History of Luton Hoo
One can surmise a lot from a name and the unusual suffix ‘Hoo’ hints at the early origins of the Luton Hoo estate. A word of Anglo-Saxon origin, it was reputedly bestowed to an English family by King Canute in the early eleventh century and who continued to hold it throughout the Norman Conquest; the estate finally passed to Sir Thomas de Hoo in 1420.
Sir Thomas was awarded the title of Baron Hoo for his distinguished service under Henry VI during the chaos of the Hundred Years War, yet the Baronetcy died with him in 1454 as he passed without a male heir.
Through marriage and inheritance the Luton Hoo estate passed through several notable families including the Napiers, stalwarts to the Royal House of Stuart. Luton Hoo was bought by another Stuart in 1763. A Scottish nobleman, John Stuart the 3rd Earl of Bute, had served as Prime Minister under George III, rising quickly in politics given his role as tutor to the King’s son George, the Prince of Wales.
Although considered a favourite of the King, and perhaps the last politician to be officially considered as so, John quickly fell out of favour with the erratic King once becoming PM. Part of Bute’s fall from grace was on account of his bad advice to the King during the Seven Years War, decisions that ultimately cost Britain her 13 colonies in America. With his political ambitions dashed, John retreated to his Luton estate which became his sanctuary from the vilification he was now suffering in the press. One such rumour was that he was involved romantically with the King’s mother. Clearly, tabloid slander was as rife in the 18th century as it is today!
Thus began the first documented phase of development and restoration of the house at Luton Hoo. Funded by his commercial interests, John employed the famed Scottish architect Robert Adam to redevelop the house into a magnificent Georgian mansion. While he spent a considerable fortune on the interior, botany was John’s major passion. As the first Director at the Botanical Gardens at Kew, he had some big expectations and after the politics fiasco, John had no plans to disappoint. Spending freely, John commissioned the renowned landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to lay out the formal gardens and parkland. This became one of Lancelot’s most ambitious projects in his lifetime, second only to Bleinheim Palace.
Tragically, a fire gutted most of the house leaving only a shell of Robert’s architectural work but the gardens were untouched and remained John’s living legacy. John was also a patron of literature with his most famous benefactor being Dr Samuel Johnson, author of ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’ and a great admirer of Luton Hoo.
In 1792 the estate passed to John’s grandson the 2nd Marquess of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart. Like his grandfather, the Marquess had a flair for land management making healthy incomes from his Luton estate and eventually hiring the services of genial and prolific architect Robert Smirke to redesign the house. Robert’s design was commissioned in c.1830 and included the neo-classical portico entrance. Despite yet another fire, this is the Georgian design that remains to the present day.
By the turn of the 20th century the house moved into the ownership of Julius Wernher, the diamond magnate who had founded de Beers and grown exceedingly wealthy from his South African interests. This time it would be the interior of Luton Hoo that would be lavished with an expensive refit; the result is a rare example of English Belle-Epoque, more commonly found in France, which manages to completely capture the charm and charisma of the pre-First World War days.
Julius rose to become one of the richest men in England and amassed an impressive collection of art. After Julius’ death, the estate passed to his son Harold Wernher a career soldier in the British Army, whose wife had a tendency to steal the limelight from her Officer husband. Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby was one of the few surviving members of the Russian Royal Family that was ousted after the 1917 Revolution. Amongst the personal additions the Countess added during this period was a Russian Orthodox Chapel, today serving as the exquisite Romanov suite.
While the Tsars are now a thing of the past, Luton Hoo is very much in keeping with the demands of modern hospitality. Having spent 9 years and £60 million pounds, Elite Hotels has restored a genuine treasure of English heritage, the history and values of which are very much alive and celebrated.