When Will We Pass This Way Again

Last year, the Tower did not open at all. The charity which manages it on behalf of English Heritage made the decision as early as March 2020 that there was no point in scheduling an opening. The Tower is normally open from April to October, so it was prescient to realise that there was little likelihood of things being back to normal by October.

In June 2020, all volunteers received an email from the same charity, basically throwing its hands in the air and giving up. This was quite early in the pandemic, a bare three months in. The charity’s entire portfolio, which includes the city’s libraries, theatre, gyms, museum and other heritage attractions, would revert back to the City Council’s management.

To their enormous credit, the Council have not thrown their hands up in despair (despite years of austerity budgets), but have taken the ball and run with it. The libraries have continued to function throughout, even opening physically for a brief period. The bins continue to be collected, the verges mown, and even trees cut down. (I don’t approve of the latter, and have complained numerous times,but apparently if a tree is diseased it has to be chopped).

We volunteers received an email some months ago asking if we would continue under the new management. I’ve heard nothing since.

I pass the Tower often on my daily walks. I always spend a few seconds fondly gazing up at it.

The magic of first entering after the winter closed season never failed to thrill me. To set foot in this ancient, unspoiled place. To walk up the winding stair, up which villagers from 700 years ago had stepped, to feel those stones under my feet, connecting with the people from the past. Wonderful.

Here’s the stair to the turret at the top. Members of the public are not allowed up here, but volunteers are conducted up to look at the view from the battlements. Incredible to see the village, which from the ground looks like a 1980’s suburb, spread out far below. There are more trees than you think. Trees are a subject close to my heart, as you might have gathered by now. More on that topic another time.


An Introduction to Longthorpe Tower

This year, English Heritage began a partnership with The Courtauld Institute of Art, to work on a collaborative 12 week conservation project on the paintings of Longthorpe Tower.

For several weeks, the principal chamber was filled with scaffolding, and the upper chamber contained heaps and piles of work materials, together with busy Masters students from the Courtauld Institute, working on the paintings.

This has resulted in a full three page article in the English Heritage members’ magazine, and a larger number of visitors than normal have been arriving to see what it is all about.

As my most recent posts have been about other historic places, (visited during the winter closed season), it feels like it is time to re-introduce the Tower for the benefit of new visitors, who may have chanced upon this website seeking more information.


The Tower was built by the Thorpe family, a local family not of noble origin at all.  In fact, they had made their way out of the peasantry (an almost unheard of feat in the hierarchical society of Medieval England).  An earlier post of mine below compares their achievement with that of the Paston family from Norfolk, who are much better known, (as a result of the amazing archive of letters they left behind).  The Thorpes, like the Pastons, were named after the village they hailed from, because they were not gentry, and did not have a long pedigree going back to the Norman knights who came over with William the Conqueror.  Again, like the Pastons, the Thorpes studied hard, became lawyers, made money, and eventually rose to high positions in society.

There are two villages, very close to each other, Thorpe and Longthorpe, and both were owned by Peterborough Abbey.  There was a manor house in each, and manor lands owned by the Abbey needed to be managed and farmed so that the Abbey could use the revenues to maintain its prestigious position as one of the wealthiest Abbeys in the kingdom.

Robert Thorpe the elder, who added the Tower to the Manor House at Longthorpe, was the chief lay steward to the Abbey, an important and well-paid position.  Today it would perhaps be called Facilities Manager, or Managing Director of Estates. His legal training would have been very important, and financial management was also a vital part of his role.  He collected rents for the Abbey, and later on, his descendant would become Chancellor of the Exchequer.  A Timeline for the Thorpe family can be seen below.Timeline

The dating of the Tower is around 1309/10, during the reign of Edward II.


Adding a Tower to the Manor House was a statement of wealth and prestige.  It is thought that Robert Thorpe was likely to have used offcuts of stone from the Abbey buildings, and possibly also workmen from the Abbey to build the Tower, which, to this day, stands out as a particularly tall building.

This was not a castle, and although there there is a battlemented area at the top, it was never defended during any war, or civil war, of which there were many during the periods of unrest in the Middle Ages.

It was a sign of status.

