Hidden archives at Norfolk stately home revealed

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

Holkham Images Copyright the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate. - Credit: Images Copyright the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate.

From marshland to mansion and from a 17th-century building site to a home for generations of aristocrats and their priceless art treasures, papers detailing the development of magnificent Holkham are illuminated by the estate's first archivist, writes Rowan Mantell.

Sir Edward's 1640s catalogue of his library on a parchment list more than 12 metres long. Many of th

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 Holkham. Images Copyright the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate. - Credit: Images Copyright the Earl of Leicester and the Trustees of the Holkham Estate.

The mansion stretches across ancient parkland. Inside, are grand state rooms, created from marble and polished stone and furnished with antiques and art from around the world. Outside, the estate takes in some of the most famous farmland, beautiful coastline, and perfectly-landscaped parkland in the country. Thousands of people are awed by the opulence of Holkham, but beyond the ornate suites on show to visitors, lie more treasures. Behind every decorative flourish of the architecture, every priceless work of art, every agricultural innovation which funded the vast estate, are letters, accounts, contracts, maps, title deeds, ledgers and lists – all kept in former footmen's rooms.

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.

The magnificent house 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. These ledgers, account books and collections of plans and letters are part of the archives of the Holkham estate and Holkham's first official archivist, Christine Hiskey, said: 'Some of the archives are older than anything else at Holkham, other than the land itself.'

She 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.'


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Christine first came across Holkham during childhood holidays. 'We walked everywhere, and used to walk through the park,' she said. Fascinated by history she went on to read history at Oxford and work in the county records office in Durham, but when her husband's work meant a move to Wells, she returned to Holkham. Keen to continue working with historical documents, and remembering her childhood love of Holkham, she asked whether she could help in its archives.

That was 40 years ago. She began working alongside the hall's librarian, who was appointed in the 1930s and visited from Oxford to oversee the archives. Then, in 1985 she was appointed as Holkham's first archivist. It was a part-time job, but became a life-time passion.

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And on Wednesday, her book Holkham: The Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, will be published.

'I realised that if I didn't write a history then no-one else was going to be in position to do so,' said 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, but also 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 said: 'There are still discoveries to be made.'

The book has taken many years to write, but wears its learning lightly. There are hundreds of colour illustrations, and plenty of stories too, not just about the Coke family, but about the people who worked in the hall and on the estate over the centuries, 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.

'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,' said Christine.

Her book is dedicated to Edward, the 7th Earl of Leicester, who died last year, and had always been fascinated by the history of his estate.

'I'm hoping it's going to be of interest to everyone who loves Holkham,' said Christine.

Holkham: The Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, by Christine Hiskey, will be published by Unicorn Press on November 30. The 592-page hardback book with 300 colour illustrations and 80 archive images and maps, is priced at £60 from Unicorn Press, 60 Bracondale, Norwich NR1 2BE. Email hugh.tradford@btconnect.com. It is also available from Jarrold's.

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