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History of Montacute House

The west front of Montacute house as the sun begins to set behind it
The west front of Montacute House, Somerset | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Built from the locally quarried Ham Hill stone, Montacute House was intended to make a powerful impression. Discover the history behind this Elizabethan mansion, with its impressive architectural decoration, its adaptation to changing lifestyles over time and the original owner’s role in the prosecution of Guy Fawkes.

Montacute, the Elizabethan mansion

Set in the beautiful village of Montacute, this magnificent home is a masterpiece of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture and design. With its towering walls of glass, the glow of Ham stone and surrounding garden and parkland, it was always intended to be a symbol of power and wealth.

Today, the house, its garden and park retain an extraordinary power over the landscape.

Who was Sir Edward Phelips?

The owner at the time, Sir Edward Phelips, made his fortune as a lawyer. He then enjoyed a successful political career entering Parliament in 1584 and becoming speaker of the House of Commons from 1604 to 1611 before promotion to Master of the Rolls.

Edward played a key role in one of the trials of the century, making the opening statement for the prosecution against the notorious Guy Fawkes and his fellow gunpowder plotters.

Close up view of one of the Nine Worthies statues that decorate the top storey of the east front, Montacute House. Dressed in Romanesque military uniform, created from the same golden stone of the house, with stone mullion windows either side shimmering in the sunlight.
Close view of one of the Nine Worthies that decorate the top storey of the east front, Montacute House | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Building Montacute House

Built from locally quarried Ham stone and completed in 1601, the house was designed to be magnificent by the local builder and architect William Arnold. The architecture is rooted in Gothic, polished with Flemish and Renaissance influences.

A symbol of power and wealth

The house was a symbol of Sir Edward’s power and wealth. It was built on a grand scale with turrets, obelisks, shell niches, pavilions and walls of glass.

On the east front stand the Nine Worthies, statues of biblical, classical and medieval figures, which include Julius Caesar and King Arthur.

Montacute's Georgian makeover

In 1787 a later Edward Phelips gave the house a face lift. Remarkably he took an ornamental façade from another local 16th-century house, Clifton Maybank, and added it to the west front.

Changing layouts

These changes meant the layout of the house could be altered. It meant that rooms could be accessed via a corridor instead of through their interconnecting doors.

This provided privacy to family members and visitors staying at the house. It involved blocking the west windows, so the house lost its transparent quality

A large oak, intricately carved four poster bed sits in the Crimson Bedroom at Montacute House, Somerset. The room has wooden floors and half height carved wooden panelling with ochre coloured walls above and plaster work frieze and ceiling.
The Crimson Bedroom at Montacute House | © National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

A transformed interior

Later generations struggled to maintain and manage such a great house and by 1895 it was being leased to tenants and eventually offered ‘for scrap’ in 1931.

Montacute House and the National Trust

Montacute House was given to the National Trust as one of its first great houses and the empty rooms were once again filled with furniture and fine tapestries, generously given after a public appeal.

Montacute House today

From the grandeur of its Great Hall and stone staircase to the cosier family rooms and bedrooms, inside the house is both dignified and comfortable.

View of the east side of Montacute House from Cedar Lawn with sunshine hitting the house

Discover more at Montacute House

Find out when Montacute House is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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History 

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

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