Tower exterior

There is a striking similarity between Longthorpe Tower and the  ducal tower of Siedlęcin, Lower Silesia, in Poland.  Both were attached to a Manor House, and would have had a moat surrounding. The architecture of the windows is particularly notable in its similarity:

Window seat April 2018 1

Longthorpe, window on upper floor.

Tower in Poland

The Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin.  As this was built by a member of the higher nobility, it is on a much grander scale than Longthorpe, but the similarity of design is evident.

Most noteworthy and most important in both the Ducal Tower and Longthorpe are the Wall Paintings.

The Wall Paintings

As in the case of the Ducal Tower, the paintings are of stunning scale and of international importance.  Both were whitewashed over for centuries, and survived miraculously.  My colleague will write about the paintings in the Ducal Tower, and I will concentrate on Longthorpe.

As this was part of a private family home, the paintings show considerable variety.  The themes are both religious and secular, but after the English Reformation it was considered heretical to show any religious imagery at all, so the whole interior would have been whitewashed to avoid any trouble.

There is a nativity scene, and a depiction of the twelve apostles, each holding a scroll with a sentence from the Apostles’ Creed.  Here is a part of the scroll with the words “Spiritus Sanctus” (the Holy Spirit) just visible.

Spiritus Sanctus

The beautifully even Latin script suggests that possibly monks from the Abbey Scriptorium were drafted in for the work.

Holy mother church

One of the “Apostles” turns out to be a woman.  This figure represents Holy Mother Church, as the words on her scroll inform us.

Other paintings, while not religious, have a strong moral tone.  An examples is “The Three Living and the Three Dead”.


On the left, three Kings are out in their finery, enjoying a hunt.  They meet three skeletons in progressive states of decomposition, the one on the far right being eaten by worms.

The Kings ask: “What is the meaning of this?”

The skeletons reply  “As you are now, we once were.  As we are now, you will one day be.”  This moral depiction, a reminder of mortality, was a popular theme throughout the 1300’s, and appears in church wall paintings and manuscripts.

A picture from British Library archives shows a colour image:british-library-3-living-and-3-dead-arundel-83-f-127

Atribution: BL Arundel 83 f 127

On the tomb of the Black Prince, (died 1377), is inscribed in full the words of the popular French poem on this theme.

Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone

Very apt in view of the Prince’s pre-eminence as the eldest son of the great King Edward III, but who tragically pre-deceased his father.

The Wheel of the Five Senses is another moral, rather than religious theme:

Wheel of 5 senses

The King, controlling the wheel, represents reason.  Reason should control the passions, the five senses.  Here we can see the spider’s web (touch), the wild boar (hearing), and the vulture (smell).  It was thought that vultures detected their prey by smell, although now we know that they see their prey.  The other two senses are – sight, depicted by the cockerel, the first to see the dawn, and taste, depicted by a monkey eating.

Numbers were important to the Medieval mind, and as well as the Three Living and the Three Dead, and the Five Senses, other paintings depict number sequences.

The Seven Ages of Man predates Shakespeare by over 200 years, but follows the same sequence as Shakespeare, showing a baby in a cradle, a child playing with a toy, following through the prime of manhood to maturity followed by decrepit old age.

A sequence of the Twelve Labours of the Months starts with January, showing a peasant warming himself by the fire:

Labours of the Months, January

Most of the other months are too damaged to see, but December shows the ritual celebration of killing the pigs for Christmas:

Labours of the Months, December


Feasting would have taken place in this grand, decorated chamber, and there are paintings of musicians around the ceiling, indicative of private entertainment available to the wealthy. Here is a set of pan-pipes:

Musician panpipes

Other paintings, perhaps done by an apprentice, as they seem cruder, depict aspects of rural life:

Rabbits and pollarded willowRabbits were an important source of food and fur for clothing, and the pollarding of trees ensured a constant renewal of supplies of wood for fires.  Pollarding is still practiced in local woodland and wild-life areas to this day.

As education had been their means of advancement, themes of learning are also seen in the chamber:

Woman teaching childHere a woman sits at a window and teaches a child.  The seat by the narrow lancet window ensures maximum light bounces off the curved wall.

