“Nothing ordinary ever happened here, nor could it.”
That’s the motto of Cliveden House, the famous five-star hotel in Berkshire. Cliveden is no stranger to the headlines; most recently, it captured the media’s attention when Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, stayed there on the eve of her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018. Moreover, it has its own documentary series, A Very British Country House, on Channel 4.
Cliveden is extraordinary because, unlike purpose-built luxury hotels such as The Savoy and The Ritz, it was home to aristocratic families for hundreds of years before opening its doors to paying guests. Delve into the compelling, sometimes shocking, history of this Grade I listed Italianate mansion-turned-hotel and you’ll find its motto couldn’t be more appropriate.
A Duke, His Mistress and Their Mansion
In the mid-17th century, one of Charles II’s advisors, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, acquired a magnificent plot of land and set about building a suitably grand residence. The Duke’s mansion, Cliveden House, was completed in 1666. An impressive, 400 ft-long platform had been created for it to stand on.
Cliveden soon had its first brush with controversy. The married Duke was having an affair with beautiful Anna Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury. After killing the Countess’s husband in a duel, he moved his mistress into his mansion. His wife, Mary, decamped to her parents’ home until the affair ended. (The Duchess was clearly a model of tolerance and understanding!)
The Royal Seal of Approval
In 1687, the Duke died without an heir. Cliveden’s next owner was a distinguished soldier, George Hamilton. He’d been honoured with the elite title 1st Earl of Orkney shortly before buying the estate and evidently wanted a home that reflected his enhanced status.
Cliveden House earned the royal seal of approval when George I dined there with the Earl. The National Trust, the estate’s current custodian, notes that ‘Cliveden has been visited by virtually every British monarch’ from George I onwards.
Three Countesses and a Catastrophe
The Earl died in 1737, leaving everything to his eldest daughter, Anne. She assumed the feminine version of his title, becoming the 2nd Countess of Orkney, and took control of Cliveden, leasing it to Frederick, Prince of Wales, until his death in 1751. The Countess passed on her aristocratic title and estate to her daughter, who in turn passed them on to her own daughter.
Tragedy struck when Cliveden was ravaged by fire in 1795. It wasn’t until politician Sir George Warrender bought the estate in 1824 that a new mansion rose from the ashes – only to meet the same fate as its predecessor 25 years later.
Thankfully, it was third time lucky for Cliveden. Its new owner, cultural connoisseur George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 2nd Duke of Sutherland, instructed Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind the Houses of Parliament, to build a third mansion, which still stands today. The stunning platform has survived too.
Spectacle and Scandal
In the late 19th century, Cliveden was home to William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor, the American-born millionaire. He upped the wow factor by adding a Great Hall, French gilded panelling and Italian statues.
Cliveden made a spectacular wedding gift for the Viscount’s son, Waldorf, in 1906. He hosted lavish parties there alongside his wife, Nancy. Guests included everyone from Sir Winston Churchill to Charlie Chaplin.
However, Cliveden’s swimming pool became notorious in the early 1960s after John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, met model Christine Keeler there. Their affair was regarded as a threat to national security due to Keeler’s link to a Soviet naval attaché.
A New Lease of Life
After the Profumo affair, the Astor family left Cliveden. But all was not lost. The mansion’s transformation into a luxury hotel brought it a new lease of life – and a coveted place in the Tatler Address Book, the elite lifestyle guide.
Tatler remarks that Cliveden ‘retains much of the grandeur from its days as a private house’. Indeed, we believe it deserves to be known as Britain’s most aristocratic hotel.
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