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Woburn Abbey
Home of the Dukes of Bedford

This abbey was once inhabited by a group of Cisterian Monks. This means that it was a strict Roman Catholic monastery. These abbeys were to some a peaceful area of retreat. By the time 1543 rolled around it was no longer a peaceful retreat, though. The Abbot Hobbs was found guilty of "Treasonable utterances against the King" and he was hanged on an oak at the gate of the Abbey. For some mysterious reason, the successive generations of Russells maintained the ancient oak tree where the last abbot of the monastery was hanged which still remains to remind us of his death.

King Edward VI confiscated the land owned by the Cistercian monastery and granted it to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford in 1574. The abbey itself is an 18th-century mansion although the house's history began in 1145 when Hugh deBolebec built an abbey here for Cistercian monks. Some of the old stone had been incorporated into the foundations of the mansion. The abbey was confiscated in 1538 under the orders of King Henry VIII for 'treasonable utterances' and given to Sir John Russell for services to the crown in 1547. It became the family seat of the Russell family in 1619. It had been home to the Dukes and Earls since 1627 when Francis, succeeding his cousin as Fourth Earl, decided to build on the remains of the Cistercian abbey.

The Russell family was of Protestant religion. In 1694 Lord Russell was among those who plotted against the Roman Catholic Duke of York coming to the throne. This plot was discovered and Lord Russell was executed. In recognition of Lord Russell's sacrifice for Protestantism, his father was made Duke of Bedford and Marquess of Tavistock by William III. In 1747 the house was partially reconstructed and extended by the Palladian architect Henry Flitcroft (in 1747-61) who built Woburn Abbey into most of what we see today.

The next major building period was in 1786 under the direction of Henry Holland (also in 1787-88) and although some of Holland's work had to be demolised in 1949 his influence remains in the Canaletto room and Library. Henry Holland was also closely involved in the design and construction of Broadlands.

The 13th Duke of Bedford, succeeding to the title and to severe death duties (inheritance taxes) in 1953, determined to realise to the full the potential earning power of a "stately home" and opened it as a paying tourist attraction. He was a resourceful publicist, and, by the end of the 1950's, Woburn Abbey was a name well known to the British public; by the 1960's it was almost as well known abroad.

Deer Park and Grounds

Woburn's 3,000 acre deer park was landscaped by Humphry Repton in the early 19th century, some of which was used for the Woburn (experimental) Farm, and contains an abundance of wildlife, including nine species of deer. One of these, the Pere David, descended from the Imperial Herd of China, was saved from extinction at Woburn and is now the largest breeding herd in the world. Majestic oaks, gently landscaped parkland and lakes make this one of the most beautiful of parks. Over 1,000 deer roam here, including the Pere David deer, saved from extinction at Woburn.

As you enter the Park you will pass the splendid range of farm buildings, designed by Robert Salmon and Henry Holland, built in 1780. These incorporate the Bedford Estates Office and the Bloomsbury Stud. The famous purple and white colours of the Bloomsbury Stud have been carried with great success on race courses around the world. To the left you will see the Dairy completed in 1900.

The Gardens

There are 40 acres of pleasure gardens and a Pottery, as well as the 40 shop Antiques Centre which is probably the most unusual such centre outside London, having been designed and built utilising many shop fronts and facades, rescued from demolition sites in various parts of Britain.

The gardens at Woburn were also landscaped by Humphry Repton. His style can be seen in the natural use of the grounds. The gardens contain many rare and champion trees. Woburn is the most fully realised of Repton's projects. A large Red Book was presented to the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1802. Repton proposed a lake, a serpentine river, an American Garden, extensive planting, a bridge, and a Thornery. Today, the garden's character is Victorian. There is a hornbeam maze, herbaceous borders, ponds, a woodland garden and a Chinese diary overlooking a pool. The curved greenhouse is used as a camellia house.

"There is a handsome flower-garden here, designed by the present duchess; and near it is the most magnificent sculpture gallery to be found in any private house in England." [Source: Gardeners' Magazine and register of rural and domestic improvement, 1829]

The House

Woburn Abbey has been home of the Dukes of Bedford for over 300 years and is now lived in by the present Duke's heir, the Marquess of Tavistock and his family, in the Family Rooms.

The house contains one of the most important private collections of furniture, porcelain, silver and paintings, by many famous craftsmen and artists, including Claude, Cuyp, Gainsborough, Murillo, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Deniers to name only a few and in one room of the Private Apartments, the magnificent Venetian Room, there are 21 paintings of Venice by Antonio Canale (Canaletto). There are over 250 paintings to enjoy on the three floors of the House. In the Private Apartments, the Venetian Room is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in the world with 21 pictures of Venice by Canaletto. The paintings were commissioned by the 4th Duke while on The Grand Tour in 1731. Beautiful porcelain from France, Japan, Germany, England and China can be found in the vaults, including the famous Sevres dinner service presented to the 4th Duke of Bedford by Louis XV.

Woburn has been home to distinguished visitors in the past, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who used a suite of rooms here.


Woburn Abbey was originally a Cistercian abbey and was rebuilt in the mid-eighteenth century. It has been the home of the Dukes of Bedford for over 300 years and is reputedly haunted by a number of ghostly forms.

