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 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 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)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.]
The monograph telling the full story of the archaeological evidence discovered during multi-million pound Silbury Hill Conservation Project in 2007-8 is published by English Heritage today (December 28) - Silbury Hill: the largest prehistoric mound in Europe.
The book is the result of years of scientific and analytical work by 50 specialists from 20 organisations and universities. The work was led by archaeologist Dr Jim Leary (then working for English Heritage, now a lecturer at Reading University) who has edited this monograph with David Field and Gill Campbell.
Opening the Hill for conservation, allowed archaeologists unprecedented access to its interior – and produced a great deal of new evidence.
“The post excavation analysis was vast.” says Dr Leary, “It was a major programme of scientific work and it took a lot of organising!”
Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe, is a key part of the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The huge earthen, grass-covered mound appears suddenly on your right as you drive from Marlborough westwards along the A4.
In May 2000 a ten metre deep hole appeared at the summit of the mound – as can be seen in the aerial photograph at left. This was caused by the collapse of tunnels dug into the mound in 1776 when Colonel Edward Drax became the first person to try to find out whether Silbury Hill was simply a giant burial mound.
It was then discovered that other, later exploratory tunnels driven into the mound by archaeologists were also collapsing – notably the one created during the excavations between 1968 and 1970 sponsored by the BBC and extensively televised. It was this tunnel that was then re-opened to give access for engineers to secure the collapsed tunnels and stabilise the mound - and for archaeologists to explore inside the mound.
Although there had been a great debate about what to do with the mound once it was found to be so unstable, if English Heritage had not stepped in and set a major conservation project in motion, Silbury Hill might well have suffered a catastrophic collapse.
Dr Jim LearyAs Dr Leary told Marlborough News Online, the major detailed findings in the new book using material discovered during the conservation work concern dating: “We now have a very good idea of its date, and of the length of time it might have taken to build.”
“The new dating evidence places the start of construction in the second half of the twenty-fifth century BC, with the final stages of Silbury finished in the late twenty-fourth or early twenty-third centuries BC – estimating that it took between 55 and 155 years to build.”
When Marlborough News Online asked Dr Leary whether there is likely to be further archaeological excavation on Silbury Hill after the 2007-2008 works, he explained: “They were not designed to answer pressing research questions about the nature of the mound. That must wait for the future.”
“That said, we know so much more about the mound and the landscape – things that just a decade ago we knew nothing of.”
The monograph has chapters on every aspect of the conservation and archaeological finds and analysis. Chapter 9 will be of special interest to the Marlborough area’s local history enthusiasts. It tells how the project has revealed more about the later history of Silbury Hill.
A geophysical survey has revealed that a Roman settlement grew up around the mound. And there is evidence that in the Middle Ages the mound was remodelled and a structure, possibly a defensive palisade, was built on the summit in the tenth or eleventh centuries AD – perhaps in response to Viking raids.
Another chapter gives details of the engineering work that was carried out to stabilise Silbury Hill and preserve it for generations to come.
With the results of the Silbury project safely between hardcovers, Dr Leary looks to the future: “We are surely about to enter a new phase, where dating of events allows us to build up local and regional histories and assign social context on the basis of greater certainty. For Neolithic archaeology the prospects are really exciting.”
It is probably a good thing this book or monograph is being published after Christmas and so has missed family present lists – it is priced at £100.
The Marlborough Mound
The Marlborough MoundRecently, Dr Leary and a group of colleagues have also published analysis of the work he led in 2010 that finally dated the Marlborough Mound as being a contemporary of Silbury Hill.
The mound in the grounds of Marlborough College became overnight not ‘Merlin’s Mound’ or ‘Castle Mound’ but ‘Silbury’s Little Sister’. It is a little over half the height of Silbury.
It could certainly no longer be thought of as just the base for Marlborough’s Norman castle. Rather, the castle builders used the Neolithic mound as a conveniently high foundation for part of the castle’s structure, rather as Silbury was probably used in the Middle Ages as the base for a defensive palisade.
Although the theory that the Mound was prehistoric goes back to 1821 and its date was the subject of controversy thereafter, it was generally thought to have been created in the Middle Ages.
The age of the Marlborough Mound was fixed using carbon dating of fragments of charcoal and other organic material found in the soil cores that were taken by Dr Leary’s team through the full height of the mound.
