The magic of the Mid­dle Ages

The serene beauty of this mag­nif­i­cent 15th-cen­tury manor house be­lies a com­plex and event­ful his­tory. In the first of two ar­ti­cles, Clive Aslet and John Goodall con­sider the me­dieval devel­op­ment of the prop­erty and the ca­reer of its builder

Country Life Every Week - - CONTENTS - Pho­to­graphs by Paul High­nam

Serenely beau­ti­ful Great Chal­field Manor in Wilt­shire has had a sur­pris­ingly event­ful his­tory. Clive Aslet and John Goodall take a closer look

Great Chal­field Manor, Wilt­shire, part I A prop­erty of the Na­tional Trust and the home of Mr and Mrs Robert Floyd

SINCE the early 19th cen­tury, Great Chal­field Manor in Wilt­shire has been cel­e­brated for its an­cient, un­chang­ing har­monies. To­day, film­mak­ers—in 2008, it was fea­tured in The Other Bo­leyn Girl— find it as ir­re­sistible as did the to­pog­ra­phers and wa­ter­colourists of the past. Sil­very, lichen-dusted walls rise be­hind the irises of a moat and house martins and swal­lows flit around the sculp­tures of heraldic beasts and knights that dec­o­rate the roofline.

Here, it would seem, is a pre­cious heir­loom, care­fully passed down the cen­turies from the Wars of the Roses. In­deed, the present house is the late-15th-cen­tury cre­ation of Thomas Trop­nell, a lawyer, ad­min­is­tra­tor and ra­pa­cious deal-maker. How­ever, as we shall dis­cover next week, it was loved back into its present, ap­par­ently im­memo­rial, con­di­tion by an Ed­war­dian en­gi­neer, Robert Fuller, and his schol­arly ar­chi­tect, Sir Harold Brak­s­pear.

What we know of Trop­nell sug­gests a man dogged in the pur­suit of his own ends, his vo­rac­ity matched by an ab­sence of scru­ples. It is not known when he was born, but, as he died in 1487, he must have been a young man on first en­ter­ing Par­lia­ment in 1429. Two years later, in 1431, he mar­ried the first of his two wives: both were rich wid­ows. In the 1450s, he was also ac­tive as a mer­chant in Bris­tol.

The motto that he had em­bla­zoned on the cor­nice of the great-hall ceil­ing reads ‘Le jong tyra bele­ment’—‘the yoke pulls well’— per­haps re­calls his labours as a ste­ward to the Barons Hunger­ford of Far­leigh Hunger­ford. They were Lan­cas­trian sup­port­ers, but Robert, 3rd Baron Hunger­ford—al­ready ru­ined by the huge ran­som de­manded when he was cap­tured fight­ing in France in 1453—was be­headed af­ter the York­ist vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Hex­ham in 1464. The event must have had a pro­found im­pact on Trop­nell and his lo­cal power, al­though he im­me­di­ately se­cured a par­don from Ed­ward IV.

It was also in 1464 that work be­gan to the com­pi­la­tion of the so-called Trop­nell Car­tu­lary (re­turned to Great Chal­field in 1923). Such com­pi­la­tions of prop­erty deeds are usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal foun­da­tions, where they served to draw to­gether in a sin­gle ref­er­ence vol­ume gen­er­a­tions of be­quests. For a pri­vate in­di­vid­ual to com­mis­sion one is rare and Trop­nell al­most cer­tainly had this ex­cep­tion­ally splen­did 900-page vol­ume made to re­in­force his—➢

Fig 3 above: The hall dais is lit by two pro­ject­ing win­dows. Fig 4 be­low: J. C. Buck­ler’s wa­ter-colour of the hall, (1823) show­ing the stone benches to each side and the dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter ceil­ing, the ear­li­est known ex­am­ple in an English build­ing and that of his descen­dants—claims to prop­erty in the face of le­gal chal­lenges. The sec­tion re­lat­ing to Great Chal­field is il­lus­trated with her­aldry, a clear mark of its par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance.

It is very likely that Trop­nell planned the ar­chi­tec­tural trans­for­ma­tion of Great Chal­field from 1464, at the same time that work be­gan on the Car­tu­lary. Cer­tainly, the fol­low­ing June, he pur­chased a quarry at Hazel­bury, a few miles away, near Box, which would sup­ply the stone for the build­ing work. The re­sults from the tree-ring dat­ing of tim­bers in the hall by Not­ting­ham Tree Ring Dat­ing Lab­o­ra­tory sug­gest the trees were felled in 1465–8 and that con­struc­tion work took place at that time.

In this re­gard, it is worth em­pha­sis­ing that, in tech­ni­cal terms, Great Chal­field com­pares with a very so­phis­ti­cated group of build­ings com­mis­sioned to ei­ther side of Ed­ward IV’S brief de­po­si­tion in 1471, in­clud­ing work at Raglan Cas­tle, Mon­mouthshire, and the Dean­ery at Wells in Som­er­set. Some of its de­tails, no­tably the use of win­dow trac­ery with­out dec­o­ra­tive cus­p­ing, look back to ideas de­vel­oped by royal ma­sons in the 1440s. It is pos­si­ble that a Bris­tol ma­son was in­volved in its de­sign.