The most recent haunting to take place in the Abbey is thought to be the ghost of a young man who was half strangled and later drowned in the lake. Although he cannot be seen, doors open and close for him as he walks through rooms. Witnesses claim that the door handle would turn and then open, as if a person was coming through. In the time it would take for a person to cross the room, the door at the other end would open and close again for this invisible figure.

The ghost of a monk is also said to haunt the Abbey and has been seen most often in the crypt - the place where monks were buried. He is thought to be the abbot of Woburn who was hanged when he opposed Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn.

The summerhouse is haunted by the Duke's grandmother. She died at the age of 64 when the plane that she was flying mysteriously crashed on the east coast. It is not her ghost that haunts the place but an overwhelming feeling of sadness, as if her unhappy spirit lives on.

The Russell Family History

The first ancestor to be identified with certainty is a Stephen Russell of Dorset who in 1394 represented Weymouth in Parliament.

Other Russells followed in his footsteps, most notably the Lord Russell who by his death in 1683 gained for his father the title of Duke of Bedford, and the Lord John Russell who in 1832 carried the first great electoral reform Bill through Parliament.

It was Stephen Russell's great-great grandson who established the family fortune and became Baron Russell and Earl of Bedford. Having entered royal service in about 1506 John Russell served in the army of Henry VIII in France and was knighted for valour in 1522. He enjoyed the privileged position of a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and was entrusted with many state offices and diplomatic missions. Most of the family estates were granted to him as a reward for these services.

From the 1st Earl's time the Russells were sympathetic to the English Reformation; the 2nd Earl quitted England during Mary Tudor's reign and the 4th Earl in 1631 began to build the first new parish church designed for Protestant worship in London. His son, the 5th Earl, actively supported the Protestant refugees from France. During Charles IIšs reign the 5th Earl and his son William, Lord Russell, were among those who by constitutional means sought to exclude the Roman Catholic Duke of York from the succession to the throne. This means failed and in 1683 some of the Whigs sought to achieve their end by force but the plot was discovered and Lord Russell, as leader of the Whigs in the Commons, was executed (the painting shows Lord Russell in gaol). In 1694, expressly in recognition of the family's sacrifice in the cause of the Protestant succession, William III raised Lord Russell's father to be Duke of Bedford and Marquess of Tavistock.

In other spheres of public service the Russells have distinguished themselves. The 4th Duke negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and in the nineteenth century several members of the family entered the diplomatic service and the army. Others have been pioneers or adventurers, such as the 'flying Duchess'.

Today the Duke's eldest son, the Marquess of Tavistock lives here with his wife and their three sons.

Bedford, John Russell, 4th duke of

b. Sept. 30, 1710
d. Jan. 15, 1771, Woburn

leader of the "Bedford Whigs," a major parliamentary force in the third quarter of the 18th century in England.

Brother of the 3rd Duke (Wriothesley Russell), he joined the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole and in November 1744 became first lord of the Admiralty in the administration of Henry Pelham. He was subsequently lord privy seal in Lord Bute's Cabinet of 1761. He wanted peace at any cost, was sent to France to negotiate in 1762, and signed the Peace of Paris in 1763. He was lord president of the council in George Grenville's Cabinet in the same year.

Bedford was the leader of a political group which bore his name. The Bedford Whigs were a group built up on family connections and electoral influence. Lord Sandwich, Lord Gower, Lord Weymouth, and Richard Rigby were notable Bedfordites. Because of his failing eyesight, Bedford himself did not hold office after 1765, when the Grenville administration fell, but his party continued to hold office in successive ministries, and it remained a cohesive political group for more than a decade after Bedford's death.

Bedford, Francis Russell, 5th duke of

b. July 23, 1765
d. March 2, 1802, Woburn

eldest son of Francis Russell (d. 1767), marquess of Tavistock, the eldest son of the 4th duke; he succeeded his grandfather as duke of Bedford in 1771.

Regarding Charles James Fox as his political leader, he joined the Whigs in the House of Lords and became a member of the circle of the Prince of Wales, afterward George IV. Bedford was greatly interested in agriculture. He established a model farm at Woburn and made experiments in sheep breeding that were recorded by Arthur Young in the Annals of Agriculture (1795). He was a member of the original board of agriculture and was the first president of the Smithfield Club.

Bedford, John Robert Russell, 13th duke of

b. May 24, 1917

elder son of the 12th duke (Hastings William Sackville Russell), succeeding to the title in 1953.

Faced with paying heavy death duties on his father's estate, including Woburn Abbey, the 13th duke developed to the full the commercial possibilities inherent in opening a "stately home" to the public--adding to the show of magnificent collections of furniture and art treasures a number of popular attractions on the grounds, including the Wild Animal Kingdom, administered by a famous circus family, the Chipperfields. He showed himself to be a resourceful publicist, and both he and Woburn Abbey became well known to the British public and to foreign tourists. He wrote A Silver-Plated Spoon (1959), Book of Snobs (with G. Mikes; 1965), The Flying Duchess (1968), and How To Run a Stately Home (with G. Mikes; 1971).

Further information on Woburn Abbey

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Last Updated on: 20 August 2001
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