Penshurst Place in Kent is an ancient place and it feels that way when you visit.  Much of the existing house dates to 1341 when Sir Thomas de Pulteney decided to build a hunting lodge within reach of London during the long reign of Edward III.  Standing in the Barons’ Hall today you will have no doubt of the ambition of Sir Thomas, one of the rising merchant class of the Middle Ages, who created a centrepiece for his house that has been described as “one of the grandest rooms in the world”.  The 8m long trestle tables are a rare survival from 400 years ago and show how the family and their retainers would have sat down to meals together.   The private family quarters in the West Solar are also little changed from the 14th century though now hung with family portraits and used as a dining room.

In 1552 the house, by now enlarged for a visit by Henry VIII in 1519, was given to Sir William Sidney in recognition of a long career as a successful military and naval commander, diplomat and tutor to the new King, Edward VI.  Today it is the home of his descendant, Philip Sidney, 2nd Viscount De L’Isle and his family. 

Queen Elizabeth I was here several times, the room where she held court in 1599 is named for her, and is part of an earlier Tudor addition to the house.   She would also recognise the layout and much of the planting of the formal gardens; this is the oldest private garden in the UK with planting records dating back to 1346.  There are two portraits of Elizabeth at Penshurst.  A painting of her dancing the Renaissance dance, La Volta, with her favourite nobleman, Robert Dudley, shows a lively sprightly woman, while in the formal portrait in the Long Gallery, aged around 45, she is the bejewelled propaganda image of her later portraits. More intriguing is the lead death mask of the Queen, taken from funerary statue that topped her coffin at her funeral, very probably a near likeliness of the aged Queen.

Standing by the fireplace in the La Volta portrait is Sir Philiip Sidney, the most famous man of his age and the embodiment of Elizabethan virtues, born at Penshurst in 1554.   Poet, soldier, diplomat, horseman and full blown Elizabethan hero, Sidney had the sort of celebrity status of a modern Hollywood star, perhaps the George Clooney of his time.  He was killed in battle in Flanders in 1587 and given a full state funeral, the first commoner to be afforded this honour, later enjoyed by the likes of Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill.  About 700 people turned out to watch and the funeral helm used on the day is part of the display of arms and armour in the Nether Hall.

Sir Philip did not live long enough to enjoy a further extension to the old house, the essential Tudor addition of a Long Gallery which now provides the perfect setting for an exceptional collection of Tudor portraits including all the main characters in the Penshurst story.  A run of staterooms also dates from the late Tudor period, don’t miss a small Pages’ Room where the Lord’s attendants would have waited for his summons.

Sir Philip Sidney’s funeral helmet is topped with a porcupine – the symbol of the Sidney family adopted by Sir Philip’s grandfather from the royal crest of King Louis XII of France added after he escorted Princess Mary Tudor to France to be married.  The porcupine crops up elsewhere too, above the fireplace in the Queen Elizabeth Room, as a quirky statue in the Demi Lune garden by Robert Rattray, in a stone carving outside the Sidney Chapel in the church and of course, your visit must include lunch or tea in The Porcupine Pantry.


 

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Penshurst Place and Gardens
Garden
Penshurst Place and Gardens

Set in the rural Weald of Kent surrounded by picturesque countryside and ancient parkland. Penshurst Place and Gardens has changed little over the centuries. This medieval masterpiece has been the seat of the Sidney family since 1552.

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