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Wolf Hall: one of the Marlborough area’s missing tourist attractions

If Wolf Hall still stood imagine how many tourists would flock to the Marlborough area to see the mansion that gave its name to Hilary Mantel’s popular historical novel.

Marlborough has not been lucky when it comes to surviving tourist attractions.  The area has, of course, the Avebury and Silbury Hill World Heritage Site – a granddaddy of an attraction. 

There is the ancient Ridgway and Barbury Castle and the Downs themselves and the ancient trees of Savernake Forest – they are all popular.  And the Kennet and Avon Canal and Crofton Pumping Station.

The town has the Merchant’s House, two fine churches, the startling width of the High Street and some wonderful old listed buildings.

But there’s a lot missing: Marlborough castle vanished long ago and Marlborough Mound – now proved to be Silbury’s contemporary ‘Little Sister’ – is out of bounds to the public.  And if, as is thought likely, the Mound had its own henge – that’s gone beneath the water meadows.

The great fire of April 1653 deprived future generations of Marlborough’s Guildhall, the original St Mary’s church, the County Armoury and 240 houses.

One of the main missing attractions is Wolf Hall – the home of the Seymour family near Burbage. The novel of the same name by Hilary Mantel – telling the story of Thomas Cromwell who became Henry VIII’s ‘fixer in chief’ – together with volume two of her ‘Cromwell trilogy’, Bring Up The Bodies, have been best sellers and made her a double Booker Prize winner (2009 and 2012).

Her books have started a Wolf Hall ‘industry’ which would have brought crowds of tourists to the Marlborough Area – had Wolf-Hall-the-building survived.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptations were a sell-out at the Swan Theatre in Stratford and the two plays are now moving to London’s Aldwych Theatre.  

Part of the delay in the publication of book three of the trilogy (to be called The Mirror and the Light) is due to the time she has spent working with playwright Mike Poulton, director Jeremy Herrin and the cast on the two RSC stage plays – with which she is delighted.

Next month the BBC starts shooting a six episode television series for broadcast in 2015 based on both books.  The series will star Mark Rylance as Cromwell and be directed by Peter Kosminsky who lives in Wiltshire.

There will not be a cinema version of the books as Ms Mantel does not want her complex story and complex characters constricted into a movie length format.  And we can definitely rule out a musical.

In the first book, Hilary Mantel uses Wolf Hall as something of a tease: it is not mentioned until the title of the final chapter: “To Wolf Hall”.  And the last words of the book are simply “Wolf Hall” – pointing obliquely ahead to Anne Boleyn’s execution and Henry’s new queen, Jane Syemour.


What and where was Wolf Hall and why did it disappear?  The place is first mentioned in Doomsday Book as ‘Ulfela’ and that Anglo-Saxon pronunciation or a variation of it may well have survived into Tudor times.

[Although once spelled ‘Ulfhall’ and later ‘Wulfhall’, and more recently many signs and some books use ‘Wolfhall’, we will follow Hilary Mantel and recent Wiltshire Council signposts and use ‘Wolf Hall’.]

In December 1302, Edward the First visited Wolf Hall on his way from Marlborough Castle to the royal castle at Ludgershall.  But it became famous two centuries later as the home of the Seymour family – notably Sir John and Lady Margaret Seymour who produced three remarkable children:  

Jane, who married Henry VIII as his third queen, gave him a son (Edward VI) and died soon after the birth.

Edward, who became Protector Somerset to the young King Edward VI, abused his powers, was disgraced and beheaded.

And Thomas, who had grandiose ideas about marriage attempting to court both Lady Jane Grey and Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, but had to make do with Henry VIII’s widowed queen, Catherine Parr, as his wife.  Facing multiple charges of treason, he too was executed. It did not help his case that he had shot dead one of the young king’s pet spaniels.

The Seymour children’s dire fortunes were mirrored by Wolf Hall’s relentless decline.

Local stories – perhaps trying to attract tourists – used to claim that Henry and Jane were married at Wolf Hall, but this was not true.  He did visit Wolf Hall on his summer progress in 1535 – and, as Mantel tells in Bring up the Bodies, wooed Jane there.  

