Horton Court..NT’s oldest house ?

We had a ‘Top Trumps’ situation recently. The NT North East archaeologist received an early 13th century tree-ring date back from a roof timber in one of the medieval buildings ‘up north’. Was this the oldest occupied building owned by the National Trust? Good try… no it’s Horton Court.

Horton's old hall. The north and south doorways forming a cross passage from the manor courtyard to the church date to the 1160s and are very similar to a doorway in Avebury church. The old hall may once have been the church as the present church has nothing as old as this.

Horton’s old hall. The north and south doorways, forming a cross passage from the manor courtyard to the church, date to the 1160s and are very similar to a doorway in Avebury church. The old hall may once have been the church as the present church has nothing as old as this.

Horton’s an obscure place. In the old Wessex NT Region it was the furthest north I went. Up through Dorset and Wiltshire, beyond Bath and across the M4, driving along the Cotswold escarpment towards Stroud. Then a tiny sign directed me down a few miles of narrow wiggly road to the edge of the Severn flood plain .. and there, eventually, beside a stream issuing from the hillslope.. was Horton Court.

Horton Court beside the parish church on a spring line at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment. An ancient settlement location, the Iron Age Horton Camp hillfort lies on the ridge top behind the camera location. The Tudor loggia can be seen on the left with the terraces of the Tudor garden stepping down to the stream and the line of medieval fishponds beside the house.

Horton Court beside the parish church on a spring line at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment. An ancient settlement location, the Iron Age Horton Camp hillfort lies on the ridge top behind the camera location. The Tudor loggia can be seen on the left with the terraces of the Tudor garden stepping down to the stream and the line of medieval fishponds beside the house.

The first time I went there I met a volunteer who opened the old hall a couple of afternoons a week. She was reading a book. ‘Do many people come here’ I asked. ‘Not many, perhaps 4 or 5 visitors a week in the summer’. I looked at the round headed decorated stone arch. I felt like a visitor from the ‘new world’ commenting on something impossibly old. ‘I guess that’s a copy’ (well, so much medieval architecture was copied in the 19th century). ‘No, it’s dated to c.1160, one of a pair forming a cross-passage leading to the church.’.. That’s the top trump.. oldest occupied building in NT ownership.

This is a very old place, located at the spring-line. Horton Camp Iron Age hillfort looks down on it from the hill top but this is where people would have lived in times of peace. People are proud if their places are first mentioned in Domesday Book (1086) but Horton was given to Pershore Abbey by King Edgar in 972. Tucked away in this idyllic location are the earthworks of the village, the enclosure bank that surrounded the medieval deer park, the lynchets from open fields, a string of medieval fishponds and the rectangular earthworks built to keep rabbits. A nice archaeological grouping.

One of the medieval pillow mounds in the fields beside Horton Court constructed in the medieval period to keep rabbits. Horton had its own warren, deer park and chain of fish ponds to enable the lord to have fresh meat and fish whenever he needed it.

One of the medieval pillow mounds in the fields beside Horton Court constructed in the medieval period to keep rabbits. Horton had its own warren, deer park and chain of fish ponds to enable the lord to have fresh meat and fish whenever he needed it.

It was given to the National Trust by Miss Hilda Wills as a memorial to her nephew who died in the Second World War and from 1949 it was let on a long lease. The tenants gave up the lease in 2007 and there was a chance to understand the place and look for resources to repair and open it up to visitors.

We asked historic building specialists Jane and Tony to survey the many structural clues hidden in the house and delve into its history to find out how important it was and what the conservation needs of the place were. Their conservation management plan was excellent and highlighted its significance.

So many generations had lived there and there were some remarkable stories. However, Horton’s particular significance is its role in international history. (really?) It is true. Horton can make that claim. From 1125, the Bellafagos, a Norman family granted Horton by William I, gave Horton and its land to Old Sarum cathedral (replaced by Salisbury in the 13th century). For 427 years it was a prebendary manor, providing an income for bishops or important members of cathedral staff.

This doorway c.1521 contains very early renaissance carvings. Nothing much like this in the rest of England. It indicates William Knight's education in Italy and his close interest  in architectural developments there.

