William Herbert, the scion of a distinguished family in the Welsh marches, was a favourite of the king. Following a recommendation to King Henry by King Francis I of France, whom Herbert had served as a soldier of fortune, Herbert was granted arms after only two years. In 1538, Herbert married Anne Parr, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr of Kendal and sister of the future queen consort Catherine Parr (1543–1547) and Sir William Parr, 1st Baron Parr of Kendal (later Marquess of Northampton). The granting of an estate such as the Abbey of Wilton to Herbert was an accolade and evidence of his position at court. The first grants dated March and April 1542, include the site of the late monastery, the manor of Washerne adjoining also the manors of Chalke. These were given to "William Herbert, Esquire and Anne his wife for the term of their lives with certain reserved rents to King Henry VIII." When Edward VI re-granted the manors to the family, it was explicitly "to the aforenamed Earl, by the name of Sir William Herbert, knight, and the Lady Anne his wife and the heirs male of their bodies between them lawfully begotten." Lady Anne had been a joint creator of the enterprise. Herbert immediately began to transform the deserted abbey into a fine house and symbol of his wealth. It had been thought that the old abbey had been completely demolished; however, following renovations after the Second World War traces of the old abbey were found at lower levels of the existing walls.
It has long been claimed, without proof, that Hans Holbein the Younger re-designed the abbey as a rectangular house around a central courtyard, which is the core of the present house. Holbein died in 1543, so his designs for the new house would have to have been very speedily executed indeed. However, the great entrance porch to the new mansion, removed from the house and later transformed into a garden pavilion in the 19th century, is to this day known as the "Holbein Porch" — a perfect example of the blending of the older Gothic and the brand-new Renaissance style. If not by Holbein, it is certainly by the hand of a great master. Whoever the architect, nevertheless a great mansion arose. Today only one other part of the Tudor mansion survives: the great tower in the centre of the east facade (see illustration above). With its central arch (once giving access to the court beyond) and three floors of oriel windows above, the tower is slightly reminiscent of the entrance at Hampton Court. Flanked today by two wings in a loose Georgian style – each topped by an Italianate pavilion tower, this Tudor centrepiece of the facade appears not in the least incongruous, merely displaying the accepted appearance of a great English country house, which has evolved over the centuries.
The Tudor house built by William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, in 1551 was to last but 80 years. On the succession of the 4th Earl in 1630, he decided to pull down the southern wing and erect a new complex of staterooms in its place. It is now that the second great name associated with Wilton appears: Inigo Jones. The architecture of the south front is in severe Palladian style, described at the time as in the "Italian Style;" built of the local stone, softened by climbing shrubs, it is quintessentially English to our eyes today. While the remainder of the house is on three floors of equal value in the English style, the south front has a low rusticated ground floor, almost suggesting a semi-basement. Three small porches project at this level only, one at the centre, and one at each end of the facade, providing small balconies to the windows above. The next floor is the piano nobile, at its centre the great double-height Venetian window, ornamented at second floor level by the Pembroke arms in stone relief. This central window is flanked by four tall sash windows on each side. These windows have low flat pediments. Each end of the facade is defined by "corner stone" decoration giving a suggestion that the single-bay wings project forward. The single windows here are topped by a true pointed pediment. Above this floor is a further almost mezzanine floor, its small unpedimented windows aligning with the larger below, serve to emphasise the importance of the piano nobile. The roofline is hidden by a balustrade. Each of the terminating 'wings' is crowned by a one storey, pedimented tower resembling a Palladian pavilion. At the time, his style was an innovation. Just thirty years earlier, Montacute House, exemplifying the English Renaissance, had been revolutionary.
The seven state rooms contained behind the quite simple Mannerist south front of Wilton House are equal to those in any of the great houses of Britain. State rooms in English country houses were seldom used; being reserved for the use of only the most important house-guests, often a monarch and his consort, or another high-ranking member of state, hence the name. They are nearly always of an odd number for the following reason. At the centre of the facade, the largest and most lavish room, at Wilton the famed Double Cube Room, this was a gathering place for the court of the honoured guest. Leading symmetrically from the centre room on either side were often two suites of smaller, but still very grand rooms, for the sole use of the occupant of the final room at each end of the facade – the state bedroom. The smaller (but still huge) rooms in between would be used for private audiences, a withdrawing room and a dressing room. They were solely part of the bedroom suite and not for public use.