The pictures are dated to approximately 1320- 1340.  These dates have been worked out by reference to the style of the Kings’ crowns, and the style of clothing worn by this fashionable young man:

Young man in fashionable dress

The closure of the period (1340) is calculated by a shield showing Edward III’s coat of arms before he announced himself also King of France.   The Ducal Tower in Poland calculates that its date of construction and the dates of its paintings are almost identical with Longthorpe’s, indicating an international fashion trend in building and decorating.

This British Library manuscript shows a King supervising the building of a Tower.  The location is Northern France and the date early 1300’s.

Royal 14 E.III, f.85v

Attribution: BL Royal 14E III f.85v


By a lucky chance, Longthorpe Tower has survived. It is situated in a quiet backwater in a small village outside a town which escaped, until recently,  major re-development projects.  The paintings survived because they were white-washed over rather than being “re-decorated” in the latest style.  After the Fitzwilliam family acquired the Manor in the early 1500’s, The Tower was not their main residence,  and it was used as a farm storage building,  left undisturbed.  The Tower was donated to the nation by the then owner, Earl Fitzwilliam, shortly after the paintings were re-discovered in 1945.

Today, volunteers show and explain the paintings to the public, and a growing body of background knowledge is being accumulated by experts in the field.



Little Gidding

Little Gidding Feb 2019 1

While the tower is closed in the winter, I plan to make visits to other historic sites.

Little Gidding has been on my “list” since 2014, and at last I’ve managed to get there.  It’s not far.  About 15 miles at most, but in the depths of countryside, and accessed by very minor roads.  It’s not on the way to anywhere, and you have to be really motivated.

More about the history of the chapel, and the Ferrar family here.

The place has a definite atmosphere, partly because of its extreme remoteness, partly because it has been a place of devotion and prayer for nearly 400 years.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 3

Since the mid-twentieth century, if it is known at all by the average person, it will be because of the poem “Little Gidding”, by T.S.Eliot.  This is the last of the sequence “Four Quartets”.  This is a deeply difficult poem, by a one of the most cerebral poets of the twentieth century.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 12


Forty five years ago, when I was a student, allegedly studying English Literature at university, (in reality spending most of my time consuming tea and cake and riding my bicycle about the place), I avoided the Four Quartets as being impossibly dry and boring.  It didn’t help that one of them was actually called “The Dry Salvages”.  We struggled through “The Waste Land”, dutifully taking notes as to what it was all about, and lighted thankfully on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as it seemed jollier in tone.  “”I grow old … I grow old …..  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled …”

I don’t think I ever got as far as the Four Quartets, which are near the back of “The Collected Poems”.  At any rate, there are no pencilled notes in the pages of my copy.

Of course, after my return from the chapel, I opened my “Collected Poems of T.S Eliot”, and was surprised.

Lines which, in my distant youth, never having been near the place, would have meant nothing at all, now had some significance, particularly as I visited during the “midwinter spring” – an extraordinarily warm and pleasant February day.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 8.jpg

Here is a picture of the hedgerow,

Little Gidding blossom Feb 2019 1

“blanched for an hour with transitory blossom

Of snow, a bloom more sudden than that of summer, neither budding nor fading”

It’s hawthorn blossom, of course, and later in the spring, we will get the hugely weightier cherry blossom:

“If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges white again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness …”

Blossom 23 April 2018.jpg

These lines also make sense now, which would have been gobbledegook before:

Little Gidding Feb 2019 9

The road is very rough, and literally the end of the road, a long country track miles from the village of Great Gidding.  The pig-sty is no longer there, but the farm-house to which it would have belonged is, and now a place of retreat for religious study.  The tomb is right in front of the door, it’s at the bottom right of my photo below.  And the facade, well, I wouldn’t call it dull, but I suppose some might see it as such.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 2

“If you came at night like a broken king,” again a mystery to a callow 19-year-old, is a reference to the visit of King Charles I, after his defeat at the Battle of Naseby in Northamptonshire.  (Ten hours away on foot, maybe 3-4 on a fast horse).

The arms of King Charles I, in a 19th century stained glass window inside the chapel, commemorate its use as a place of refuge for the defeated King.

Little Gidding Feb 2019 5

For such a tiny, remote place, the history and legend, the atmosphere and significance, are huge.  I’m so glad I made my visit at last.

