Wothorpe House was built as a lodge in early C17 by Thomas Cecil, 1st Earl of Exeter, the eldest son of William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, the great advisor to Elizabeth I. Thomas was passionate about architecture and used his knowledge to create an imposing, novel and uniquely ornate structure, representing an early example of Renaissance influence in England - built as a 'fanciful' architectural showpiece, for domestic private use and pleasure. Described as “the least of noble houses but the very best of lodges” by Fuller, it epitomised "the new type of lodge appearing at the end of the sixteenth century, built not for hunting but as a retreat from the formality and responsibilities of a big house" (Dr. Mark Girouard). Its novel compact built form has led to it being described by Professor Timothy Mowl as, "the distilled essence of all that Burghley (House) tries to express but loses in its... spreading complexity..."
The plan of the building is in the form of a Greek cross church design. As built, it represented the current passion for creating Classically inspired buildings. This is evident from its plan, form and ornamentation, and in particular its symmetrical facades and disposition. The architectural and decorative features of the building followed designs created by the great Italian Renaissance architect and designer Sebastiano Serlio, rendering the building unique in England both then and now. The carved decorative elements / dressings, in particular the window detailing, display hallmark Serlian motifs including his eponymous scrolls (shown below).
A measured estate plan (below) was drawn by Thomas Thorpe Jr. (dated May 1615). It shows the principal approach was along a then novel formal tree-lined avenue from the West, passing first through the historic Wothorpe Groves woodland (and former deer-park). This axial arrangement represents a very early instance of a Classically inspired / Renaissance landscape layout in England.
Many of the historic features shown on the plan including built structures and walling remain extant, including the series of formally disposed walled forecourts, which formed part of the processionary access route to the West-facing entrance front of the main house. The central block was flanked by a pair of symmetrically arranged and ornamented service ranges which together formed a U-shaped structure enclosing the Lower Court. To the East, enclosed by towering stone walls is the Great Garden, which originally was ornamented by highly fashionable features including terraced walkways and in particular a 'zig-zag' watercourse. This is noteworthy given the contemporaneous garden works being carried out at other sites including Somerset House, Wilton but especially at Hatfield by Thomas' half-brother Robert). The completeness of the extant upstanding historic Courts and Garden walls has few, if any, parallels in Britain.
On completion, the house was leased by Thomas to his new wife Frances (circa 1611) and was subsequently occupied by various family members until finally being occupied by the Dowager Countess of Exeter, Hannah Sophia, née Chambers. The second Duke of Buckingham (later builder of Cliveden House) was a notable lessee, occupying the building with his wife and mistress, Anna-Maria Brudenell (Countess of Shrewsbury).
On succeeding to the Burghley Estate in 1754, Brownlow Cecil the 9th Earl of Exeter engaged Lancelot Capability Brown to landscape Burghley Park. Brown was responsible for the design and creation of the stable block range at Burghley and according to the local Stamford historian Drakard, this was built from stone removed from the site at Wothorpe in its first phase of part - dismantling in 1754 / 1755 .
Brown probably persuaded the 9th Earl to undertake this partial dismantling of the built structure(s) at Wothorpe to provide an eye-catcher in the outer park, thus adding an illusion of greater antiquity to the Cecil lineage and an architectural incident in the wider park-scape, as was then so fashionable. The dismantling left the core of the main building, including the four towers in its re-entrant angles. If, as asserted by Drakard, this provided materials for the creation of the aforementioned stable block, it also certainly did for the revetment walling of Brown's new ha-ha at Burghley.
In the 1790s there was a further phase of part-dismantling of the building. Thereafter the site was used principally as the home farm for the Burghley Estate until the 1950s, (latterly including pig-farming - see above-left picture). This was followed by its subsequent virtual abandonment until it was eventually purchased by the Griffins in 2004.
This elegant ruin has now been fully consolidated by them resulting in its removal from the National and Local Heritage-at-Risk Register. The structure sits within the privately owned and occupied Wothorpe Towers Estate - please see the About page.