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History of Stowe

Looking across a still body of water towards the Temple of British Worthies and the Shell Bridge at at Stowe, Buckinghamshire.
The Temple of British Worthies and Shell Bridge at at Stowe | © National Trust Images / Andrew Butler

Discover how Stowe’s house, garden and estate have changed dramatically over the centuries, with the rise and fall of its owners’ fortunes and their transformational visions for the estate. The landscape garden at Stowe, created by Viscount Cobham from 1717, is one of the most remarkable legacies of Georgian England.

How Stowe was named

Stowe is named after a small Buckinghamshire village of the same name. The estate has existed in some form for nearly 1,000 years, with mentions of the local area in the Domesday Book.

By 1712, the village 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 within the garden close to the Elysian Fields.

Stowe's early days (1589–1697)

In 1589 John Temple purchased the Stowe Manor and estate. His father had been leasing the house for 18 years. Stowe made the perfect location for the family home. Not much changed about the area over the following decades.

The estate was inherited by Sir Richard Temple in 1653 after the death of his father, Sir Peter Temple. As the fourth owner, he began to develop the garden, planting a vineyard and constructing a walled kitchen garden. In 1676 he began to build a new mansion. Designed by William Cleare, it was much smaller in scale than the one we see today and still forms the core of the current house.

Black and white engraving depicting 'The View from the Portico of the House to the Park' at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, by J. Rigaud and B. Baron
The View from the Portico of the House to the Park by J. Rigaud and B. Baron (published 1739) | © National Trust

The Cobham Era (1697–1749)

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

Experimental design

Initial additions across the South Front were much more formal, with avenues of trees and precisely shaped ponds. Development of the garden 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.

A trendsetter

Lord Cobham liked to work with the most fashionable forward thinkers of the time and intended to be seen as a trendsetter by all who visited his estate. Such indviduals included James Gibbs, William Kent and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.

A black and white drawing of the Corinthian Arch at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, which depicts people on horseback at the foot of the arch.
View of the Corinthian Arch (1805) by J.C. Nattes | © National Trust

A change in fashion (1749–1830s)

Viscount Cobham died in 1749 and the estate passed on to his nephew Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, in 1752. During the years of his ownership he naturalised Stowe; softening the edges of woodlands and reshaping lakes to look natural.

Various monuments were moved, including the Lake Pavilions and the Fane of Pastoral Poetry. Meanwhile, both Oxford Bridge and the Corinthian Arch were added to the landscape.

Extravagance and decline (1830s–1860s)

Though some areas of Stowe weren't even 100 years old by the late 1830s, 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 garden but ran up huge debt with creditors.

The Duke borrowed even more money to buy expensive new furniture for the house and areas of the garden in an effort to impress the Royal Family when Queen Victoria made an official royal visit to the estate in 1845.

By the end of the decade, everything broke down. Bailiffs seized the estate and a large auction took place, with much being sold quickly and cheaply. A 40-day auction at Christie's raised only £75,000.

Black and white illustration depicting Queen Victoria arriving at the north front of Stowe, Buckinghamshire, to a military reception, in January 1845.
An illustration of Queen Victoria arriving at Stowe in January 1845 | © National Trust

Stowe's fall (1860s–1920s)

Despite the expected decline, the third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos managed to save the estate. The second Duke died in 1861 and just four years later his son was able to move back into the house.

For much of the 1840s and 50s the house had been mothballed and the garden left for cattle and sheep grazing. The number of gardening staff was reduced from 40 to four, leaving a small number to care for the estate but there was no major maintenance to the buildings.

A salvage attempt

Through the 1860s several repairs were conducted including restoration on a number of temples, the reopening of Bell Gate to visitors, replanting, and the restocking of a museum on the site. Stowe had regained its status after just a few years.

Time to sell Stowe

This didn't last long though. With no male heir after the third Duke’s death in 1889, the estate passed to 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.

Lady Kinloss's eldest son was due to take ownership of the estate, however he was sadly killed during the First World War. Shortly after the First World War, Stowe was put on the market.

A black and white photograph of the Corinthian Arch and the south front of the house in the distance at Stowe, Buckinghamshire.
The Corinthian Arch at Stowe | © National Trust

Stowe School and the National Trust (1920s–today)

The estate was sold in July 1921 for £50,000 to Harry Shaw, followed by further sales of contents and statues in 1922. There was another sale of the estate in October to the governing body that would later form 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 buildings built.

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

A little girl is sitting on her father's shoulders with the house at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, in soft focus in the background.

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