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The story of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens

‘The Grandest House in County Down’

‘The Grandest House in County Down’

Hillsborough Castle has been a grand family home and is now the official home of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and a royal residence. Members of the Royal Family stay at Hillsborough when visiting Northern Ireland.

Viewed by some as a politically neutral venue, Hillsborough has played an important role in the Peace Process in Northern Ireland since the 1980s.

In 2014, Historic Royal Palaces took over the running of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens and began an ambitious project to restore the house and gardens to its former glory.  

Photograph looking over a lawn towards the front facade of Old Castle, Hillsborough. The castle is a square building with crenellated walls and towers standing on each corner. On the front of the castle there are three arched windows in a horizontal line above the doorway. On the right of the photograph there is a large tree standing on a small mound of earth. Two children are standing at the base of the tree.

A castle or a house?

Hillsborough is a late-18th century Irish Big House rather than a castle. It was very common for the rich, predominantly Anglo-Irish upper classes to call their grand country houses ‘castles’, as this reinforced the antiquity of their families.

In this case the name refers back to the original ‘fort’, which was the first home of the successful Hill family who gave the town its name. The grand Big House of Hillsborough replaced this earlier fortified home, which we now call The Fort.

Image: Hillsborough Fort c1903. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Magennises and the Hills

Hillsborough, originally the settlement of Cromlyn (meaning Crooked Glen) in mid-Down, became part of the Hill family estates in the early 1600s. Moyses Hill, the landless second son of an English West Country family, joined the army to seek his fortune in Ireland, where he supported the Earl of Essex, a military leader sent by Elizabeth I. 

At this time, the land was still in the hands of Irish chiefs of the Magennis family. But the defeat of Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill in 1603 opened the way for men such as Moyses Hill to establish themselves as landowners in Ireland. The Hills bought some 5,000 acres of land, then gradually added to this over the next 20 years until the whole area around the present Hillsborough had passed from the Magennises to the Hills.


Did you know?

Descendants of the Magennises are the Guinness family of brewery fame.

Portrait of Wills Hill, The Earl of Hillsborough, later 1st Marquess of Downshire, (1718-93) by Pompeo Batoni.

The rise of the Hills

Successive generations of this ambitious family began to rise, politically and socially, in Ireland. Within 50 years they were one of the most prominent landowning families in the area; their estates stretched for over 130 miles from Larne, north of Belfast to Dun Laoghaire, south of Dublin, around 115, 000 acres in total.

Wills Hill was the first Marquess of Downshire and his diplomatic skills as a courtier cemented the family’s position in society.

From 1768-72 he held the post of Secretary of State for the Colonies. He had grown very powerful in government and served the royal family, for which he was awarded his title in 1789. 

Wills Hill famously hosted American founding father Benjamin Franklin, but contrary to popular myth, when they met at Hillsborough in 1771, the two men got along well together. 

Image: Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough painted by Pompeo Batoni. Courtesy of Simon C. Dickinson Ltd

A fashionable townhouse

Wills Hill built not only this house but also the Courthouse in The Square. He also built the terraces around The Square and other buildings in the town. 

Hillsborough is unusual for an Irish Big House as it is not a country house around which a town grew; rather it was built as a townhouse, forming one side of a neat Georgian square. 

The road to Moira once passed directly below the windows, and opposite the house were a variety of shops, houses and the Quaker Meeting House.


Did you know?

There is still a Quaker burial ground in the gardens of the castle.

Drawing of Hillsborough Church and Castle by John Nixon, c1760 –1818

Church of St Malachy

Wills Hill also enlarged the local parish church of St Malachy. His plan was that it would become the new cathedral. This beautiful church has been preserved and can be visited today.

The first Marquess also restored the old Fort, which had once served to defend the road between Carrickfergus and Dublin built on the site of the earlier Magennis fort. Wills Hill did this in the fashionable Gothick style as a place for relaxation and entertainment for his family in the years to come.

Image: Hillsborough Church and Castle by John Nixon, c1760 –1818. © National Museums NI, Collection Ulster Museum, BELUM.P1.1980

Arthur Trumbull Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire ('A view of Hill near Downshire')
by and published by Richard Dighton, reissued by Thomas McLean
hand-coloured etching, published 1817
13 3/4 in. x 9 7/8 in. (350 mm x 250 mm) plate size; 15 in. x 10 3/8 in. (382 mm x 263 mm) paper size
Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Pilgrim Trust, 1966
Reference Collection
NPG D2282

A grand entertainment

The Hills were famous hosts and both the Fort and house saw some memorable celebrations!

In 1837, the Fort was used to celebrate the marriage of Lord Hillsborough, eldest son of the third Marquess, Arthur Hill, who was a popular and conscientious landlord. Guests at the lavish party included over 3,500 tenants from the family’s vast estates, plus 500 other guests.

