Is This the Most Scandalous Hotel in England?
Less than an hour from London in the Berkshire countryside, you’ll find Cliveden House, an immaculate 350-year-old estate with all the trappings you’d expect from a five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel. The grounds are perfectly manicured; the rooms furnished with rare antiques and original works of art. But don’t be fooled by the crisp, freshly-pressed linens—Cliveden House is rife with dirty laundry.
You’d certainly never know it just by looking around. Over 376 acres surround the Italianate mansion with perched views of the River Thames. Inside the property’s restaurant (which is helmed by Michelin-starred chef André Garrett) you'll notice couples toasting an anniversary over roasted squab and Paris Brest. Arrive on the right day, and you'll spot lingering petals from a ceremony that finished the day before (it's so sought after as a wedding venue that it can take years to book.) The hotel, it seems, is tailor-made for romance—a tradition deeply rooted in scandal that dates back centuries.
The historic house hotel is set on 376 acres of National Trust Land.
Cliveden House was first conceived by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who had commissioned the property as a monument to his mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, in the late 17th century. They were both married at the time, but the Duke fell passionately for Anna Maria. He imagined Cliveden House as his private Eden, away from his wife, where they could love with abandon, hunt its sprawling countryside, and entertain guests.
The only problem? Buckingham’s lack of discretion. When word of the affair got out, Anna Maria’s husband, Lord Shrewsberry, challenged Buckingham to a duel. Shrewsberry lost. Pierced through the breast, he ultimately died months later.
Buckingham may have won the spoils, but he eventually fell from the king's good graces and was required by law to separate from the Countess before he even set Cliveden's first brick.
Despite having lost his muse, Buckingham chose to continue construction on the house anyway. It was still unfinished when he died amongst strangers in 1687. Following Buckingham's death, the property remained empty for a nearly a decade before being purchased by another British aristocrat.
Cliveden was never in short supply of tragic tales. Eventually, it became the country residence of Fredrick, Prince of Wales (King George II’s son and presumed heir.) Fredrick would never be king; catching a fever in 1751, he died weeks later, leaving the throne to King George III, his brother. The fallen prince’s early death was subject to
The great hall.
Over half a century later in 1795, as if cursed, the main house burned almost entirely to the ground. And then, 50 years after being rebuilt, it burned down a second time. From the flames, the estate flickered for centuries, rebuilt once again over the course of a decade. Cliveden maintained steady but simple notoriety—Queen Victoria would travel by boat from Windsor Castle and take tea at there often; William Gladstone, who served as Britain’s Prime Minister with four separate terms, was a beloved guest before and after his political rise.
But Cliveden truly flourished in 1893 at the hands of William Waldorf Astor, America's richest man at the time. Upon buying the property, William restored a sense of magnificence to the estate, adding prim gardens and mazes, speckling the estate with sculptures and fountains. He bought the 18th-century dining room of the late Madame de Pompadour—a mistress to Louis XV—from her Parisian chateau and installed the gilded panels and chairs back at Cliveden. Taking the registry to the next level, Cliveden was later William’s wedding gift to his son and daughter-in-law, Waldorf and Nancy, who modernized the mansion and, throughout the First and Second World Wars, established hospitals on the estate.
The French dining room.
It later became a lavish scene for parties and socialites, and high-class gossip. If Bill Astor, who inherited Cliveden from his mother, Nancy, hadn't installed an outdoor swimming pool in 1961 (she deemed it beneath them) Cliveden's place in history would be quite different.
While entertaining a dinner party one evening, Bill Astor led his guests to show off a statue he'd installed near the pool. When they arrived, they were shocked to find a woman swimming nude. Christine Keeler—a 19-year-old Soho showgirl who allegedly dabbled in prostitution—had been staying in a cottage on the property with a friend, and the two snuck into the estate's pool for a skinny-dip.
The pool played a leading role in the Profumo affair.
One of Astor's companions, John Profumo, the married British Secretary of War, stole an all-too-gripping glimpse of Keeler. In an episode that he later denied in court, Profumo went on to have an affair with her. And he didn’t stop there. Profumo had several other flings, including one with a rumored Russian spy, who eventually went public with details of the affair.
News of the incident became so widespread that it stained the entire establishment. Already precarious and doubted, it flexed distrust of the Conservative government and its prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who stepped down not long afterward. Coupled with coinciding scandals, it left a tarnished leadership and contributed to the Labour’s takeover just over one year later.
Shame fell upon the Astors, who were swept into the flurry of headlines now known as the "Profumo Affair." Without being involved, they were still implicated in the rapture. Bill was questioned by the police for his role, accused of adultery, and even investigated for running a brothel.
Clivedon House is set on 376 acres of grounds including a maze that was restored in 2011.
“The reaction of his friends only worsened his plight: at Royal Ascot in June 1963, he was reduced to a social pariah, shunned and ostracized by the same people who, just two years previously, had rhapsodized over his lavish hospitality,” writes author Natalie Livingstone in The Mistresses of Cliveden, a Sunday Times bestseller that chronicled the property's sordid history. (It’s a subject she happens to know a lot about: her husband, billionaire Ian Livingstone, currently holds Cliveden’s lease.)
Having donated the property nearly two decades earlier to the National Trust (a century-old charity that preserves and opens up historic places to the public) on the condition that the Astor family could reside as long as they wished, they left just years after the scandal.
There are 38 bedrooms, each named and styled after one of Cliveden's famous visitors.
Since the 1980s, Cliveden House has operated as a luxury hotel. A multimillion dollar renovation three years ago rendered the estate glamorous anew, but its history is far from forgotten. Its 38 rooms, in fact, are reminders of its marquee guest list, each named and styled after one of Cliveden's star visitors. (The hotel has hosted every British monarch since George I, in addition to Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, and Charlie Chaplin.)
The three-bedroom Spring Cottage, where Christine Keeler stayed, is now, ironically, one of the hotel’s most sought-after rooms. A renovation to the spa was recently completed, and the infamous heated pool has opened once again, affording guests the opportunity to dip their toes (quite literally) into Cliveden’s steamy history.
Spring Cottage, a three-bedroom, riverside house with private gardens on the property, sleeps six.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.