The late Georgian mansion was built in the 1770s by Wills Hill, first Marquis of Downshire and was later remodelled in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it is a working royal palace functioning as the official residence of the Royal Family when they are in Northern Ireland, and it has been the home of the Secretary of State since the 1970s. A tour of the house will guide you through the elegant State Rooms, still in use today, including the majestic Throne Room and graceful Drawing Room.
Wander through 98 acres of beautiful gardens developed from the 1760s onwards, offering a contrast of ornamental grounds, peaceful woodland, meandering waterways, and trimmed lawns. Look out for the statue of Ossian outside the main entrance, the Lady Alice Temple, the Quaker Burial ground and the Ice House.
Wills Hill went on to build the Castle and the village in the Georgian style. The house itself is set in the heart of Hillsborough village, in view of the original Fort, and the Court House. At their height, the Hill family were the largest landowners in Ireland. Members of the family held official positions: in fact, Wills Hill himself was Secretary of the American Colonies during the 1770s; he was also Comptroller of the Royal Household during the 1750s and may have spent time at Kensington Palace during the reign of George II.
During the early 19th century the grand country house was altered and extended; a great Library was added, along with a Billiards Room, estate offices, a Muniments Room, and better servants’ areas. Over the course of the century the Hill family spent less and less time at Hillsborough. By 1900 the house was rented out privately, and in December 1924 the house was purchased for £25,000 by the Imperial Office of the British Government.
Following the Irish Free State Act of 1922, the position of Lord Lieutenant was replaced by the post of Governor, the British monarch’s representative in the newly formed Northern Ireland and Hillsborough Castle became Government House. The State Rooms were improved and new apartments built. In 1934 a fire devastated much of the house and the Governor and his family had to vacate while considerable rebuilding took place. Much of what we see today dates to this time. The Duke of Abercorn retired in 1945 and was succeeded by Earl Granville, whose wife, Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, was sister to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. There then followed many years during which The Queen, The Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret spent many holidays at Hillsborough.
The modern royal history of Hillsborough begins in the 1920s, when it became the de facto royal residence in Northern Ireland. Leading members of the Royal Family have regularly visited Northern Ireland since 1922, using Hillsborough as their ceremonial and personal base. Significantly, the first meeting between HM The Queen and Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland, occurred at Hillsborough in 2009. In 2011 the Queen led the first state visit to the Republic of Ireland.
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