Woburn Abbey
The west front of Woburn Abbey
General information
TypeStately home
LocationWoburn, Bedfordshire
Coordinates51°58′59″N 0°35′48″W / 51.9831°N 0.5968°W / 51.9831; -0.5968
OwnerDuke of Bedford
Listed Building – Grade I
Designated22 October 1952
Reference no.1114006[1]
Designated30 November 1986
Reference no.1000364[2]

Woburn Abbey (/ˈwbərn/),[n 1][3] occupying the east of the village of Woburn, Bedfordshire, England, is a country house, the family seat of the Duke of Bedford. Although it is still a family home to the current duke, it is open on specified days to visitors, along with the diverse estate surrounding it, including the historic landscape gardens and deer park (by Humphry Repton), as well as more recently added attractions including Woburn Safari Park, a miniature railway and a garden/visitor centre. It was built by William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh.

Pre-20th century

Monastic origins

Woburn Abbey, comprising Woburn Park and its buildings, was set out and founded as a Cistercian abbey in 1145.[4] The Cistercian community was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538[4]

Early Russell family rebuilding projects

In 1547 the estate became the seat of the Russell family and the Dukes of Bedford,[5] Around 1630, Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford undertook the first rebuilding, demolishing or incorporating original abbey building and built the manor house on the monastic site, although the name Abbey was retained.[6]

Eighteenth Century

The second rebuilding occurred under architects Henry Flitcroft and John Sanderson between 1747 and 1761.[6]

In April 1786 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both future Presidents of the United States, visited Woburn Abbey and other notable houses in the area. After visiting them Adams wrote in his diary "Stowe, Hagley, and Blenheim, are superb; Woburn, Caversham, and the Leasowes are beautiful. Wotton is both great and elegant, though neglected".[7] However he was also damning about the means used to finance the large estates, and he did not think that the embellishments to the landscape made by the owners of the great country houses would suit the more rugged American countryside.[7]

Further rework undertaken between 1787 and 1790 was directed by Henry Holland.[6]

Second World War

Visiting Woburn Abbey in March 1939, the MP and diarist Henry Channon described the well-kept-up "feudal magnificance" of the estate shortly before the outbreak of war. This included more than twenty drawing rooms, thirty cars and whole rooms devoted each to collections of Joshua Reynolds, Canalettos and Van Dyck paintings.[8]

From 1941 Woburn Abbey was the headquarters of the secretive Political Warfare Executive (PWE) which had its London offices at the BBC's Bush House.[9]

1945 to 1970s

The layout of Woburn before partial demolition. Building 'C' was demolished, and the upper half of building 'A' (the east part of the main western building) as well.

Following World War II, dry rot was discovered and half the Abbey was subsequently demolished. When the 12th Duke died in 1953, his son the 13th Duke was exposed to death duties of $14 million[10] and the Abbey was a half-demolished, half-derelict house. Instead of handing the family estates over to the National Trust, he kept ownership and opened the Abbey to the public for the first time in 1955. It soon gained in popularity and in its first ten years, it had ticket sales of $11 million, helping to pay off much of the death duties.[10] Other amusements were added, including Woburn Safari Park on the grounds of the Abbey in 1970. Asked about the unfavourable comments by other aristocrats when he turned the family home into a safari park, the 13th Duke said, "I do not relish the scorn of the peerage, but it is better to be looked down on than overlooked."[citation needed]

1970s to present

The 13th Duke moved to Monte Carlo in 1975.[11] His son Robin, who enjoyed the courtesy title Marquess of Tavistock, ran the Abbey with his wife in his father's absence.[citation needed]

In the early 1990s, the Marquess and The Tussauds Group planned to turn the Abbey into a large theme park with the help of John Wardley, creator of the roller coasters "Nemesis" and "Oblivion". However, Tussauds bought Alton Towers and built one there instead.[citation needed]

From 1999 to 2002, the Marquess and the Marchioness, the former Henrietta Joan Tiarks, were the subjects of the Tiger Aspect Productions reality series Country House in three series, totalling 29 episodes, which aired on BBC Two. It detailed the daily life and the business of running the Abbey.[12]

The Marquess of Tavistock became the 14th Duke on the death of his father in November 2002 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States. The 14th Duke was the briefest holder of the Dukedom and died in June 2003.[citation needed]

On the death of the 14th Duke, his son Andrew became the 15th Duke, and he continues his father's work in running the Woburn Abbey Estate. The building is listed in the highest category of architecture at Grade I.[1]


The art collection of the Duke of Bedford is extensive and encompasses a wide range of western artwork. The holdings comprise some 250 paintings, including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto and Velasquez. Moreover, the collection encompasses examples of the finest manufacturers of furniture, French and English in many periods, and a diverse collection of porcelain and silverware.[2][failed verification]


View of the entrance to the Arsenal, Canaletto, 1732
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, 1588?

Dutch School

English School

Flemish School

French School

German School

Italian School

Spanish School

Media appearances

The abbey in its landscape

Woburn has been used as a location for filming including: "Five Clues To Fortune" (1957); The Iron Maiden (1962); The Flower of Gloster (1967); A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971);[citation needed] an episode of Coronation Street (1973) which featured a cameo by the 13th Duke;[13] and Treasure Hunt (1986).[14]

In Anthony Horowitz's 1987 book Public Enemy Number Two, the book's main character Nick Diamond is framed for the theft of the Woburn Carbuncles.[15] Neil Diamond held two concerts on the front lawn of the abbey, in 1977 and again in 2005.[citation needed]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Locally until c.1960 referring to the Village or Abbey /wbərn/
  1. ^ a b Historic England. "Woburn Abbey (Grade I) (1114006)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b Historic England. "Woburn Abbey (Park and Garden) (Grade I) (1000364)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 14 December 2016.
  3. ^ "Woburn Abbey". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
  4. ^ a b "The Cistercian Abbey of Woburn". bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk. 20 January 2023. Retrieved 28 April 2023.
  5. ^ Motton, David (1 March 2013). "Woburn Abbey". Britain Magazine | The official magazine of Visit Britain | Best of British History, Royal Family,Travel and Culture. Retrieved 28 April 2023.
  6. ^ a b c "Woburn Abbey". bedsarchives.bedford.gov.uk. 22 June 2019. Retrieved 28 April 2023. The ministry reckoned that the current building does incorporate some of the fabric of the medieval abbey and notes that the first rebuilding took place around 1630 by Francis, the 4th Earl.
  7. ^ a b Adams & Adams 1851, p. 394.
  8. ^ Henry ("Chips") Channon The Diaries 1938-43 (Vol. 2), edited by Simon Heffer, Penguin 2021.
  9. ^ "Political Warfare Executive and Foreign Office, Political Intelligence Department: Papers (Ref: FO 898)". Discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk. The National Archives. 1938–1973. Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  10. ^ a b "Boxoffice Now Lifts The Family Mortgage". Variety. 27 November 1963. p. 1.
  11. ^ "The Duchess of Bedford" by Nicole Nobody
  12. ^ "Benidorm Series 1". TigerAspect.co.uk. 9 May 2013.
  13. ^ "ITV – Coronation Street". solarnavigator.net.
  14. ^ "IMDb: Most Popular Titles With Filming Locations Matching "Woburn Abbey"". IMDb.
  15. ^ Horowitz, Anthony (2004). Public Enemy Number Two (Diamond Brother Mysteries): Anthony Horowitz. ISBN 0142402184.



Further reading