History of Stowe

The landscape garden at Stowe is one of the most remarkable legacies of Georgian England. Created by Viscount Cobham in the grounds of his family home from 1717, it reflected a programme of ideas based on Cobham’s hugely influential network of political affiliations.

Humble roots

Stowe is named after a small Buckinghamshire village of the same name. In 1712, it consisted of 32 houses and 180 residents. As the original estate expanded, the village was absorbed until the only remaining feature was Stowe Church which now sits close to the Elysian Fields. The estate has existed in some form for nearly 1000 years with mentions of the local area in the Domesday Book.

The beginning

In 1589 John Temple purchased the Stowe Manor and estate. His father had been leasing the house for 18 years earlier. Their large fortune at the time was built on sheep farming and wool. With farms in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, Stowe made the perfect location for the family home. Not much changed about the area over the following decades.

The gardens and parkland were controversially expanded to swallow much of the nearby villages of Boycott, Dadford and Lamport. Two of these are remembered in the gardens by the Boycott Pavilions and the Lamport Gardens. Lord Temple was keen to surround the gardens in a large Deer park. It had multiple purposes, allowing existing views to be extended and protected from development, give hunting opportunities to provide the family with meat and also to enhance the social status of the family.

Expansion plans

After the death of his father Sir Peter Temple, the estate was inherited by Sir Richard Temple. As the fourth owner, he began to develop the gardens until 1683 when a large and impressive new house was completed on the current location. The original house, designed by William Cleare was on a much smaller scale with many alterations made over the years to expand and develop the overall appearance and scale. Eventually the central house had almost tripled in size to a point where even Queen Victoria was jealous.

The Cobham era

In 1697, Richard Temple, Sir Richard's son became the fifth owner. In 1713, Temple became Baron Cobham, four years later moving up to Viscount Cobham. It was at this period that Temple employed garden designer Charles Bridgeman and architect Sir John Vanbrugh to enhace the gardens.

Initial additions across the South Front were much more formal with avenues of trees and precisely shaped ponds. Development of the gardens moved quickly over the next few years. A team of over 30 gardeners worked on the estate with many garden designers experimenting at Stowe with styles they would later become famous for. Vanbrugh and Bridgeman began laying out the initial areas around the house with some of the first monuments created just metres from the main house.

Through the 1720's-1748, many garden designers worked at Stowe. Each experimented with styles for which they would later become famous, helping to make Stowe what you see today. Lord Cobham liked to work with the most fashionable forward thinkers of the time and intended to be a trendsetter for all who visited his estate to see his power. These included James Gibbs, William Kent and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to name a few.

A slower pace

Development of the estate slowed down with much smaller additions such as the Oxford Bridge, Corinthian Arch and various lodges. Viscount Cobham died in 1749 and the estate had been passed onto his nephew Richard Grenville. Various monuments were moved and alterations were also made to simplify and modernise the look of many of the buildings.

Decline and fall

With some areas of Stowe not even 100 years old by the late 1830's, the estate was beginning to look neglected. The owner, the Second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos had extravagant tastes and was very poor with money management. After inheriting the estate, he was keen to undertake repairs on the house and gardens but ran up a debt of over £1 million with creditors.

On an official royal visit to the estate by Queen Victoria in 1845, in an effort to impress the Royal Family, the duke borrowed more money to buy expensive new furniture for the house and areas of the gardens. By the end of the decade, everything broke down. Bailiffs seized the estate and a large auction took place. With the number of items being sold, much was sold quickly and cheaply. A 40 day auction at Christie's raised only £75,000.

Making do

Despite the expected decline, the third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos managed to save the estate. The second Duke had died in 1861 and just four years later his son was able to move back into the house. For much of the 40's and 50's the house had been mothballed and the gardens left for cattle and sheep grazing.  The number of gardening staff was reduced from 40 to four giving a small amount of care to the estate but no major maintenance to the buildings. Through the 1860's a number of repairs were conducted including restoration on a number of temples, the re-opening of Bell Gate to visitors, replanting of plants and the restocking of a museum on the site. Stowe had regained it's status after just a few years.

This didn't last long though. After his death in 1889, after leaving no male heir, the estate passed onto his daughter, Lady Kinloss. She had little use for the estate and initially considered selling it. The house was used sparingly over the following years housing family for short periods of time until shortly after World War I when it was put on the market.

Twentieth century

Lady Kinloss' eldest son was due to take ownership of the estate, however he was killed early on in the war. The estate was sold in July of 1921 for £50,000 to Harry Shaw. Another large sale of contents and statues was conducted in 1922 before another sale of the estate in October to the governing body that would later form the Stowe School. Over the next six months, the house was adapted to include classrooms and student sleeping arrangements. Small changes were made over the decades with further school building built.

National Trust

After years passing by with the gardens standing still, the National Trust were gifted the gardens in 1989 from Stowe School.

Unravel layers of history

There are so many stories to tell, unravel the layers of history by delving through the treasure trove of articles below that take a closer look at aspects of Stowe's history.

Finished capital of the portico at the Temple of Concord & Victory at Stowe

The Stowe you see today

Subtle gardening and major works have all helped to make the restoration of the gardens at Stowe appear as though it were always the way you see it today. Discover our work since 1989 in this behind the scenes feature with some surprising images of the gardens in their dilapidated days.

A winding grass path leads to the Sleeping Wood at Stowe. The paths has borders of shrubs and seasonal roses and has a bech at the top.

The Sleeping Wood at Stowe

A romantic story lies behind the design of the Sleeping Wood at Stowe. Delve into the deeper meanings from the tale of Sleeping Beauty that inspired this magical part of the Western Garden.

A lion on Lord Cobham’s Pillar at Stowe

Coade stone at Stowe 

From the lions that guard Lord Cobham’s monument to a now-destroyed Gothic Cross, examples of Coade stone can be found throughout the landscape at Stowe. Just as extraordinary as this remarkable building material was the person who sold it: Eleanor Coade, one of the few women to be acknowledged as a major influence on eighteenth-century architecture.

The East Lake Pavillion at Stowe

A deserted village 

At Stowe, the medieval village was deserted when the Temple family created a private deer park in the 1630s and 40s. All that remains of the earlier village is its medieval church which continues to serve the parish today.

Stowe Landscape Gardens

Patriotism in action 

In the eighteenth century at Stowe, Lord Cobham, a member of the Patriot Opposition group, created the Temple of British Worthies, including famous historical figures from Alfred the Great to William Shakespeare.

The golden statue of Hercules and Antaeus stands 9 feet tall on a plinth, depicting two men in combat. In the background is a valley and Grecian style building called The Temple of Concord and Victory

A Whig landscape 

Whig politicians achieved politcal supremacy after 1688. They celebrated by decorating their gardens with statuary of Whig heroes and landscapes cultivated to promote notions of freedom through open views and lack of formality, both of which can be encountered at Stowe.

The House at Stowe Landscape Garden in Buckinghamshire

Stowe House

Stowe House has re-opened for tours until Sunday 1 November. Please visit the Stowe House website to book your ticket and for more information.

Inside the courtyard at the New Inn visitor facility at Stowe, Buckinghamshire

The New Inn at Stowe

Walk in the footsteps of the original Stowe tourist and explore the New Inn, the original entrance to these famous gardens.