Luton Hoo is not mentioned in the Domesday book, but a family called de Hoo occupied a manor house on the site for four centuries, until the death of Lord Thomas Hoo in 1455. The manor passed through many notable Someries' families through the centuries, from the family de Hoo, to the family Rotherham, to the family Napier. Successive houses on the site seem to have changed hands several times until in 1762 the then owner, Francis Hearne (MP for Bedford), sold the estate for £94,700 to John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Following an unhappy period as Prime Minister from 1762 to 1763, Bute decided to concentrate his energies on his Bedfordshire estate at Luton Hoo.
The present house was built for the 3rd Earl of Bute by the neoclassical architect Robert Adam. Work commenced in 1767. The original plan had been for a grand and magnificent new house. However, this plan was never fully executed and much of the work was a remodelling of the older house. Building work was interrupted by a fire in 1771, but by 1774 the house, though incomplete, was inhabited. Dr. Samuel Johnson visiting the house in 1781 is quoted as saying, "This is one of the places I do not regret coming to see....in the house magnificence is not sacrificed to convenience, nor convenience to magnificence".
Luton Hoo was one of the largest houses for which Adam was wholly responsible. While Adam was working on the mansion the landscape gardener Capability Brown was enlarging and redesigning the park; formerly approximately 300 acres (1.2 km²) it was now enlarged to 1,200 acres (4.9 km²). Brown dammed the River Lea to form two lakes, one of which is 60 acres (240,000 m²) in size. In the early 20th century, part of the park overlooked by the south-west facade mansion was transformed into formal gardens.
Robert Adam's completed mansion was transformed by the architect Robert Smirke (later Sir Robert, 1781–1867) circa 1830, following the occupation of the 3rd Earl's grandson, the 2nd Marquess of Bute. Smirke redesigned the house (with the exception of the south front) to resemble its present form today, complete with a massive portico, similar to that designed by Adam but never built. Smirke was a leading architect of the era. His early work and domestic designs, such as that at Eastnor Castle, were often in a medieval style; he seems to have reserved his Greek revival style for public buildings such as the British Museum. Hence Luton Hoo, neither gothic nor strictly Greek revival, is an unusual example of him using a classical style for domestic use, which perhaps he felt would be sympathetic to Adam's original conception.
In 1843 a devastating fire occurred and much of the house and its contents were destroyed. Following the fire the house remained a burnt shell until the estate was sold in 1848 to John Shaw Leigh, a Liverpool solicitor and property speculator. He rebuilt the derelict shell in the style and manner of Smirke, rather than to Adam's earlier plan. The Leigh family continued to own Luton Hoo until 1903, when on the death of John Leigh's daughter-in-law, who had late in life married Christian de Falbe, the Danish ambassador to England, the estate was sold to the diamond magnate, Sir Julius Wernher.
In around 1863 "there was found a Hoard of Roman Coins near Luton, on the estate of John Shaw Leigh, Esq., of Luton Hoo. The coins, which must have been nearly a thousand in number, had been deposited in an imperfectly burnt urn composed of clay and pounded shell, and consisted of denarii and small brass, ranging from the time of Caracalla to that of Claudius Gothicus". Luton Hoo, beginning in the 19th century, began an association with the British royal family. It was here that, in 1891, the future Queen Mary, wife of King George V, was proposed to by her first fiancée, George V's elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, who would die soon after the engagement.
In 1903 the house was bought by Sir Julius Wernher, who had made his fortune from the diamond mines of South Africa. Wernher had the interior remodelled in the early 20th century by the architects of the Ritz Hotel, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis. It was at this time that the mansard roof was added, to increase the amount of staff accommodation. This alteration, coupled with the newly installed casement windows was in the Second Empire style of architecture.
The lavish redesigning of the interior in the belle epoque style resulted in a magnificent backdrop for Wernher' acclaimed art collection. The marble-walled dining room was designed to display Beauvais tapestries, while the newly installed curved, marble staircase surrounded Bergonzoli's statue "The Love of Angels". At the centre of the house the massive Blue hall displayed further tapestries, Louis XV furniture, and Sèvres porcelain. Sir Julius Wernher's widow, later Lady Ludlow, added her collection of English porcelain to the treasures of the house.
The Wernhers' great art collection, equal to that of their neighbours in nearby Buckinghamshire, the Rothschilds, was later further enhanced by the marriage of Julius Wernher's son Harold Augustus Wernher to Anastasia de Torby, the morganatic daughter of a member of the former Russian Imperial family, generally known as "Lady Zia". She brought to the collection an incomparable assembly of renaissance enamels and Russian artefacts, including works by the Russian Imperial court jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé. For many years the collection and house were open to the public. Many of the Fabergé items were, however, stolen in the 1990s.
During the Second World War the Wernher family allowed the house to serve as Headquarters Eastern Command. Luton Hoo's grounds were also used as a tank testing ground for the Churchill tanks that were produced in Luton's Vauxhall factories.
Following Lady Zia's death in 1977, the estate passed to her grandson Nicholas Harold Phillips, whose untimely death in 1991 caused the sale of the mansion house. The priceless collection is now on permanent display at Ranger's House in London. In 1997 the grounds were rented out for that year's Tribal Gathering dance music festival, and again in 2005 (although the latter event was cancelled due to the 7 July 2005 London bombings).
Part of the Luton Hoo Estate—notably the mansion house—has been converted into a luxury hotel called Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf, and Spa, which opened on 1 October 2007. It has 228 bedrooms and suites. Part of the restoration project involved rebuilding the second floor of the house, which was included in the plans drawn up by the original architects. The owners, Elite Hotels, say that furnishings have been selected with the aim of restoring the house to its former glory.
Luton Hoo's lake is home to the 1st Luton Sea Scouts and Explorer Units.
Luton Hoo Estate also possesses a 5-acre (20,000 m2) octagonal walled garden which was established by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, in the late 1760s. Successive owners of the estate adapted the garden to match the changing fashions in gardens over the years. Numerous heated glasshouses were built by the Leigh family in the last quarter of the 19th century for the production of fruit and flowers. The largest of the glasshouses, built by the firm of Mackenzie and Moncur for Sir Julius and Lady Alice Wernher, is evidence of the extravagance of the Edwardian period. The Walled Garden is currently undergoing extensive restoration work.
Luton Hoo has appeared in many films including A Shot in the Dark, Never Say Never Again, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Eyes Wide Shut, The Secret Garden, Princess Caraboo, Wilde, The World Is Not Enough, Quills, Enigma, De-Lovely and Bright Young Things. More recently outbuildings were used as a location for the John Landis film Burke and Hare, and stood in for Bleeding Heart Yard in the BBC TV series Little Dorrit using sets designed originally for the BBC's 2005 BAFTA award winning Bleak House. On 13 and 14 October 2010, filming of the Steven Spielberg film War Horse took place at Luton Hoo.