house again being stripped to pay off debtors. Despite a lease to Lord Curzon, by 1929 it was most likely that Montacute House would have to be demolished, and so it was put on the market 'for scrap'. However, the generosity of one man saved it. Mr E. Cook (the grandson of the man who founded the travel agents Thomas Cook) donated sufficient funds to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and thus the house was bought and passed to the National Trust. When the Trust received Montacute house, all it contained was a few family portraits and Lord Curzon's bathtub.

Today the house of fully furnished with furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, thanks to several loans and bequests. In particular, Montacute is noted for its impressive tapestries and hangings. A visit to Montacute is not complete without time spent in the 'Long Gallery', the longest surviving gallery in the country, supplied with paintings thanks to a permanent loan from the National Portait Gallery (Montacute House is a regional partner). The room has around 100 portraits from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods on display, 50 of these from the NPG.

The house at Montacute is now thriving, having survived the financial crises of past centuries. The National Trust has successfully raised the house's profile whilst retaining all its charm, and hosts several different events there each year (an example being 'Hidden in History', with period costumes and educational tours). The future of Montacute looks much brighter than it has for a long time; it is highly unlikely that it will now be forced to close in any foreseeable timespan.


Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK

Sources:
Personal experience (2 school visits in the early 1990s)
http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/scripts/nthandbook.dll?ACTION=PROPERTY&PROPERTYID=309
http://www.southsomerset.gov.uk/commune/montcute.asp
http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/stately%20homes/montacute.htm~
http://www.touruk.co.uk/houses/housesomer_mont.htm

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