This doorway c.1521 contains very early renaissance carvings. Nothing much like this in the rest of England. It indicates William Knight’s education in Italy and his close interest in architectural developments there.


In 1517, it was granted to William Knight who had been educated in Florence. He rebuilt Horton in the renaissance style using cutting edge architecture copied from his travels in Italy. He even created a garden for his new courtyard house and included a Florentine-style loggia within it. Tree ring analysis of the house and loggia roofs gave precise dates from sap wood placing their construction between 1517-21. The loggia is a unique building with a group of four stone roundels built into its back wall, each representing a figure from Roman history. Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Nero and Atila. A curious group chosen for a reason that has been lost to us.

The roof above the loggia. This was tree-ring dated along with the roof timbers in the main house to the period 1517-21.

The roof above the loggia. This was tree-ring dated along with the roof timbers in the main house to the period 1517-21.

Because of his diplomatic experience and knowledge of Italy, Henry VIII chose William to be his diplomat to negotiate with the Pope. He wanted the Pope to grant him a divorce that would enable him to marry Anne Boleyn. William went to Rome but the Pope refused his request so Henry married Anne anyway. He brought her to this part of South Gloucestershire and stayed in the local houses as he toured the south showing his new bride to the local clergy, gentry and nobility. Horton, newly rebuilt to the latest style, the home of his chief negotiator William Knight, should have been one of the stopping points of the tour.

William’s failed diplomacy led to the formation of the Church of England and the great religious turmoils of the 16th and 17th centuries.

What do William’s roundels mean ? Do they represent figures who challenged Rome and did her harm or are they people who ultimately failed in their objective? Was his heart for or against the King’s split with Rome..?

Inside William Knight's Loggia are four roundels depicting Hannibal of Carthage who crossed the alps in 216 BC and attacked Rome. Julius Caesar who in 49 BC started a Civil War that ended the Roman Republic. The Emperor Nero who is said to have ordered the burning of Rome in AD 64 and Atila the Hun who invaded Italy in AD 452. Why were these 4 figures chosen ?  Is there some secret code here? They were set up around the time that Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome and the Church of England was created. This enabled him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Inside William Knight’s Loggia are four roundels depicting Hannibal of Carthage who crossed the alps in 216 BC and attacked Rome. Julius Caesar who in 49 BC started a Civil War that ended the Roman Republic. The Emperor Nero who is said to have ordered the burning of Rome in AD 64 and Atila the Hun who invaded Italy in AD 452. Why were these 4 figures chosen ? Is there some secret code here? They were set up around the time that Henry VIII split from the Church of Rome and the Church of England was created. This enabled him to marry Anne Boleyn.

Whatever, this place is a joy to visit.

6 thoughts on “Horton Court..NT’s oldest house ?

  1. Very interesting blog. Fortunately, I visited it in 2008-9 while it was still open. According to the handboo and NT website there is an extremely terse message to the effect that “Horton Court is now closed”. Whether this means that a new tenancy agreement has been signed which does not oblige the tenants to open the house, or that it is still structurally too unsound for public opening is anyone’s guess.

  2. I’m afraid you are right. The house requires conservation work before it can be re-let and opened to the public. The National Trust needs to raise considerable funds to get it into good order. The essential works will be carried out this year.

    • You are right, access to Horton is extremely important but it needs extensive repairs before it is safe to visit. Essential works were carried out in 2014 to keep the building watertight. Finding the funding is always difficult. As you can appreciate there are many financial needs across the SW Region. However, the massive amount of money for repair needed to make Horton habitable has now been agreed and the conservation plan for the work is nearing completion. Essential repairs will take place from the end of this year and into 2016. I would expect that visitors will be able to see Horton again by 2017.

  3. We recently would have liked to visit Horton as it was on our route map as a NT property to visit and also was in a NT book of their properties that my husband purchased for my birthday. As we reached the hall we found that it was closed. This was very disappointing as I was so looking forward to our visit. I hope it reopens asap.

    • Dear Mrs Stone I am sorry that you were unable to visit Horton recently. This lovely building has been closed for repair and this has required, considerable amount of money to be found. The project is now underway, and the repairs will begin in the autumn. There is a lot to be done but the plan is for the building to be ready by spring of 2018.

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