Woburn Abbey

I’m a sucker for a vaguely historical TV show. While channel hopping a few weeks ago, I caught an episode of Phil Spencer’s Stately Homes. It focused on Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire and included some detail on the lavish building work undertaken by the 4th Duke of Bedford, John Russell.

One twist to this programme, no doubt inspired by the current slew of property programmes and Phil’s estate agent background, is the listing of the property’s facts and figures. Phil aims to count the rooms, acreage and “without being vulgar – the cost.” And at the end of some rummaging in the family archives, a figure is arrived at. The eighteenth century improvements cost some £85,000 – estimated to be the equivalent of £1.2 billion today.

Phil is staggered and asks, “Where was all this money coming from?” Conservation architect, Liz Smith replies, “He was making a fortune…I think around £30,000“.Here Phil drops the ball. Happy with this answer, his questions move on. Maybe that’s fair enough, this isn’t Donal MacIntyre.

However, the tendency to become blinded by bling is a problem. Sumptuous furniture, superstar landscape gardeners and classical architecture blend with tartan blankets, green wellies and the range of locally-sourced jams and chutneys, creating a dangerously warped version of the eighteenth century. 1

“What would it have been like to be here in those days.” A question asked by Phil and most every visitor. These monuments to the power and wealth of their owners are remarkably bare of contextual information, apart from the physical objects presented. Virtually no one is taught about the eighteenth century at school and guidebooks cost extra. Imagination must fill the void.

We are seduced and invited to place ourselves in the position of contemporary guests, visiting for entertainment and relaxation. These sites offer a bucolic safety from modernity and hark back to a time of splendour. But something is missing; there is no balance to this narrative.

The building of these houses coincides with a time period when vast wealth was pouring into Britain. The source of this wealth was the Empire; resources brought in from the colonies which displaced indigenous people, was powered by the work of slaves, and fuelled industrialisation.

Returning to Woburn Abbey and the big-spending John Russell, an investigative journalist looking for dirt could follow a few lines of enquiry. Bedford held extremely high positions: First Lord of the Admiralty (in charge of the Royal Navy) and Secretary of State for the Southern department (the office responsible for all of Britain’s overseas colonies). His friend Horace Walpole declared that he spoke knowledgeably on trade. Links have been made between the Royal Navy and commercial matters in Africa. 2

Although already an extremely wealthy landowner, the cynic may be inclined to look into investments in the transatlantic slave trade or gold mining, especially taken with a historians description of Bedford’s character as ‘evil genius’. 3

Whatever the facts turned up by our theoretical enquiry, to my mind there is one certainty – there is definitely a story to be told and one which should be included in the grand old houses of this country. Where was all this money coming from?

It seems that the decline of the aristocracy, rather than their rise, is much more firmly embedded in the consciousness of public history, a trend traceable from Brideshead Revisited in 1945 to Downton Abbey today. Phil Spencer’s narrative is similar, drawing attention to the enormous death duties incurred by the Bedfords in the 1950s. The house was of course saved by opening it up to the public but maintenance of the house is still a burden, costing £300,000 per year.

At the end of the show the price of restoring Woburn’s curtain wall is revealed – a cool £2.7 million. This work must be carried out to satisfy the legalities of being a listed building. While the current Duke stoically shoulders his responsibility, he ruefully exclaims, “There isn’t much return on a wall”. In this case though, it doesn’t take too much detective work to subvert the narrative. The Duke of Bedford currently resides at number 173 on the Times Rich list, with a fortune of £685 million.

William Raffle is doing a Masters degree in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His primary area of research is North-east pre-revolutionary America although he does stray into the Atlantic world occasionally. He is currently finishing his translation of the journal of Major Malartic, a French soldier who fought in North America during the Seven Years’ War, due to be published by Helion in 2017.

Image: Woburn Abbey, by JimBowen via Flickr [Creative Commons].


  1. This 2010 article in the Independent contains some words of praise for some National Trust policy in terms of it’s choice of places to preserve, but the eighteenth century stately homes both in and outside of the Trust, like Woburn, generally conform to a pattern.
  2. Joshua D. Newton, ‘Slavery, Sea Power and the State: The Royal Navy and the British West African Settlements, 1748-1756’. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41.2, pp. 171–193.
  3. O. A. Sherrard, Lord Chatham, A War Minister in the Making, (London, 1952), p.225.
Tags : AristocracyBritish Empireeighteenth centuryHistory on TVpublic historyStately Homes
William Raffle

The author William Raffle


  1. Such an important question! See for example this piece by Simon Smith, “Slavery and Harewood House”

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