If Longleat is on your Wiltshire itinerary, don't forget there's a lot more to this unique estate than its famous safari park. Inside Longleat House, you'll find Renaissance artistry, gruesome historic relics (the shirt King Charles I might have worn when he lost his head) and the grandeur of one of England's greatest Elizabethan homes.
The house, opened to the public in 1949 by its then owner, the 6th Marquess of Bath, was the first English stately home to be opened and run on a commercial basis. That is probably why it has remained under the ownership of the family who built it.
Longleat is considered one of the best examples of a High Elizabethan stately home still standing in England today. The House is surrounded by 900 acres of landscaped parkland, designed in the 18th century by that garden fashion leader Lancelot Capability Brown. Another 8,000 acres of woodland, lakes and farmland make up the estate.
The Longleat Estate also includes:
- the first drive-through Safari Park established outside of Africa
- several challenging mazes including the Longleat Hedge Maze, the Blue Peter Maze (for children) and King Arthur's Mirror Maze
- Animal Adventures - encounters with small animals and very large insects.
- an Adventure Castle playground
- safari boats with a change to glimpse the gorillas on their private island.
- formal gardens
- and regularly changing exhibitions.
Look inside Longleat House, then plan your visit.
A Tour Inside Longleat
Longleat House presents an impressive facade, surrounded by formal gardens and parkland. Originally a priory, the estate was purchased by John Thynne, who in 1541 built the house, much as you see it now. At the time, it cost the princely sum of £53. Thynne, a clerk in Henry VIII's kitchens, was only 25 years old.
He achieved power and wealth in court politics and warfare and was knighted in 1547. When he died, in 1580, Longleat House was still unfinished but was complete enough to have hosted a visit from Queen Elizabeth I and her court in 1574.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall is the last fully Elizabethan room at Longleat. At one time it was the heart of the house.
The Hall is 11 meters (36 feet high) with a ceiling supported by ten beams. The room features large paintings of hunting scenes by John Wootton, commissioned specifically for it in the early 18th century.
Wootton, a noted animal painter, also decorated the room known as the Wootton Hall at Althorp, Princess Diana's childhood home. She was fond of practicing her tap dancing there.
Wootton's paintings at Longleat are said to tell the tragic story of a foundling, taken on as a stable boy and killed trying to separate two fighting stallions. They also commemorate various Thynne family patrons.
A gallery at one end of the Great Hall indicates the lengths and expense the gentry had to go through to be honored by a royal visit. It was added in 1663 when Charles II and his entire court stayed overnight.
While in the room, look for a painting of Longleat that shows how the house looked in 1675. The huge antlers on either side of the 16th century chimney-piece aren't family hunting trophies. In fact, they are from a prehistoric giant elk found on the family's Irish estate. You may also spot a stained shirt in a glass case, sometimes on display. This may or may not be the shirt King Charles I wore to his execution at the Banqueting House in London, complete with faded blood stains. But be skeptical about this - there are also samples of this garment at the Museum of London and at Windsor Castle.
The Lower Dining Room
The Lower Dining Room is hung with family portraits, including some of Longleat's more colorful inhabitants.
The ceilings of this ornate room are modeled after the Ducal Palace in Venice. The table is set with hand-painted 18th century Sevres porcelain dinnerware.
Look for portraits of Sir John Thynne, builder of Longleat and Thomas Thynne a victim of a jealous lover. Thomas Thynne was murdered in 1682 by assassins hired by one of his wife's rejected suitors, a European count.
Another portrait in the room worth looking for is that of Louisa Carteret, wife of an early owner of Longleat. She is one of many ghosts said to haunt Longleat and, apparently, the most famous. Get a good look just in case you run across her in a quiet corner of the house.
As you tour the house, you'll see paintings and artwork representing pretty much every era since Longleat was built. The collection was amassed by 15 generations of the Thynne family.
The Grand Staircase - A Gothic Revival Addition
The Grand Staircase was an early 19th century addition in the Gothic Revival style. It was designed by Sir Jeffry Wyattville, a 19th century architect and garden designer most famous for additions to Windsor Castle and Chatsworth. Wyattville made other changes and additions to Longleat but the grand staircase is all that survived later refurbishments. Wyattville's design replaced an earlier staircase designed by Sir Christopher Wren, still located beyond the far end of the Great Hall.
Portraits and sculptured busts around the Grand Staircase reference the Thynne family's complicated history. At the foot of the stairs look for the family tree, dating back to 1215.
The wrought iron chandelier above the stairs also dates from the 19th century but was modified when electricity was installed in Longleat House. The cost of wiring the entire house, in 1920, was £8,094 15s.2d - in what the English refer to as "old money" or pre-decimalization currency. That same job would cost £306,244.14 in 2013.
This 90-foot-long room was added in 17th century and was known as the Long Gallery. The impressive, coffered ceiling, inspired by one in a Roman palazzo was added much later, in the 19th century. The name was changed to the Saloon to indicate that his was a place to hold receptions, exhibitions and large gatherings. Originally, galleries such as this were intended to be places where ladies of the household could take their exercise in bad weather, promenading up and down the lengthy rooms.
Among this rooms outstanding features are:
- A huge, Carrara marble fireplace, copied from the Doge's Palace in Venice
- 17th century Flemish tapestries
- Flamboyant 17th and 18th century furnishings
- 18th century Venetian chairs upholstered with needlworked backs embroidered by the 5th Marchioness of Bath and her daughters in 1926.
Tickets to Longleat House can be purchased online, for the house and garden only or for all the attractions, including the safari park. The estate is open from the end of March through mid October.
The Longleat website has excellent directions, including when to ignore the voice of your SatNav or GPS device.