Belton House is a Carolean-style country house near Grantham, Lincolnshire, that belonged to the Brownlow family and their heirs for three centuries. Now owned by the National Trust, Belton House is surrounded by parkland and formal gardens that visitors can explore. The interior of the house reveals the rooms as they looked at various points in history, allowing individuals to imagine life in the grand building.
The Brownlow family purchased the Belton estate in 1609 for £4,100 (£11.4 million today), agreeing that the previous owners could live in the small manor house until their deaths. Unfortunately, the Pakenham’s lost a lot of money and could not afford to remain in their home, so sold the house to Richard Brownlow (1553-1638), the Chief Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas. The Brownlows did very little with the land, although Richard eventually erected a church tower in 1638, shortly before his death.
When Richard died, the Belton estate was passed down to his son, Sir John Brownlow (1590-1679). John served as the Sheriff of Lincolnshire and is remembered by a monument in the nearby church, along with his wife, Alice (1606-76). Unfortunately, the couple had no children, so Belton was inherited by John’s great-nephew, Sir John Brownlow, 3rd Baronet (1659-97). Known as the ‘Young’ Sir John to differentiate him from his great-uncle, Brownlow approached the architect William Winde (1642-1722) to design a new manor house to replace the now derelict building on the Belton estate. With the help of the master mason William Stanton (1639-1705), Winde designed a stately home based on Clarendon House in London. Clarendon House was demolished in 1683, a year before building work began at Belton.
The Palladian-style building focused on four central rooms: the Marble Hall, the Great Parlour, the Great Dining Room and the State Bedroom. The other rooms were placed in symmetrical fashion around the centre, with space for the domestic staff in the basement. The furnishings were initially simple, but Brownlow and his wife, Alice Sherard (d. 1721), purchased more opulent furniture in the future. The purchases may have coincided with a visit from William III (1650-1702), who granted the Brownlows permission to enclose the parkland. Brownlow immediately created an expanse of formal gardens and planted thousands of trees across the estate.
In 1697, ‘Young’ Sir John passed away at the age of 39. Some say this was the result of a shooting accident, and others claim he committed suicide after suffering from severe gout. John and Alice only had daughters, so Belton passed to his brother William (1665-1701), who died four years later. Williams eldest son, John (1690-1754), who incidentally married Eleanor (d.1730), the daughter of ‘Young’ Sir John, inherited the estate.
Sir John Brownlow, also known as Viscount Tyrconnel, served as an MP for Grantham, although records suggest he did not excel at politics. Tyrconnel spent his money on furnishing and decorating Belton House, including tapestries and paintings. Tyrconnel commissioned French artist Philippe Mercier (1689-1760) to paint a scene featuring the south facade of the house. In the centre stands Tyrconnel with his wife in an invalid chair, next to her cousin on a swing. It was one of the first informal portraits, known as conversation pieces, painted in Britain.
Tyrconnel’s wife, Eleanor, passed away in 1730, and two years later, he married Elizabeth Cartwright. The Viscount continued to spend money on the house, replastering the Marble Hall ceiling for £29 17s 4d (£51,000) in 1742. He also spent over £250 5s (£403,000) on the old parlour, added a bed and turned it into the most expensive bedroom at Belton.
Despite two marriages, Viscount Tyrconnel died childless, so Belton passed to his eldest nephew, Sir John Cust, 3rd Baronet (1718-70). Cust made little impact on the estate, focusing more on his career in politics. He served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1761 until he died in 1770. His heir, the recently married Brownlow Cust (1744-1807), took up possession of Belton House and arranged for many repairs on the building.
Cust’s first wife, Jocosa Katherina Drury, passed away in 1772, and he married his second, Frances Bankes, in 1775. The following year, Cust was raised to the peerage as Baron Brownlow of Belton in the County of Lincoln. With the extra income this entailed, Cust decided to drastically alter the house, employing James Wyatt (1746-1813), a leading architect, to design the changes. Wyatt updated the building to the preferred Carolean or Restoration style, which involved altering the shape of the main entrance and bricking up some windows to create niches.