The 11th Earl (1759–1827) called upon James Wyatt in 1801 to modernise the house, and create more space for pictures and sculptures. The final of the three well-known architects to work at Wilton (and the only one well documented) was to prove the most controversial. His work took eleven years to complete. James Wyatt was an architect who often employed the neo-classical style, but at Wilton for reasons known only to architect and client he used the Gothic style. The negative points of his 'improvements' to modern eyes are that he swept away the Holbein porch, reducing it to a mere garden ornament, replacing it with a new entrance and forecourt. This entrance forecourt created was entered through an 'arc de triumph' which had been created as an entrance to Wilton's park by Sir William Chambers circa 1755. The forecourt was bounded by the house on one side, with wings of fake doors and windows extending to form the court, all accessed by Chambers's repositioned arch, crowned by a copy of the life-size equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original Great Hall of the Tudor house, the chapel and De Caus-painted staircase to the state apartments were all swept away at this time. A new Gothic staircase and hall were created in the style of Camelot. The Tudor tower, now the last remnant of William Herbert's house, escaped unscathed except for the addition of two 'medieval' statues at ground floor level. There was however one huge improvement created by Wyatt – the cloisters. This two-storeyed gallery which was built around all four sides of the inner courtyard, provided the house with not only the much needed corridors to link the rooms, but also a magnificent gallery to display the Pembroke collection of classical sculpture.
The house is renowned for its gardens — Isaac de Caus began a project to landscape them in 1632, laying out one of the first French parterres seen in England. An engraving of it made the design very influential after the royal Restoration in 1660, when grand gardens began to be made again. The original gardens included a grotto and water features. Later, when the parterre had been replaced by turf, the Palladian Bridge over the little River Nadder was designed by the 9th Earl, one of the "architect earls," with Roger Morris (1736–37). A copy of it was erected at the much-visited garden of Stowe in Buckinghamshire, and three more were erected, at Prior Park, Bath, Hagley and Amesbury. Empress Catherine the Great commissioned another copy, known as the Marble Bridge, to be set up at the landscape park of Tsarskoye Selo. In the late 20th century the 17th Earl had a garden created in Wyatt's entrance forecourt, in memory of his father, the 16th Earl. This garden enclosed by pleached trees, with herbaceous plants around a central fountain, has done much to improve and soften the severity of the forecourt. For younger visitors there is an adventure playground with trampoline, swing boats and climbing ropes. The park includes an area formerly occupied by much of the village of Fugglestone, which was cleared away, including the site of a medieval leper hospital called the Hospital of St Giles.
In addition, Lord Pembroke has an extensive classic car collection for viewing; this, and the Cecil Beaton at Wilton House exhibition are include in the admission price. Although the House and Grounds are fully wheelchair accessible, the route does incorporate some ramps and gravel paths. They would advise wheelchair users to bring a companion on their visit. There is a dropping off point close to Admissions and dedicated parking area in Visitor Car Park. Wheelchairs are available on loan from Admissions. Large print guide available from Admissions. Red Towel Scheme for visually impaired visitors. Certain items in the Collection may be handled by visitors with visual impairment. Assistance dogs allowed into the House and Grounds. Free admission for companions accompanying disabled visitors. Sensory experience in the gardens with scented plants, fountains, birdsong and the Whispering Seat. Groups may book a guided tour.
Location : Wilton, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP2 0BJ
Transport: Salisbury (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 2, 25, 26, 27, 28, 39, 84, PR3, R3 and R8 stop at Wiltin House.
Opening Times : Sundays to Thursdays & Bank Holiday Saturdays 11:00 to 17:30
Tickets House + Gardens: Adults £15.00; Concessions £11.75; Children (5 - 15) £7.75
Tickets Grounds Only (inc. exhibitions): Adults £6.25; Concessions £5.75; Children (5 - 15) £4.75
Tickets Group Tours (15+): £8.00 per person
Tel: 01722 746714