Burton Agnes Hall, near the Wolds in East Yorkshire, has been called one of England's twenty finest houses - alongside Windsor Castle and Chatsworth. An active family home on an estate that has never changed hands through a sale, Burton Agnes Hall has only occasionally changed families only through marriage.
Approach to Burton Agnes Hall
The current occupants of the stunning late Elizabethan house, built between 1601 and 1610, can trace their family connections all the way back to the estate's original Norman manor house that sits right beside it, built in 1173. Imagine being able to tell stories about family members involved in every aspect of Britain's turbulent history for more than 800 years.
Burton Agnes is open to the public at least six months of the year. Visitors can discover the historic rooms, learn about the house's once restless ghost, explore award winning gardens and enjoy an extensive collection of 19th and 20th century French and English art. Definitely worth a side trip if you are touring the Northeast.
Visitors to Burton Agnes Hall are first greeted by an imposing gatehouse that was built to impress them with the owners power and wealth.
The Elizabethan Age was a prosperous and confident one. England was coming to the fore as a world power and not yet torn apart by issues of succession and civil war. It was a golden age of domestic house building and the wealthy and important in society competed with each other in creating spectacular houses. The need for fortified gatehouses to protect the inhabitants from wandering thieves, errant knights or violent neighborly disputes was long passed. But gatehouse became grander and more impressive than ever - simply to strike awe and envy into the hearts of visitors. The gatehouse at Burton Agnes Hall was certainly built with that in mind.
After passing through the gatehouse arch, the symmetrical Elizabethan style of Burton Agnes becomes apparent at the end of an avenue of cushion shaped yews.
The house was designed by Robert Smithson, master mason of Queen Elizabeth I and his plans for it still survive in the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Typical of Smithson's houses - which also include Longleat and Hardwick Hall - are large windows made of many glass panels. Such extensive use of glass was new to the period and Smithson's houses were like lanterns in the countryside when lit up for celebrations.
From the Walled Garden
Burton Agnes' Elizabethan walled garden was redesigned in the 1990s by Susan Cunliffe-Lister, mother of Simon Cunliffe-Listed, who, with his wife and children are the current residents.
Susan Cunliffe-Lister created a modern garden full of herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers within the ancient walls. Her efforts at turning the estate gardens in to a varied visitor attraction have won many awards. In 2001 she was voted Country Life magazine’s Gardener of the Year. In 2005, her walled garden won the Historic Houses Association/Christies Garden of the Year award.
In early spring, when I visited, the garden was already full of color from clouds of daffodils and narcissus as well as great variety of tulips.
The Carved Screen in the Great Hall
The Great Hall of an Elizabethan House was meant to impress.Sir Henry Griffith, who built the house, was an important local government official with a position to uphold.
The elaborate carved screen surrounding the double arched entry to the Great Hall is covered with a riot of detail. Classical and biblical stories, legends and myths crowd together with parades of men and women in Elizabethan dress. It must have been quite a conversation piece in an age when few people had access to books and other leisure pastimes.
Detail of Carving in the Great Hall
Not only was the carving and plasterwork in the Great Hall designed to keep visitors impressed with the owners wealth and position, it probably also kept young family members entertained for hours.
It was also intended to make sure the lord's tenants knew their place. In the Elizabethan era, the Great Hall of a grand house was a public space. It was where the tenant farmers met with the landlord to show their accounts, pay their rents and discuss estate business.
Carved Alabaster Chimneypiece
Visitors not already suitably impressed by the gatehouse and the long approach from it to Burton Agnes Hall would, no doubt, be awestruck by the wealth demonstrated in the carvings in the Great Hall.
The chimneypiece, carved in alabaster, relates the biblical story of the Wise and Foolish virgins. On the left, the wise virgins are spinning, washing and keeping prepared while the foolish maidens on the right sing, dance and generally ignore their duties.
Wood carving above the chimneypiece depicts the arms of Sir Thomas Boynton, an 18th century occupant of the house, and the arms of two of his three wives. Although it looks as though it was carved in situ and is contemporaneous with the chimneypiece, it was actually brought to Burton Agnes Hall from another, earlier family home at a much later date.
