A couple of weeks back, me and Rachel had a foray into Wiltshire just simply to experience the ebbing of May, and what a May we’ve had! They don’t call it the Merry month of May in the folk ballads for no reason! Now its June, we have to get accustomed to the usual dismal weather a British Summer brings us.
We started the walk from Ramsbury, one of the large villages you get in the South, with quaint thatched cottages, it seems like an insignificant place along the river Kennett but in the Anglo-Saxon period the Parish was an Episcopal See. It was made so by Archbishop Plegmund in 909 AD (which is a glorious Old English name, and needs to be re-popularised!) The Bishops of Ramsbury seemed to be very influential and at least four went on become Archbishops of Canterbury, including Sigeric the Serious….who doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to have a pint with!
The village used to be famous for having an enormous 250 year old Wych Elm in the village square, which was so big its branch tips touched the buildings on either side. Sadly this venerable old elm, which was first recorded in the 1700’s, died in the 1980’s and was eventually replaced with an oak, which I’m sure will have just as great longevity to be a thing of awe in the future.
Our walk took us through some resplendant English fields and woods, till we eventually got to our picnic destination in front of Littlecote House. It was in these fields and woods that British and American soldiers did their manouvres before being sent to the front during the Second World War. According to one of my youtube subscribers you can still see graffiti carved on trees by these bored recruits, so I’ll have to hunt these down, the next time I go.
Littlecote Estate held host to the 48th South Midlands Division, 42nd East Lancashires’, 6th Armoured, 2nd Armoured Brigade, 34th Armoured Tank Brigade and the 2nd Independant Parachute Regiment. Finally the House held host to the American 101st Airborne Division just before D-Day, who of course are famous not only for their acts of valour but for being represented in the TV show “Band of Brothers”.
As we paced down the path Rachel exclaimed ‘Look a deer!’ but as we intrepidly approached the buck it became apparent,that it was a cunningly made statue woven from briars, and I found myself wondering if I was inheriting the family blindness that cost my Grandad his navigational role in the RAF! The woven buck stood guard beneath an old oak tree which afforded shade from the merciless heat and we had a lovely view of the House which had been on this site since at least 1415 when a nobleman William Darrell married the heiress of these lands Elizabeth De Calstone. 1415 a great year for England, when Henry V brought the pride of French Chivalry to its knees with the humble archer on the fields of Agincourt.
Big historical events often happen on the 15th year of a century have you noticed? 1015 – Cnuts invasion of England. 1215 – Magna Carta 1315 – Great Famine 1415 – Agincourt. 1715 – Jacobite Rebellion. 1815 – Waterloo. I don’t know maybe its just coincidence, nothing much happened in 2015….maybe I should look at the 20’s, see if there’s a common pattern for world disasters?
I love a good ghost story, and before I went out on the walk I read with relish the creepy tale of Wild William Darrell, which I began to tell Rachel.
The story goes that William Darrell summoned a midwife named Mother Barnes to the Hall blindfolded, where she found a woman in labour, when she assisted in the birth “a man in velvet” presumably William Darrell threw the newborn and cast it into the fire. It is presumed that the lady in Labour was Lady Hungerford, as William Darrell had been put in prison around that time for an adulterous relationship with her. It is likely, based on Mother Barnes’ account that the cruel act was to hide their adulterous affair.
Since that time, William Darrell was believed to be cursed, his luck was ailing and he was in financial straits, he had to mortgage the house to John Popham and spent time in Debtors prison in London. On a visit to Littlecote in 1589 he was out hunting on horse in the grounds when a spectral babe materialised in front of his horse, the poor beast struck with terror reared up throwing Wild William Darrell off to the ground where his injury was so great, he perished on the spot. The house is believed to be haunted by the spectral figure of a lady, thought to be Anne Hungerford sobbing in grief for her murdered child, and the cries of a wailing baby can still be heard in the wainscoted upper chambers. As for Wild William, he haunts the grounds in penitence, sometimes at the church, sometimes at the style and sometimes riding across the lawn. It is all remembered in an old rhyme:
“And fame reports, the lady comes
With babe of fire at dead of night,
But harmless to the innocent-
They come to see that all is right.
Whilst Darrell’s wretched spirit, ‘tis said,
As if in magic circle bound,
Oft by benighted rustics seen,
The fatal spot to wander round“
“Its too beautiful to be haunted” another of my youtube subscribers said. And indeed he’s right, Littlecote is a gorgeous Elizabethan mansion constructed from four phases of stately dwellings. There was probably some form of medieval manor house here since the 1200’s as this was the seat of the Calstones before the Darrells married into the property. The fabric of the Darrell’s new manor house built in 1415 is still fossilised within the property. George Darrell converted the house into a Tudor Manor House, and traces of this can still be seen from the Western lawn with its atypical Tudor Chimneys.
Jane Seymour was related to the Darrells and Littlecote was the setting for her romance with that most famous King – Henry VIII. Henry was like one of those best mates who has his girlfriends round at your house-share all the time, you can’t help having awkward moments bumping into him whilst he canoodles with his next floozy; he seemed to have courted one of his wives in nearly every stately home in the South! Luckily Littlecote has quite a strong claim to be the place Henry met his favourite wife here in 1536, notably the one who gave him his son. To celebrate this historical event the Popham’s commissioned a stained glass window of the lovers.
When my Dad visited Littlecote House as lad probably around the 1960’s the house was open to the public and with his photographic memory for all things military history he thought he remembered seeing an impressive collection of Civil War Armour but couldn’t remember whether it was exactly Littlecote. When he asked me to confirm that was right, I had no idea given the fact its Lockdown and its now a hotel so no longer open to the public.
However, I’ve rooted out the story. The house under the Pophams was greatly renovated in Elizabethan times to give us the facade we have today. Alexander Popham fought for Parliament in the English Civil War and used his house as a garrison for his own private regiment, like a lot of Civil war Captains. At the end of the conflict he bought a collection of armour, swords and muskets brand new only for the war to end.
Alexander kept the militaria in the house however and went on to become a Royalist even entertaining Charles II, whose Father Popham had fought against! Did the jovial Charles II see the Round Head helmets hanging in the great Hall or were they secreted away from sight?
The Collection is the most complete armouries in the country but was almost lost to dispersal in the 1980’s so the Royal Armouries’ bought the collection and on the House’s conversion into a Hotel the whole collection was moved up North to my birth county of Yorkshire – it is now housed in the Leeds Royal Armouries so is the only interior part of Littlecote still on show to the general public.
As I sat in that field looking on at Littlecote House and musing about its rich history, I felt sad that a place so rich with heritage should be used by the entitled few as accommodation, and that families couldn’t enjoy the rooms and learn. Hopefully when we live in more enlightened times Littlecote House will be returned to public enjoyment.
I have still got to discuss the amazing mosaic in the grounds, but I will have to leave that for another time!