Monday 31 August
As I sit down to write this blog I can’t help feeling overwhelmed being in Europe at this time of moral crisis occurring over the Asian and African refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of folk fleeing war and oppression in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Nigeria are pouring into Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Italy and Malta and making their way by any means possible to northern Europe, preferably Germany, France, Sweden or Britain. The complexities of the source of these problems is massive …political, historical, economic, international, religious and humanitarian. Britain is already a multi-cultural nation and in the motel industry which we now know well fluent English speakers are running at about 50%. This is a nation of opportunity but it is struggling under the massive burden of dealing with the numbers.
Visiting stately homes also unveils a microcosm of similar historical changes ..vicious religions persecutions, the civil war with atrocities on both sides, destruction of works of art for all sorts of reasons, divisions between social classes and destructive wars between the nation states that make up the British Isles. I honour William Morris’s socialist goal to remove all differences of wealth between people…is it possible? It seems Jesus did not think so. Should we strive to care for those who call upon us? Yes of course..what if the numbers are overwhelming as in Rwanda or Viet-Nam who can cope? …We do what we can. Should we forego the seemingly trivial….art? stately homes? collections? historical artifacts? literature? Buddhist statues in Afghanistan? Palmyra ruins? No I don’t thinks so. Human artistic, philosophical, literary, political, scientific, musical, historical, aesthetic, architectural, economic, religious, social reformation works are what makes us truly human. So, stately homes with their treasures do not mean anything in themselves…they are pointers to the deep values and the beauty that is possible in every person…if we have enough of these values and enough heart, determination and faith we can and will solve the refugee crisis as well!
And so to Burghley House!
On the last day of Summer in England it was raining cats, dogs and everything in between so we set off for another warm and dry stately home and found it in Burghley House in the village of Stamford in Northamptonshire on the border with Lincolnshire. Burghley bills itself as the GREATEST Elizabethan house in England but there is so little of the Elizabethan left inside the house that that honour should probably go to Longleat. Nevertheless if it is just the outside to be considered then Longleat’s severe rather blockish design must yield I think to the exciting towers, domes and spires of Burghley though no doubt many of them are later than Elizabeth 1’s Golden Age also. A claim that is more accurate I think is England’s greatest “treasure house” although here also the upstart C18th challenger Waddesdon might object.
It doesn’t really matter…Burghley House is a most wonderful place, the home of the Marquesses of Exeter for eight generations and of the Cecil family of Lords Burghley for over 600 years and built by William Cecil, Lord Burghley and sometime friend and counsellor to Elizabeth 1. Members of the Cecil family still live there. The House is now owned by a charitable trust and only the title Lord Burghley is hereditary not the house and contents so its place is relatively secure providing the trust does its work well. The Cecils have been a key family in English history in many areas and are also responsible for the remarkable Hatfield House closer to London.
Once again we land in the midst of wonderful parklands created by Capability Brown in the C18th but once again also there are formal gardens and fountains, a recreated garden of surprises. Once again there are vast tracts of arboretums, deer forests and in this case remarkable fields and accommodation for horse trials which for three days every year and starting on this coming Thursday, shuts the Village and surrounding roads for three days. There are three restaurants on the property and for all this week a market food court is operating with many yummy options. In addition there is a substantial museum of ancient Chinese and Japanese porcelain collected by one of the Marquesses and beautifully curated.
The sixth Marquess Lord David Burghley won the 400 metres at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and a silver in the relay at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He was played by Nigel Havers in the film Chariots of Fire running around the quad at Cambridge with full glasses of champagne against Jewish Brit Harold Abrahams. Apparently the Lord Burghley in 1981 when the film was made refused to participate in the making of the movie because the real Lord David Burghley actually won the quad race within the minute, one of only two men ever to do so and it was with full matchboxes and not champagne glasses and probably about four years later leading up to the 1928 Olympics not the 1924 Olympics in Paris. This is their version of the lack of participation anyway.
There are over 300 paintings in Burghley House..here we have Verrio’s Hell on the ceiling over the “Hell staircase”; six Elizabethan portraits; A school of Cranach portrait of Luther; and a scary painting of the Cyclops interpreted in human terms.
As with Waddesdon, highlights of Burghley House are too many to list. Although many of the painting masters were sold in earlier years to pay death duties, there are still over 300 magnificent paintings including a portrait of Luther (school of Cranach), the extraordinary ceiling painting of Hell by Antonio Verrio over the “Hell Staircase” and “The Death of Seneca” by Giordano.
Other highlights include exceptional porcelaine collections (pre 1917 Chinese and Japanese and impressive Maiolica; the extraordinary Royal bedrooms in the State rooms; wonderful cabinet furniture and desks, four fireplaces with silver grates and fittings and the second largest silver wine cooler in the world weighing in at 18 stone (second only to one twice as large at the Hermitage in St Petersburg acquired by Catherine the Great; the humungous kitchen; the servants quarters with a 44 bell system; the baronial hall with gallery including a vast library of books; the stunning views of the gardens from every room and so on.
Sculptures and an antique pram in the crypt beneath the Hell staircase
A feature of Burghley is the attention to the beds and bathrooms in the State rooms provided for royal and other guests. There were many such rooms so they clearly had many guests.
It was a joy to see in this massive house a very large chapel permanently set up which is used on special occasions by the Village for worship as well as for services for the staff including weddings and funerals. The Cecils were always Protestant from their Elizabethan beginnings and sympathies but had a tough time during the English civil war because Burghley was occupied by a Royalist garrison and attacked and overrun by Cromwell’s men with much damage to the interior. It is good to see the Chapel maintained as a place for worship.