The History

Highcliffe Castle has been described as arguably the most important surviving house of the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture, which flourished at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Its significance is recognised nationally by its Grade 1 status on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural and Historical Interest.

Stained glass arch shaped window with intricate stonework between panes.

It is of international importance too as a large amount of medieval French masonry was shipped across the Channel and used in its construction. It is this Norman and Renaissance carved stone, along with the Castle’s Gothic revival features and ancient stained glass, that make it appear older than it is.

Ariel view of the Castle set in green lawns with winding gravel paths and Parterre

The Castle was built between 1831 and 1836 and is the realisation of one man’s fantasy.  That man was Lord Stuart de Rothesay.  When he built it he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather the 3rd Earl of Bute, who had built an earlier mansion on the site during the 1770s.  A keen botanist, Lord Bute created a scaled-down version of Kew.  Perched on the edge of the cliff, on heathland with magnificent views out to sea, this house stood for only 38 years before land springs and sea erosion destabilised it.

Ariel view of the Castle set in green lawns with winding gravel paths and Parterre
Portrait of Stuart de Rothesay sitting in red fur trimmed cloak in an intricate gold frame

Lord Stuart de Rothesay was a distinguished and very successful diplomat, having been honoured with a peerage in 1828.   He served two terms as British Ambassador in Paris after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and was tasked by Wellington with finding the Embassy a permanent home.  He negotiated the purchase of the Hôtel Charôst from Pauline Bhorgese, a sister of Napoleon, on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  This is still the home of the British Embassy today and is often regarded architecturally as the flagship British Embassy abroad.

A black and white image from the Ian Stevenson Archive Trust of Highcliffe Castle Ante Library looking into the Library

Educated, cultured and widely-read, he filled the embassy with books, exquisite Empire furniture and carpets. It is not surprising that he brought a similar approach to the building of his new home.  Sparing no expense in materials and workmanship, he bought and transported masonry and stained glass from Normandy, tiles and exquisite oak and gilt panelling, then brought over French workman to fit it. The rooms were filled with valuable tapestries, Aubusson carpets, mirrors and large paintings.  The furniture was 18th century French or Empire style and included spoils of war, especially from the discredited Maréchal Ney.

A black and white image from the Ian Stevenson Archive Trust of Highcliffe Castle Ante Library looking into the Library
Sepia Portrait of Lady Waterford in long black dress with bustle and hair in a bun, in ornate gold frame

Charlotte and Louisa were his two daughters, both recognised as gracious, gifted and artistic.  Charlotte, the eldest was lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria and also her sketching companion.  She married Lord Canning who was appointed Governor-General to India and sadly died there of jungle fever at the young age of 41.  Louisa, who became Lady Waterford upon her marriage, is more closely associated with the Castle after becoming its chatelaine on her mother’s death in 1867.  As there were no children to either marriage, the castle then passed to a distant cousin, Edward Stuart Wortley, and remained his family home until it was sold in 1950.

Black and white image of King Edward VII visiting Highcliffe Castle sat in a vintage car with Lord Montagu

Over the years the great and the good, the famous and the gifted have visited, and sometimes stayed, at the Castle.  Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses have come as guests.  Kaiser Wilhelm most famously, with a ‘numerically formidable retinue’, came in 1907 and stayed for three weeks, in order ‘to live the life of an English gentleman’.  William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister, and his wife had “a real comfortable rest” staying with Lady Waterford in 1889.  Nancy Mitford the best-selling author and member of the Mitford family described her stays at Highcliffe Castle with aunt Violet Stuart Wortley as “among the truly happy times of my life”.  Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian soprano (after whom the dessert Peach Melba is named) was a friend of the family and sang in the Wintergarden when she came to stay.

Black and white image of King Edward VII visiting Highcliffe Castle sat in a vintage car with Lord Montagu
Vintage cartoon picture of Harry Gordon Selfridge in front of his Selfridge store

Harry Gordon Selfridge, the owner of the London department store, rented the Castle an brought his family to live here from 1916 to 1922.  They loved it so much they wanted to buy it but the Stuart-Wortleys refused to sell.  His wife Rose, his mother and Gordon himself are all buried in St Mark’s Churchyard, Highcliffe, although by his death he was nearly penniless having spent his fortune on gambling and expensive women.

A black and white image of Highcliffe Castle alight during one fires with vintage fire engine and firefighters

Fire and Neglect at the Castle! After it ceased to be a family home, with most of its contents sold or bequeathed, the fortunes of the Castle fluctuated.  It was a Children’s Home for a short period in the early 1950s, then for 13 years the Claretian Fathers used the building as a seminary training students for the priesthood.  Just before they moved out tragedy struck as fire ripped through the Great Hall. A more devastating fire followed the next year, when the Castle was owned by local businessmen.  Then for two decades the Castle was left a neglected ruin, exposed to the weather and vandals. Only a flock of white doves came to stay amid the derelict rooms.

A black and white image of Highcliffe Castle alight during one fires with vintage fire engine and firefighters
Beautiful blue skies with mottled cloud above Highcliffe Castle with lush green lawns and long gravel paths

However, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, today the Castle is again a beautiful building – now for all to enjoy.  Owned by the Council since 1977 and benefitting from English Heritage funding and two National Lottery grants (in the 1990s and 2010s), the Castle now hosts joyous weddings, stages a variety of productions, and hosts fairs, exhibitions and events throughout the year.  It is a valued asset at the heart of the community and a popular tourist attraction.  We welcomed BBC’s The Antiques Roadshow in 2012 and made an appearance more recently in Mr Selfridge on ITV.

Photo Credit: Ian Stevenson Archive Trust