The history of Ashridge dates back over seven hundred years, to the time when the monastic order of the College of Bonhommes was founded at Assherugge, as it was then known, by Edmund, Earl of Cornwall (and nephew of King Henry III), in honour of a holy relic he had acquired while campaigning in Europe. The College was later re-endowed by Edward the Black Prince and flourished as a seat of learning and debate until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1539.
Henry VIII bequeathed Ashridge to the infant Princess Elizabeth, who lived there for eight years with her half sister and brother and was eventually arrested there by Mary in 1554.
Following Elizabeth’s death, in 1603, her Lord Chancellor, Thomas Egerton, bought the estate and an earldom (becoming the Earl of Bridgewater). The fourth Earl (called ‘Scroop’) became the first Duke of Bridgewater and his youngest son became known as the Canal Duke after developing waterways for industrial transport. The new riches the canals brought allowed for the construction of the present building from 1808 to 1825, designed in the gothic revival style by architect James Wyatt. The gardens were designed by Humphry Repton.
Ashridge continued in the Bridgewater family until after the first World War (during which it became a convalescent home for St Albans Hospital) when the house was bought by Urban Hanlon Broughton to set up a training centre for Conservative Party workers to commemorate Andrew Bonar Law, the Prime Minister from 1921 to 1922 and the woodland estate passed to the National Trust.
Ashridge returned to hospital duties during World War II as an emergency wing of the Charing Cross Road Hospital, treating over 20,000 patients including 500 wounded from the evacuation of Dunkirk, while 2,700 babies were born in the maternity unit during this time. After the war, the concrete buildings used as hospital wards became a teachers’ training college (Gaddesden Training College) before being used as storage by the Public Record Office from 1951 until the records were rehoused in the National Archive at Kew in 1978.
Ashridge also became a finishing school for young women in 1949 (the House of Citizenship, offering four-term courses for 17 year-olds), continuing until 1958.
Ashridge still operates as a charity as the Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust (Charity number 311096) established by an act of parliament and has had no political affiliation since 1954. The Ashridge Management College was established in 1959 specialising in personal and organisational development.
Ashridge Business School, as it is now known, is one of the leading centres for executive education in the world and is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top business schools in the annual Financial Times rankings. Its activities include open and tailored executive education programmes, MBA, MSc, DProf and Diploma qualifications, organisation consulting, coaching, applied research and online learning.