Skip to content

History of Ickworth

The South Front of Ickworth House, Suffolk
The South Front of Ickworth House | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Discover the history of the Ickworth estate. From its beginnings as a deer park, Ickworth's story encompasses five centuries of the Hervey family, a role in the First World War and eventual acquisition by the National Trust.

Ickworth’s early years

Ickworth’s origins can be traced back to the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was recorded as a settlement of 16 households belonging to the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

Nearly 200 years later, in 1254, the Crown granted Thomas de Ickworth land here to create a deer park. It’s reckoned that he might have been responsible for founding the 13th-century church, sections of which form part of the existing St Mary’s Church.

Thomas Hervey acquires Ickworth

When Thomas died in 1432, the Ickworth estate – which by this time also included a manor house – passed into the hands of the Drury family. It didn’t stay there for long, though. When Jane Drury married Thomas Hervey in around 1460, he acquired the site. Ickworth remained home to the Hervey family for the next five centuries.

Aristocratic paradise

In 1700, John Hervey inherited the Ickworth estate. Later to become the first Earl of Bristol, he set about transforming the ancient deer park into an aristocratic paradise. By this time, the rambling old manor had become quite derelict and was way too unfashionable for an affluent mover and shaker like the future Earl.

Changes to the estate

John Hervey made the decision to demolish the manor and build a new one in its place, apparently consulting John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace. In the end, an existing farmhouse located elsewhere on the estate – Ickworth Lodge – was converted and enlarged.

Hervey also renovated the church, where all of Ickworth’s owners have been laid to rest. Residents of the tiny hamlet of Ickworth were rehoused in the neighbouring village of Horringer, and their former dwellings demolished to make way for pasture.

Rainbow over St Mary's Church at Ickworth, Suffolk
Rainbow over St Mary's Church at Ickworth | © National Trust/Justin Minns

Building Ickworth House

The house you see at Ickworth today – with its distinctive Rotunda – was the vision of the 4th Earl of Bristol, known as the Earl Bishop. Upon inheriting the estate in 1779, he aspired to build a house that would, in his own words, unite ‘magnificence with convenience’.

The Earl Bishop’s vision

The Earl Bishop had spent his life travelling in Europe, and had secured a vast collection of art and treasures. Started in 1795, Ickworth House was to be the home of this extensive stash, with the Earl Bishop hoping to create a gallery that would enlighten and educate receptive minds.

Irish architects the Sandys brothers brought Italian designs to life and society held its breath as the building began to take shape. Nothing like it had ever been seen in this country before, and it is unique even today.

Sadly, the Earl Bishop’s collection was confiscated by Napoleonic troops in 1798 and he spent the remainder of his days trying to recover his losses. Ickworth House was still just a shell when he died in 1803.

Completing the project

After the Earl Bishop’s death, his son Frederick, the 5th Earl (later the 1st Marquess), took over the building project, eventually moving his family into the completed house in 1829.

Frederick changed the original concept of a magnificent central house with two wings, preferring to make the East Wing the family home and the central Rotunda a gallery and entertaining space to impress visitors.

The West Wing was simply built for symmetry, and remained empty, occasionally being used for storage until 2003.

View across the canal towards the Summer House, church, walled garden and Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk.
View across the Canal towards the Summer House, church, walled garden and Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk. | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Ickworth and the Great War

The First World War (1914–1918) affected communities in every town and village across the British Isles, and Ickworth – along with the neighbouring village of Horringer – was no exception.

In 2015, National Trust staff and volunteers researched the effects of the War on the estate and village. Our research showed that 188 men from Horringer enlisted in the armed forces, with 86 of those employed at Ickworth. Sadly, 39 died as a result of the conflict, including 17 from the estate.

The impact on the home front

Ickworth House was not requisitioned by the military. However, the estate was used for training purposes and featured two firing ranges.

As with the rest of the country, the estate and village suffered from the social and economic impact of the war. The biggest everyday issue was the rationing of food.

On 31 March 1916, the war was brought much closer to home when a Zeppelin bombed Bury St Edmunds, killing seven people, before moving on to Sudbury and killing a further five.

‘Scribbling Billy’

Among the Ickworth staff who served in the Great War was William Rowles, a gardener who worked on the estate for a total of six years. He was known for writing on anything he could get his hands on, earning himself the nickname ‘Scribbling Billy’.

William wrote gardening articles for local and national publications. Amazingly, he managed to carry on doing this during his time on the front line. At the end of the war, he returned briefly to Ickworth to work in the Walled Garden. He later designed the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds.

Ickworth and the National Trust

As the glory days of the country house came to an end during the post-war period, so did the Herveys’ tenure at Ickworth. In 1956, the 4th Marquess presented the house and estate to the Treasury in lieu of death duties. The Treasury passed Ickworth to the National Trust, and now it belongs to everyone.

Ickworth has continued to evolve in exciting new ways. In 2002, the East Wing was opened as a luxury hotel. The West Wing (previously empty) was completed in 2005 and houses a visitor centre, restaurant, shop and function rooms.

Ickworth Lives project

The Ickworth Lives project, begun in 2009, focused on restoring the former servants’ domain in the Rotunda basement, offering a doorway into a forgotten way of life. Once, footmen and maids would have scurried up and down backstairs, corridors and basements, performing their duties unseen.

Now the work of a dedicated team of staff and volunteers is clearly on show, keeping this special place open for everyone to enjoy, and conserving it for future generations.

View of the Rotunda from the path with newly restored roof at Ickworth, Suffolk

Discover more at Ickworth

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

You might also be interested in

Crest on a circular dish, 1766, part of the silver collection at Ickworth, Suffolk.

The silver treasures of Ickworth 

Ickworth is home to one of the most important collections of 18th-century silver in Europe. Learn more about the collection at Ickworth in Suffolk.

View of the Rotunda from the path with newly restored roof at Ickworth, Suffolk

Explore the house at Ickworth 

Discover the house and the treasures collected by the flamboyant 4th Earl of Bristol at Ickworth, a magnificent Italianate palace in the heart of Suffolk.


Raising the roof at Ickworth 

Discover how Ickworth completed a major conservation project to repair the Rotunda roof and safeguard the future of this classic Italianate building for years to come.

A lake at dawn or dusk with a grand house reflected in it, surrounded by tall green reeds and trees

How to spot a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape 

Brown designed landscapes that fitted in seamlessly with the surrounding countryside. So how do you spot the designs of one of the greatest gardeners of all time?

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.