Why Montacute House is special
It was commissioned between 1590 and 1601 by Edward Phelips, a successful lawyer who, having amassed his fortune, turned to politics. Edward rose to become Speaker of the House of Commons and it was he who opened the prosecution against Guy Fawkes in 1606.
At the height of his career Edward appointed a local architect-mason, William Arnold, to build a house that reflected his importance and, through its design, the courtly and European circles in which he moved. Montacute was positioned to face the road (which at that date ran through the parkland) so that no one could miss the slender walls of honey-coloured Ham stone, soaring windows of expensive glass and surrounding garden courts.
It was intended to impress travellers as well as dominate the surrounding villagers. At night it would have glittered like a magical lantern in the landscape. This was a building which made clear that the owner was not only important, but cultured.
From the symmetrical plan to the towering three floors and the details of design, it relates to the ideas of the European Renaissance. For William Arnold, a local builder who worked no further than Oxford, it was an extraordinary achievement. He took new ideas and re-imagined them in a form sympathetic to the countryside which he knew.
For the Phelips family this was the height of their achievements. Later generations struggled to maintain and manage such a great house. Barely able to make any major changes, their limited finances have been to our benefit; it is still possible to visit Montacute and experience a sense of its Elizabethan origins.
The house was finally sold in 1931. It was bought by Ernest Cook (heir to Thomas Cook Travel Agents), who recognised its importance and wanted to save it for the nation. He passed it to the National Trust, the first of many generous bequests and loans which secured and furnished this wonderful house.