The Abbey has been the home of the Earls and Dukes of Bedford, one of England’s most powerful families, since the 1620s. It is currently the home of the 15th Duke and Duchess of Bedford and their children. Russell family members have included Prime Ministers, Ambassadors, Lord High Admirals and philosophers over the centuries and provide a direct link to the events of the past that shaped the England of today.
Woburn Abbey is built on the site of a Cistercian Monastery dating back to 1145. In 1547, during the Dissolution, the Abbey was seized from its monastic order by Henry VIII, and was later given to the Dukes of Bedford who have lived there ever since.
From the middle of the 18th century the abbey was rebuilt in a Palladian style, and the surrounding 3,000 acre deer park, which was used for hunting, was landscaped by Humphrey Repton in the early 19th century.
Woburn Abbey first opened to the public in 1955, though the house is currently closed in order to undergo a large scale refurbishment programme and will re-open in 2022. In 1970, the Safari Park was opened and now has over 1,000 wild animals. It is internationally recognized as a centre of excellence for the conservation of endangered wildlife.
The Abbey itself houses artworks by Rembrandt, Velázquez, Murillo, Gainsborough, van Dyck and Hans Holbein the Younger, as well as collections of Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds. Outside, there are 28 acres of gardens including an 18th-century Chinoiserie Chinese Dairy.
During your visit to Woburn Abbey, there are a number of items within the collection that are not to be missed.
1. The Armada Portrait in the Long Gallery
The portrait of Elizabeth I is attributed to George Gower and dates from 1588. A legendary symbolic painting, it commemorates the victorious sea battle against the Spanish Armada and portrays the Tudor Queen as Empress of the world and commander of the seas.
2. The Crypt Porcelain Display
Amongst the highlights on display is a celebrated selection of porcelain from the Sèvres dinner service presented to the wife of the 4th Duke by King Louis XV, in appreciation of his role in negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1763. It is the only Sèvres service to be gifted to an English aristocrat by the King of France.
3. 24 Views of Venice by Canaletto (1697 – 1768)
The future 4th Duke of Bedford visited Venice while on his Grand Tour in 1731. These paintings were subsequently commissioned and remind us of the fascination of this beautiful city for the traveller. One of the family’s favourites is ‘The Entrance to the Arsenal’, where the great fleets of the Republic were built.
4. The Grotto
The Grotto (built probably between the later 1620s and 1641) was designed as an undersea cavern which included piped water cascading into a basin. The stone is carved to resemble seaweed and stalactites, with dolphins formed from mother-of-pearl and the ceiling inlaid with ormer shells. This room is a unique surviving example of a 17th-century Grotto.
5. The Silver and Gold Vaults
A selection of some of the family silver and gold includes the 4th Duke’s wedding present to his second wife Gertrude, commissioned from Paul de Lamerie, one of the finest Huguenot silversmiths.
6. The Holland Library and The Book Room
The Library was designed by Henry Holland in the neo-classical style. There is an extensive collection of botanical and ornithological books, some of which are displayed in the Book Room including the impressive lifesize illustrations in the facsimile copy of ‘Birds of America’ by John James Audubon.
Please note, the Holland Library is only open to the public Tuesday-Thursday.
7. The Oakley Doll’s House
New for 2016, visitors to Woburn Abbey can now peek behind the curtains of a wonderful, historic doll’s house. Beautifully furnished and skilfully made by members of the Russell family at the beginning of the 20th century.
It is a replica in miniature of Oakley House which is situated just outside Bedford and was owned by the 4th Duke of Bedford.