The Cromwell Museum,and the Cromwells

My second historic visit during the winter closed season was to The Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon

This is a wonderful spot, just 14 minutes away by train.

Exterior door of hospital building 2

The building itself is of great interest, being a Norman stone construction, all that remains of the old Hospital of St John, built to provide hospitality for travellers and pilgrims in the 11th century.

It became Huntingdon Grammar School after the dissolution of religious buildings by the Tudors.  Oliver Cromwell himself went to school there, and it was still in use as a school into the 20th century.

It is not to be confused with the house in Ely,  where Cromwell moved in 1636, from Huntingdon, where he was born.

Inside, the Cromwell Museum is crammed with original exhibits, all beautifully labelled, and there is a small shop with a selection of interesting books and pamphlets.  The Museum is free and a very friendly and well-informed volunteer answered all my questions.

There are many superb portraits.  As you come in through the door, this wonderful, sad-eyed Charles I (copy of a Van Dyke), greets you.

Copy of Van Dyke portrait, on loan

Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth is interesting in her own right, as mother of nine children, all but one of whom survived to adulthood.  She is particularly interesting to residents of Peterborough as after the Restoration she lived out the rest of her days at a rather splendid manor in Northborough.

Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Oliver 2



Cromwell’s son, Richard, briefly inherited the Protectorate, before it became evident that he was totally unsuitable for the job.

Richard Cromwell, heir to Oliver, resigned Protectorate

His favourite daughter, another Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Cromwell, favourite daughter of Oliver

Besides Northborough, we at Longthorpe Tower have some other links with the Cromwells.

Oliver’s great-grandfather was Richard Cromwell,  (born Richard Williams, the nephew of Thomas Cromwell, who took his uncle’s surname).  Richard was intensely active on behalf of Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries.  He received  property at Brampton and a large share of the estates of Ramsey Abbey as a reward for his services.  On 15th October 1538, Richard, travelling from Cambridge to Ely, Somerhsam and Ramsey, wrote to his uncle: “As sone as we have done at Ramsey, we go to Peterbor and from thence to my house, and so home”.  He signed the letter as “the most bounden nephew of Th Cromwell.”

Peterborough Abbey was surrendered on 29th November, 1539.  The nearby houses of Thorney, Croyland (Crowland) and Spalding followed, on 1st December, 4th December and 8th December respectively.

The commissioners’ instructions were to  “take inventories of plate, jewels and goods, and leave the same in custody of the governors, except such principal jewels, plate, ornaments or other things as shall be thought mete for the king’s majesty.  They shall with all speed survey all possessions.  They shall cause the governors and religious to change their habits immediately.  They shall certify … what lands be most convenient for the king, and … they shall certify if there be any stately manors or other possessions lying commodiously for the king.”   ***

There were two manors at “Longethorp” both listed in the Abbey inventory made, extremely promptly, and in great detail, on 30th November.  The old manor, where Thorpe Hall is situated now, was managed by Johannis Villers, and the “new” manor, whose bailiff was Thomas Phillip, was at the site of the Tower.

This seems odd to us now, because, the Tower is much older than the present Thorpe Hall.

Both manors were owned by the Abbey, and later passed into private hands.  Thorpe Hall, a mere half mile from Longthorpe Tower,  was built for Oliver St John, Lord Chief Justice to Oliver Cromwell during the Protectorate.  Oliver St John’s second wife was Oliver Cromwell’s favourite niece, Elizabeth Cromwell.

We often suggest to visitors who do not know the area that Thorpe Hall is an excellent place to visit after they have finished at the Tower.  It is a beautiful 17th century mansion, with lovely gardens which can be accessed, a cafe and a gift shop.

External view 1

The Lord Protector allowed St John to loot what was left of Peterborough Abbey outbuildings, the monastic remains, to build the Hall.

Carving looted from Abbey ruins 2

This piece of sculptured stone is being used as a path marker.

Carving of fish, presumably from monastery ruins.jpg

A fish, looks like a carp from the huge teeth.  Thorpe Hall is situated between the Abbey and the monastic fishponds at Longthorpe, which still exist.  This pile of stone is being used as a stand for assorted plant containers from the gift shop.

