The Timeline: Stately homes

1500s: Goodbye to the castle

The feudal castle was old hat by the time the Tudor dynasty hove into view. Comfort, rather than defence, became the fulcrum of country house design. The stately home as we know it was born. The new style of prestige house found a firm footing in Elizabeth I's reign, with magnificent 100-or-more room houses such as Burghley, Haddon and Longleat popping up.

1700s: The country pile peak

Stately home building reached its zenith in the 18th century. In 1725, the footings of England's biggest country house, Wentworth Woodhouse, were laid by the Marquess of Rockingham. By the end of the century, it was twice the width of Buckingham Palace, boastws 1,000 windows, 365 rooms and five miles of underground passages.

1857: The biggest council house

Private houses went public in the mid-18th century. The first was Aston Hall, which was saved from demolition by an unlikely coalition of a working men's committee and local business magnates. It was converted to a "people's park" and was later taken over by the corporation of Birmingham – making it the world's largest council house.

1930s: Taken on Trust

The stately home was on its uppers after the First World War. Scores of great houses were pulled down. Their saviour came in the form of old-Etonian aesthete James Lees-Milne who, as secretary of the National Trust, persuaded owners to hand them to the Trust in exchange for tenancy rights – in five years he increased the number of homes owned by the trust six-fold. Today the Trust looks after around 300 historic homes.

1960s: The rock'n'roll years

The old aristocracy may have been fleeing their ancestral homes, but there was a new type of owner on the scene: the rock star. Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton led the charge in 1969 – Jagger bought the 400-year-old Stargroves in Hampshire.

2011: Downton and out

Our obsession with the country house at its magnificent peak shows no sign of abating. After the success of Gosford Park, ITV created its own big-budget country house drama in the form of Downton Abbey. The series drew 11.6 million viewers at its peak and returns to screens on Sunday at 9pm.

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