Among England’s greatest country houses, Apethorpe Palace holds a particularly important place in English history because of its ownership by, and role in, entertaining Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
Just 18 months after Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten, spent £2.5m on a house with 48 bedrooms but no running water, he has decided to give a little party. A few score of his closest friends, including the Duke of Kent, are invited for champagne, music and dinner on Tuesday evening, with entertainment by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
He felt the guests should reflect the traditions of Apethorpe Palace , a house which entertained Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. “No names, for security reasons,” he said, “but we will have ten lords, two princes of the royal houses of Europe, one duke, two marquesses, two earls, three barons, three professors, and two government ministers.”
His first party was for the villagers, intensely curious about the new owner of the house they had watched rotting for a lifetime, and amused that in the sale the name was changed from hall to palace. Von Pfetten, a diplomat, Oxford academic and champion foxhound breeder, has been nicknamed “the Red Baron” for his years as an adviser to the Chinese government on everything from inward investment to Iran’s nuclear programme; the Chinese guests will include a government member and the head of an oil company.
“I think people were reassured to meet us,” he said. “They saw that we were very serious about the future of this wonderful place.”
The price he paid reflected the work still to be done. It was less than the £3.5m spent by the government on compulsory purchase, and the £8m on restoration by English Heritage, to save a Grade I-listed treasure in danger of complete collapse. English Heritage executives visited his family chateau in Burgundy to inspect the work he had done there with his architect wife, Nadia, before the sale was agreed.
With 72 hours to go before this party the Jacobean long gallery, with a towering fireplace celebrating the wit and wisdom of James I – part of Von Pfetten’s quixotic mission to make the house a celebration of James, a king not universally beloved in his day or since – was entirely empty.
Acres of magnificent rooms, regarded as the best surviving suite of Jacobean interiors, remain beautiful empty shells. The owners are camping out with their young daughter in the former servant’s quarters, but the main house is still completely unfurnished, apart from a gigantic Victorian kitchen table which four men carried into the great hall where he believes Elizabeth signed the death warrant of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, and a few armchairs installed in a room originally decorated for the eldest son of James I.
Ten years ago there was plenty of running water at Apethorpe, pouring through missing slates and shattered gutters, trickling through some of the finest plasterwork ceilings in England, rotting rafters and joists, and bringing the entire building close to collapse.
The house was built in the late 1400s, but became steadily grander under a succession of owners, particularly Sir Francis Fane, an ambitious courtier ordered by James I to add a sequence of unquestionably palatial state apartments “for the more commodious entertainment of His Majesty and his princely recreation there”. Even in James’s day there was gossip about the recreation shared with his handsome favourite George Villiers, and in the restoration work a door which once connected their bedrooms was rediscovered.
“James was a homosexual and I think there was something extremely contemporary about the way that was accepted,” Von Pfetten said. “He was a man for our times, presiding over a time of peace when trade and the arts, especially music, flourished. He is a very, very, under-regarded man.”
The house served as a borstal for much of the 20th century until it was bought in poor repair by a Libyan businessman, Wanis Mohammed Burweila, said locally never to have spent a single night there. He left abruptly, never to return, after the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan embassy in 1984.
The house only survived through the heroic efforts of the elderly gardener, and the caretaker, George Kelley. Their salaries stopped but they kept the grounds in check, patrolling the house, chasing off vandals, putting buckets and saucepans under leaks, collecting dead pigeons and blocking up broken windows. Despite their efforts, the house seemed doomed to join the long roll call of lost mansions until the government finally stepped in to save it. Kelley, who was awarded an MBE in 2008 for his efforts, has now retired but returns most days to walk his dog in the grounds.
Von Pfetten insists Apethorpe will be a family home but not a closed world, and has signed an agreement to admit the public for 50 days of each of the next 80 years – this year by guided tours in July and August. He also dreams of creating a museum of Jacobean hunting, plans many more visits by the London Philharmonic, and intends to recreate masques by Ben Jonson, once staged there for James. “It will come back to life,” he promised.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010