Chatsworth House is the family home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, yet can be found not in that county but rather in the Peak District National Park at Bakewell, Derbyshire. The estate (comprising 35,000 acres) is owned on behalf of the Cavendish family by the Trustees of Chatsworth Settlement, but since 1981 the house itself (plus garden and essential contents) has been under lease (at £1 a year) to the Chatsworth House Trust (registered charity No. 511149). All this is to ensure "the long term preservation of Chatsworth for the benefit of the public."- in the (recent, for the house) past death duties have seen land and important works of art surrendered to the treasury in lieu of taxation. To this day, the Chatsworth House Trust remains entirely funded by charity, visitors and an endowment fund which was created by the sale of artwork; no grants have ever been applied for, the venture is independant of public bodies such as the National Trust, and the Duke's family pays a full rent and for their staff.

History of the house

Chatsworth Manor was purchased by Sir William Cavendish in 1549, for £600. Cavendish hailed from (unsuprisingly) Cavendish in Suffolk, and had risen to prominence under Henry VIII as one of the King's Commissioners for the dissolution of the Monasteries; he sold the former monastery lands he owned after marrying Bess of Hardwick, herself from Derbyshire. Construction began in 1552 but Sir William died in 1557 with it still incomplete. Bess finished the construction, although the version that stands today bears little resemblance to the 16th century one. However, the Hunting Tower, from 1582, still stands and indeed is available as holiday accomodation, and Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield also survives as a National Trust property.

Bess bequeathed the house to her son Henry Cavendish, who sold it to his younger brother William, who was firstly Baron Cavendish (in 1605) and later the first Earl of Devonshire (1618). The house remained essentially unmodified until the 1700s. By that time it was in the hands of the fourth Earl, who was made the first Duke of Devonshire in 1694, having been involved in William of Orange's acquisition of the throne. Bit by the building bug, the Duke recreated the South Front for a State visit, then the East, and after a pause for some drawing of the new shape, set about the West and finally North Front, with work finishing just before his death in 1707.

The first major revision of the grounds came in the time of the 4th Duke (who was the Prime Minister from 1756-57), removing stables and much of a village so that the house could be approached from the west. The river was re-routed, and Capability Brown replaced the formal garden with a more natural looking park.

This would change again in the 1800s, as the extravagant 6th Duke, known as the Bachelor Duke, had the North Wing built and brought in Joseph Paxton to create the garden as it can be found today (see later). The seventh Duke (1808-91), yet another William, a mathematician and founder of the Cavendish Laboratory, took many economical steps after the excesses of his predecessor, although this didn't stop him developing Eastbourne (Sussex) and Barrow-in-Furness (Cumbria).

By the time of the ninth Duke, energies were focussed on preserving the house rather than expanding it- much restorative work had to be done in 1908, and for the first time death duties had to be paid- running to over half a million pounds and prompting major sales including first editions of Shakespeare.

Internal modernisation was carried out by the eleventh Duke, who moved back into the house in 1957 (having previously resided at Edensor house, in the park). These changes took 2 years; and the family now occupies ground and first floor rooms. The 11th Duke died in May of this year, and was succeeded by his son Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire.

Historical Connections

There are a number of links between Chatsworth House, the family and British Culture, of which just a few are offered here-

The House

Chatsworth consists of 297 rooms under 1.3 acres of roof, wound by almost 3500 feet of passages, and offering nearly 400 windows to the outside world; with all parts in considerable use. Beyond the Duke and his family's use of ground and first floor rooms, other sections have been converted to accomodate staff as flats, offices, workrooms or archives.

In all, 26 rooms are open to the public, which is sometimes extended by the nine Scots Bedrooms when open. Within the house itself is a private art collection amassed over the course of five centuries of which only a taster can be offered here, as Chatsworth's works are displayed around the world and moved around the house. From the website1:

"It includes objects as diverse as four Royal thrones, a giant ancient Greek marble foot, a lace cravat carved from wood, Dutch flower vases, the titanium fan of a Rolls Royce jet engine, a Victorian painting of a poodle pretending to be a judge in court and a clock made of Russian malachite - all objects of wonder and delight."
Notable paintings include work by Rembrandt, Lanseer, Gainsborough and Freud, and an extraordinary example of a trompe l'oeil from the 1720s, seemingly a violin hanging on a door in the State Music Room. Of course, much of the house is itself a work of art and a revelation of historical items, such as the sumptous Painted Hall or awe-inspiring library.

The Gardens

Although the house contains many splendours, the grounds and gardens are also magnificent. The gardens consist of 105 acres, and two masterpieces- the Cascade and the Emperor fountain. The first, over 300 years old, is a series of 24 steps over which water flows; with each being of different size and hence creating a different sound as the water falls downhill. The single jet fountain is the largest gravity-fed fountain in the country, soaring to 298 feet in its day (it was completed in 1843). Each is powered by a man-made reservoir in the hills behind the house. Expeditions were sent to the Americas and Far East simply to collect plants for Chatsworth's gardens in the 19th century, and a 'Conservative Wall' glasshouse built. As a further testament to head gardener Paxton's genius, there is a giant rock garden, restored in his bicentenary in 2003 with the addition of a viewpoint at the top. Earlier work by Capability Brown can also be appreciated in the landscaping of the more distant surrounds of the house.


In addition to the House and main gardens, Chatsworth offers a farmyard, childrens' playground, shops, restaurants and trips to the surrounding area. Tours of the house range from self-guided to group bookings, behind the scenes tours and special events; and you can stay in various trust-owned accomodation. Opening times, prices and precise details of exhibits etc. vary and I point you in the direction of the excellent official website for the latest on all these along with travel directions. Generally the house is open from mid-March to the week before Christmas, and it is suggested that 5 hours be set aside for a full visit.

Alternatively, you might catch a glimpse of Chatsworth House on the big screen, as it is being used for filming a version of Brideshead Revisited, due 2005 starring Jude Law.

  1. Official Site
  2. Additional Info
  3. Brideshead Revisited to be filmed at Chatsworth:
  4. A family visit I took long ago to Chatsworth House, and of which I was reminded when I found a photo of the Cascade a few days ago- which can now be found at , although the official site has some much better offerings!