The old carriage house , stables on right

The stable yard , with carriage doors ahead.  The stables, now used as the gift shop, are on the extreme right of the picture.

You can walk over this field to access the medieval fishponds from the Hall.  The land still belongs to the Hall (which is currently owned by the Sue Ryder Foundation).

Field 25 April 2018.jpg

The land was sheep pasture when it was owned by the Abbey, and has been used as grazing or meadow ever since.  I like to think, as I walk, that I am stepping in the footprints of the medieval monks.

Two miles further on, is Peterborough Cathedral, all that is left of the once-great Abbey.  It was ransacked by Puritan troops during the Civil War, and any tombs and stained glass which had survived the dissolution were not so fortunate this time.  The Cromwell family, Thomas, Richard (of the sixteenth century) and Oliver, between them, did enormous and irreparable damage to the fabric of religious buildings nationwide.

It is therefore particularly surprising that All Saints’ Church, in the centre of Huntingdon, directly opposite the Cromwell Museum, has kept its patronal saints in the niches on the external walls.

All Saints Church ext patronal saints 1

All Saints Church ext patronal saints 2

One of the major desecrations of the churches all over England resulting from what we call “The Reformation”  was the removal of all images, whether in stone or stained glass.

St Mary's Church Stamford 1

St Mary's Church Stamford 2

These two empty niches are both from St Mary’s Church, Stamford, nine miles away.

It is very surprising that the church in Huntingdon centre, directly opposite the Grammar School and not far from the house where Oliver Cromwell was born, (now a care home), escaped this desecration.

All Saints Church ext Musicians

Medieval musicians, on the exterior, are of interest to Tower volunteers, as we have a theme of musicians in the roof of the painted chamber.  Such stone images are rarely seen, not simply because of man-made destruction, but also because of weather-erosion.

Peterborough, as I recorded in my first post here, is far more interesting than it first appears, and has links to most of the major events in English history.

*** Quotations taken from “The Last Days of Peterborough Monastery”, by W.T. Mellows, printed by the Northamptonshire Records Society, 1947.






Anglo Saxon Manuscripts, The British Library

Runes copied in the 10th century

Runes, 10th century, picture British Library

In winter, the Tower is closed, so it is a good time to spend on reading and visiting other sites.

I resolved this year to make one visit per fortnight to a historic site or museum,  quite an ambitious target.

In January, I achieved my goal.

The first visit was to the British Library, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts exhibition.  It closes on 19th February, and is well worth a visit.

One of my co-volunteers at Peterborough Museum was surprised one day by a visitor who approached one of the Peterborough Abbey documents and began reading aloud from the ancient script.  It transpired that this visitor, an American Professor from Harvard University, had come to London to visit the British Library exhibition.  On being told that a particular manuscript was temporarily on loan to Peterborough, he came up to our Museum to see it!   Our exhibition has now closed, but the BL one is still open until 19th February.

The BL exhibition is billed as a “Once in a Generation” chance to see many otherwise widely dispersed items all collected together, with interesting information attached.  British Library Ezra

The Codex Amiatinus, loaned from Italy.  Picture: British Library 

This was my favourite, a huge book over a foot in height,.

“Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible. It is one of three giant, single-volume Bibles, made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early years of the 8th century. Two of these Bibles were made for the church at Wearmouth and for the church at Jarrow: fragments of one of them survive.

In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took the third and finest volume on his final journey to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. He died en route, at Langres in Burgundy, leaving his monks to complete the mission. Since that time, Codex Amiatinus has been cared for in Italy, renowned as the most accurate copy of the Vulgate translation made by St Jerome (d. 420).” (from British Library website).

More information can be found here.

I love the bookcase.  The design of a serious bookcase, complete with solid doors and shelves, has not changed much in over 1300 years.  Here’s mine:

Bookcase like Ezra

That gives me the most amazing feeling of continuity.  How wonderful that traditions of real books have survived and been passed down all those years.

Timeline of Kings: King John – 1199 – 1216


The Tower is a very tall and stately structure, and it is hard to believe it was begun in the period 1309/10.

The wall paintings are thought to have been added in the period 1320-1340.

