Waddesdon Manor might be one of the fanciest country houses in this country. Built in the late 1800s, between 1874-1889, this grade I listed France chateau manor sits in the village of Waddesdon in Buckinghamshire.
The manor was built and is still owned by the Rothschild family, famous for both their banking empire and their French vineyards. Interestingly, the family’s illustrious name, which in German reads ‘with the red sign’, comes from their humble origins in 13th century Germany where they lived in a house with a red shield above the door. It was here that the Rothschild family started their fortune as merchants and currency exchangers, but it was Amschel Rothschild who really kicked things off in the 1700s by serving as the personal coin collector to the Prince of Hesse. This naturally led to the family eventually becoming involved in banking where they would fund their fortune.
It was this fortune that allowed them to build such magnificent properties as Waddesdon. This particular house was built by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild as a place for entertaining guests on weekends. Despite being born on the continent Ferdinand was an anglophile, and threw himself into the English entertaining scene. Yet he had nowhere to host these social gatherings he longed to throw, so bought himself a parcel of land from the Duke of Marlborough’s Blenheim estates. Ferdinand also hired famous French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur to design his party house, basing his designs on the magnificent 16th century Chateau de Chambord.
Waddesdon also served as a place to house Ferdinand’s extensive collection of antiques and artefacts that he collected from all across Europe. The Baron Rothschild’s collection of renaissance art and objects was one of the best in the world at the time, and was bequeathed to the British Museum following his death in 1898. The house meanwhile, passed to his sister Alice von Rothschild as Ferdinand’s only child ( a son) had died stillborn with his wife dying a few days later. In his waning years Ferdinand began to worry about the future of Waddesdon, writing in his diary:
‘A future generation may reap the chief benefit of a work which to me has been a labour of love, though I fear Waddesdon will share the fate of most properties whose owners have no descendants, and fall into decay. May the day yet be distant when weeds will spread over the garden, the terraces crumble into dust, the pictures and cabinets cross the Channel or the Atlantic, and the melancholy cry of the nigh-jar sound from the deserted towers’.
Yet Ferdinand had no need to worry as his sister was a worthy successor. Alice was a formidable women with a clear view for Waddesdon and its collection, focusing heavily on its gardens. In fact she was so proud of her gardens that she was willing to shout at Queen Victoria, who visited the house several times, when she deigned to walk over the grass. This incident led to the Queen referring to Alice as ‘The All-Powerful One’.
Alice is also famous for creating the ‘Alice Rules’, a series of guidelines and regulations for the handling and cleaning of objects, furniture, fabrics and textiles. So thorougher were these rules that the National Trust still adhere to them today.
After Alice’s death in 1922, the house passed to her French great nephew, James A. ‘Jimmy’ de Rothschild. James and his wife Dorothy Pinto were shocked when they inherited Waddesdon and Alice’s vast (£90 million!!) fortune. Both were dedicated philanthropists and went so far as to host many evacuees from Croydon during the Second World War. They also rescued Jewish Refugees from Frankfurt and allowed them to stay in the house throughout the war.
James and Dorothy were also responsible for the huge wine cellars the house houses (pun alert) its diverse wine collection in. This sprawling cellar contains vintages from both the Rothchild’s vineyards in France: Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild.
James was the last Rothschild to live in Waddesdon, with the house passing to the National Trust following his death in 1957. Yet his wife Dorothy would maintain a keen interest in the property, chairing the management committee and working alongside National Trust members. After Dorothy’s death in 1997, her nephew Jacob Rothschild inherited her position on the committee. Under Jacob the house thrived as a tourist attraction, and he managed to successfully negotiate a new agreement with the National Trust, where the Rothschild Foundation would handle the day to day operations of Waddesdon, allowing it to operate as a relatively independent property.
Nowadays the house is renowned for its high number of visitors, and its impressive art exhibitions, serving as one of the best English houses to visit. If you haven’t already been to Waddesdon, this is definitely one to add to the list.
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