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Website produced and maintained for the Hungerford Historical Association
by Hugh Pihlens.
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Littlecote
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You are in [Places] [Great Estates] [Littlecote House]

 

To the west of Hungerford is land previously belonging to Littlecote House. This splendid Tudor manor house was a parliamentarian stronghold during the Civil War, and still contains part of a fine collection of Cromwellian armour, much of which was removed to the Royal Armouries Museum at Leeds.

The 13th century medieval house: The present mansion stands on the site of an earlier 13th century medieval house inhabited by the de Calstone family (of Calne, Wiltshire) from around 1290. When William Darrell married Elizabeth de Calstone in 1415, he inherited the 13th century house.

The Tudor house, and the Darrell family: The present Tudor manor house was mainly built between 1490 and 1520 by Sir George Darrell. It is probably the earliest brick built house in Wiltshire. (The south front, including the Great Hall, were completed in 1592).

It may have been from Littlecote that Henry VIII, in 1535, courted Jane Seymour who was a descendant of Sir George Darrell. (Jane Seymour's father Sir John Seymour lived at Wolfhall near Burbage. He was the son of John Seymour and Elizabeth Darrell, daughter of Sir George Darrell).

Jane Seymour became Henry VIII's third wife when they married on 30 May 1536, soon after Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Jane's romance with King Henry is recorded in one of the stained-glass roundels high in a window in the Great Hall, where Henry and Jane's initials are wired in a lover's knot, over which is a little cupid's head.

After the death of Henry VIII in 1547, Sir Edward Darrell was able to purchase the Manor of Chilton Foliat and Littlecote, but he died soon after in 1549.

He was succeeded at Littlecote by his son William, often referred to as "Wild Darrell" because of his legendary crimes and illicit amours. Wild Darrell was killed in 1589 whilst hunting. (Pauline Mobey emailed Feb 2011 saying that "He was  killed in a riding accident on 1 Oct 1589 at a spot known as Darrell's Stile, probably  near Shefford Woodlands where the current Hungerford to Wantage road crosses Ermin Street." He was buried 3 Oct 1589 at St Lawrence's Church, Hungerford. [Elizabeth Darrell, wife of Thomas Darrell (William's illegitimate brother, thought to be the son of his father Sir Edward Darrell and his mistress Mary Danyell) was buried 13 Apr 1588, and Richard, son of Thomas Darrell was buried 25 Nov 1588].

The Story of "Wild" Will Darrell:
The last of the Darrell owners is connected with several scandals and the house's resident ghost story. William Darrell's father had left the house to his mistress Mary Danyell,  but Darrell was able to recover it when he came of age in 1560. He spent lavishly, left his debts unpaid, and went to law with most of his  neighbours, acquiring enemies in the process. He sold or pawned all the family plate as a result of his mode of living.

He was involved in a scandalous affair with Lady Ann Hungerford, the wife of Sir Walter Hungerford, his neighbour at Hungerford Park; when Sir Walter sued  for divorce, she was acquitted, and Sir Walter sent to prison.

Some  years later, Mother Barnes, a midwife from Great Shefford, recalled being brought blindfold in 1575  to the childbed of a lady, with a gentleman standing by who commanded  her to save the life of the mother, but who (as soon as the child was  born) threw it into the fire. Barnes did not name or indicate either  Darrell or Littlecote, but his enemies quickly ascribed this murder to  him.

He was before the Commissioners at Newbury, and he and his servants were charged with murder. He fled to Court, owing the earl of Pembroke 3,000. Darrell's financial troubles increased, and he mortgaged Littlecote,  first to Sir Thomas Bromley, and then to Sir John Popham, a relative and close friend. Sir John Popham, then Attorney General, is said to have saved him from prosecution.

It is said that he lived very luxuriously whilst at Court, having fish, game and venison sent to him every day from the Littlecote Estate. He remained in Court until 1st October 1589.

However, on 1st October 1589 he had a riding accident, from which he died. He was buried at St Lawrence Church, Hungerford.

