The history of Cliveden House reveals an estate built for extending a warm welcome to all those who visit. Famed as being built in the pursuit of pleasure and power, this legacy continued throughout its history. Renowned for hosting glittering parties and gatherings of the rich and powerful, Cliveden remains one of Britain’s most exclusive retreats.
Cliveden’s Early Beginnings
Records show that the land on which Cliveden now stands was owned by Geoffrey de Clyvden. Ownership passed down through the family until the estate was acquired by the Mansfield family in 1605.
A House Built for Pleasure
The original house on the Cliveden estate was built by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers. The Duke’s house was dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure and used as a hunting lodge and place to entertain a long string of mistresses and friends. The house was designed by architect William Winde.
In 1696 the 1st Earl of Orkney acquired Cliveden as a home for he and his wife Elizabeth Villiers, a first cousin of the Duke of Buckingham. During his time at Cliveden Orkney employed the architect Thomas Archer to add two new wings to the house. Any original work Archer added to the house was unfortunately lost in the fire of 1795, apart from a staircase in the West wing. However, Orkney’s additions to the gardens remain today and include the Octagan Temple and Blenheim Pavilion. The Pavilion being in honour of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, in which Orkney was a general.
A Royal Retreat
1737 to 1751
Frederick Prince of Wales, son of King George II, then leased the house from Anne Countess of Orkney and her husband the 4th Earl of Inchiquin. The Prince Cliveden as a retreat from life at the royal court after falling out with his father. He established a comfortable family life for his wife Augusta and their children at Cliveden, until he died in 1751.
In 1751 the lease on Cliveden was relinquished by Augusta and the Earl and Anne moved back in. From now until 1795 three countesses of Orkney lived at Cliveden until a devastating fire swept through the building on the evening of 20 May 1795. The fire was believed to have been caused by a candle being carelessly knocked over by a servant. The fire destroyed the main mansion and left only the wings behind.
Following the fire the ruins of the house remained untouched until 1824 when Sir George Warrender, 4th Baronet, purchased and rebuilt Cliveden with the help of Scottish architect William Burn. Again, the focus for the design was for a grand mansion with entertaining very much in mind. With Burn’s help, the house regained its earlier splendour and the lavish parties and entertaining returned once more.
In 1830 Warrender commissioned Comte Alfred d’Orsay to build the Parterre
Following Warrender’s death in 1849 Cliveden was then purchased by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. Having only just bought the house Cliveden suffered its second fire which ravaged the main house. This time the cause seemed to have originated from poor workmanship from the previous rebuild.
The Queen, who spied the smoke from the fire from as far away as Windsor Castle, sent fire engines from Windsor to help fight the blaze.
Following the fire the Duke brought in the architect responsible for designing the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, to rebuild Cliveden in the style of an Italianate villa. Charles Barry took inspiration for the new design for Cliveden from the footprint of the two earlier houses and his final design remains much unchanged to this day.
Upon completion of Cliveden as we know it in 1852 further additions were made to the building. One of the most stunning was the addition of a 100ft (30m) tall clock tower in 1861. This structure, which is in fact a water tower, was added by the architect Henry Clutton. The sculpture adorning the top of the tower is a version of the Spirit of Liberty found at the Place de la Bastille in Paris.
After the death of the Duke (1861) and his wife Harriet (1868) Cliveden was sold to their son-in-law, Hugh Lupus, Earl Grovesnor, who later became the 1st Duke of Westminster. As one of the wealthiest men in England, the Duke made many contributions to Cliveden’s interiors as well as adding the porte cochere, a new stable block and a dovecote.
The Astor Family at Cliveden
In 1893 Cliveden was purchased by William Waldorf Astor, a member of the prominent German American Astor family, for $1.25 million. Unfortunately their dream of using Cliveden as a happy family home was cut short in 1894 when Lady Astor died at the age of 36. Heartbroken by his loss, William became more and more reclusive, channelling his time and effort into making changes to Cliveden and his London home. This included installing the wall panels in the French Dining Room in 1897 (these were from Chateaux d’Asnieres and date back to the mid 18th Century) and installing the magnificent Fountain of Love in 1897. This stunning fountain was carved from marble and volcanic rock by Thomas Waldo Story and greets guests and visitors to Cliveden today.
William made a gift of Cliveden to his son Waldorf Astor when he married Nancy Langhorne in 1906. The young couple relished in using Cliveden as it had been intended and set about entertaining on a grand scale. Between them they built a wide social circle of film stars, politicians, world-leaders, writers and artists who attended their regular weekend house parties. The golden age of their entertaining fell between the two World Wars when guests included: Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Amy Johnson, F. D. Roosevelt, H. H. Asquith, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Henry James, Edith Wharton and Rudyard Kipling.
Cliveden During WWI and WWII
At the start of the first World War, Waldorf volunteered for the army but failed the medical examination. Undaunted and wanting to support the war effort he offered the use of Cliveden as a hospital for injured British troops. This offer was turned down due to the amount of effort needed to adapt the building. However, the Canadian Red Cross accepted his offer and used the grounds for building a temporary hospital, the HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital, in 1915. This hospital, which housed up to 600 patients, was dismantled at the end of hostilities.
Part of the hospital and within Cliveden’s grounds was established the Cliveden War Cemetery. This became the final resting place of 42 commonwealth troops (40 from WWI and 2 from WWII).
When war broke out again in 1939, the Canadian Red Cross built a second hospital in Cliveden’s grounds, the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital. This remained standing after the war and was used as a nursing school, a maternity unit and rheumatology unit until it closed in the early 1980s.
The Astors gifted ownership of Cliveden to the National Trust in 1942, with the proviso that the family could continue to live in the house for as long as they wished. Alongside the gift of Cliveden, the Astors also donated £250,000 – equivalent to £8.6m today.
John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, met Christine Keeler, the reputed mistress of an alleged Soviet spy, at the newly installed outdoor swimming pool during one of the Astors weekend parties. This meeting led to a short lived affair which quickly escalated into one of Britain’s biggest political scandals. Particularly given it took place during the height of the Cold War whilst Profomo’s held a highly responsible government position for national security.
The Beatles filmed part of the movie ‘Help’ at Cliveden and would hold races amongst the parterre during breaks in filming.
The Astors ceased to live at Cliveden after the death of William Astor.
The house was leased by Stanford University who used it as a place of learning until 1983.
The lease of Cliveden is bought to transform the house into a luxury hotel, which it remains to this day.