The Queen's State Bedroom
Like most important houses of the 17th to early 19th centuries, an elaborately decorated "state" bedroom was set aside for the King and Queen. Most of the time these rooms did not host royal visits but important potential hosts spent fortunes to be ready, just in case.
At Burton Agnes, the Queen's State Bedroom is associated with a poignant ghost story. It was said to be haunted by Katherine Anne Griffith, the youngest daughter of Sir Henry Griffith, who built the hall.
According to the legend, she had watched the building of Burton Agnes with eager anticipation, believing it to be the most beautiful house ever built. Before it was completely finished, while on the way to a neighboring house, she was set upon by robbers and so badly hurt that she died of her injuries a few days later.
She died in the Queen's State Bedroom and, on her deathbed, declaring that she could never rest unless a part of her remained in the house, she made her sister's promise to cut her head off her body and preserve it in the house forever.
She was buried as normal but soon rose to haunt this bedroom and walk the corridors of the house. Eventually, she was exhumed and her head brought into the house - at which point the ghost disappeared. Subsequent efforts to rebury the head only resulted in the reappearance of the ghost. Some say her head is still within Burton Agnes Hall, perhaps sealed up within its walls. But nobody knows where.
When you explore Burton Agnes Hall, look for the portrait of the Griffith daughters - The Misses Griffith - in the Inner Hall on the ground floor. Katherine Anne is the youngest of the three in the portrait.
Plaster Ceiling in the Queen's Bedroom
Very ornate plasterwork on ceilings and cornices was a characteristic of great Elizabethan houses.
The ceiling of the Queen's State Bedroom is covered with a complex pattern of honeysuckle and vines,some of it free hanging. This complexity is repeated in a frieze around the room's wall panelling that includes oak, vines, holly, thistle and pomegranate.
The Long Gallery
The Long Gallery, restored to full glory in the 1970s, now houses part of Burton Agnes Hall's extensive art collection, including several striking modern pieces.
The gallery was part of the original house and ran its entire length when Burton Agnes was built. But in 1810 part of the ceiling collapsed and the remaining space was converted into bedrooms. In the 1970s, the gallery was finally restored by art collecting occupant Marcus Wickham Boynton. The elaborate plasterwork barrel vaulted ceiling was reconstructed from a fragment of the original ceiling that had survived.
Artwork in the Long Gallery
Burton Agnes has an outstanding collection of English and French late 19th and 20th century artwork, much of which is exhibited in the Long Gallery. Interesting contemporary sculpture is also shown here.
The current owners continue to collect. Recent contemporary acquisitions and commissions include a Kaffe Fassett tapestry, embroideries by Janet Haigh and a glass sculpture by Colin Reid.
The Original Norman Manor of Burton Agnes
Built in 1173, the Norman Manor was the first house built on the Burton Agnes estate, possibly named for Agnes, daughter of the first builder, Roger de Stuteville.
The Undercroft and first story of the Norman manor hint at what must have been a much bigger estate. Positioned beside the Elizabethan manor house, the Norman building is looked after by English Heritage. Burton Agnes itself is still a private home, though open to the public about six months of the year, and is maintained by a charitable trust.
Formal and Symmetrical
A formal pathway of cushion shaped yews extends between the gatehouse and the manor house at Burton Agnes Hall. Though the approach appears to have been created with the house, in fact, at one time this area was filled with a bowling green. The lawns, with their topiary and sculpture were later additions.
To Visit Burton Agnes Hall
- Where: Driffield, East Yorkshire, YO25 4NB, UK
- When: March 25 to October 31, 11am to 5pm. Christmas Opening - November 14 to December 23, 11am to 5pm. Other special extra openings change from year to year so it is worth checking their website.
- Admission: Adult, seniors and child admission is charged for either the Hall and garden or just the gardens. Children under five are admitted free and generous family tickets cover two adults and up to four children between the ages of five and 15. Check the website for current prices.
- Contact: Tel: +44 (0)1262 490324
- Visit their website for more information and pictures.