Legend has it that the ghost of the child appeared to him.  Darrell is said to haunt the site of his death, known as Darrell's stile (as well as the church at Ramsbury.

Sir John Popham, bought the reversion of Littlecote, and succeeded to it in 1589; the south front of the present  Elizabethan brick mansion (including the Great Hall) was completed in 1592

Sir John Popham had been Speaker of the House of Commons from 1580 to 1583, and Attorney General from 1 June 1581 to 1592.  He presided over the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, sentencing her to death.

On 2 June 1592, whilst owner of Littlecote, he was appointed Lord Chief Justice of England, a post he held until June 1607. During this time he presided over the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh (1603) and the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, including Guy Fawkes (1606). He sentenced Fawkes to death.

The Popham and Leybourn-Popham family were to remain Lords of the Manor of Chilton Foliat, thus owning Littlecote Estate and The Bear in Hungerford, for over 300 years.

Littlecote and the Civil War: During the English Civil War, Littlecote was a stronghold of the Parliamentary Army and many relics from the period can be seen in the Great Hall including the uniforms and armour of Roundhead Soldiers. Colonel Alexander Popham, Grandson of the Chief Justice was an opponent of King Charles I and his Littlecote garrison wore the buff coats which form the unique collection currently hanging in the house.

However, Colonel Popham appeared to have changed his allegiance by 1659 when he supported General Monk in the restoration of Charles II and was elected a member of the Council of State which took upon itself the administration of the Government up to the Restoration.

He received a Royal pardon for his involvement in the war and subsequently entertained Charles II to a "costlie dinner" when he visited Littlecote on 21st September 1663 whilst making a Royal Progress from London to Bath. Col Alexander Popham died in 1669 and was buried at Chilton Foliat. He was succeeded by his son and heir, Sir Francis Popham, who died young in 1674. His son Alexander Popham inherited the family estates.

In 1688, William of Orange, on his way from Torbay to London to claim the throne of England, stayed at Littlecote at the time of his meeting with the Commissioners of King James II at The Bear in Hungerford.

Other Royal visitors entertained at Littlecote include:

1520 King Henry VIII
1601 Queen Elizabeth I
1603 King James I and Princess Anne of Denmark
1613 Queen Anne of Denmark
1663 The Duke of York (afterwards King James II)
1663 King Charles II and Queen Katherine of Braganza
1688 William, Prince of Orange
1923 Princess Beatrice
1928 Queen Mary
1931 Princess Marie Louise
1940 King George VI
1941 The Duke of Gloucester
1941 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

Popham's descendants, the Pophams  and (from 1762) the Leyborne Pophams who refurbished much of the house in 1810, owned it until 1929.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, Littlecote was let to a  series of tenants, including
- Vernon James Watney, wealthy brewer and
     antiquarian. He refurbished the Long Gallery and
     the Chines drawing room
- Leopold and Heinrich Hirsch, both bankers, and
- Gerard Lee Bevan, stockbroker

In 1922 the house was tenanted by the Wills family (the well-known tobacco and cigarette manufacturers). It was Sir Ernest Salter Wills who purchased Littlecote from Hugh Leyborne Popham in 1929.

Littlecote during the Second World War: In September 1943 the US 101st Airborne Division requisitioned the  house and it became home to regimental staff, regimental headquarters  company and headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute  Parachute Infantry Regiment.

The house provided office space and  sleeping quarters for 506th officers with the best rooms being allocated to Col. Robert F. Sink, Regimental Commander and Lt. Col. Charles H.  Chase, his executive officer. The colonel used the library as his office and a memorial plaque can now be found in this  room . From airfields in this area, including Ramsbury just to the west  of here, the Airborne Division took off on D-Day, 6th June 1944, as part of the invasion of Normandy. Easy Company from this Regiment have  become famous through the book and TV mini-series Band of Brothers. All other ranks lived in Nissen huts built alongside the main drive between the house and the east lodge.

