A grand ‘prodigy house’ built to impress Queen Elizabeth I

Linda J. Dodson

‘Somebody lives there?” My taxi driver is so astonished by the size of Holdenby House that we nearly miss the turning. Yet Holdenby, eight miles from Northampton, stands at just an eighth of its original size.

Pronounced “Holmby”, it was built by Lord Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton in 1583 to impress Elizabeth I. Although she never visited the “prodigy house”, she would surely have been impressed. 

One of the largest houses of the Tudor period, it is estimated to have been almost 80,000 sq ft in size, spread over two courtyards, with 123 windows. When Hatton died penniless in 1591, parts of his estate were sold off. 

“Hatton spent a lot of money on Holdenby, but a lot of it was owed to the Crown,” explains James Lowther, 73, who is the current inhabitant.  After Hatton, Holdenby was owned by James I, and then Charles I, who was held prisoner at the house in 1647. Following the Civil War, the house was sold to parliamentarian Adam Baynes, who “asset-stripped it, and knocked seven eighths of it down”, explains James. 

In 1709 Holdenby was bought by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and by 1870 the house had descended down the female line to Henry Agar-Ellis, 3rd Viscount Clifden and his wife, who restored Holdenby. His granddaughter Lilah married Colonel John Lowther, James’s grandfather, in 1911. John and Lilah didn’t fancy life at Holdenby, and “sent my parents to live here in the early 1950s”, explains James. His father, Captain George Lowther, had served in the Life Guards before and during the Second World War, and turned to journalism and farming afterwards.

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