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In 1067, the Count de Mortain, who had been granted land including Montacute, built a castle on St Michael's Hill, or Mons Acutus. This structure was short-lived, and by 1192 the site of the castle had been granted to the Cluniac priory which had been founded at the foot of the hill around 1102. The prior enclosed the hillside as a deer park, in which use it continued until the Dissolution in 1539.

By the mid-16th century a small town had grown up around the priory. The Phelips family became established in the town, and in 1587 Thomas Phelips conveyed his Montacute estate to his youngest son, Edward, (knighted 1603, died 1614) who was a successful lawyer serving as Speaker of the House of Commons, and later as Master of the Rolls. In 1598-99 Edward Phelips began to build a new house at Montacute adjacent to the site of his father's home. The new mansion was completed around 1601, and stood in an area of formal gardens which appear to have been contemporary with the house (National Trust, 1998). The park to the east developed over a more extended period as the Phelips family was able to buy or exchange land with their neighbours. Sir Edward acquired the former priory estate together with the lordship of the manor in 1608; and by 1630, Gerard noted the existence of a 'Parke' as well as spacious courts and gardens at Montacute (guidebook). Following Sir Edward's death in 1614, the estate passed to Sir Robert Phelips, a politician, who furnished the house in extravagant style. His son, Col Edward Phelips suffered financial ruin during the Civil War and was forced to sell much of the contents of the house in 1652. In 1668, Col Edward Phelips passed the estate to his son, Sir Edward Phelips IV, who died the following year leaving an inheritance disputed between three daughters. This dispute was finally resolved in 1750 when Edward Phelips V, another successful lawyer, took possession of the estate, which had been neglected for nearly a century. Edward Phelips was responsible for significant changes to the house and its setting, building a folly tower on St Michael's Hill in 1760, and forming a new entrance to the west in 1785-7. The former entrance court to the east was converted to garden by 1812 (National Trust, 1998).

Edward Phelips died in 1797, and was succeeded by the Revd William Phelips, who in turn died in 1806, leaving the estate to his son, John. At John Phelips' death in 1834, Montacute was inherited by his eleven-year old son, William. The house was let until William Phelips came of age and married Ellen Helyer of Coker Court, Somerset in 1845. Ellen Phelips brought with her to Montacute a gardener from Coker Court, Mr Pridham, with whose advice she and her husband renovated the gardens. Mr Pridham provided designs for an elaborate parterre for the North Garden, and the orangery which were constructed within the surviving framework of the late 16th-century garden. Mr Pridham also laid out the west drive and avenue, and probably remodelled the East Court, while improvements were made to the park in the mid-19th century. The railway line was constructed to the north of the house in 1853, forming a new northern boundary to the park.

By 1860, William Phelips was suffering from mental illness, and in 1875 the management of the estate passed to his son, William Robert Phelips. During the late 19th century the estate declined (National Trust, 1998), but the gardens came to be seen as an exemplar of the Tudor style, and were described and illustrated by Reginald Blomfield in The Formal Garden in England (1892), and by Country Life (1898) and H Avray Tipping in Gardens Old and New (1908). In 1911, Montacute was let to Lord Curzon (1859-1925), the former Viceroy of India (1898-1905), who with his mistress, the popular novelist Elinor Glyn (1864-1943), undertook essential repairs to the house and made minor alterations to the gardens. When Lord Curzon died in 1925, the estate was offered for sale. It was finally purchased in 1931 by E E Cook, who passed the property to the National Trust.

During the Second World War, Montacute was requisitioned by the army. Following restoration of the property to the National Trust, in 1945 Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was invited to provide planting schemes for the East Court; these were subsequently replaced around 1951 by schemes devised by Mrs Phyllis Reiss (died 1961) of neighbouring Tintinhull House (see description of this site elsewhere in the Register). Further mid- and late 20th-century changes to the gardens were made with the advice of Graham Stuart Thomas (died 2003).

In the early 21st century, Montacute remains the property of the National Trust.

Site history key facts

Historical use of site

1102 to 1539: deer park

Site timeline

1939 to 1945: Montacute was requisitioned by the army.

People associated with this site

Architect: Robert Shekleton Balfour (born 1870 )

Designer: Phyllis Reiss (born 03/10/1886 died 18/09/1961)

Designer: Victoria May Sackville-West (born 09/03/1892 died 02/06/1962)

Advisor: Graham Stuart Thomas (born 03/04/1909 died 16/04/2003)



There are two 'pudding houses'.

herbaceous border


Patterned yew hedge

tree avenue

Oak avenue

specimen tree

Sweet chestnuts with twisted bark.

tree avenue

Lime avenue


Feature created: 1760