As well as external changes, Wyatt redecorated four interior rooms. On the first floor, he converted a bed-chamber into a dressing room and another chamber into a drawing-room, sacrificing the servants’ rooms in the attic to create a vaulted ceiling. Wyatt also designed the Yellow Bedroom in the southeast wing, as well as the Blue Bedroom on the floor below. In the latter room, only the chimney-piece, dado and cornice frieze survive, which are dominated by a towering state bed that was introduced to the house much later. Fans of Jane Austen (1775-1817) or Colin Firth (b. 1960) may recognise the bed and room from the 1995 British television drama Pride and Prejudice. The production team used Belton House as the filming location for Rosings Park, the home of Mr Darcy’s aunt, and the Blue Bedroom as Darcy’s private rooms.
When Baron Brownlow passed away in 1807, he left the estate to his eldest son, John (1779-1853), who became Earl Brownlow and Viscount Alford in 1815. The Earl is responsible for the large collection of silver and Italian books at Belton. He also employed James Wyatt’s nephew, Jeffry Wyatville (1766-1840), to make additional changes to the house. Wyatville designed the Orangery, stable courtyard and several cottages in the nearby village. He converted the old kitchen into a room to store the Earl’s growing collection of books and remodelled several other rooms, including the ceiling in the Marble Hall.
The Earl’s eldest son, John (1812-51), predeceased him by two years. As a result, the Earl bequeathed the estate to his grandson, John William Egerton Cust (1842-67). Since John, now the 2nd Earl Brownlow, was only 11-years-old, his mother, Lady Marian Alford (1817-88), oversaw the management of Belton until John came of age. Unfortunately, he had little time to enjoy his inheritance before passing away at 25. On his death, the estate and title passed on to his brother Adelbert Wellington Brownlow-Cust, the 3rd and final Earl Brownlow.
Lord Adelbert “Addy” Brownlow (1844-1921) spent a lot of time in London where he served as a volunteer Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria (1819-1901), Edward VII (1841-1910) and George V (1865-1936). He married Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot, although he never had any children. As a result, the Earldom of Brownlow and Viscountcy of Alford became extinct upon his death. Nonetheless, he spent a lot of money on Belton, restoring the house to its original Carolean appearance.
Addy and Adelaide rediscovered the tapestries purchased by Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel, in the 18th century. They converted a small dining room into an oak-panelled Tapestry Room, where the four woven scenes are still displayed today. Identified as Mortlake Tapestry, they come from a series of seven scenes depicting the life of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412/403–324/321 BC). Famous as the founder of Cynicism, Diogenes aimed to live in virtue and agreement with nature.
One tapestry is titled Alexander Visiting Diogenes and depicts a scene described in the 3rd-century AD text The Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. At the meeting, which took place in Corinth, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) asked the philosopher if he could do anything for him. Allegedly, Diogenes, who was sunbathing, replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Next, Alexander, who was overawed in the philosopher’s presence, declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”
When the 3rd Earl of Brownlow passed away, Belton went to his second cousin, Adelbert Cust, 5th Baron Brownlow (1867-1927). The family finances were depleted due to the previous renovations, so Cust sold many of his other holdings to keep Belton afloat. At the beginning of the 20th century, many country houses of great architectural value were demolished, and Belton House was lucky to survive.
Adelbert’s son, Peregrine Cust, 6th Baron Brownlow (1899-1978), inherited Belton House just under a decade before the abdication crisis of 1936. As a close friend of Edward VIII (1894-1972), Peregrine was appointed Lord in Waiting. When the government pressured the King’s mistress, Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), to leave the country, Peregrine feared the King would follow her and abdicate. In an attempt to prevent the inevitable, Peregrine invited Wallis to Belton to prevent the King from doing anything hasty. Peregrine advised Wallis to give up the King and helped her word a statement, which he read to the press. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Edward VIII’s abdication farewell was broadcast to the nation on the evening of 10th December 1936.
