There is a Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Louisiana and there is a Bourbon Street in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Now, it has to be conceded that the Bourbon Street in New Orleans is somewhat better known being the hoping centre of the Vieux Carré and a magnet for Jazz aficionados. But, there is one important edge Bourbon Street in Aylesbury has over its American counterpart for the Bourbons actually walked down Bourbon Street in Aylesbury. Not just the French King Louis XVIII but also his Queen, Marie Josephine of Savoy and the entire French Court. Indeed the French King could be seen walking briskly down Bourbon Street to meet his reputed mistress, the daughter of the publican at the aptly named Kings Head whom he had grown fond of during his stay.
Louis spent 5 years in exile in Hartwell and developed a fondness for Aylesbury Vale and for the town. He left Hartwell on April 20 1814, having signed documents proclaiming him King of France in its library. He then led a great procession through Aylesbury to say his farewells and Bourbon Street was renamed in his honour. Unlike his predecessor his brother Louis XVI who was guillotined he went back to France not as an absolute ruler but as a constitutional monarch.
When King Louis XVIII returned to the French throne in 1814, he still had Hartwell House, where he spent five years in exile, very much in his heart. He immediately sent revered artists Jean-Charles Develly and Victor Baltard to the outskirts of Aylesbury to paint the country house on to a porcelain plate, from which the King would then eat off.
Antoine Ignace Melling was also commissioned to recreate the King’s grand departure while Louis asked for a miniature English garden to be created at his new home in Versailles. The King’s stay in Bucks completed his 23 years in exile during the French Revolution before the Sixth Coalition finally defeated Napoleon and restored Louis to the throne. British ministers were concerned about relations with Napoleon but eventually agreed to allow 54-year-old Louis to settle outside of London and with the help of the Marquess of Buckingham, he arrived at Hartwell House.
Louis’ alcoholic wife Marie Josephine of Savoy, who died of Edema at Hartwell in the autumn of 1810, was described as a ‘sour, poisonous creature’. Every mealtime, a discreet but determined effort was made to keep the bottles of wine away from the Queen and she even asked Louis to remove the carved figures from the staircase as their shadows spooked her out when stumbling up to bed at night. She was considered one of the ugliest women in Europe and spent long hours at the house, not with her husband, but instead writing letters to her female lover Madame de Gourbillion. Despite this, the King mourned her death until the New Year when he dusted down her bedroom to host another exiled King – Gustavus IV of Sweden, who became Louis’ billiard partner for several weeks.
On a glorious Bank Holiday Monday off we went to Hartwell House for a splendid afternoon tea. Firstly though a tour of the wonderful grounds with their many temples and follies and wonderful landscape all now threatened by the HS2 Rail Project which will clip the estate. Then a tour of the house where the brother of the executed Louis XVI of France lived in exile with his Court and Queen, Marie-Josephine of Savoy who died in the house in 1810. Then the denouement, splendid afternoon tea in the library where in 1814 Louis XVIII signed the Treaty of Paris bringing the Napoleonic Wars to an end and restoring the House of Bourbon to the Throne of France. It is now a very upmarket and exclusive country house hotel and spa owned by the National Trust.
Hartwell House has a remarkable history, stretching back almost a thousand years to the reign of Edward the Confessor. The property was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and belonged to an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, William Peveral. The lands later belonged to John Earl of Mortaigne who succeeded his brother Richard the Lion Heart as King of England in 1199 and Louis XVIII, the exiled King of France who held court there from 1809 to 1814. Louis was joined at Hartwell by his Queen, Marie-Josephine de Savoie, his niece the Duchesse D’Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, his brother the Comte d’Artois, later Charles X, and Gustavus IV the exiled King of Sweden. The arrival of the impoverished king and his court at Hartwell was not a happy experience for the mansion, with once grand and imperious courtiers farming chickens and assorted small livestock on the lead roofs. The King signed the document accepting the French crown in the library of the house, following the defeat of Napoleon.
Others who lived at Hartwell include Richard Hampden (d.1567), a member of one of England’s most illustrious families who entered the household of Queen Elizabeth I and rose to the position of ‘Chiefe Clerk of the Kychen unto the Queen’s Majestie’. Sir Alexander Hampden (d.1627), who received the singular Honour of being knighted by James I in his own house; Sir Thomas Lee (d.1690) who took a leading part in the Restoration and was elevated to the Baronetage by Charles II in 1660; the Rt. Hon. Sir William Lee (1688-1754) who became Lord Chief Justice and served for a time as Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the Rt. Hon. Sir George Lee (1700-1758) a close friend and adviser to Frederick Prince of Wales whose widow he served as Treasurer and Receiver-General. The Lees were ancestors of General Robert E Lee of American Civil War fame. Sir William Young, MP for Buckingham and later Governor of Tobago was a tenant of Hartwell from 1800 to 1808.
