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New book explores the history of Holkham Hall

PUBLISHED: 14:19 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:19 13 February 2017

The Marble Hall. Images Copyright � the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate.

The Marble Hall. Images Copyright � the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate.

Images Copyright � the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate.

For 40 years Christine Hiskey has looked after the archives at Holkham Hall, and she now retells some of the remarkable stories yielded by its documents

The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Earls of Leicester in 1908The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Earls of Leicester in 1908

It is one of the grandest homes in Britain, lived in by generations of aristocrats and visited by royalty - and countless thousands of sightseers. The latter come to see the mansion with its opulent state rooms and priceless art, its gardens and parkland. But behind the scenes at Holkham are more treasures.

Behind every decorative flourish of the architecture, every antique painting and classical sculpture, every agricultural innovation which funded the vast estate, are letters, accounts, contracts, maps, title deeds, ledgers and lists.

For the past 40 years Christine Hiskey has worked with the estate archives. She became the estate’s first official archivist and has just written a comprehensive history of Holkham based on her four decades of research. The Earl of Leicester, who owns and runs the estate today, calls it: “Arguably the most important, certainly the most authoritative, book ever written on Holkham.”

Christine first came across Holkham during childhood holidays. When her husband’s work meant a move to Wells, she returned to Holkham and, by now a professional archivist, asked whether she could help. She began working alongside the hall’s librarian and in 1985 was appointed as Holkham’s first archivist. It was a part-time job, but became a life-time passion.


The archives at Holkham Hall predate the building itself by many centuries. The oldest documents date back more than 800 years. The newest are added every day. One 12-metre-long scroll from the mid-17th century documents the books of Sir Edward Coke, the man who bought the land at Holkham for the Coke family, and whose heirs still live there. Many of his books are also still at Holkham. Magnificent Holkham Hall was built more than a century after Sir Edward bought the land for the Cokes, and tucked away in what used to be servants’ rooms are more books, less famous, glamorous and learned than Sir Edward’s titles, but just as fascinating in the details they reveal.

“I realised that if I didn’t write a history then no-one else was going to be in position to do so,” says Christine.

One of her first tasks was to collect all the archives together. Tens of thousands of documents and objects were stored in the estate strong-room and offices, in outbuildings, cellars, chests and cupboards throughout the house and even in an old game larder. As she worked through the books and boxes, cupboard and chests, Christine uncovered many forgotten aspects of Holkham history and says: “There are still discoveries to be made.”

Her book includes stories about the Coke family, about the people who designed, built and worked in the hall and on the estate, and about the visitors, from those who came in the 1750s to see the vast mansion taking shape, to those who became part of the story of Holkham in the 21st century, arriving to see its art and wildlife treasures, or enjoy its concerts, adventure playground, hotel and restaurant, and world-famous beach.

Sir Edward's 1640s catalogue of his library on a parchment list more than 12 metres long. Many of the books mentioned are still at HolkhamSir Edward's 1640s catalogue of his library on a parchment list more than 12 metres long. Many of the books mentioned are still at Holkham

“Each generation of the family has made changes at the hall. You would think that as an archivist and a historian I would grit my teeth when any changes are made but it’s completely the opposite, because being able to make changes is what has kept Holkham going,” says Christine.

Did you know...?

- The 18th-century aristocratic version of today’s gap year travels inspired the creation of Holkham, when Thomas Coke, later the 1st Earl of Leicester, enjoyed a Grand Tour of Europe, collecting ideas and artefacts for his planned palatial home.

Prince Charles fishing on Holkham lake with a gamekeeper, 1957: from film footage shot by a member of the Coke familyPrince Charles fishing on Holkham lake with a gamekeeper, 1957: from film footage shot by a member of the Coke family

- Holkham’s map room has plans of the estate going back centuries, including the only picture of the original manor house, which was demolished when the current mansion was built.

- A companionable double-seated toilet once stood at the end of the grand Marble Hall gallery. The 18th-century State Water Closet was conveniently placed for family and guests using the main rooms of the house. Another two-seater toilet was installed in the room directly below, and available for the upper servants.

- Cutting-edge technology installed at Holkham included an 18th-century steam kitchen and “shower bath” and 19th-century central heating.

Thomas Coke (1697–1759) by Francesco Trevisani, Rome 1717Thomas Coke (1697–1759) by Francesco Trevisani, Rome 1717

Holkham: The Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, by Christine Hiskey, is published in hardback by Unicorn Press, of Bracondale, Norwich. It includes 300 colour illustrations, plus 80 archive images and maps. The recommended retail price is £60 and it is available from bookshops, or for £49 for EDP Norfolk readers, including postage, from Unicorn Press, 60 Bracondale, Norwich NR1 2BE - email hugh.tradford@btconnect.com

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