History of the house of Waddesdon. The Rothschilds at Waddesdon

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild wanted an estate where he could escape London in the summer months to entertain family and friends for weekend house parties. The Vale of Aylesbury was already known as ‘Rothschildshire’ for the number of the houses owned by the family in the area.

A marvelous transformation

Men beginning the construction of the Manor

‘The difficulty of building a house is insignificant compared with the labour of transforming a bare wilderness into a park.’

Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild

When he came into his inheritance in 1874 he purchased a bare agricultural estate with a misshapen cone at its center. The foundation stone was laid in 1877 and six years later the land had been transformed into a beautiful landscape by planting mature trees, bringing in the water supply from Aylesbury and removing 30 feet of soil to create the impressive approach to the house.

Waddesdon nearing completion in 1883, before the addition of the Morning Room wing

Ferdinand wanted the exterior of the house to be in the style of the French Renaissance châteaux of the Loire valley and engaged a French architect, Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. Loath to build on a palatial scale, Ferdinand, nevertheless, found that he needed to add a wing nearly half the length of the original house to the west end.

Houseparty on the lawn with the Prince of Wales.
House party on the lawn with the Prince of Wales

In 1883 the completion of the house was celebrated with the first of many house parties. Running water and central heating were provided from the start and electricity was introduced in 1889. Ferdinand put in a small passenger lift for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1890 (on view in the Powerhouse), but she declined to ride in it, not trusting in the magic of electricity.

Evacuee children at Waddesdon during the Second World War

Very little changed until the Second World War when the rooms were emptied to accommodate 100 children evacuated from London, the first and only time that children lived in the house.

From secluded estate to tourist attraction

After the war James de Rothschild became increasingly concerned about the future of Waddesdon. He decided to bequeath Waddesdon to the National Trust, with a large part of the collections and an area of garden. The Trust was not complimentary about the architecture, but considered the collections as superlative.

James also left the largest endowment the Trust has ever received, for the continued upkeep of the property. This ensured that the house remained intact as the only example of the famous ‘Rothschild style’ of the 19th century and that it could be visited by the public.

His widow, Dorothy, oversaw the opening of the house to the public in 1959 and chaired the management committee until her death in 1988.

Shortly before her death, she began a survey into the state of the roof. Lord Rothschild, her heir, expanded the project into a complete renovation of the house and its services. The house was closed and emptied in 1990 and the first floor only opened again in 1995.

The first guidebook published in 1959

During this time the Wine Cellars were created, the dilapidated Dairy was rebuilt, and the formal planting of the Parterre was restored to its extravagant 19th-century appearance.

The parterre in 1910

The parterre after restoration in 1994

The Rothschild Foundation continues to manage the property on behalf of the National Trust, as well as providing the majority of the funding.

Highlights of the house

The first sight of Waddesdon transports you to France.

Where else can you find a French Renaissance château, inspired by those in the Loire valley, built by a Rothschild in the 19th century, and filled with royal treasures and many objects with an exceptional story to tell?

The marvellous elephant

The marvellous mechanical elephant, whose parts move while it plays, is the favourite of many of our visitors. It captivated Baron Ferdinand’s guests including the Shah of Persia, who asked for it to be wound again and again. The mechanism is fragile but you can see it in action on special monthly tours or watch this video.

You can follow it on Twitter @WMelephant


French interiors

Baron Ferdinand, who built Waddesdon, was also fascinated by 18th-century France. He used a French architect who created rooms using wall panels taken from Parisian houses of the 1700s. Here in the Green Boudoir, they are carved with dragons, butterflies, and monkeys imitating humans.

A weekend party house

Waddesdon was created to impress. It was only used on summer weekends to entertain Baron Ferdinand’s friends and family. The mirrors and marble of the Dining Room evoke a mini Versailles. The richly decorated table is set for a party of 24, just as it was in his day.

