Montacute House, Somerset

Montacute is probably the most romantic Elizabethan house of all. Firstly it is built of the glowing honey coloured stone which comes from the steep wooded hill close by – the mons acutus from which the village name is derived; secondly William Arnold, the local master mason gave the house an individual beauty which renders it a work of art; and thirdly, the gallery which stretches the length of the top floor is one of the wonders of Somerset.

In 1915 Knight, Frank and Rutley put Montacute up for rent on behalf of the Phelips family who had lived in it for 500 years. The local vicar’s son was appalled. “I do not think any occurrence I have observed in my life has given me sharper understanding of the insubstantiality of all temporal values than the separation of this house from the Phelipses.” Perhaps he didn’t take into account the ruthless ways of Edward Phelips, who built Montacute in the 1590s, nor the decadent ways of his Victorian descendant, William who brought about the family’s financial downfall.

Montacute_House_Long_GalleryA successful and powerful lawyer, Edward became chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall, Master of the Rolls and famously opened for the prosecution at the trial of Guy Fawkes in 1605. Violently anti catholic and said to be, ‘over swift in judging,’ he once condemned a man to death for entertaining a Jesuit. Subsequent Phelips’ were never so rich again and by the 1840s the money to maintain Montacute was running out. William Phelips’ addiction to gambling had taken hold: while staying in Weymouth on a wet afternoon and having nothing to do, he staked a bet on one of two flies crawling up the window pane. When his friend’s fly reached the wooden plinth which marked the winning post first, the Master of Montacute was heard to say, “There go Sock and Beerly” – the names of two farms on his estate. The luckless William’s son did not have the wherewithal to remain at Montacute and although he delayed his departure by gradually selling off the family silver and pictures, he was eventually forced to put the house up for rent.

George Nathaniel Curzon, Lord Privy Seal in Asquith’s coalition cabinet, moved in at a knockdown price of £550 a year and employed his mistress Elinor Glyn to re decorate She had gained notoriety with her purportedly scandalous novel Three Weeks, and together with her sybaritic tastes and love of exotic furs inspired the clerihew,

“Would you like to sin

with Elinor Glyn

on a tiger skin?

Or with you prefer

to err

with her

on some other fur?”

She spent over a year up and down ladders in arctic conditions for the love of Curzon and was not unnaturally devastated when she read of his engagement in the Times to a Mrs Alfred Duggan. He gave no word of explanation so she burnt all 500 of his letters and never spoke to him again.

By 1929 “the world famous Montacute House” was advertised as such on the open market but nobody wanted it and it was eventually valued for scrap at £5,882. At this point the reclusive philanthropist Ernest Cook, grandson of the founder of Thomas Cook and Son, bought Montacute for the nation and presented it to the National Trust. It opened in 1932 with sparse content and was described by Jim lees-Milne as “a rather embarrassing white elephant.” But over the next three decades its former splendour was gradually restored by people who loved it. Vita Sackville West came and worked in and advised on the garden, Sir Malcom Stewart bequeathed his collection of tapestries and pictures to the house and the National Portrait Gallery display nearly a hundred sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits here. Today the place has an air of ancient peace and could hardly be more beautiful.

Photo: Wikimedia CC / Russavia


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