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An American President Championing British Heritage

By Martha Lytton Cobbold
Published on December 3, 2020

Oliver Dowden meets Martha Lytton Cobbold at Knebworth The Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (left) meets Martha Lytton Cobbold at her home, Knebworth House. All photos courtesy Historic Houses

Until November 2020, every President of Historic Houses, which has represented the UK’s independently owned stately homes, castles, and gardens since 1973, has been a British man. Martha Lytton Cobbold grew up in Alabama, and is now a dual US/UK citizen as well as the managing director of her home, Knebworth House in Hertfordshire – which has been passed down through the generations of her husband Henry’s family since the fifteenth century. Martha has written exclusively for The American about the formidable but rewarding task of caring for priceless heritage in challenging times, as the organisation’s ground-breaking new leader:

Knebworth House Knebworth House

‘Americans, rightly or wrongly, are commended for the ease with which they adapt themselves to foreign conditions,’ wrote Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady in 1880. He would have taken the success of his fellow patriots in running some of Britain’s grandest homes as a powerful confirmation of his theory. Examples can easily be found in the pages of The American. Recent issues have featured Hollywood actor and comedian Hopwood Depree, who’s busy rescuing his family’s ancestral seat, Hopwood Hall in Rochdale (and telling jokes about it along the way) and Julie Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, who with her husband Luke is taking on the running of Mapperton House in Dorset from Luke’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Sandwich – when she’s not presenting Smithsonian documentaries on the owners of some of the country’s other great estates. So I’m certainly not alone in being an American with responsibility for an important piece of British heritage – one which is also a visitor attraction, a business, and an important part of the local community, environment, and economy. And I face the same sorts of challenges that are common to all these special places – long gone are the ‘Downton Abbey’ days of English Earls marrying rich ‘Yankee’ heiresses for a dowry that would save their estate and Edwardian lifestyle. Today’s historic homes and gardens have to be run as viable businesses, and work hard to earn their keep...


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