Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.

And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.

And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

The rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the House’s owners and royal guests.

The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.

The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.

But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.

Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.

But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.

In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite:


  1. Laurie Graves · February 23, 2022

    That house is too over the top for my taste. But I sure am looking forward to seeing that sculpture garden. That teaser picture is fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 24, 2022

      The house and garden constitute a very odd juxtaposition of styles. Chalk and cheese as we say here (don’t know if that saying has crossed the Pond?). I agree the house is way over the top, so if we were to go again I’d give the house little more than a cursory glance and spend extra time wandering amongst the sculptures

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves · February 24, 2022

        No, we don’t say “chalk and cheese,” but with so many blogging friends across the pond, I have become familiar with that saying. So looking forward to seeing the sculptures.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Brizzy Mays Books and Bruschetta · February 23, 2022

    I’m very much a simple kinda gal and am gobsmacked by the size of this joint. A few questions if you don’t mind :
    1) All houses need repainting at times. I’ve been doing it on and off in various homes for 45 years. So how do you touch up all this old artwork on the ceilings?
    And 2) Do these old mansions have letter boxes for the mail? And clothes lines ? Or is that too untidy ?
    Picnicking on the lawn would be delightful though. Looking forward to next episode…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 24, 2022

      Restoration and maintenance of the murals and ceilings is a massive undertaking. I suspect it’s an ongoing process, with rooms closed off to paying visitors as necessary. Where possible I guess they do it in winter when the impact on visitors will be minimal.

      Regarding laundry, places like this had huge laundry rooms in parts of the building where the servants worked, where washing could be hung to dry out of sight. Also, there were possibly hidden courtyards and secluded areas of the garden where (weather permitting) it could be hung out to dry, again while being kept out of sight of the family and their guests.

      And if you owned a place as swish as this you wouldn’t want to disfigure the grand doors with letterboxes, so mail probably got delivered to a distant gatehouse, or maybe to a hidden door in the servants’ area. It’s a different world, isn’t it, totally alien to mere mortals like us!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brizzy Mays Books and Bruschetta · February 25, 2022

        Having visited Tasmania you would have noticed that our stately homes would be about the same size as a garage compared to the splendour of these country homes in the UK 🙂 It is a different world. Thank you for sharing.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Platypus Man · February 25, 2022

        Maybe the difference indicates that Australians have better taste, or perhaps simply more common sense…the cost of maintaining mansions like this must be astronomical!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Yeah, Another Blogger · February 23, 2022

    That house is, as you say, totally over the top. Is it heated? If so, a massive amount of fuel is being used for no good reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 24, 2022

      Some heating, yes. But we visited in summer, and I certainly wouldn’t fancy going there in the depths of winter. Nor would I like to be responsible for paying the annual energy bill!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. tanjabrittonwriter · February 24, 2022

    It seems to be one of humans’ traits to feel the need to show off their wealth. This has been true across time and space and still continues to this day. It’s one of our less lovable traits, I think.
    But it certainly resulted in some remarkable buildings and artistic creations over the millenia which give us much to look at and think (and blog! 😊) about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 24, 2022

      Yes, a good subject for blogging…lots to reflect upon, even if the place is a bit excessive!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. June’s Travels · February 25, 2022

    Fantastic house and beautiful artworks! I hope I can visit someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ThoughtsBecomeWords · February 26, 2022

    Wow and double wow! Seriously, a ‘house’ as in Burghley House? I would have thought a much grander name but why not play it lowkey and impress the guests on arrival. After all they couldn’t check online first. Said guests probably had nightmares after walking past those works of art on their way to the bed chamber. But I am in awe of the skill of the artists and I hope they were paid mightily for their gargantuan task. The perspective is awesome! Artists and sculptors often used people they knew for their works so it would be a shock if one of the family saw Aunty Mary lying about up there 🙂 Roll on Burghley’s sculpture garden…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 26, 2022

      Yes, it’s an astonishing spectacle, but it would not – I think – be entirely comfortable to live amongst it. However the good news from the owners’ perspective is that they became so wealthy that they had two other massive mansions in other parts of the country, and so could get away for a break when it all became too much for them! It’s a different world, the world of the super-rich.

      And yes, I love the concept of the lord eating dinner, and gazing up casually at the ceiling to be greeted by an image of a coquettish Aunt Mary, sprawled out stark naked in front of her young, muscular, rampant beau. I bet that would have made him choke on his turtle soup! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • ThoughtsBecomeWords · February 27, 2022

        LOL you ‘paint a good picture’ of that particular scene! I guess the Lord in question would zip his lip about it 🙂 Also I agree with your comment on the super-rich, quite amazing really that they were just human beings like us with the same life span yet surrounded by such wealth and decadence. Could Burghley have been taking a cut from Queen Elizabeth I bank vault? However, I think it is wonderful that Burghley House survived the centuries intact.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 27, 2022

        William Cecil (the first Lord Burghley) is known to history as a very capable man, a “fixer” in whom Queen Elizabeth I placed great trust. I’d be surprised if he didn’t come up with a few cunning plans to generate extra income through his association with the queen, and I’m certain Our Liz wouldn’t have minded at all, realising that she needed such a talented man as a friend and not an adversary. And yes, it’s great that his place has survived largely intact…it brings Cecil to life, and illustrates (much better than any history text text book could ever achieve) the enormous scale of his wealth and power.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Ann Mackay · February 26, 2022

    I’m intrigued by that large array of bells. I guess that it must have been necessary for someone to watch to see which one had been rung – awkward if they got the wrong one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · February 27, 2022

      Henry VIII had a servant known as the Groom of the Stool (seriously, this is true) to attend to his every need while on the privy. So I wonder if another, lesser, position in aristocratic households of those times was Steward of the Bells, whose only role in life was to watch over the array of bells and react accordingly when one was rung? Perhaps, if you were really good at it, you got promoted to privy duties 🙂. And do you think the expression Hells Bells describes the Steward’s state of panic when several bells started ringing simultaneously from various corners of the mansion?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ann Mackay · February 27, 2022

        Hehe, I had heard of the Groom of the Stool – apparently it was a much sought-after position because it gave you the opportunity to get the king’s attention, request favours etc. I like the ‘Hell’s Bells’ theory! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. alison41 · February 28, 2022

    OTT doesn’t even begin to describe the interior. Overwhelming. Can you imagine the squads of servants required to keep such a vast area habitable? Looking forward to the garden sculpture post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · February 28, 2022

      Yes, there must have been a whole village “below stairs”, looking after his lordship and family. Hard work, poor rewards, but at least they had a roof over their heads!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Shristy Singh · April 27

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    Liked by 2 people

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