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A country house is a large dwelling, such as a mansion, located on a country estate.
Defining the country house
Subject to qualifications which are discussed below, a country house will once have been the centrepiece of an agricultural estate large enough to provide the landowner with sufficient income to be accepted as a member of either the aristocracy or the gentry. In the 19th century and earlier this generally required an estate of at least a thousand acres (4 km²) of land. A few landowners owned more than a hundred times this minimum, and this inequality within the ruling class is reflected in the range of country houses which were built.
A country house may be built in any architectural style. It will probably have at least 25 rooms and at least 8,000 square feet (740 m²) of floor space, including service rooms. There are many designations which are used by a large number of houses, such as "house", "hall", "castle", "park", "palace", "court", "abbey", "priory", or "grange", and this often reveals something about its history, especially if it originated before 1800. On the other hand, the name may have been chosen on the whim of the owner, especially if the house was built after 1800. For example, many country houses which are designated "castle" never had any military purpose.
Most country houses have large grounds comprised of a garden in the immediate vicinity of the house, and a larger park beyond the garden which is grazed by animals, but also has aesthetic and recreational purposes. Many of the finest gardens in Britain are country house gardens.
A country house is typically several hundred metres from any other houses, but it may be close to the centre of a village or even close to the centre of a small town. (The larger the settlement the larger the house will need to be to retain its status as a "country house"—Alnwick Castle is an example of a very large house which is in a town, but is generally perceived to be a country house.)
On the other hand, some large houses in Britain that were built in rural locations are now surrounded by suburban sprawl. However, these may still be referred to as country houses in some contexts, especially by architectural historians. Syon Park in the suburbs of London is an example of this.
In Britain and Ireland, the term country house is not simply a house in a rural location. It generally refers to a large house, large enough to be regarded as a mansion, which was built on an agricultural estate as the private residence of the landowner. There are several types of smaller houses which are common in the British countryside, but are not "country houses" in the sense in which the term is generally used, these include farmhouses, cottages, rectories, oast houses and barn conversions; anyone who owns one of these and refers to it as their "country house" is likely to be considered extremely pretentious by most people in Britain. (Current usage errs towards the opposite tendency of referring to medium-sized homes in the country as "cottages", especially if they are "second homes".)
The term stately home is closely related to "country house", but it does not have quite the same meaning. "Country house" is the term usually preferred by architectural historians and by the owners of the houses. On the other hand, the term "stately home" is frequently used in the media, by tourist operators and members of the public. When someone refers to a "stately home", they are probably thinking of one of the largest and grandest ten per cent of country houses, especially those which are open to the public. The usage of the term "stately home" is discussed in more detail in a separate article. This article will use the term "country house".
Who built the houses, and why
The architectural historian Mark Girouard argues in Life in the English Country House, that country houses were essentially "power houses" built to enhance the ability of the owners to influence local and national politics. Some of the great houses, such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham Hall, were certainly built to impress and to dominate the landscape. It should also be noted that not all country house builders had an interest in politics, even in an informal sense. Nevertheless, country houses often served as meeting places for the ruling class to discuss, for example, election campaigns. Also, many country house owners and members of their families served as Lord Lieutenants and Justices of the Peace, and local courts were still sometimes held in country houses well into the 19th century; this practice was a holdover from the Medieval manor courts. Country-house-owning members of the aristocracy and gentry continued, in diminishing degrees, to hold high office into the twentieth century. Lord Carrington was perhaps the last of this breed.
In the 19th Century, the political power of the landowning class began its slow decline with the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the new class of industrialists slowly began, in many cases, to eclipse the wealth of the aristocracy and gentry. Many of these men bought or built new country houses, and the previously vital link to land ownership was slowly eroded. Some late 19th- and early 20th-century houses, such as Cragside, were never supported by an agricultural estate.
The vast majority of country houses in Britain and Ireland were built before 1914.
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