Skip to content

A brief history of Arlington Court

A painting, 'View of the East Front of the Arlington in 1845' by an unknown artist, now hanging in the Ship Lobby at Arlington Court, Devon
'View of the East of the Arlington in 1845' by an unknown artist | © National Trust Images / John Hammond

The house at Arlington Court is the work of generations of the Chichester family, each making their own mark over a span of 150 years. Originally commissioned as a replacement for a converted hunting lodge, its history provides us with a glimpse into the changing tastes of the nobility through the ages.

The earliest house at Arlington: 1790–1820

In 1790, Colonel John Chichester commissioned architect John Meadows to substantially remodel his family home at Arlington.

It's thought the original house was converted from a hunting lodge in the Tudor period. However, by the late 18th century it was outdated, unsuitable for the lifestyle of a rich landowner and overdue for an update.

Designing the house

Designing the new house using the existing structure wasn’t easy for Meadows. We know from plans unearthed in a filing cabinet in 2007 that the finished article was the result of many drafts.

Each room was labelled with its intended use and so we get an insight into how a house of this size was managed in the late 18th century. Interestingly, the area devoted to servants was bigger than the part used by the family.

A clear vision

Only four pictures of Colonel John's Arlington are known of, including one painted in 1797 by Maria Pixell. While artistic licence has been employed regarding the landscape, judging from the plans the architecture is scrupulously accurate.

His vision of the house is clear to see: a fashionable country seat with the latest architectural style and a statement of his status as a wealthy landowner.

Unfortunately, his smart new home would last for only 30 years as it soon developed structural problems.

A painting, St James' Church & Old Arlington Court (1797) by Maria Pixell, at Arlington Court, Devon
18th-century painting of Arlington Court by Maria Pixell | © National Trust Images / Derrick E Witty

A new house: 1820–23

The house as we now see it was built in three phases: the first was the neo-classical block designed by Thomas Lee in the 1820s to replace the ill-fated 1790s house.

It seems likely that Colonel Chichester took the opportunity of a clean architectural slate to completely redesign the landscape. The decision was made to build the new house further down the hill and to develop the garden and views around it.

Mapping the past

A 1903 Ordnance Survey map of Arlington does not show the actual building but does show, overlaid in red, the location of the earlier house in the Hassall map of 1776. Sadly, the original is long consigned to history but in many ways this version is more informative as it places the sites of both houses.

Almost completed

Unfortunately, Colonel Chichester did not have the pleasure of living in his new house as he died in 1823, just as the building works were completed. However, his descendants would benefit from his vision for another 150 years.

A new generation makes changes: 1823–51

Colonel John’s eldest son, also called John, inherited the estate from his father. He was created a baronet so was known as Sir John.

Sir John married Caroline Thistlethwayte in 1838 and they set about finishing the interior decoration of the house.

London firm Crace & Son were employed as designers, and they used George Trollope and Sons to carry out the works. Some of these original interiors still survive intact in the Dining Room, Ante Room and Boudoir.

An unusual setup

The original kitchen and servants’ area was in the basement, as there was no space in the roof of the house, only small voids accessible by ladder.

Evidence of this setup still exists today in the form of dumbwaiters – lifts to the kitchen below – in the original dining room.

Building works commence

After returning from Malta with two small children Sir John decided to build a terrace around the house for safety reasons. Around the same time he commissioned an extension to the house in order to move the kitchen and servants’ area.

A new servants' wing

Servants were moved into a new two-storey wing, with the kitchen relocated here. Other rooms were used as servants’ bedrooms, a larder, a scullery, and a butler’s pantry. The Staircase Hall and a new Dining Room to the rear of the house were also constructed.

A close up of items on the dressing table in the White Bedroom at Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum, Devon
Miniature photos of Sir Bruce and his daughter Rosalie on the dressing table in the White Bedroom | © National Trust Images / John Hammond

A new look for a new generation: 1851–81

Sir John died in 1851 and his nine-year-old son, Alexander Bruce Chichester, inherited the house and title. Known as Sir Bruce, he married Rosalie Chamberlayne in 1865 and continued his father’s work on the house.

Sir Bruce built a further extension to the house – the downstairs provided workspace for the servants and upstairs were new guest bedrooms.

The stables are revamped

He also added the arcade to the original 1790s stables. This included the Chichester crest of arms and the date 1864. Sir Bruce recycled the stone from Colonel Chichester’s original 1790s house for his additions.