Ac­cord­ing to the Car­tu­lary, Great Chal­field had been wrong­fully alien­ated from the Trop­nell’s kins­men in the mid 14th cen­tury by the four-times mar­ried Con­stance Fitzwaryn, whose first hus­band was a mi­nor mem­ber of the Percy fam­ily (to which the Trop­nells had been united in the 13th cen­tury). As well as hav­ing be­come ‘bed­fel­low’ to her ‘cosyn’, the Bishop of Sal­is­bury, by whom she had

a child, Con­stance left Great Chal­field to a favourite grand­son, Wil­liam Rous. He wasted the fab­ric of the build­ings to fund his dis­so­lute life­style.

Trop­nell’s fight to get his hands on the es­tate was long and bit­ter. He first se­cured it in 1443, but was ejected and only fi­nally se­cured the ti­tle in 1467.

In later life, Trop­nell did bet­ter in nav­i­gat­ing the dan­ger­ous po­lit­i­cal rapids of the time than his Hunger­ford mas­ters, adroitly ob­tain­ing par­dons from Richard III and Henry VII. He en­tered Lin­coln’s Inn as an hon­orary mem­ber in 1470. He ac­quired his knowl­edge of the law work­ing for the Hunger­fords and he used it ruth­lessly to as­sem­ble a large port­fo­lio of es­tates, not al­ways by le­git­i­mate means (he was ac­cused of brib­ing ju­rors).

In one case his (de­feated) op­po­nent, Roger Page, de­scribed him as ‘a per­il­lous cov­etouse man’, a judge­ment ac­tu­ally copied into

Trop­nell’s Car­tu­lary. It may be that the fig­ure of an over­bear­ing mer­chant clutch­ing a large money bag in the din­ing room at Great Chal­field was not—as pop­u­lar tra­di­tion has it—a por­trait, but an im­age of Avarice

(Fig 5). Nev­er­the­less, it captures the spirit of Trop­nell’s world.

The orig­i­nal rea­son for the set­tle­ment at Great Chal­field, which is first men­tioned as Calde­felle in the Domes­day sur­vey of 1086, lies in a spring that feeds the stream at the back of the house. A weir and leat di­vert­ing the stream cre­ated a suit­able site for a mill. To­day, the stream, leat and spring re­spec­tively feed a millpond serv­ing as an up­per moat and lower fish­pond that de­fine the site.

The par­ish church be­side the manor house is first doc­u­mented in the 14th cen­tury, but the Nor­man nave and early font sug­gest a much longer his­tory. Trop­nell ex­panded this build­ing, adding to it a south chapel—which still bears the frag­men­tary re­mains of wall paint­ings nar­rat­ing the story of St Catherine of Alexan­dria, pa­tron saint of lawyers—and a stone rood screen, the sur­viv­ing sec­tion of which is dec­o­rated with her­aldry cel­e­brat­ing the fam­ily’s dy­nas­tic al­liances (Fig 8).

Of the his­tory of the manor house that Trop­nell took pos­ses­sion of, lit­tle is se­curely known. Parts of it, in­clud­ing a round tower, were prob­a­bly pre­served as a ser­vice court­yard to the rear of his new house, but they have been sub­se­quently de­mol­ished, pos­si­bly in the 17th cen­tury by the Par­lia­men­tary gar­ri­son sta­tioned there. All that re­mains of them ➢ www.coun­trylife.co.uk

‘Here is a pre­cious heir­loom, care­fully passed down the cen­turies’

to­day are foun­da­tions in­cor­po­rated into the gar­den plan.

It is also pos­si­ble that the build­ings were en­cir­cled by an en­clo­sure wall with tow­ers, the ru­ins of which still sur­vive along the line of the moat. How­ever, this for­ti­fi­ca­tion could equally have been erected by Trop­nell. Cer­tainly, its only stylis­ti­cally date­able fea­ture is a gate­way in the line of the wall (still the main en­trance to the prop­erty), which is cer­tainly of his con­struc­tion. What­ever the date of the wall, how­ever, it would have closed the build­ing off vis­ually from its land­scape.

Pass­ing through Trop­nell’s gate­way, the mod­ern vis­i­tor en­ters an outer court de­fined to the right by a mag­nif­i­cent barn of about 1752 and a late-15th-cen­tury range. To their left is a gate­house that leads into the fore­court of the house. The main façade of the build­ing is essen­tially sym­met­ri­cal, with the cen­tral vol­ume of the hall book­ended by a pair of pro­ject­ing gables, one large and one small

(Fig 1). Tall chim­neys and sculp­ture, in­clud­ing the fig­ures of knights and heraldic beasts, en­liven the out­line of the build­ing.

