It was on this very high, exposed site that George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687) chose to build the first Cliveden house. The Duke of Buckingham pulled down the earlier buildings and chose Captain William Winde as his architect. Winde designed a four-storey house above an arcaded terrace.
Although the Duke's intention was to use Cliveden as a hunting lodge, he later housed his mistress Anna, Countess of Shrewsbury there. In the Duke's eastern garden, flints have been laid in the lawn as a rapier dated 1668, to commemorate the duel between the Duke and his mistress' husband Lord Shrewsbury. Lord Shrewsbury died of his wounds, as told by Samuel Pepys in his diary.
John Evelyn, another diarist, visited the Duke at Cliveden in 1679 and recorded the following impression in his diary: "I went to Clifden of the Duke of Buckingham. On the terrace is a circular view of the utmost verge of the Horizon which with the serpentining of the Thames, is admirable and surprising. The cloisters, gardens and avenue through the wood august and stately.”
Cliveden House, 2013
The present Cliveden House is a blend of the English and Italian Palladian styles. The Victorian three-storey mansion sits on a 120m long, 6m high arcaded terrace/viewing platform which remains from the mid-C17t house. The house facade is covered in Roman cement, with terracotta balusters, capitals, keystones and finials. The roof of the mansion is for strolling, and there is a circular view, above the tree-line, that includes Windsor Castle.
Whereas Charles Barry's original interior showed off a square entrance hall, a morning room and a separate stairwell, Lord Astor wanted a more impressive entrance to Cliveden. He chose to have all three rooms enlarged into one, very large Great Hall. His aim was to make the interior as much like an Italian palazzo as possible. Most English of all is the library, panelled in gorgeous cedar wood.
Cliveden House, Great Hall
In 1984–86 the exterior of the mansion was overhauled and a new lead roof installed by the National Trust, while interior repairs were carried out by Cliveden Hotel. In 2013 further restoration work on the main house was carried out including the windows and doors.
I knew all about Cliveden’s architecture and decorative arts from both lectures and a tour. But I had forgotten about the Cliveden Set. After their marriage, American expats Nancy (nee Langhorne) and 2nd Viscount Waldorf Astor married in 1906 and moved into Cliveden, a wedding gift from Astor's father. Nancy Astor became a prominent hostess at Cliveden House for a social elite; she attracted a group of upper class and very influential people in post-WW1.
Nancy Astor was the first female MP in Britain, Waldorf Astor owned The Observer, Geoffrey Dawson was editor of The Times, Samuel Hoare was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Edward Wood Lord Halifax was a government minister and Edward Fitzroy was Speaker of the Commons. Alas Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and, as the 1930s went on, increasingly pro-German. So were her most of her powerful colleagues in the Cliveden Set.
Profumo and Keeler
And I had forgotten that the Profumo Affair, an event that rocked all British countries in 1961, had started at Cliveden. There was a summer party at the Cliveden estate of 3rd Viscount William Astor in 1961; this was the very same weekend that Stephen Ward, Astor’s residential osteopath, had a party. Lord Astor’s friends were mainly aristocratic eg the Conservative politician and British Secretary of State for War John Profumo (1915–2006). Ward’s friends were less than aristocratic, including the sexy dancer Christine Keeler and her lover, the Russian military attaché Yevgeny Ivanov.
To cool down from the summer heat, Lord Astor walked his guests to over to the family pool where Profumo caught a sight of Christine Keeler swimming naked. It was love at first sight! Through Ward’s connections, the very married Profumo began an affair with Keeler, and rumours of their involvement soon began to spread. In March 1963 Profumo lied about the affair to Parliament, stating that he had never had sexual relations with that woman, with Miss Keeler. A short time later Profumo resigned, admitting with deep remorse that he had deceived the House of Commons.
The real tragedy was not that extra-marital sex took place at Cliveden House, nor that the British Secretary of State for War was forced to admit that he had deceived Mrs Profumo. The real tragedy for the Conservatives was that the scandal led to the eventual downfall of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. The opposition Labour Party soon defeated the Conservatives in a national election.
The personal results were strangely unequal. Profumo began a career in charity and was honoured by the queen in 1975 for his work. He never spoke about politics in public again. Stephen Ward was convicted on two counts of living off immoral earnings, took an over-dose of sleeping pills and died three days later. After Christine Keeler’s release from prison in 1964 and two brief marriages, the ex-showgirl largely lived alone.
It was never proven that Yevgeny Ivanov had attempted to entrap Profumo or to use Keeler as an agent. And Profumo’s relationship with Ms Keeler was never proven to lead to a breach of British national security in Russia. Ivanov was recalled to Moscow in Dec 1962 and although his naval career continued back in the Soviet Union, he was assigned to a distant fleet well away from the centres of power.