Since the Second World War: Sir Ernest Wills died in 1958, and the estate was inherited by his younger son Major George Seton Wills. It was George Seton Wills who opened the house to public viewing.

George Wills went on to pass Littlecote to his son Sir David Seton Wills on his 21st birthday in 1960.

Around 1980 Seton Wills developed a popular "Frontier City" where wild west scenes were re-enacted. It was a "complete Wild West Town recapturing the American West of the 1880s." For a good description see "Gunfight at the Littlecote Corral" - NWN 22 Mar 1979.

In 1985 Littlecote was sold to the entrepreneur Peter de Savary. See "De Savary revels in the glory of Littlecote", NWN 1985.

It was closed to the public between 1991-1993, but re-opened in April 1993, with the added attractions of a classic car museum, children's adventure playground, Littlecote "village", working farm, tournament field with jousting and a garden centre. It was marketed as "The Land That's Trapped in Time".

In 1996, Warner  Holidays acquired the house and estate and now operate it as a large country house hotel and resort (202 rooms in 2011).

The Grade I listed building has a number of magnificent formal rooms. Of special importance are the Great Hall, the Long Gallery, and the Cromwellian Chapel, believed to be the only complete example remaining today.

The Roman Villa and the Orpheus mosaic:
In the grounds are remains of an important group of Roman buildings including an Orpheus mosaic.

The earliest reference to a Roman site at Littlecote was in 1727 when William George, estate steward to Sir Francis Popham, first uncovered the Orpheus mosaic. It was described as "the finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England". An engraving and a drawing were made, from which a tapestry was created. This tapestry hung in Littlecote House until 1985, since when it has been in the Ashmolean Library (Museum), Oxford. [Pauline Mobey has contacted the Ashmolean in 2012, who say they have no record of this. The whereabouts of the tapestry are currently unknown].

After its discovery and recording, the mosaic and the villa were reburied, and declared lost.
In 1976 the villa was rediscovered, and in April 1978 the owner Sir Seton Wills founded a long term research project, led by Bryn Walters.

See "Lifting the Littlecote Mosaic", Country Life, 14 Sep 1978.

Peter de Savary continued his support of the excavation until they were completed in 1991.

The villa is large, and complex. The Orphic building is thought to date from c AD360-365.

 

 

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Littlecote House, May 2010

Littlecote 17th century(w)

Littlecote in the 17th century

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Littlecote House, c1910

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Littlecote House, c1910

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Littlecote House, c1920

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"The Ancient Finger Stocks at Littlecote, Nr Hungerford, 1902"
[J Benjamin Stone]

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Frontier City, Jul 1980

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Frontier City, Jul 1981

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The Long Gallery, 1985

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The Great Hall, 1985

Littlecote - Cromwellian Chapel(w)

The Cromwellian Chapel, 1985

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Archaeologist Bryn Walters talking to site visitors, Jul 1981

Littlecote Roman Villa(w)

Aerial view of Littlecote Roman villa

Orpheus Mosaic 1981w

The Orpheus mosaic, 1981

Littlecote - Orphic building(w)

Artist's impression of the Orphic Building, AD360-365

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Littlecote House, May 2010

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The Roman villa, with Littlecote House in the background, May 2010

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The Roman villa, with the Orphic building in the background, May 2010

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The Orpheus mosaic, May 2010

See also:
- Littlecote, 1897
- The Blindfolded Midwife and The Littlecote Ghost
- Illustrated Sale brochure, 1985
- "Littlecote is a treasure for visitors and archaeologists", NWN 1979
- Littlecote - Souvenir Guide, c1993
- Littlecote Roman Villa - Illustrated Guide, 1994
- "Littlecote Lives and Legends - The Story of a Great Estate and its Famous Families" - by
       Pauline Mobey, 2011. See www.people-and-places.info.
- "De Savary revels in the glory of Littlecote", NWN 1985.

Updated: 18.2.2013

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