St Michaels Hill, Montacute

The phone rang today… Was I on my way?

Where? …St Michael’s Hill…. It doesn’t feel good when you’re supposed to be somewhere.. and aren’t.

A speedy trip along the A303 to Montacute. Parked my car on the dirt track leading to the hill and across the grass field to the gate beside the notice board with its reconstruction of a Norman Castle.

The stile and notice board showing an artist's reconstruction of the Norman castle.

The stile and notice board showing an artist’s reconstruction of the Norman castle.

I reached the top of the hill, caught my breath and apologised. I hoped that they would forgive me for arriving so late and began to talk about this special place (Usually I bring pictures, I hope this blog makes up for that a bit)

The National Trust does own some spectacular hill tops and St Michaels on the Montacute Estate is a good example. The rain cleared while we were on the summit and the views across the Somerset countryside stretched gin clear for many miles in all directions.

The 18th century prospect tower built on the flat summit of St Michael's Hill with its views out across the Somerset landscape.

The 18th century prospect tower built on the flat summit of St Michael’s Hill with its views out across the Somerset landscape.

Such a vantage point must have been valued in pre-Saxon times. The Saxons found a stone cross here which they venerated as a sacred Christian relic. The Normans took the place over in 1066 and decided to build a castle here and renamed the place the steep hill (Mons Acutus). The locals were angered by this lack of respect for a holy place and attacked the new castle …but their revolt failed.

The castle was not needed for long and in 1102 a monastery was founded at the bottom of the hill, the castle was cleared and a chapel built there. It was dedicated to St Michael the archangel, leader of the heavenly host, often the saint chosen for hill top locations.. Glastonbury Tor and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall are other examples.

The 18th century prospect tower over the footings of the medieval chapel of St Michael.

The 18th century prospect tower over the footings of the medieval chapel of St Michael.

The chapel stayed there until at least 1630.. even after the priory was put out of action in 1538, during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’ of the monasteries.

About 1600, the Phelip’s family (who had purchased the monastic land from the crown) built the magnificent Montacute House out of the local golden-coloured Ham stone. It was built next to the village reusing much of the stone from the ruined monastery which in its day had taken materials from the castle.

By 1760, the hill was valued as an ‘eye-catcher’ for the house.. something to look up to. A spiral track lined with trees was designed to enable easy access to the top of the hill. Here they built a prospect tower and above its door, in Ancient Greek, they inscribed the word ‘periscope’. You can still climb up the tower’s stone spiral stair to the top.

The view from the lower bailey showing the rampart and the steep slope up to the summit and the 1760 prospect tower.

The view from the lower bailey showing the rampart and the steep slope up to the summit and the 1760 prospect tower.

We walked down the hill to the middle castle ward and looked at the moss covered wall hidden by trees marking the terrace edge. We considered the massive amount of work needed to re-profile the hill, probably using conscripted Saxon labour.

Today’s conservation management of the hill is a battle with trees and scrub. In the 1940s the hill was grass covered and grazed by sheep but grazing stopped and it became overgrown with scrub woodland. George the ranger has worked hard with his team of volunteers, it looks good this year but needs a few cattle up there in the Spring to keep the regrowth down.

St Michael's Hill in the 1940s when the hill was grass covered and the 'hat-like' shape of the hill was clear. The timber Norman keep once stood on the summit the perimeter defended by palisades. The stables, garrison and store buildings would have been on the lower terrace. Montacute House is middle left in the photo. The priory site is centre right in the field right of the parish church.

St Michael’s Hill in the 1940s when the hill was grass covered and the ‘hat-like’ shape of the hill was clear. The timber Norman keep once stood on the summit the perimeter defended by palisades. The stables, garrison and store buildings would have been on the lower terrace. Montacute House is middle left in the photo. The priory site is centre right in the field right of the parish church.

There has been very little archaeological excavation to help understand the massive earthworks created over 900 years ago, but in 2010 I carried out a watching brief when a new water trough was installed on the hill. I noticed that burrowing animals had dug into the broad lower terrace. It’s always worth looking in mole hills and rabbit burrows. In the disturbed soil was some of the rubbish the Norman garrison had left behind.. fragments of cooking pots and splinters of animal bone, left-overs from their meals.

Norman pottery uncovered by rabbits burrowing into St Michael's Hill

Norman pottery uncovered by rabbits burrowing into St Michael’s Hill

Such scraps enable you to touch the past and to realise that there is still so much more that can be learned about this place.

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.