In south Wiltshire, on the border with Dorset and Somerset was built a great and ancient house. It lay at the centre of a large estate and was known as Stourton Castle..
but there is a problem…
We don’t know where it is
We have a picture.
An enhanced drawing based on John Aubrey’s original sketch.
Drawn from a 1670 sketch by the antiquarian John Aubrey.
The place was massive and must have looked a bit like Lacock Abbey
Lacock Abbey in north Wiltshire. Stourton Castle was arranged around two courtyards like this and would have been of similar scale and outward appearance.
but it’s gone.. apparently without trace.
The story of the removal of Stourton Castle and the creation of Stourhead House has a touch of Poldark about it.
The Stourtons (old money Poldark) and the Hoares (new money Warleggan)
The Stourton family had taken their name from the village of Stourton (the farm by the River Stour), a place recorded in Domesday and at least Saxon in origin. The Stourtons claimed that their line went back to a mighty Saxon lord… Botulph.. and William Camden, writing in 1607, saw a ‘monstrous bone’ displayed in Stourton Castle… a leg of their legendary ancestor.
The surviving records trace the family back to the 12th century but the Stourtons only emerge as lords of the manor in the 13th century documents. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the family did very well and built up cash reserves via good marriages and military service in France.
Their manor house blossomed and flourished. Aubrey’s picture shows that it was built around two large courtyards and had a tall tower and shows parapets with military style battlements.
Things fell apart for the Stourtons in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early 16th century, William Lord Stourton was working for Henry VIII in France and left the care of his estate to his trusted steward William Hartgill…he also looked after Lord Stourton’s wife Elizabeth.
When Lord Stourton died in 1548, his hot-tempered son Charles inherited the Estate. He rode with a band of henchmen to Kilmington near Stourton and found his mother living at Hartgill’s house. A feud grew up between the men and eventually, in 1557, Lord Stourton kidnapped William and his son John, murdered them and buried their bodies in a cellar within the Castle.
As a catholic, with Queen Mary on the throne, Charles believed that he would get away with the murders. However, William Hartgill had friends and they made sure that the Castle was searched, the bodies found and Lord Stourton arrested. He was convicted and executed in Salisbury. His wife was forced to pay for her husband’s property which had been forfeited to the Crown following his trial. She was also separated from her eldest son John, who was only a child at the time.
The family backed the wrong side in the Civil War. In September 1644, Parliamentarian forces set fire to one of the gates, captured the house, ransacked it and made it untenable.The eldest son John was killed at the battle for Bristol and when the Royalist cause was finally lost, the estates were confiscated and heavy fines were imposed.
The family fortunes continued to decline and by 1686 the impoverished Stourton family had mortgaged their ancestral home and by 1704 it was for sale.
Enter the Hoare family who had made a fortune through banking. In 1720, they purchased the whole estate, demolished the castle and built a new flashy Palladian villa… quite the latest thing. They changed the name to Stourhead. The house at the source of the River Stour.
The Hoare family made sure the transformation was carried out quickly. They paid for a survey of their new property in 1722 and the Estate Map shows the new house completed… Stourton Castle was gone.
The 1722 map shows the new Stourhead House with its garden intruding slightly into the top left hand corner of the stable courtyard. The courtyard is below and right of the house. With a large gateway facing south. Was this the outer courtyard of the old house?
Finding the site has been difficult, the normal techniques have proved to be inconclusive and the quest for the Castle has become a great archaeological challenge.
It seemed simple at first. The 1880s 25 inch OS map marks a cross about 100m east of Stourhead House with the legend ‘site of Stourton Castle’ So we geophysed it and the results were very disappointing. Since then, year by year, we have surveyed around the house but nothing has been revealed.
When Meg did her student placement for the National Trust, I asked her to find the Castle and her MA dissertation tracked down the documentary references and descriptions of its chambers and halls and its chapel, which included a decorated tiled floor inlaid with the initials WS for William Stourton. Documents in the record offices of Cornwall, Wiltshire, Somerset and nearby Longleat House were examined. These built up the background: the estate, the farmland, the deer park and hunting lodge, the warren and the warrener’s lodge… bits about the repair of the great house and its approximate location… but nothing to pin it down.
We looked at the fabric of the stone-lined cellars of Stourhead House. Had they built the new house on the old?
The cellars of Stourhead House. Some reused stone but nothing to indicate that these were once the cellars of Stourton Castle.
We examined the stableyard to the south. This includes in its walls great chunks of reused? stone and a 16th century? doorway. Was this the remodeled outer courtyard of the Castle?. We dug a trench on its north side, hoping to find medieval walls leading to the inner courtyard.. just 18th century pottery above deep soil.
Our fieldwork in Stourhead Park. Earth resistance meter against the railings and our trench beside the stables courtyard to the left. The Hoare family’s 1720s mansion Stourhead House can be seen top right. The site of old Stourton Castle lies somewhere to the right of this picture.
So where is it hiding? A LiDAR laser survey of the parkland ground surface might help or more sensitive geophysics… perhaps ground probing radar. Everything seems to point near the cross marked by Ordnance Survey. A line of pre-Stourhead House chestnut trees are aligned north towards this point where there is a mound in the park. From the east, an old drove-way passes through Drove Lodge and runs as an earthwork into the park.
Our site is most likely to exist where these two alignments meet. Surely the backfilled cellars and extensive robbed out walls lie there or thereabouts.
We’ll keep looking.