There is no surviving picture of Wolf Hall as King Henry saw it.  We know it had a long gallery, a ‘Little Court’, a ‘Broad Chamber’, a chapel, a kennel for hounds, and a tower.  

Undated picture of Wolf Hall's barnUndated picture of Wolf Hall's barnAfter Queen Jane died, Henry visited the house again in 1539 – and on that occasion Wolf Hall’s great barn (with an inside space 172 feet long by 26 feet wide) was decorated for a banquet.

There were plenty of staff to entertain royalty.  Wolf Hall employed 44 men and seven women – including a steward (on the princely annual salary of three pounds and ten shillings) and two spit turners (known as ‘turn-broches’, each on thirteen shillings and fourpence a year.)

The great barn survived in a very dilapidated state into the twentieth century until it burned down.  Wolf Hall had vanished long before – some of its parts taken to build the first version of nearby Tottenham House which became the Seymours’ home in about 1582.

However, well before then the Seymours had become less than enamoured with Wolf Hall.  If Thomas Seymour had grandiose ideas about marriage, brother Edward, as he rose to power as Protector Somerset, developed grandiose ideas about his homes.

He turned a dissolved monastery in Middlesex into the grand Syon House. He tore down a church and the homes of three bishops to build Somerset House on the banks of the Thames.

And then he began to build a very grand country retreat in what is now the woods of Bedwyn Brail.  Work on this stopped when he was beheaded.  

All that remains is a water conduit, but archaeologists are still hopeful they will find some foundations for this grand house – another tourist attraction lost to the Marlborough area.

With that sort of competition Wolf Hall did not stand a chance.  Things got worse for the house when Edward’s son and heir, Lord Hertford spent years in prison or under house arrest, and many more years paying off a huge fine – keeping him well away from Wolf Hall and its maintenance.  

Hertford had crossed Queen Elizabeth by marrying (or at least having a child by) the sister of the executed Lady Jane Grey, Catherine Grey who, under Henry VIII’s will, had a claim on Elizabeth’s throne.  The Queen wrote in a letter about Hertford’s liaison with Catherine: “The Queen’s majesty is much offended.”

By 1569 the house’s tower had ‘become ruinous’ and was pulled down.  And later that year, when Hertford finally got free and went back to Wolf Hall, he wrote a letter saying it was “beyond repair”.  Interestingly, he wrote the name of the Seymours’ decaying home as “Ulfhall”.

The Tudor house once known as The LaundryThe Tudor house once known as The LaundryFor those tourists seeking to place the original Wolf Hall in the landscape, it almost certainly stood on the slope between the Victorian manor (largely hidden by trees) at the top of the hill and, down the hill, the house known on many maps (for example the Ordnance Survey of 1893) as The Laundry.  

This latter house is easily recognised for its tall Tudor chimneys – it has one Tudor wing and one wing re-fronted during the eighteen century.  It may have been built on the site of Wolf Hall’s laundry – down the hill and close to a water supply.  

Now Wolf Hall is very little more than a large dairy farm, a manor, a canal bridge and words on signposts.

In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century the name Wolf Hall was given common currency again as a railway junction.
Wolf Hall Junction was where the Swindon-Marlborough-Andover line left the Hungerford to Devizes line.  Alas, both railways, junction and nearby Grafton station have vanished.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell (RSC photo by Keith Pattison)Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell (RSC photo by Keith Pattison)A key part of Hilary Mantel’s story concerns the disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey for whom Thomas Cromwell had worked so hard.  In the books and plays, Wolsey reappears after his death as Cromwell wrestles with his conscience.

Wolsey could not deliver the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and her faction brought Wolsey down.  

In the RSC play when Cromwell is asked whether he wanted to punish Queen Anne for what she did to Wolsey, he replies bleakly: “It’s beyond grudge.”

If tourists are looking for solid evidence of those times and are surprised Wolf Hall is no longer there for them to inspect, they can visit St Peter’s Church in Marlborough, the church at which Wolsey was ordained priest on 10 March 1498.

[The bizarre story of the Earl of Hertford is brilliantly told in Graham Bathe and Andrew Douglas’ paper for the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society’s Wiltshire Studies for 2012 – from which information for this article has been taken.]

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