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History of Cliveden

Aerial view of Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
Aerial view of Cliveden | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Uncover over 300 years of history at Cliveden. The estate has been home to dukes, earls, viscounts and a prince and it was even a hospital during the First World War. Learn how Cliveden was a glittering hub of society, hosting exclusive parties and political gatherings for generations.

Cliveden's beginnings

In 1666 Cliveden was acquired by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers. The estate he purchased consisted of 160 acres and just two small lodges. However, Buckingham had grand plans for Cliveden.

The imposing large red facade of the house at Cliveden with neatly clipped terraced parterre in the foreground
The parterre and house at Cliveden | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole


A favourite of King Charles II, the Duke wanted a residence close to London, at which he could entertain his mistress, the Duchess of Shrewsbury, and his friends in style. Enjoying a commanding position on a chalk cliff, the name Cliff-dene was given to the estate.

Buckingham chose a site for his house with far-reaching views high above the River Thames. The land sloped steeply and massive amounts of earth were excavated and moved from the north to the south side to create the 400ft-long platform that today we call the Parterre.

William Winde, Buckingham’s architect, created a terrace that has formed the foundations of the two subsequent houses at Cliveden and, although altered over time, much of Buckingham’s design remains.

Georgian Cliveden

Lord George Hamilton bought Cliveden in 1696, shortly after he was made Earl of Orkney. He felt Buckingham’s house was too tall and in 1706, he removed the top storey, reducing it in height by almost 20ft. Lord Orkney also instructed his architect, Thomas Archer, to design two service wings connected to the main house via open colonnades.

The ‘quaker parterre'

Lord Orkney spent much time and effort on the garden and the plan as it exists today owes much to his vision. In the end he chose a simple solution for the great platform below the terrace and in the winter of 1723-4 a plain grass lawn was laid with raised walks on either side. Orkney called this his ‘quaker parterre’.

The upper garden

Working with designer Charles Bridgman, Orkney laid out paths running through a ‘formal wilderness’ that stretched across the cliff tops and built an amphitheatre at the northern end of the garden. Orkney commissioned garden buildings from the Venetian designer Giacomo Leoni, including the Blenheim Pavilion around 1727 to commemorate the great battle and the Octagon Temple in 1735.

Fire at Cliveden

Lord Orkney died in 1737 and his estate passed through three generations via the female line. For much of this time Cliveden was leased, including to Frederick, Prince of Wales from 1737 to 1751.

In 1795, while the 4th Countess of Orkney was in residence, Cliveden caught fire and the central block burnt to the ground. The Countess continued to live in the wings but it was not until Cliveden was purchased by George Warrender that serious plans for rebuilding were made.

The Orkney family tree

Drawing of John Fleming's planting plan for one of his beds on the Parterre at Cliveden
John Fleming's planting plan for one of his beds on the Parterre | © National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

Victorian Cliveden

When Sir George Warrender purchased Cliveden in 1824 he immediately commissioned William Burn to replace the burnt-out central block and very soon Cliveden regained the splendour of its earlier days.

The Duke and Duchess of Sutherland

In 1849 Cliveden was purchased for £30,000 in the name of Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland as a retreat from London, close to her friend Queen Victoria at Windsor. In November 1849 Cliveden caught fire again. Despite efforts by staff, neighbours and even the Queen’s fire engines, the central block was lost once more.

Charles Barry’s masterpiece

The Duke and Duchess immediately brought in architect Charles Barry to rebuild the mansion. By April 1852 the house was complete and hosted a ball for 200 people.

Barry created the three storey Italianate villa you'll see today. He provided extra rooms in the single-storey wings which are linked to the main house via curved corridors, an adaptation of the open colonnades in Lord Orkney’s design.

Horticultural fame

Under the supervision of Head Gardener, John Fleming, the garden at Cliveden became famous for its innovative use of bedding. Eight interlocking wedge-shaped beds were cut along both sides of the Parterre. Each bed was edged with clipped privet and spruce and vibrantly coloured flowers were planted in concentric geometric shapes.

Uniquely, Fleming created spring displays as well as beds of summer flowers. He published his designs and the concept of ‘carpet bedding’ became fashionable across the world.

Oil painting on canvas, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor CH, MP (1879-1964) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925), at Cliveden
Oil painting on canvas, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor CH, MP (1879-1964) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925), at Cliveden. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Astors at Cliveden

America’s richest man, William Waldorf Astor, bought Cliveden in 1893 for $1.2m. With the arrival of the Astors, the estate entered a new era. William remodelled many of the rooms within the House, including enlarging the Great Hall and installing the wooden staircase.

During his time in Italy as US Minister, Astor had developed a love of classical sculpture and brought many pieces to Cliveden. He created the Long Garden with its topiary to display his Italian statuary. He also developed an East Asian themed water garden with a Pagoda made for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 at its centre.

The Astor family tree

Cliveden the war hospital

At the beginning of the First World War, after failing a medical assessment to join the army, Waldorf Astor (William’s eldest son, later 2nd Viscount Astor) offered part of the Cliveden estate as a hospital to the Canadian Red Cross.

As a result, the Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital was opened to treat injured Allied troops. In 1915 the hospital could hold up to 110 patients at any one time but by the end of the war this number had risen dramatically to 600.

Waldorf’s wife Nancy was often seen helping out in the hospital and it's said that her personality and great vigour worked wonders on the patients. Many ministers and royals also visited the hospital in 1915, including Winston Churchill and King George V.

The War Memorial Garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
The War Memorial Garden at Cliveden | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

In memory

Of the 24,000 troops treated at the hospital only a relatively small number died. In 1918, the 1st Viscount Astor's sunken Italian Garden was adapted to create a memorial garden for the deceased.

A mosaic floor was replaced by turf, in which gravestones were later set and a sculpture was created especially for the garden by Australian sculptor Bertram Mackennal. He was commissioned by Nancy Astor to design and create a symbolic bronze female figure, for which it is thought he used Nancy's features as inspiration for the face.

Remembering Cliveden's war legacy today

The hospital finally closed in 1985 and was left derelict for several years. After much consideration it was demolished in 2006 and replaced with environmentally friendly homes.

You can still visit the War Memorial Garden today. It contains 42 war graves from the First World War, each marked with a stone set in the turf. Mackennal's statue overlooks the graves and below it reads the inscription, ‘They are at peace. God proved them and found them worthy for himself.’

The Cliveden Set and the end of an era

Waldorf Astor married Nancy Langhorne in 1906 and received Cliveden as a wedding gift. Cliveden entered a new, glittering era as the venue for many parties and one of the centres of European political and literary life.

In the 1930s the house parties were seen as having a more serious agenda and the group became known as the ‘Cliveden Set’.

'The Profumo Affair'

Cliveden hit the headlines in 1963 when John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was revealed to have first met the 19-year-old model and dancer Christine Keeler by the swimming pool at Cliveden two years earlier. Their brief affair became a political scandal when it was revealed Keeler was also in a relationship with Soviet naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.

The 'Profumo Affair', as it became known, ended John Profumo's political career and contributed to the downfall of the Conservative government in the General Election in 1964. It shattered the Astors' lives and the death shortly afterwards of Waldorf and Nancy’s son Bill hastened the family’s decision to leave Cliveden.

Waldorf Astor had given Cliveden to the National Trust in 1942 and in 1966 the Trust took over the management of the estate, opening it to the public.

Aerial view of Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

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