Moving the kitchen, again

The kitchen was relocated again in the late 19th century and featured a double height room with large windows looking onto the gardens. It’s now the Old Kitchen Tea-room.

A gift to the nation: 1949

Sir Bruce died in 1881 before the work could be completed.

His and Rosalie’s only child, also called Rosalie, inherited the estate at the age of 16 and building work stopped.

She gave the estate to the National Trust in 1945, but the Trust did not take possession of it until her death in 1949.

Restoring the house

When the Trust took over in the post-war period the house was in a poor state, and Sir John’s dining room had to be demolished to stop dry rot spreading to the rest of the house.

Since then, the Trust has undertaken various repair works and ongoing conservation to present the house as it stands today.

The Chichesters of Arlington Court


Mary MacDonald Chichester

Mary MacDonald was the second wife of John Chichester and married him in 1764 at the age of 26, 31 years younger than her husband. Although the age gap is wide by modern standards it was not at all unusual at the time and is perhaps best explained by the fact that the Catholic Chichesters were struggling to find partners as by this time they were already closely related to all of the suitable local families who shared their faith. 

A true faith

Mary’s Catholic credentials were impeccable: her family had never deserted Rome, supported King Charles I during the Civil Wars and, a century later, her own father, Donald, had fought alongside Charles Edward Stuart – sometimes known as Bonnie Prince Charlie – during the Jacobite rebellion, when the Catholic successor to the Stuart crown attempted to depose the Hanoverian King George II. 

A turbulent upbringing 

Her father was captured at the Battle of Falkirk and hanged at Carlisle in 1746. His house was burnt down by royal troops and his family, including the seven-year-old Mary, were forced to hide in the countryside, making beds and fires from heather. Her brother Ranald MacDonald recounted the tale in his 1749 memoir, The Story of Ranald, where he describes the young Mary announcing: ‘I wish I had a gun, I would fight those Redcoats’.  

Pursued by the troops of the Duke of Cumberland – known as the Butcher of Culloden because of the fearsome retribution he exacted upon the defeated Jacobites – she made her way back to the home of a relative, Lady Dundonald, and lived there as her daughter until marrying John Chichester. 

A loyal woman 

Mary MacDonald was universally praised for her kindness and pleasant manner, and it was suggested by all her biographers that her early experiences had formed her personality.  She spent much of her life attending to the needs of others but all the time maintained her father’s fighting spirit and stayed true to her Catholic Jacobite roots as can be seen in the portrait of her by Sir George Chalmers (another Jacobite sympathiser) in the Dining Room. She is seen defiantly wearing tartan, made illegal by George II in 1746 and not permitted again until 1782, two years after the portrait was made.   

In loving memory 

Mary died at the age of 77 in 1815, having retired to Bath after handing the estate over to her son John when he came of age, and was buried there in the Catholic Chapel. The lengthy inscription on the memorial finishes movingly: 

‘This monument is erected to the best of mothers by her two surviving daughters, Mary MacDonald Clifford, wife of Sir Thomas Hugh Clifford, Bart., and Elizabeth Courteney Blount, wife of George Blount, Esq., youngest son of Sir Walter Blount, Bart., as a tribute of their veneration, love and deep affliction for their irreparable loss.’ 

- From the memorial inscription of Mary McDonald

A visitor admires a small elephant statue in the Long Room at Arlington Court, Devon

Discover more at Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum

Find out when Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

The State Chariot of the Earl of Crave painted yellow with the Earl of Craven crest on the door, part of the National Trust Carriage Museum collection at Arlington Court, Devon.

A timeline of carriages at the National Trust Carriage Museum 

Explore the evolution of carriages and their changing fashions, from the one with the disreputable image to the one with a royal seal of approval.

A large black Hansom carriage on gravel outside the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington

Things to see at the National Trust Carriage Museum 

Explore highlights from a collection of over 40 carriages, including those used for grand state occasions, fashionable funerals and travelling around Europe in style.

Azaleas in the garden at Arlington Court, made up of bright reds and pinks

Things to see in the garden at Arlington Court 

From the ever-changing flowers of the formal Victorian Garden to picture-perfect pleasure grounds, the garden at Arlington Court is beautiful whatever the weather. Step into the hidden walled kitchen garden for variety through the seasons.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.

A close up of items on the dressing table in the White Bedroom at Arlington Court and the National Trust Carriage Museum, Devon

Arlington Court's collections 

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Arlington Court on the National Trust Collections website.