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The History of Stowe

From sixteenth-century sheep farmers to nineteenth-century dukes, the Temple-Grenville family made their name by marrying heiresses and following their political ambitions. They were able to work their way up the title ladder and make their mark on north Buckinghamshire with the creation of Stowe. The history of the Stowe estate is a long one and its magnificence is still visible today, despite the decline in the family's fortunes. Saved by the creation of  Stowe School in 1923, both the house and gardens are undergoing long-term restoration, and are visited by thousands of people every year.

The Origins of Stowe

Inheriting land bought by his family under Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Temple, first Baronet of Stowe, attempted to involve himself in the politics of the nearby county town of Buckingham. It was his grandson, Richard, who began to build his new house in 1680 on the site of Stowe House today. His development of the gardens for both practical and ornamental use laid the foundations of the formal gardens that his son, later known as Viscount Cobham, eventually expanded.

The Creation of Stowe

Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, is the member of the family who has made the most impact on Stowe. The creation of the gardens as a formal stage set was aided by the foremost architects and garden designers of the time - Vanbrugh, Bridgeman, Gibbs and Kent. Writer Alexander Pope's visits from 1724 saw the gardens develop and in 1731 he wrote a poem to the new style of English gardening, citing Stowe as his prime example. From 1733, his dislike of the current politics under Robert Walpole led Cobham to retire from politics. At Stowe, he used the gardens to unleash his opposition to the government by creating a political landscape full of hidden meaning and a tirade against his opponents. The sweeping away of the formality of the gardens by 'Capability' Brown in the 1740s created the landscapes that were visited by tourists in the eighteenth century and that we still see today.

The Rising Temple-Grenvilles

Richard Temple-Grenville (his mother had married into the Grenville family from nearby Wotton), later Earl Temple, always knew he would inherit Stowe from his uncle, Viscount Cobham, and was primed for the task. He undertook the remodelling of the house in the 1770s - it was said that during his entire life at Stowe he lived amongst a building site - and added the colonnades to the North Front, framing Vanbrugh's portico. The South Front was originally meant to be designed by Robert Adam but Earl Temple's dislike of the proposal meant that the front we see today was created by Thomas Pitt (Lord Camelford), Earl Temple's cousin. The interior, particularly the enfilade of state rooms, were begun under Temple and finished under his nephew, the Marquess of Buckingham. With architects and designers of the day such as Borra, Blondel and Valdre, the rooms reflected the very fashionable neo-classical art and architecture. This is the point that we see the house today.

Very few major exterior changes took place in the following years by the subsequent owners. The Marquess's son eventually gained the title of 1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos in 1822 - the only dukedom created by George IV - and finally achieved the family's ambition.

Falling Temples

His son, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, had inherited his father's extravagant tastes. His aim to entertain the new monarch, Queen Victoria, led him to completely rework the state rooms. This eventually contributed to the building up of large debts. The Queen arrived with Prince Albert in early 1845 and stayed for three days. The 2nd Duke's spiralling debts, particularly due to his love of furniture and art, led to the first auction of Stowe contents in 1848 where the selling of all the moveable contents raised a mere £75,000 pounds against his owed £1.5 million. As a result the house was closed up. His death in 1861 brought the 3rd Duke, his son, back to Stowe. He tried to restore the family's name and fortune - he consolidated much of the parkland and building work - and while he was successful, his early death in 1889 without a son meant that Stowe was once again closed up.

In the meantime, the eldest daughter of the late Duke, Lady Kinloss, was twice unsuccessful in her attempts to sell the estate by the end of the twentieth century. The death of her eldest son at the beginning of the Great War, and the crippling financial situation her second son found himself in due to death duties, income tax and a large pension out to his step-grandmother, resulted in the property being put back on the market again.

In 1922, after many of the artefacts and removable statues in and outside the house were auctioned off in the previous year, the house, gardens and parkland were purchased by a property developer, Harry Shaw, who intended to donate the estate to the nation. However, since he could not raise an endowment to accompany the gift, he was forced to sell Stowe again. The future of the house was under threat of demolition, as so many of the country's great houses were, following the First and Second World Wars.

New Life

In 1922, with the risk of the estate breaking up, the commission set up to create a new public school, found the money to buy Stowe as one lot from Mr Shaw. Its future was secure as Stowe School was created. In 1923, 99 boys enrolled as pupils at the School under the first headmaster, J.F. Roxburgh and by the time he retired in 1949, the number of pupils had risen to 500.

Influenced by his surroundings, J.F. Roxburgh declared that 'if we do not fail in our purpose, every boy who goes out from Stowe will know beauty when he sees it all the rest of his life.' There are many wonderful School tales, most of which are still recounted by 'Old Stoics' who often return to their former school. The landscape was their adventure playground with endless haunts and hiding places. Famous old boys include David Niven, George Melly, Sir Richard Branson, Lord Sainsbury and Lord Cheshire VC.

Upon arriving in 1923, the buildings needed to accommodate boys and staff and this large task was offered to Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame) after he wrote an article applauding the rescue of this famous estate. His additional buildings and adaptation of old out-buildings made the run-down house more habitable. The addition of the chapel by Sir Robert Lorimer in 1927 brought the School into the 20th century while retaining the classical lines. Unusually, during World War II, the building was not requisitioned and so was not left in a state of collapse as many country houses during that period were. With the introduction of girls into the sixth form in 1974, Stowe School entered into a new phase.


In the meantime, the landscape gardens were becoming unmanageable. 750 acres of landscaped ground with 40 listed temples and monuments were proving too much for the School, despite inspired enthusiasm from both pupils and masters. In 1989, the world-renowned gardens were handed over to the National Trust with a large endowment and their long term restoration programme began. The vistas were opened up, paths and temples restored, trees planted and maintained and, most important of all, the estate was made accessible to the 100,000 visitors they now receive every year.

Incorporating the wider landscape and deer park, archaeological and architectural discoveries show how the grounds have evolved over the years. As the gardens emerged from their slumber, it was clear that the house now needed much attention. Unable to find an endowment for the National Trust to take it on, the Stowe House Preservation Trust was created in 1997 to raise funds for an ambitious six phase restoration plan. The house and associated auxiliary buildings were handed over to the Trust and are now leased back to Stowe School.

Today, it is the mission of Stowe House Preservation Trust to restore and present Stowe House to the public. The House is open to the public all year round. When closed the house is kept busy with school life, weddings, filming and commercial events.

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