Royal entertainment

Starhemberg porcelain display

The Rothschilds were famous for their hospitality and had many dinner services, like this French one. Over 400 pieces of porcelain to serve 24 people. Even though it was a royal gift from King Louis XV to an Austrian prince in 1766, it was still used by the family until the 1980s.

Important French 18th-century decorative arts

The house is full of 18th-century French objects, of exceptional quality and history: here a delicate desk made for Queen Marie-Antoinette, another for King Louis XV’s daughter and a carpet from the chapel in the palace of Versailles. Above the fireplace is a vase in the shape of a ship made by the royal Sèvres porcelain factory. Only 10 examples exist and Baron Ferdinand owned three of them.

Painted ladies: 18th-century British portraits

Ferdinand’s private sitting room above is exactly as it was in the 1890s, crowded but cosy, with old and new furniture, small treasures, flowers and family photographs. He must have enjoyed catching the eyes of the beautiful women, many of them actresses, hanging on the walls. They were painted by famous British artists of the 1700s, like Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Romney.

Arms and armour

Visitor looking at the arms and armour wall display

Male guests enjoyed the Smoking and Billiard Rooms in the Bachelors’ Wing. Many visitors are surprised that much of the collection of arms and armour in the corridor was bought by Ferdinand’s sister, Alice.

The ‘Renaissance Museum’

Smoking Room containing Ferdinand'd museum-style Renaissance diisplays

Ferdinand kept his ‘Renaissance Museum’, his most prized collection of precious objects from the 1500s and 1600s, here. He left it to the British Museum in his will, where it can be seen as The Waddesdon Bequest. Similar pieces collected by other members of the family have taken its place in the Smoking Room.


The sound of clocks ticking and chiming surrounds you in the house. There are 56 in all, at least one in every room. Nearly all are in working order and some even play music as well. It takes over an hour to wind them each week.

New and old

Time moves on and Waddesdon still adds to its collections. This chandelier was specially commissioned in 2003 by Lord Rothschild for the Blue Dining Room, with its walls of 18th-century carved paneling. It is made of smashed china and is called Porca Miseria.

Wine Cellars

The Wine Cellars at Waddesdon were created in 1994 to celebrate the association of the Rothschild family with some of the finest wines in the world for more than 100 years.

The Rothschilds and Bordeaux wine

Bordeaux was exporting its red wine as early as the 13th century. Large quantities were sent to England, where the wine was known as claret. By the early 1700s wines from single estates or vineyards were singled out as being some of the best.

For the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855, 62 of the best Bordeaux wines were chosen from the several thousand produced in the region. These top wines were divided into five classes or growths (crus in French).

The tasting room in the Waddesdon Wine Cellars
The tasting room in the Waddesdon Wine Cellars

In first place, at the top of the top group, was the wine from Château Lafite.

Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868) tried to buy Lafite for several decades and only managed to do so a few months before his death in 1868. As with his art collection, James wanted only the finest wine to serve at his table.

The estate of Mouton, also in Bordeaux, was bought by his English son-in-law in 1853. Mouton was classified as the first wine in the second group.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild (1922-1988) successfully contested the classification and managed to place Château Mouton Rothschild into the top group in 1973.

Inside the wine cellars

Waddesdon’s Wine Cellars

The vaults at Waddesdon hold 15,000 bottles of historic wines, dating back to 1868. They are modelled on the private cellars at Château Lafite Rothschild and are the largest private collection of Rothschild wine in the world.

Over the years a collection of works of art related to wine has been assembled, such as the figure of Bacchus, god of wine, by John Cheere from about 1740.

Also on display in the cellars are some of the designs for Mouton Rothschild wine labels. Baron Philippe established the custom of inviting an important contemporary artist to design the label for each year’s Mouton vintage. In 2004, the artist was HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between the two nations.

You can visit the Wine Cellars as part of your grounds ticket admission to Waddesdon Manor. We also run daily talks when the house is open.

Label for the 2004 Mouton vintage designed by HRH Prince of Wales
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