Visitors often ask who was the King of England during these periods in the Tower’s history.  They are thinking, how was this upstart family, peasants as recently as 1200, able to rise so high?  And some ask, was the Tower a defensive building, was it needed as a refuge during the turbulence and violence of these centuries?

Kings TimelineThis is my History Ruler, which I have kept since my children were at Primary School, over a quarter of a century ago.  Still in very good condition, not chewed, or splintered!

The Kings (and later the Queens) of England are listed in chronological order.

Our records first show the existence of the Thorpe family as peasants, tenants of the Watervilles (Norman Knights) as early as 1175.



This was during the reign of Henry II.  Henry was a strong and vigorous king, who fathered many sons, the prime duty of any king being to provide an heir to ensure the stability of the kingdom.

King Henry’s first two sons died. Firstborn William died aged 3, and second-born Henry, the Young King (uniquely crowned as Young King during his father’s lifetime) died a sordid death of disease in France, aged about 27.

Henry II’s fourth son, Geoffrey, also predeceased his father, again in France, at the age of 28.  Mortality rates were high in the Middle Ages, even for those born with the advantages of royalty.

Richard, the third son, survived to become King Richard the Lionheart, but died childless.  On his death he was succeeded by his brother, Henry II’s youngest son, John.  If King John were to have a further tag to his name, it would be John the Bad, as he is widely recognized to be England’s worst ever king.  It was during his reign that Thurstan Thorpe, the ancestor of the Robert Thorpe who built the Tower, was made a free man, in 1212.

As a marker of reference on the Timeline, Magna Carta was signed in 1216.  The ‘Great Charter’ was largely concerned with the rights of the Barons and other privileged and land-owning classes.  It has since been immortalised as a beacon of universal human rights, but that was not how it started out.  The Barons, the only class which had the power, collectively, to challenge the King, were sick of his tyrannical behaviour.  They set out to force him to come to the negotiating table, and Magna Carta was the result.

John’s lawless and self-indulgent rule included seizure of his subjects’ lands, dispossession, imprisonment and physical violence.  John extracted extortionate fines from anyone who opposed him, and was known to starve his enemies to death.    In a chilling foreshadowing of later stories, he allegedly  murdered his nephew, Prince Arthur.  Arthur was the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, and therefore had a better right to the throne than John.

“He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement,” wrote the author of the 13th-century History of William Marshal, “that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty.”

The chronicler ‘Anonymous of Bethune’ wrote:

“He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others. He lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could he told lies rather than the truth… He was brim-full of evil qualities.”

“No man may ever trust him,” according to the troubadour Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”

A very dark period in English history befell the middle period of John’s rule.  On 23rd March, 1208, the Pope laid an interdict over the whole of England.  This was a punishment directed straight at the King, in retribution for John’s failure to agree with the Pope’s choice of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Arguably, the punishment fell far heavier on the people of the country than on its King, who appeared undisturbed, and in fact accrued great financial benefit by confiscating church property and revenues.

To the people, it must have appeared that a dark cloud had fallen over the land.  The church doors were sealed, and the congregation kept out.  No burials were permitted within consecrated ground, and no-one was allowed to celebrate the Mass.  No sacraments were permitted except the baptism of infants, and the penance of the dying.  Many must have felt that they were descending into Hell.

The nearest equivalent I can imagine today is having all the supermarkets shut down, and the cinemas and TV turned off permanently.  The church was as central and fundamental to medieval life as these things are to us today.

John took no notice, so the Pope went further, and in November 1209 he excommunicated John.

All the monastic chroniclers report the seizure or confiscation of church property.  John appointed local men to take control over the barns and farm produce formerly controlled by the monasteries. They took the place of the monastic officials who had previously carried out the role.

In each parish or “vill”, four villagers, “rustici” were appointed in the king’s name to take charge of and administer the clergy’s barns.  These men, taking church property, lived in fear of excommunication.  They had to humbly appeal for absolution once the church was restored.   Reference source:

Click to access datastream

The interdict went on for six years, and was finally lifted on 2nd July 1214.

In the middle of this period, we are told that the ancestor of the Thorpes who built the Tower, Thurstan de Thorpe, was made a free man.  It is tempting to wonder how much the chaos and breakdown of normal rules of society had to do with this unusual event.  In the medieval period, it was extremely difficult to move between social classes.  I have written about this topic in my posts on the Pastons.

