Fans of the recent Netflix period drama, "The Empress", which follows the life of Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, will be excited to know that they too can stay in the abbey that the royals once lived in for over two years in the 1880's hidden away in rolling countryside on the Cheshire / Shropshire border.
Combermere Abbey, between Nantwich and Whitchurch, has definitely entertained its fair share of historic figures during its 889 years. One of its most prestigious being Her Royal Highness the Empress of Austria, who is played by Devrim Lingnau in the series adaptation of her turbulent life.
The Empress married Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria at only aged sixteen, with their engagement being announced only five days of their first meeting! Her great love in life, though, was equestrianism and in particular, hunting. She rode every day and hunted whenever she could. Her hunting style was not to merely follow the rest of the field; she was a thruster, always up with the leaders.
It was known that Elisabeth preferred hunting in England and Ireland and enjoyed lavish entertaining in keeping with her status. When she decided to spend the season in England in 1881, she rented Combermere Abbey for a period of two years from Viscount Combermere. The agreed rent was £600 per month, which equates to around £14,000 today. To accommodate her stay, a regal waiting room was built at Wrenbury railway station. The Empress also travelled with such a large retinue and so much luggage, that a special train was required and the platform extended. The modifications to the small rural station cost the enormous sum of £10,000 (equivalent to around £1.5 million today).
Elisabeth arrived at Combermere the eve of 20th February 1881 accompanied by Prince Liechtenstein, Countess Festetics, Baron de Nopsca, Herr Aiuger and her secretary Herr Firfallach. Eight of the Empress' horses arrived at Whitchurch station on the 30th of the month from Ireland and were taken to Combermere, along with her other horses from Vienna.
Today, the stables where her horses were kept have been renovated into award-winning holiday-cottages available to rent and all decorated to a very high standard, including one that is aptly named "Empress" to honour her time staying on the Combermere estate.
She travelled to England with a personal retinue of 25 staff out of a total personal staff of 80. Rooms had to be re-furnished at the abbey to create an imperial bedroom, a sitting room, bathroom, gymnasium, dressing room, and even a Roman Catholic chapel. A private telegraph line was put in to keep her in touch with her husband and family in Austria.
The Empress's life at Combermere Abbey was not without the drama that seemed to follow her everywhere. She wished to take her meals in her apartments, unseen by others, but she also wanted her meals served hot. Thus, a completely new (secret) staircase to the kitchen was built, just for this purpose.
Staying at Combermere made her one of the abbey"s most distinguished guests and she wrote that she thought Combermere Abbey to be the most romantic place in all Europe.
Sarah Callander Beckett, owner of Combermere Abbey, said: "We have such a distinguished history here that not all know about. We're so pleased to be able to share the story of Elisabeth's visit. She was a real character (as portrayed by Netflix) and her time at Combermere and Cheshire was certainly very colourful indeed. I"ve made it my life's work to restore the estate to its former glory and ensure others can enjoy it too and I'm very excited to share it with guests who stay in the North Wing and enjoy its elegance and style – being pampered by our in house team as she would have been!
B and B stays can be taken in the North Wing of Combermere Abbey all year round in the two beautiful suites designed by internationally renowned designer Nina Campbell, the Salamanca and the Bhurtpore. Guests are treated to butler service from our house manager, tea on arrival and a delicious cooked breakfast in the morning. There are estate walks to explore, amazing views to enjoy and itineraries to plan. Stays can be booked online.
"Empress" holiday cottage, which sleeps 4 people in the stable courtyard, is elegantly decorated with high ceilings and a truly royal bedroom oozing romance to reflect Elisabeth's legend. Dogs are welcome and bookings can be made online for short breaks (2-night min) and longer stays.
For those looking to discover more of the history of Combermere Abbey, the house tours are planned each year on specific dates. In 2023, public, group and VIP tours begin in March and will run for around 13 weeks. More information will be released on the abbey's website.