The Rise & Decline of 'Rothschildshire'
During the 1830s, Nathan Mayer’s widow, Hannah, began to complain that her sons were becoming unfit from spending so much time indoors, and that their luxurious lifestyles were causing them to gain weight.  Hannah decided that the best exercise would be the gentleman’s pastime of riding to hounds, and with that end in mind she bought some land at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire.  Thus began the Rothschild family’s invasion of what came to be named Rothschildshire.

In 1850, Nathan’s youngest son, Mayer Amschel (1818-1874), purchased more land in the Mentmore area from the trustees of the daughters of William Harcourt.  He commissioned the most fashionable architect of the day, Sir Joseph Paxton, [3] and his son-in-law George Stokes to build him a mansion on a grand scale.  Mayer Amschel’s older brothers, Lionel and Anthony, soon followed suit by acquiring land and estates in the countryside around Aylesbury.

When complete, Mentmore Towers was one of the grandest English country houses to be built in the Victorian Era.  Situated on a prominent, elevated position in the centre of the Vale of Aylesbury, it is an amalgam of Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture – the English poet and writer Sir John Betjeman later christened the style “Jacobethan”, a term that became its accepted architectural description.  While backward-looking in style, the mansion incorporated the most modern features, including a huge central grand hall with glazed roof, plate-glass windows and central heating.
A huntsman, horse-riding enthusiast and collector of art, the Baron saw Mentmore as a place of seclusion where he could relax, pursue his hobbies, enjoy the country air, and display his collection of fine art and antiques.  Indeed, the mansion came to house one of the greatest connoisseur’s collections of furniture and art in the land.  The art critic and historian Elizabeth Eastlake said that it was “like a fairyland when I entered the great palace, and got at once into the Grand Hall – 40ft by 50, and about 40ft high – hung with tapestries, floored with parquet and Persian carpets.”
The Grand Hall, Mentmore.
Another visitor described Mentmore thus:

This Palatial Residence of Baron de Rothschild introduced a new style of domestic architecture into Buckinghamshire . . . . The mansion in built entirely of Ancestor stone, of fine quality and colour; the cornices are highly enriched; and the frieze of each order in filled in with carved panels and heads . . . . The Great Hall is about 48 feet by 40 feet, and 40 feet high, and is separated from the Sub Hall by the corridor . . . . In the Sub Hall leading to the Great Hall is a collection of beautiful Italian statuary, bronzes, and pillars of the rarest ancient marbles.  Amongst the most remarkable of these objects is a Greek statue of a Bacchante, with porphyry drapery and a beautiful bronze bust of Greek workmanship.  The Great Hall contains an infinity of interesting works of art.  From the ceiling are suspended the three Lanterns of copper gilt, surmounted by the Lion of St. Mark, which were made in the arsenal of Venice in the time of the Doge Andrea Vendremin, in 1470, and once illuminated the deck of the famous Bucentoro.  The walls are covered with twelve large well preserved and interesting panels of tapestry, the subjects representing the occupations and amusements of each month of the year.  The large chimney-piece, sculptured in black and white marble, was designed by and executed for Rubens, and formerly decorated his house at Antwerp.  There are four busts of Moors of cinque-cento workmanship in basalt, the draperies composed of Rosso antique and other rare marbles.  Also large sculptured Florentine tables of the 16th century, with magnificent antique marble slabs; and two prizes in silver with inscriptions, which were presented by King William III. to the City of Berne . . . . On the upper floor is a Boudoir, full of the most beautiful drawings, paintings, miniatures, old Sevres porcelain, and Bijoux of the time of the three Louis's, viz. XIX, XV, and XVI.”
History and Topography of Buckinghamshire, James Sheahan (1862)

Paxton, originally a gardener and an accomplished landscape designer, produced plans for the grounds, which were laid out by the foremost horticulturist of the day, Sir Harry Veitch.
Entrance gates, Mentmore.
Mayer’s only child, Hannah, became a companion to her hypochondriac mother, Juliana, and during the
Mayer’s only child, Hannah, became a companion to her hypochondriac mother, Juliana, and during the latter’s long periods of indisposition acted as hostess at her father’s social functions (while only 17 years of age she hosted a large house party at Mentmore for the Prince of Wales).  When her father died in 1874, Hannah inherited Mentmore with its priceless art collection, his London mansion, innumerable investments, and the sum of two million pounds, making her the wealthiest woman in England.

Between 1874 and her marriage in 1878, Hannah concentrated on developing Mentmore village alongside other estate hamlets and villages including Wingrave.  At Mentmore a few buildings were retained and remodelled but most were built anew in the type of Old English vernacular style popularized by architect George Devey [4] – these are recognised by a prominent plaque inscribed with Hannah’s initials, and sometimes including the year of construction.

In 1878 Hannah married Archibald Primrose, the 5th Earl of Rosebery and a Christian; thereafter she was known as the Countess of Rosebery.  She then became a political hostess and the driving force on her husband’s path to political advancement (he was to serve as prime Minister between 1894 and 1896).  She was also known as a philanthropist.  Following Hannah’s sudden death in 1890 at the early age of 39, the Mentmore estate passed to the Rosebery family.
Hannah Primrose, Countess of Rosebery
A Hannah Rothschild plaque.
During World War II, part of the mansion was used to store many British art collections of national importance, including the Gold State Coach of the Royal Family.  Although much of the parkland was later sold, Mentmore remained with the Rosebery family until 1978 when, following the death of the 6th Earl in 1974, the family was faced with crippling death duties.  They offered the contents of Mentmore to the nation in lieu of inheritance taxe, but the Labour government of James Callaghan refused to accept the offer, stating that in the economic climate of the time the nation could not afford it.  The executors of the estate were therefore forced to sell the contents by public auction.

In 1977, Mayer Amschel’s collection was dispersed in one of the major art sales of the century.  Paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Boucher, Drouais, Moroni and other well-known artists, and also the work of cabinet makers including Jean Henri Riesener and Chippendale were among the vast catalogue of items.  Also represented were the work of the finest German and Russian silver and goldsmiths, and makers of Limoges enamel.  Mentmore Towers was sold in the following year.
The scandal that followed the disposal of Mentmore’s artworks led to the passage of the National Heritage Act (1980), which was designed to make provision for property to be accepted more easily in satisfaction of taxation.  In 1997 the Act was extended to include property of any kind, such as that of scenic, historic, archaeological, aesthetic, architectural, engineering, artistic or scientific interest, including animals and plants which are of zoological or botanical interest.

Mentmore Towers was sold for £240,00 in 1978, becoming the headquarters for the educational charity, the Maharishi Foundation.  The building again changed owners in 1999 (for £3M) when it was purchased by investor Simon Halabi who planned to convert it into a luxury hotel.  However, following the global financial crises Halabi was declared bankrupt placing his plan in abeyance.  There are now worrying concerns about the future of this Grade I-listed country house, which is reported to require urgent work to parts of its structure, leading English Heritage to place it on their At Risk Register.