It is also tempting to wonder whether Thurstan de Thorpe obtained his freedom by taking on the spiritually dangerous and unpopular task of the “rustici”.  Those who took on this work must have been compensated in some way.

Our records indicate that the Knight to whom Thurstan owed his tenancy was short of cash, after going on Crusade.  The records indicate that Thurstan paid the Knight to obtain his freedom.  Could the money have come from work done on the King’s business, taking care of produce from Church barns?

This unsettled and dangerous time was a good opportunity for an ambitious family to advance.

Effigy on King John’s Tomb, Worcester Cathedral:


The tomb was opened in 1797, and an account of the opening can be found on the British Library website.account-opening-johns-tomb-814-1-23-0002

Image: British Library









Another Tower, Another Number

Tower in Poland exterior

The ducal tower of Siedlęcin, Lower Silesia, Poland. Photo courtesy of Artur Wosz – see link below for origin

I was struck by this interesting post about wall paintings in Poland.


Part of our training at Longthorpe as volunteers includes telling visitors about the significance of numbers to the Medieval mind.

We have the Three Living and the Three Dead:DSC_0044


The Wheel of the Five Senses:

King with Wheel of five senses, boar

and the Seven Ages of Man.  We also have the Twelve Apostles, and the Twelve Labours of the Month.  What we don’t have is the Nine Worthies.

The blog from Freelance History Writer explains that the Nine Worthies were a group of nine powerful rulers and the greatest conquerors who ever lived. They included three classical pagan heroes (Alexander the Great, Hector, and Julius Caesar), three Jews (David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus), and three Christians (Charlemagne, Arthur and Godfrey de Bouillon). In medieval art, architecture and illuminations the Nine Worthies motif became enormously popular. Some of the finest examples have survived until today, most notably in Italy, but also in Central Europe.

The blog explores some sites in Poland. One is a Medieval Tower, dating, we are told, from 1313 – 1316.  This is almost contemporary with Longthorpe Tower.  It’s grander, though, since it was “probably built by Duke Henry I of Jawor.  In the 1320’s/1330’s, the said duke commissioned what is considered its greatest treasure. According to recent research it was then that the southern wall of the Great Hall was adorned with paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.”

The addition of the wall paintings follows a similar timeline to the addition of the wall paintings at Longthorpe.

Our timeline explains that Longthorpe Tower was built by Robert Thorpe, Steward to the Abbey of Peterborough in about 1309/10, and the paintings were added somewhere between 1320-1340.  Extremely close in dates!  Could it be that this was an international fashion trend?

Even more exciting – the ducal tower has a window seat inside which reminded me of the window seats on our upper floor.  I wonder, could the enlarged Jacobean window behind our till on the first floor have once looked like this?

Tower in Poland

The Great Hall of the ducal tower of Siedlęcin with the unique set of the wall paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.   Photo courtesy of Artur Wosz

Window seat April 2018 1

A similar window on the upper floor of Longthorpe Tower.  Photo author’s own.

I was very excited to see how similar these windows are in construction and outline.  It appears that there was an international fashion for this type of construction.

Paintings, too, seemed to be the height of fashion and a mark of status.

Were these decorative features following a trend set at a Royal level?

The Painted Chamber, Westminster was commissioned by Henry III (reigned 1216 to 1272) and the paintings took place over a lengthy period.

More information can be found here,

and here.

Labours Of the Month – January and February

January calendar page

Extracted from British Library Medieval Manuscripts site,with annotations:

Calendars with illuminations and other miniatures are often found in manuscripts from the medieval era.

Along with listing  important dates, many medieval calendars (particularly later ones) include a miniature of the relevant sign of the zodiac, as well as a scene of the ‘labour of the month.’  These ‘labours’ were fairly standardised, and would have been instantly recognisable to a medieval audience, although they can often require a bit of explanation for the readers of today. Each month depicts a different endeavour appropriate to that particular time of year, and these images are often some of the best evidence of the work and leisure activities of the non-nobility.