As is char­ac­ter­is­tic of me­dieval do­mes­tic build­ings, the func­tion and rel­a­tive im­por­tance of the in­te­ri­ors are ex­pressed in the var­ied treat­ment of the win­dows. In the cen­tral sec­tion of the house, these are plain, arched open­ings. By con­trast, the up­per cham­bers of the flank­ing cross-wings—con­tain­ing the prin­ci­pal with­draw­ing apart­ments— each have a splen­did pro­ject­ing oriel.

That to the left, light­ing the Great Cham­ber, the set­ting for for­mal en­ter­tain­ment, is ap­pro­pri­ately the richer of the two. In­ter­nally, it in­cor­po­rates a mag­nif­i­cent pen­dant vault

(Fig 7). The other pre­serves two quar­ries of me­dieval glass de­pict­ing a di­a­logue be­tween green­finches (Fig 6).

We en­ter the build­ing through a porch at one end of the hall. Pass­ing through a postern in the heav­ily stud­ded, 15th-cen­tury front door (Fig 9), the vis­i­tor con­tin­ues into the screens pas­sage of the great hall.

The hall has been re­turned to its me­dieval pro­por­tions af­ter be­ing par­ti­tioned with a floor dur­ing the mid 19th cen­tury. Five high win­dows cre­ate large blank wall sur­faces for hang­ing ta­pes­tries. The room is heated

by a fire and, at the far end, the dais for the high ta­ble was lit to ei­ther side by a pro­ject­ing bay win­dow (Fig 3).

This dou­ble-bay-win­dow ar­range­ment is very un­usual and is found in a se­ries of im­por­tant 15th-cen­tury royal com­mis­sions, in­clud­ing the 1440s de­signs for Eton Col­lege, Berk­shire, and the great hall at Eltham, for­merly in Kent, be­gun in 1475.

The pro­por­tions of the hall, with a low­pitched ceil­ing slung well be­low the out­ward pitch of its roof, are un­usual for the pe­riod. Usu­ally, hall roofs were left open to re­veal the rafters and struc­tural tim­bers. An­other odd­ity is the set of three sculpted masks over­look­ing the hall in­te­rior (Fig 2). Of­ten in­ter­preted as squints, they are hardly con­ve­nient as such, but en­able lis­ten­ing to all be­low. They can con­tain can­dles.

An 1823 wa­ter­colour of the hall by the tire­less to­pog­ra­pher John Ches­sell Buck­ler

(Fig 4) shows that stone benches for­merly ran along the walls (the groove into which the stone bench end fit­ted still ex­ists). It also il­lus­trates the orig­i­nal form of the ceil­ing: the grid cre­ated by the sur­viv­ing tim­bers was for­merly sub­di­vided into pan­els. These were re­moved when the floor was in­serted into the hall and, by 1836, the bosses from them, some dec­o­rated with Trop­nell’s dou­ble-yoke badge, had been taken to the Bishop’s Palace in Wells for dis­play.

In 1962, Charles Floyd, son-in-law of the Ed­war­dian re­storer of Great Chal­field, went in search of them, but could only lo­cate one, which is now in the house. As­ton­ish­ingly, it is not of tim­ber, but plas­ter. As re­cently pointed out by the ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian Claire Gap per(www. claire gap per. info ), this is the ear­li­est-known ex­am­ple of English dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­work. It also clearly il­lus­trates the devel­op­ment of this art­form, as­so­ci­ated with Tu­dor and Ja­cobean ar­chi­tec­ture, from carv­ing in tim­ber.

Al­though Trop­nell cre­ated one of Eng­land’s most beau­ti­ful manor houses, it is not known how much time he spent at it. His base of op­er­a­tions re­mained an­other of his prop­er­ties, Ne­ston, near Cor­sham in Wilt­shire, and it is in the Trop­nell chapel of St Bartholomew’s, Cor­sham, that he is buried.

Alas, the per­pen­dic­u­lar tomb chest has no ef­figy; how­ever, for­tu­nately, as will be ap­par­ent next week, we have a clearer im­age of the men who re­vived Great Chal­field’s for­tunes in the early 20th cen­tury.

Fig 1 left: The main façade. To ei­ther end of the hall is a cross-range and a smaller gable. That to the right is a porch. Fig 2 above: One of the masks in the hall

Fig 5 above: By tra­di­tion the paint­ing in the par­lour de­picts Trop­nell, but it may be an im­age of Avarice. Be­hind the fig­ure are painted rep­re­sen­ta­tions of striped wall hang­ings. Fig 6 be­low: Two green­finches in di­a­logue: ‘Love god and drede shame. De­sire wor­ship and kepe thy name’

The screen in the par­ish church The hall porch and door

Fig 7 above left: The win­dow of the great cham­ber with its pen­dant vault. Fig 8 above cen­tre: dec­o­rated with her­aldry cel­e­brat­ing Trop­nell’s an­ces­try and fam­ily al­liances. Fig 9 above right:

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