Peregrine and other friends of the former King were berated by the Archbishop of Canterbury for “consuming” Edward and causing his downfall. Following this, Peregrine retreated from public life and left Belton House to fend for itself. By the 1960s, the house needed urgent repair and received a grant from the Historic Buildings Council. After the renovations, Peregrine opened Belton to the public. Following his death in 1978, his son sold the estate to the National Trust.
The gardens at Belton developed over the centuries per the latest styles and the preferences of the owners. ‘Young’ Sir John landscaped the majority of the estate, but his descendants have added aspects over time. The 1st Baron Brownlow employed William Emes (1729-1803) to make some alterations, including an open pleasure ground. The 1st Earl added an Italian garden, and the 3rd Earl a Dutch garden.
When the 1st Earl inherited the estate, the land at the back of the manor house belonged to the kitchen gardener. When Jeffry Wyatville remodelled the house in 1816, he added an orangery and fountain, which led to the creation of the Italian garden. The 3rd Earl added boxed-edged parterres and planted several beds of violas. The herbaceous border and flowerbeds are full of colour from spring until late autumn.
The Dutch garden reflects the geometric style favoured in the Netherlands. It is part of the 3rd Earl’s aim to restore Belton to its former Carolean fashion. Forty flowerbeds once divided the garden, surrounded by golden and Irish yew hedges. Several beds have since merged, incorporating expanses of lavender and seasonal plants so that colour remains in the garden all year round.
Several statues feature around the estate, including a limestone sundial in the Dutch Garden. The dial, carved by Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700), depicts Eros, the Greek god of love, with Cronos, the Greek god of time. William III appointed Cibber the “carver to the king’s closet”. The sundial was purchased for Belton by Viscount Tyrconnel.
In 1987, author Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) brought attention to Belton when the sundial inspired her children’s novel Moondial. In the story, which was televised in 1988 and released on DVD in 2009, a young girl called Minty discovers the sundial (called a moondial in the book) has the power to take her back in time, where she meets children from the past, who need her help. Today, children from local schools enjoy re-enacting the story around the “moondial”.
The Pleasure Grounds look different from ‘Young’ Sir John’s original design. John intended the formal grounds for gentle walks amongst trees, but as time went on, the expanse of grass was adapted for modern pursuits and enjoyed by energetic children. Rather than maintain the grounds in the same manner as the Italian and Dutch gardens, the plants and trees are left to grow naturally. In 1685, John planted 21,400 ash trees, 9,500 oaks, 614 fruit-bearing trees, 260 lime trees, 2,000 roses and 100 gooseberry bushes. Some of these remain, along with snowdrops, primroses, daffodils and bluebells that bloom every year. The oldest tree is a beech and predates John’s ownership of Belton. It is located beside the Mirror Pond in the Pleasure Grounds.
As well as the Mirror Pond, the Pleasure Grounds include a lake, where many wildlife live. Often spotted in the area are water voles, nocturnal white-clawed crayfish, and several fish, which families at Belton enjoyed catching in the summer. On the lakeside sits a Boathouse designed by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881) in 1821. The Swiss chalet-style hut was once the centrepiece of the Pleasure Grounds, where the Brownlows often picnicked. Today, the Boathouse is rented out for special occasions.
As well as Belton House and gardens, the National Trust purchased the surrounding park, which is home to a herd of around 300 fallow deer. They are direct descendants of the wild herd that lived there when ‘Young’ Sir John enclosed the area in 1690. The park is open to the public daily between 9:30 am and 4 pm.
Visitors are often surprised at the size of Belton, of which the house and formal gardens only take up a small percentage. The National Trust protects the green areas from contemporary developers to preserve the historical estate and give visitors a glimpse of life at Belton House through periodical furnishings that are rotated every year. On one visit, the drawing-room may look how the room appeared during Wallis Simpson’s stay, and on the next visit, may resemble a room the 1st Earl would find familiar.
Belton House is closed for refurbishment until March 2022, but the gardens and park remain open at a reduced price. For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/belton-house.