An excellent illustration of a medieval calendar can be found in the British Library’s ‘Isabella Breviary,’ created for Queen Isabella of Castile (1451 – 1504).  Isabella is perhaps better known as the mother of Catherine of Aragon, buried here in Peterborough Cathedral.   A breviary is a book of prayers, hymns, and other readings designed to be read daily in accordance with the canonical hours. BL says “This magnificent example was produced in the late 1480s in Bruges, with illustrations by a number of prominent artists of the time.”

Here is the manuscript page the British Library published for January.  At the bottom is a picture associated with the labour of the month for January – sitting warming oneself by the fire, as shown in Longthorpe Tower.  (But showing as February on the font at St Mary’s Church, Burnham Deepdale).  The picture also shows feasting,  (shown as December on the church font.  There are 300 years between the Norman font and these beautiful late 15th century manuscripts.  The Tower pictures, circa 1320 -1340, fall in between.

February’s manuscript picture:

attribution BL: February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v

February Labour of the Month

It shows workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.

Pruning vines took place in April in the stone font carvings at St Mary’s Church.

Footnote to The Pastons

I wrote last year about the 600th anniversary of The Paston Letters, which will be celebrated in 2018.

The Pastons – how do they connect with Longthorpe Tower?

An ideal introduction to this medieval family can by found in a post on a Norfolk medievalist’s blog, in a post entitled “The Pastons in Norwich”

The blog is beautifully illustrated, and contains ample reference material.  To whet your appetite, here’s the opening paragraph, with illustration:

“The story starts with Clement Paston (d1419), from the village of Paston about 20 miles north-east of Norwich. He was “a good, plain husband” whose lowly station in life was illustrated by the fact that he had to ride, “to mill on the bare horseback with his corn under him” [quote from The Paston Letters]. Clement’s humble origins, probably as a bondman not entitled under feudal law to own land, were to be used against his descendants as they rose to prominence.

Paston peasant from another Blog

Lovely, isn’t it!

The post goes on to illuminate how the Pastons rose to great heights from humble beginnings, only to fall again in later centuries.

In similar fashion, the Thorpe family achieved eminence, only to fade away. The Thorpes died out in 1392, when the Tower passed to a cousin.  By 1502, this branch of the family sold the Tower in 1502 to the Fitwilliam family.

Image: Courtesy BL Harley 3244

December: the month of killing the pig

On the subject of the twelve labours of the month, we are used to telling our visitors that the final picture of the series, only just visible, shows December, killing the pig. For Christmas, of course.

December Killing the Pig Trin MS B.11.31

December is confirmed as the month of killing the pig on this wonderful site, provided by the library of Trinity College Cambridge.  We can read detailed information about each of the Labours of the Months, and see pictures of what some of the wall paintings would have shown.  December shows the raised arm we can faintly see in the Tower painting, and the fat pig, about to expire.

One day, a visitor arrived who was more than usually attentive and interested in the Labours.  She informed me that she was a lecturer in Medieval Studies and that the pig would have been killed in November.  There would have been no food for it in December, and it would need to be cured and prepared.

I was intrigued, but pointed out that there was no room on the arch for a further month to be inserted below the one we call December.

The idea stuck in my mind, however.

On a trip to Norfolk earlier this year, I visited St Mary’s Church, Burnham Deepdale.  

The church has a Norman font, depicting in stone the Twelve Labours of the Months.

Below, from left, December, November, October.

The first picture reading from the left shows four figures feasting at a table.  This is explained as being the month of December.  The middle picture is killing the pig (November) and the right-hand one shows October, themes connected with the harvest. It is thought to be either grinding the corn, or pouring the fruits of the grape harvest.

St Marys Church Burnham Deepdale font 3

The picture below shows the pig more clearly, and also September, threshing with a flail.

St Marys Church Burnham Deepdale font 4

More information can be found on this website.

Below is the information provided in the church itself.

St Marys Church Burnham Deepdale information about font

In St Mary’s font, November, the eleventh month, shows the pig indeed being killed.  There is also a different January from the one at Longthorpe Tower, showing a man drinking from a horn.  Not until February is he warming his feet at the fire.  There are thus two additional pictures,

The font certainly casts an interesting new light on the Twelve Labours.