Published in The Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (the December 2013 issue), the analysis of the findings leads the authors to believe it is likely the mound was part of a bigger Neolithic site – just as Silbury was part of Avebury and the Marden Henge had its mound (which has now disappeared.)
Dr Leary told MNO: “There is very likely to have been a Neolithic enclosure of one sort or another nearby.” This was probably to the south of the Marlborough mound. However, as that area was turned into a network of water meadows in the seventeenth century, traces from Neolithic times have been lost.
The authors also think that evidence found in the cores taken from the mound, may show that the site suffered two major floods in the distant past. Floods which may put the River Kennet’s more recent flooding into perspective.
In the journal paper there are intriguing photos of some of the cores showing the various strata of materials within the mound.
These cores show the mound was, like Silbury, constructed over a number of phases showing that for the builders the significance of the mounds was in the process of building rather than in the finished form.
Silbury Hill: the largest Prehistoric Mound in Europe edited by Jim Leary, David Field and Gill Campbell. Published by English Heritage. RRP £100.
The Marlborough Mound, Wiltshire. A further Neolithic Monumental Mound by the River Kennet – by Jim Leary, Matthew Canti, David Field, Peter Fowler, Peter Marshall and Gill Campbell. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 79, 2013, pp 137-163.
[This paper can be bought to download from the Cambridge University Press website for £20.]
[May 2000 aerial photo of Silbury Hill courtesy English Heritage.]
It's not just about tiny trowelsOn the last day (August 7) of a three week archaeological dig in Avebury’s West Kennet Avenue more than fifty people from the surrounding parishes visited the site, were given a tour and heard descriptions of what was going on from archaeologists leading the excavations.
For the first time in seventy-nine years, they have reopened part of the trench dug by Alexander Keiller, the marmalade heir from Dundee who bought part of the Avebury site so it could be preserved and pioneered new archaeological techniques at the stone circles and avenues. (Keiller's trench can be seen in the foreground of the photo below of Dr Mark Gillings.)
In 1934, part way along the West Kennet Avenue, Keiller and his colleagues discovered a Neolithic midden or rubbish dump that contained more than a thousand worked flint tools and much else besides. This was a sure sign that the area had been occupied.
Today’s archaeologists wanted to find out more and opened two large trenches – helped by a team of undergraduates mainly from Southampton University.
It has not been an easy dig. The days when they were lifting off the turf were about the hottest of the year. Then came heavy rain and lightning – and work had to stop to let the rainwater drain away.
A third trench – slightly further towards the village – will have to wait for another year. Before that there will be months and months of careful analysis of the finds and seeing what evidence comes from the soil samples.
Dr Nick Snashall introduces the digThis summer’s dig is part of a long-term project called Between the Monuments which is designed to discover where and how the people who built the monuments lived. And to find out what they did when they were not building monuments.
It is a collaborative research project between the University of Southampton (Dr Josh Pollard), University of Leicester (Dr Mark Gillings), Allen Environmental Archaeology (Dr Mike Allen) and the National Trust (Dr Ros Cleal & Dr Nick Snashall.)
Nick Snashall, who is the National Trust’s archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, introduced the dig to the visitors. And Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard explained what was happening in each of the trenches.
Dr Mark Gillings explains the trenchesMark Gillings said they were working in unique circumstances as they had found soil undisturbed by deep ploughing: “It’s a unique pocket of dirt” which was giving up “intact pieces of pottery and beautiful flint work.”
Some finds had pre-dated the creation of the Avenue by as much as seven centuries: “People were living here before they decided to set up the Avenue.”
Other finds were from the time the Avenue was being built – and some were from the early mediaeval era. And they had found a Roman coin in Keiller’s 1934 trench: “He’d probably thrown it back in as he was only interested in Neolithic finds.”
Examples of the finds can be seen on the dig’s blog – including a wonderfully complete flint arrowhead.
Tiny white markers near the edge of one of the trenches show where ancient stake holes have been found – given away by different colouring in the soil caused by decayed wooden posts. Stake holes like these usually belong to some kind of home or living quarters.Dr Josh Pollard and students
Digging the third trench and pursuing these post holes beyond the present trenches – always hoping to find a hearth – will almost certainly bring the team back next year.
The interim results from the dig will be posted on the blog.
Click on photos to enlarge - then > & <.
When the dig ends all the carefully sifted soil goes back into the trenches
The white lines are periglacial deposits from the last ice age