In 1827, Dr John Lee, an astronomer, inherited the house from the unmarried Revd Sir George Lee and during his ownership, the British Meteorological Society, now the Royal Meteorological Society was founded in the library in 1850. Revd. Nicholas Lee inherited the house when his brother, Dr John, died on 25 February 1866 at Hartwell. The house remained a private residence until 1938, when, at risk of demolition, the estate was acquired by the philanthropist Ernest Cook (a descendant of Thomas Cook who founded the travel company) and the contents sold off by public auction. The estate passed to the Ernest Cook Trust when it was founded in 1952.
In the 1960s the house became a girls’ finishing school, then it was let in the 1980s to be run as a hotel. The house was converted and became part of the Historic House Hotels group. Its proximity to the Prime Minister’s country house at Chequers means that it has frequently been the host of international and Government summits and meetings including hosting the Emperor of Japan.
The Jacobean north front of the house is constructed of ashlar and has a projecting porch with a bow window above. At each end of this facade are two flanking canted bays each with a double height oriel window. Immediately each side of the porch are two large windows of the hall inside. Hiding the roofscape is a parapet with vases erected in 1740.
Between 1759 and 1761, architect Henry Keene substantially enlarged and “Georgianised” the house, and built the east front with its canted bay windows and a central porch in the Tuscan style. Inside, the great hall has stucco panels, and three reception rooms with rococo chimneypieces. The 1980s conversion to a hotel was overseen by the architect Eric Throssell who created a new dining room in the style of Sir John Soane, by enclosing the former 18th century open arcaded porch. The former semi-circular galleried entrance vestibule became an inner hall. Throssel was also responsible for the design and recreation of the cupola crowning the roof.
The 900 acres (360 ha) of gardens at Hartwell were laid out by Capability Brown c. 1750. The North Avenue is a grand vista through trees planted in 1830, sadly today terminated by the ever encroaching town of Aylesbury. The gardens are reminiscent of nearby Stowe, with statues, an obelisk and ornamental bridge. The Hartwell Estate currently covers 1,800 acres (7.3 km2) of farmland surrounding Hartwell House. The equestrian statue of Frederick Prince of Wales, son of George II, in front of the house also speaks of the connection with Stowe as the “set” around the Duke of Buckingham at Stowe were trenchant in promoting Frederick’s claim to the throne to protect England from the “Great Danger.” Frederick never became King as he died before his father and historians to this day are united in not having a clue as to what the “Great Danger” was! Indeed the only real legacy from Frederick today is the song originating from the poem “Rule, Britannia” by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 in his opera “Alfred.” The opera was designed to advance the German Hanoverian Frederick’s claim to the throne by setting him in a long line of English Kingship from King Alfred.
Hartwell’s Egyptian Spring is a folly built in 1850 by Joseph Bonomi the Younger, an Egyptologist. It is an alcove seat on the western side of Lower Hartwell opposite a small spring. The stone pylon bears the Greek inscription ΑΡΙΣΤοΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΔΩΡ, translated as “Water is Best” attributed to Thales. Elsewhere there are temples, pavilions, obelisks, towers and statues dotted about the grounds adding a touch of wonder to the landscape. The bridge over the suitably swanned lake comprises the central arch of James Paine’s Kew Bridge of 1783-9 which was re-erected here in 1901. The octagonal St. Mary’s Church to the side of Hartwell House was rebuilt in 1753-5 by Henry Keene and is one of the finest examples of the Gothic Revival style. Sadly neglected during and after World War II it has now been partially restored to secure its future. In September 2008 the National Trust acquired a long lease of the house from the Ernest Cook Trust.
The house and grounds were gifted to the Trust by the directors of Historic House Hotels (HHH). The house continues its present use as a hotel under the existing HHH management. By any standards this gift of Hartwell and two other historic houses run as country house hotels was hugely generous particularly as the business profits go towards the upkeep. The hotel business is also responsible for the wonderful state of Hartwell and its grounds today. The architect Eric Throssell’s redesign and reconfiguration of the house to convert it to a hotel have given the ground floor a flow and sense of drama which has enhanced the house and has been accomplished with great tact and sensitivity, including redesigning the Vestibule and Dining room in the style of the Architect, Sir John Soane. Hartwell is eye wateringly expensive but for all that it is good value for lunch or dinner or for afternoon tea where its special atmosphere makes you feel you are in a place apart. Its Spa complex has a particularly patrician atmosphere where you expect to be issued with togas and be served grapes by Sabine women!
You cannot visit the hotel and its grounds at the moment without first having a booking or attending a wedding or function. However it is envisaged that arrangements will soon be put in place for the gardens and grounds of the hall to be open to visitors, along with tours of the ground floor rooms. The Hotel and Spa have preserved this unique house and it is equally special grounds and setting and that has been a big ask from a business with just over 50 bedrooms and a spa complex so I have some sympathy with the management’s desire to keep it exclusive to justify its premium pricing. For now the easiest way to see this unique gem is to visit for their excellent afternoon tea at £25 a head which can be booked on their website.
Hartwell House, Hotel, Restaurant and Spa, Oxford Road, Near Aylesbury
Buckinghamshire, HP17 8NR
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