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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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..?
Whatever, this place is a joy to visit.