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The site now occupied by Wilton House was in use as early as the 9th century when King Alfred, he of griddle-cake fame, established a nunnnery here. Three centuries later a Benedictine abbey replaced the earlier nunnery, and the current house largely echoes the monastic layout.
The abbey, in turn, was disbanded by Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry gave Wilton to William Herbert, one of his most influential Welsh supporters. William was the husband of Anne Parr, sister of Queen Katherine Parr. In 1551 William Herbert was created Earl of Pembroke, and the Herbert family still reside at Wilton.
The 1st Earl rebuilt the monastic buildings to create an imposing manor of four wings around a courtyard, with impressive corner towers. Under the infliuence of the 2nd Earl and his wife, Mary Sidney, Wilton became a centre for the arts, with an 'academy' of painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, and actors congregating here.
The first great transformation of Wilton took place in 1632, when Isaac De Caus extended the gardens with a variety of water features. The house was originally intended to grow to the impressive dimension of the gardens, but a downturn in family fortunes meant that the house plans were scaled back.
Around 1633 the 4th Earl of Pembroke created a new south front with state rooms, on the advice of King Charles I. The design included royal apartments, and was a combined effort of Isaac de Caux, Inigo Jones, and Jones's son-in-law John Webb. The south front is now our best historical evidence for how the long vanished interiors designed by Inigo Jones from Greenwich, Somerset House, and Whitehall may have looked.
Grounds and Gardens
Perhaps the most striking architectural feature of Wilton House is not in the house at all, but a short stroll away in the grounds. It is the Palladian Bridge across the River Nadder, designed around 1736 by the 9th Earl of Pembroke himself, and one of the most influential examples of 18th century country house design. It was based on the unexecuted design of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio for the Rialto Bridge in Venice, and combines the bridge with aspects of classical Roman temple design.
Among other features in the garden is the Whispering Seat, a semi-circular bench so designed that a whisper into one corner can be heard in the other corner of the seat, but cannot be heard outside the seat. Nearby is a relatively new creation, the water garden, a lovely Oriental garden area with linked ponds and 6 arched Chinese style bridges. Also nearby is a small rose garden.
Wilton House is a stunning stately home set in lovely grounds. It deserves its place as one of the finest of English stately homes. While visiting Wilton House, take the time to stroll into Wilton town centre, where you will find the redundant medieval church of St Mary, and the astonishing Victorian Italianate church of St Mary and St Nicholas.