Review: Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

Before settling down to watch Great Houses with Julian Fellowes, I read the reviews. There’s a mixture of responses to last night’s programme it would seem (especially on Twitter), and after watching it for myself, I can see why.

Fellowes is probably the best frontman for an ITV programme about the people who lived and worked in (large) country houses. Great Houses is a two-part series which shares its stories of Burghley House and Goodwood House between episode one and two respectively. It is a pity that more were not included, but being allowed glimpses of Burghley and Goodwood should please some people. Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford DL to give him his full name and title is an actor, writer, novelist, film director and screenwriter, as well as a Conservative Life Peer. His most popular works to date are Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, of course, ITV’s Downton Abbey.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

1. Burghley House, Lincolnshire.

Great houses, according to Fellowes are not ‘for posh people to live in – their history belongs to all of us’. This is partly true, as the landed estate and its corresponding pile accommodated a vast number of jobs before the Industrial Revolution. And yet, the programme seemed to highlight the lofty presence of the owners and their sometimes unforgiving influence over the rest of society. The owners of Burghley being explored by Fellowes were William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98) and his role in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Cecil, 1st Marquess of Exeter (1754-1804) and his relationship with his second wife Sarah Hoggins. Behind the green baize door, Fellowes looked at, amongst others, the ‘savage’ treatment of the Burghley undercook Thomas Brincknell* and his wife, and dairymaid Harriet Clark who concealed her newborn baby in an outbuilding.

Most people according to the world of Fellowes were at the mercy of the Lord or the Marquess. He was quick to add early on however that these were the people governing the country whilst their servants were the ones ‘making the whole thing work’. His mission was therefore not to establish stories we could all relate to, but to pursue a means to an end in enhancing his own fictional characters; in his own words,  ‘I’m trying to find the real Lord Grantham, the real Lady Mary… the real Bates, the real Anna’.

Apart from the lack of investigation into Burghley’s architectural fabric or its collections, this, I think is where many viewers were split in their opinions because Fellowes appears to have two personas. There is the bumbling British peer who is mildly opinionated, highly educated, and polite. Then there is the contemplative, imaginative and sincere version. Put them together, and it is a recipe for a speculative narrative. Time and again, Fellowes was seen conversing with academics, archivists or librarians in a jolly manner. It was bad enough that no-one seemed bothered about handling the odd document without white gloves, but his jovial indifference was beginning to grate. The unconvinced looks thrown up by those he met with seemed to prove this effect. Fellowes had clearly set out to find snippets of country house history which would support his own ideals, where this wasn’t the case, then why not bend the facts or provide a bit of guess work and go with that?

Admittedly, I am being harsh, because Fellowes is not a historian. Nowhere was this clearer than the moment Fellowes found himself feeling deeply uncomfortable in the local library whilst trying to carry out simple searches. But the programme was no worse for this because Fellowes remained both enthusiastic and charismatic. I like to see history made more accessible, and ITV seems to be leading the way with its popular period dramas. Where the country house fits in with this is something I discussed in an earlier postGreat Houses simply adds a little background to the storytelling, and at least we were able to make the short virtual trips to the house, the archives and the libraries with Fellowes as our guide.

Overall, it’s difficult to place Great Houses with Julian Fellowes. A great deal of what was explored can be found easily on the internet and Burghley’s episodes surrounding Thomas Brincknell in the 16th century or the 1st Marquess in the 18th century have been written about by scholars. It may be a case of simply pointing the way in the quickest way possible and to as many people as possible. There may have been moments where I cringed or was left wanting more, but I will certainly watch the second part about Goodwood. Hopefully, by then, I will have formed a more comprehensive view of the ‘great’ country house and its social history according to Julian Fellowes.

* The murder/manslaughter of Thomas Brincknell actually took place in the yard of Cecil’s London house, and not at Burghley House which was still unfinished at the date of the incident in 1567.


Stephen Alford, Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, (2011)

Andrew Harris, The Vernons of Hanbury Hall, (2012).

Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, The Lord of Burghley, (1964).

Alan H. Nelson, Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (2003).

Daphne Pearson, Edward De Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis And Consequences Of Wardship, (2005).

Hank Whittemore, Shakepeare’s Sonnets Never Before Imprinted, (2005).

See also, ‘The Cottage Countess’ by Tennyson (first published 1842), which tells the story of Sarah Hoggins.


An honest, down-to-earth review by Veronica Lee at The Arts Desk

Radio Times Review (with interesting comments)

A disappointingly childish review from The Guardian

A short review of the first programme from Burghley in The Telegraph

General review from The Telegraph


Filed under Men and the Country House, Servants

4 responses to “Review: Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

  1. Have yet to view the programme, but did manage to remember to press the record button last night. Having read your report I get the feeling I am not going to enjoy it, which, as an avid fan of Burghley house and all who live and work there, worries me. However I am a great believer in open, honest and frank reporting, which you so refreshingly offer. I can only hope that I see something that pleases me. I have, however, got one gripe to raise and that’s your attitude to the thorny subject of wearing white gloves. I do know that Jon Culverhouse, Burghleys Senior Curator shares my views that gloves, are indeed not necessary, and in many cases dangerous, by increasing the risk of accidents, particularly when carrying objects manually. As a woodworker handling many antiques furniture items, nothing annoys me more that having to wear the offending garments, which totally removes the tactile sensation one yearns for and remembers. When working with ancient documents, the sensation of turning the pages is a thrill not to be forgotten as you feel the classic bindings and the quality of parchment under your sensitive skin. I have yet to see any evidence of damage produced from a pair of careful clean hands. Damage to antique artifacts has already occurred, being caused by UV and air pollution over the past 200-300 years or so, which the wearing of white gloves is not going to change.

    I look forward to seeing images of one of my a favourite country houses when I press the record button.


  2. Jack, I am sure you will find something enjoyable about the programme. I wanted to see what others were saying about it before I wrote my bit, and a lot of people were disappointed to find that not a great deal of the house was shown. Others added that Fellowes was using it as a publicity vehicle for Downton (as if he really needs to do that?) and so the stories he was searching for were not anything new.

    In regards to the white glove issue, I think you’re spot on. I was taught very early on that you must handle everything with gloves on, but have since found as my travels take me to different archives and collections that this is not always the case. I believe that white gloves are unnecessary in many instances because, as you say, it is important to feel the delicacy of an object or document. I have had to take gloves off in order turn pages without fumbling for the corner. But equally so, I’ve felt it necessary to request gloves if a document (in this case fabric) was to be kept free of my grease! I think gloves will need to stay on as part of the culture of conservation etc., and this wasn’t made clear in the programme, though it may well have simply been the procedures of each archive Fellowes visited.

  3. How I wish I had taken the hint Julie and not pressed the play button. Very disappointing narrative and coverage of what is one of England’s greatest houses and not a stick of furniture or collections covered. No wonder Jon Culverstone did not appear, he is much above this sort of trash. Like the critics said, Fellows was only out to promote his own works and he succeeded much to the viewers loss. I wish he had not only worn white gloves, but an entire white boiler suit. That way he would perhaps have not have contaminated the viewing public. Best forgotten.

  4. dad

    Isnt Fellowes a cheeky tightrope walker wanting it both ways? On the one
    hand shamelessly aiming for the popular audience for commercial motives.
    And on the other, bending the knee to his “country supper” peer group. I
    dont believe such tactics wear well over the years

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