This astonishing event, which took place on the parade ground inside The Fort, was reported in the Ulster Times as 'a fête…almost without parallel in the kingdom.' The ale flowed freely, so much so that apparently 13 of the revellers succumbed to alcohol poisoning!

A verse written at the time described it:

'In the rear of the Fortress the tables were spread,
With roast beef and mutton, plum pudding and bread,
And 3500 to dinner sat down.
A magnificent party for Hillsborough town'.

Image: Arthur Trumbull Hill, 3rd Marquess of Downshire, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The house expands

The 3rd and 4th Marquesses, also commissioned a lot of work on the house, giving it the outward appearance it has today.

When the house was being altered in the 1840s, the family decided to expand the gardens and so rebuilt the road, houses and Quaker Meeting House all further away. The old road was absorbed into the landscaping of the gardens, and the south side of the house was opened out to allow views of the ‘picturesque’ gardens.


Did you know?

The 3rd Marquess was President of the Ulster Gaelic Society and a strong supporter of the preservation of the Irish language, music, and folk traditions.

Arthur Willis Blundell Sandys Trumbull Windsor Hill, 4th Marquess of Downshire
by Unknown photographer
albumen print, 1860s
7 7/8 in. x 5 3/4 in. (200 mm x 146 mm) image size
Photographs Collection
NPG x28108

Hillsborough's recent history

Successive generations of the Hill family enjoyed the house as a family home, renovating and redecorating in the latest styles and improving the gardens. 

However, by the end of the 19th century they were spending more time on their estate in England, at Easthampstead Park in Berkshire or their seaside home at Murlough House in County Down. The sixth Marquess' uncle and guardian, Lord Arthur Hill remained at Hillsborough Castle to look after his nephew's estate. The family first rented out Hillsborough in 1909, then sold it completely in 1925.

It was bought by the British government, for around £24,000 (equivalent to £1.3m today) to be the residence of the Governor of Northern Ireland. 

Following Partition in 1921, Governors were appointed to represent the monarch in Northern Ireland, replacing the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland who had previously lived at Dublin Castle. The house became known as Government House, remaining the official residence of the Governors for over 50 years.

Image: Lord Arthur Hill. © National Portrait Gallery, London. 

What was Partition?

Many people in Ireland had been calling for the dissolution of the union with Great Britain for most of the 1800s and then later and more strongly, for independence.

Under a solution proposed by the British Government in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, six of the nine counties of Ulster with predominantly Protestant and Unionist communities, would become Northern Ireland and the remaining 26 counties of the south would become the Irish Free State or Éire.

The treaty split Irish nationalists. Despite efforts to resolve the situation peaceably, a split in the Irish Republican Army led rapidly to armed conflict and then all out civil war between 1922-23. 

In 1949 the British government passed the Republic of Ireland Act. The act was the United Kingdom’s response to Ireland's newly declared status as an independent Republic. 

The 1949 Republic of Ireland Act in effect affirmed partition.

As a result, political and sectarian conflict and civil rights abuses continued throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s until they reached boiling point in 1969 – the start of 30 years of ‘The Troubles'.

The Library at Hillsborough Castle in 1926 after alterations, just before the first governor moved in. This room is today the State Drawing Room.

Government House

There were five Governors in all, serving from 1925 to 1972.  

The first was the Duke of Abercorn, and he and his wife moved in in 1925 and oversaw work to transform the house into a working government residence.

The stable yard with its garages was transformed into barracks for the Governor's personal guard; domestic rooms into elegant spaces for receiving and entertaining official guests.

Image: The former Library at Hillsborough Castle in 1926 after alterations, now the State Drawing Room


A devastating fire occurred in 1934, thought to have been started in the roof by a lit cigarette, discarded by a careless guard who was lowering the flag to acknowledge the funeral of President Hindenburg of Germany, whose death led to the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. 

The centre of the house needed rebuilding and most of the structural improvements we can see today date from after the fire.


Did you know?

Political tensions at the time meant that the severity of the fire was played down.

Sepia photograph of the Queen Mother when Queen, seated, with her daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret holding her hands on either side of their mother.

The royal connection

Hillsborough has welcomed many important visitors throughout its history. The link with the British royal family began in 1933 with the visit of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. 

In March 1946, Princess Elizabeth made her first solo visit to Northern Ireland to launch Harland & Wolff's new ship HMS Eagle, staying at Hillsborough Castle with her aunt, Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, sister of Queen Elizabeth and wife of William Leveson-Gower, 4th Earl of Granville and Governor of Northern Ireland from 1945-52. 

Hillsborough Castle provided a secure environment in which the young princess could 'learn the ropes' of royal overseas visits with the support of her aunt and uncle.

Princess Elizabeth visited again in 1949 as Duchess of Edinburgh, after her marriage to Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. 

Image: Queen Elizabeth with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, 9 April 1940. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018  

The 'Troubles'

In 1968 civil rights protests across the world captured the imagination of many people in Northern Ireland, leading to the creation of a civil rights movement calling for greater equality for the Catholic community. Momentum grew as local politicians and some Members of Parliament in London lent their support.

