Skip to content

Uncovering the Treasures of the National Trust: 15 Remarkable Items and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them

The National Trust serves as the steward of an astounding collection of over 1 million historic objects, spanning centuries of British art, design, and culture. From priceless paintings to quirky curios, these artifacts offer glimpses into the lives of kings and commoners alike. Join us as we delve into 15 of the most intriguing treasures in the Trust‘s vast holdings, examining what they reveal about Britain‘s past.

By the Numbers: The Scope of the National Trust Collections

Before we explore individual items, let‘s put the scale of the National Trust Collections into perspective:

  • Total number of objects: over 1 million
  • Paintings: 13,500+
  • Furniture: 55,000+ pieces
  • Books: 230,000+
  • Clocks: 1,500+
  • Silver objects: 28,000+

The collections span multiple categories, including fine art, textiles, furniture, metalwork, books, ceramics and glass, and more. Many are associated with the over 200 historic estates in the Trust‘s care. The oldest pieces date back to ancient Rome, though the bulk of the collections are from the 16th-20th centuries.

Royal Treasures: Portraits, Possessions, and Propaganda

The National Trust cares for many objects connected to British royalty. These artifacts shed light on the public faces and private lives of kings and queens.

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I

One of the most famous images of Queen Elizabeth I, the Armada Portrait commemorates the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. Art historian Sir Roy Strong calls it "a piece of propaganda unmatched in the 16th century."

The portrait is packed with symbolism. Elizabeth‘s hand rests on a globe, signifying her dominion over the seas. Behind her, the Spanish fleet is wrecked by stormy seas, while the English ships remain unscathed. The Queen wears pearls, symbolizing chastity, and holds a fan, an emblem of feminine virtue.

Portrait of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey, the "Nine Days‘ Queen," is an enduringly tragic figure. Manipulated as a pawn in a succession crisis, the teenaged Jane was deposed by Mary I and executed in 1554.

This rare portrait, painted around 1590, decades after Jane‘s death, reflects the romantic mythology that developed around her. The Latin inscription translates to "Lady Jane Grey, most famous and wise." Art historian J. Stephan Edwards notes that in the portrait, "Jane has become an icon of Protestant martyrdom, a virtuous and erudite young woman who was wronged by those who should have protected her."

Charles II‘s Secrets Box

This unassuming iron strongbox played a key role in one of the biggest scandals of Charles II‘s reign. In 1678, an Anglican clergyman named Titus Oates made the explosive claim that Catholic conspirators planned to assassinate Charles and install his openly Catholic brother James on the throne.

As historian John Pollock explains, "The King kept his most sensitive documents in this box, locked with a special key that he carried on his person at all times." Charles turned over the box to investigators, but insisted that his correspondence with the French King Louis XIV be kept secret. This only fueled suspicion that Charles was conspiring with Catholic powers. Though Oates was eventually exposed as a fraud, the "Popish Plot" affair exposed deep anti-Catholic sentiment in England.

Masterpieces of Craftsmanship: Furniture, Textiles and Decorative Arts

The National Trust Collections showcase the pinnacle of design and craft from medieval times through the early 20th century. These objects illustrate changing fashions and advances in production methods.

The Great Bed of Ware

The imposing Great Bed of Ware, measuring over 11 feet wide, is a true 16th-century celebrity. Constructed around 1590, it was a famous tourist attraction by the 1600s – even Shakespeare mentioned it in Twelfth Night.

Historian Tara Hamling notes that the bed "is a marvel of carpentry and a vivid window into cultural history. Its size allowed travelers to share a bed with strangers without, crucially, touching one another. Inns promoted these beds as a novelty to encourage visitors to spend the night."

The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries

Woven in 1425-30 in the French city of Arras, the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries are a masterpiece of medieval textile art. Across four huge panels, mounted hunters and packs of hounds chase their prey through lush, stylized woodlands.

Tapestry historian Thomas Campbell explains that in the medieval period, "tapestries were the ultimate artistic status symbol, more valuable even than paintings or sculptures. They required teams of specialist weavers, vast quantities of costly materials like silk and gold thread, and months of labor. Tapestries offered a vivid way to convey the importance of the people who commissioned them."

Riesener Roll-Top Desk

This mahogany desk with intricate gilt bronze mounts was created by French royal cabinetmaker Jean-Henri Riesener around 1780. It features Riesener‘s signature mechanical sophistication: a complex key-operated locking system secures the entire desk.

Furniture historian Carolyn Sargentson notes that Riesener‘s work represents "the apogee of French 18th-century cabinetmaking in its majestic form, grandeur of conception, and dazzling perfection of execution." The desk is a stunning example of the refined opulence favored by the aristocracy of Georgian England, who looked to France as the arbiter of high style.

Artifacts of Empire: Art and Objects from Britain‘s Colonies

The National Trust Collections contain many fascinating items created beyond Britain‘s shores, reflecting the nation‘s long – and often problematic – history of global exploration and empire-building. These objects invite us to consider the complex cultural interactions of the colonial period.

Tippoo‘s Tiger

This astonishing near-lifesize wooden sculpture of a tiger mauling a European soldier was made around 1795 for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India. Tipu used the tiger as his emblem and a symbol of his opposition to British colonialism.

When the crank on the side is turned, the soldier‘s arm lifts up and down, and he emits a mechanical groan. Art historian Morna Hinton describes the tiger as "a remarkable example of the way in which images were used as weapons of resistance during the colonial period." The sculpture was seized by the British after they killed Tipu and sacked his capital in 1799.

The Swan Cabinet

Crafted in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) in the mid-1600s, the Swan Cabinet is a tour-de-force of furniture-making. The rosewood cabinet is covered in intricate ivory inlay depicting Dutch colonists and local scenes.

Historian Amin Jaffer explains that the cabinet "is a product of the rich cultural dialogue between European and Asian artistic traditions in the 17th century. While made for Dutch patrons, the cabinet‘s form and decoration show a distinctly South Asian sensibility." The lifelike ivory swans that support the cabinet are an especially magnificent touch.

Conclusion: Preserving the Past for the Future

As this small selection shows, the National Trust Collections are a treasure trove of art, design, and material culture. Each object has a story to tell about the individuals who created, owned, and used it. Together, they form a rich mosaic of British history in all its splendor and complexity.

The task of documenting, conserving, and interpreting these collections is a monumental one. As the National Trust‘s Director of Curation and Experience John Orna-Ornstein notes:

"We see our role as custodians of these extraordinary collections not only in terms of caring for their physical fabric, but also in terms of researching and sharing their stories. Whether online or in person, we want to create opportunities for people to engage with their heritage in meaningful ways. These objects belong to everyone, and it‘s our privilege to safeguard them for current and future generations."

By supporting the National Trust, we can all play a part in ensuring that these irreplaceable treasures continue to educate, provoke, and inspire us for centuries to come. The stories they embody – of creativity, conflict, progress, and perseverance – are the very stuff of history, and a priceless part of our shared inheritance.