Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Woburn Abbey has a long and distinguished history. It started out life as a Cistercian Abbey around 1145 and continued happily in this state for 400 years. Then Henry VIII came along and kicked the Cistercians out, granting the land to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford in 1547. The family have lived here ever since, subsequently being promoted to Dukes.

It seems the Russells left the structure along until around 1744 when Henry Flitcroft and Henry Holland were employed by the 4th Duke to rebuild as a four-ranged mansion house with a central courtyard.

Anna Maria, the wife of the 7th Duke, was the originator of the ritual of afternoon tea in 19th Century England, so Woburn Abbey lays some claim to being the home of the English obsession with tea.

One of the most fascinating of all the Russells was Dame Mary (1865-1937) who was one of the world’s earliest aviators. In August 1929 at the age of 64 she set off on a 10,000 mile flight from Kent to India and back to Croydon which took her 8 days. In 1937 he last flight ended in disaster when he plane crashed off the Norfolk coast – her body was never recovered.

After the Second World War dry rot was discovered in the Abbey and – astonishingly – half the building was demolished, leaving only two and a bit wings today. It seems incredible that such an important building could be allowed to be destroyed like this in such recent times.

When the 12th Duke died in 1953 his son had to face high death duties and inherited a half-demolished, half-derelict house. He was pressured into handing the estate over the National Trust but resisted and opened the Abbey in 1955 to the public. The families fortunes began to turnaround. In 1970 the famous Woburn Safari Park was opened in the grounds. When asked about the perceived cheapening of his heritage the Duke said “I do not relish the scorn of the peerage, but it is better to be looked down on than overlooked”.

The truth has transpired that the 13th Duke was way ahead of his time, and in recent years, more and more stately homes have opened to the public but few can equal the grandeur and warm comfortable feeling that a visit to Woburn and its magnificent gardens can engender.

Woburn Abbey is the home to 24 Canalettos, as well as works by Gainsborough, Rembrandt, van Dyck and Holbein plus, grandest of them all, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I – considered the greatest English portrait painting of them all.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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