In August 1969 the banning of a protest march erupted into three days of intense political and sectarian rioting in Belfast. Over 150 homes were destroyed. Media images, broadcast around the world, inflamed the situation. The Governor called for the British Army to be sent in to restore order.


Did you know?

Initially envisaged as a brief intervention to protect the Catholic community, ‘Operation Banner' became the longest continuous campaign in the history of the British army, ending in July 2007.

The Ante Room with wooden floor, olive-green walls and dark green damask curtains. A marble bust stands in the corner, and two deep red chairs frame the doors leading to the State Entrance Hall.

The eye of the storm

As tensions spread, people moved into areas inhabited by their own community where they felt safer. Paramilitary groups from different sides emerged, and a deadly conflict began.

Security at Hillsborough was strengthened, with bullet proof glass, increased guards and a helipad to ferry important visitors in and out more safely. Queen Elizabeth II made her first ever helicopter journey from Belfast Lough to Hillsborough Castle in 1977. 

This improved security led to Hillsborough playing a key role as venue for the many of the historic negotiations that would finally bring peace after 30 years.

Image: A view of the Ante Room at Hillsborough Castle. 

British soldiers on security duty in front of Hillsborough Castle, Hillsborough, Co Down, during the Silver Jubilee visit of Queen Elizabeth II to N Ireland on 10th & 11th August 1977. 197708100074a

Heightened security

British soldiers on security duty in front of Hillsborough Castle during the Silver Jubilee visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Northern Ireland in August 1977.

Secretary of State Marjorie 'Mo' Mowlem (1997-99), seen here with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Hillsborough Castle in 1999.

Secretaries of State

The era of the Governors ended in 1972, when the establishment of Direct Rule from London made the role obsolete, and Hillsborough became the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as it still is today.

One of the best known Secretaries of State was the outspoken Marjorie 'Mo' Mowlem (1997-99), seen here with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Hillsborough Castle in 1999. She was one of many Secretaries of State who played an important part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. 

Image: © Paul Faith/PA Archive/PA Images

A view of the gardens at Hillsborough Castle.

Hillsborough and the road to peace

Mo Mowlam treated Hillsborough as a home, rather than a 'stuffy' official residence, inviting people to stay and creating a relaxed atmosphere that helped candid discussion. She was also very fond of the gardens, and sometimes when official meetings became heated, she would take people out into the lovely grounds to continue discussion in a private, calming atmosphere. She loved it so much some of her ashes were scattered here after her death in 2005. 

Since the 1970s, the castle has acted as a political retreat and hosted a number of important negotiations as part of the Peace Process. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in the State Drawing Room at Hillsborough Castle by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

Many formal and informal talks at Hillsborough in 1998 led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement that established the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Talks at Hillsborough between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in April 1999 resulted in the Hillsborough Declaration calling for voluntary weapons control. In February 2010 The Hillsborough Agreement was signed after a summit at the castle, which allowed devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Irish people.

PA.2749696 - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (left) talks with Irish President Mary McAleese at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, Thursday December 8, 2005. It is the Queen's first visit to Northern Ireland since February 2003.

Queen Elizabeth II at Hillsborough

In December 2005 Queen Elizabeth II met Irish President Mary McAleese in Hillsborough’s Red Room – the first time a reigning monarch had met with a head of an independent Ireland on the island of Ireland.

The press called it a 'special day' for Anglo-Irish relations.

Image: © Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

Art at the castle

Following the redecoration, many outstanding paintings from the Royal Collection and the Schorr Collection, and exciting works by contemporary Irish artists are now on display.  

A revised picture hang in the Red Room, scene of many momentous negotiations, features paintings by van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth among others.  

Hillsborough Castle also displays art in the gardens including Alexander Stoddart's bust of Scoto-Gaelic baird, Ossian.


Did you know?

Hillsborough Castle is set in over 100 acres of glorious gardens and offers lovely contrasts of woodland, waterways, specimen trees and plants.

State Entrance of Hillsborough Castle showing fireplace with surrounding seating and furniture. Looking towards doors leading into Candlestick Hall.

Hillsborough Castle today

The State Apartments at the castle have recently been redecorated and re-presented as a traditional Irish Big House, suitable as a space for royal ceremony.  

As part of Historic Royal Palaces' ambitious project, an army of skilled craftspeople helped re-present many of the lovely original features within the house and in the gardens. 


Art at Hillsborough Castle

Hillsborough Castle has become a place in which to see amazing art


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Kids Go Free

Treat the kids this summer holidays with a free visit to the 100 acre gardens.

  • Until 01 September 2024
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Walled Garden

Enter the castle grounds through this 18th-century walled garden, which has been expertly restored using traditional methods.

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Join our expert gardeners in workshops and explore Hillsborough Castle's historic gardens.

  • Until 14 September 2024
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