THE SECRETS HIDDEN IN LONGTHORPE TOWER’S WALL PAINTINGS
Watch our video to discover our project to conserve the remarkable medieval wall paintings commissioned by Robert Thorpe at Longthorpe Tower in Cambridgeshire, and learn the stories behind them as properties historian Steven Brindle reveals what they tell us about the preoccupations of a highly educated man in the 14th century – from the monarchy to the possibility of salvation.
VIDEO: SAVING LONGTHORPE TOWER’S WALL PAINTINGS
Watch our video to discover how we’re working with the Courthauld Institute of Art to conserve the remarkable domestic medieval wall paintings at Longthorpe Tower in Cambridgeshire and the techniques being employed to ensure their survival.
Some time probably in the late 1320s Robert Thorpe, the owner of Longthorpe, commissioned a group of artists to paint his vaulted inner sanctum, the first-floor chamber in the tower he had added to his home about 30 years previously. Thorpe’s paintings are almost unique in England and they give us a strange insight into the world of a 14th-century man.
Thorpe was a highly educated lawyer who read Latin and French. Unusually for someone of such education, he was not a priest but had close links to the church, in particular to the great abbey of Peterborough. The abbey was his landlord and, for much of his life, it was his employer too. For two periods, c. 1309–20 and again from 1330, he was their lay steward, running their vast estates and taking care of legal business for them. The abbey would have been the centre of his world. He knew the abbot, the monks, and their great library whose books probably provided the themes and content for his wall paintings.
PLACE OF REFUGE
Peterborough Abbey was founded in around AD 655, so in Thorpe’s day it was already 600 years old. The abbey represented permanence, stability and order, but the world outside was a violent and dangerous place. Around 1290 (during the reign of the all-powerful King Edward I) Thorpe, then a young man, added the tower to his manor house.
It was partly a status symbol but it was also intended as a potential refuge as in the early 14th century England was becoming a more dangerous place. In 1314 the new king, Edward II, was ignominiously defeated by the Scots in the battle of Bannockburn. In 1327, the king was deposed and murdered by his wife and her lover. In the same year, the supposedly protective tower did not save Thorpe from being held to ransom by burglars in his own home.
Thorpe’s paintings don’t form a single narrative but have an odd mixture of subjects. They should probably be understood as an old man’s meditations on the transience of human life. The south wall could be said to represent Thorpe and his place in society. The lower part is painted with a diamond pattern, incorporating Thorpe’s coat of arms. It represents a textile hanging and would have formed a backdrop to his chair.
Above are two enthroned figures. The heraldry identifies them as the king, possibly Edward II, and his half-brother Edmund, Earl of Kent. We don’t know when this was painted but this is rather critical to its interpretation, as Edward II was murdered in 1327 and, in 1330, Earl Edmund was tried and executed for treason by the new king, his nephew Edward III. If this was painted before 1327, it was a simple expression of loyalty. If painted after 1330, it was something more like a private memorial to the dead king and the executed man.
WHEEL OF THE SENSES
The idea that even kings have to face death is presented explicitly on the east wall, in the image of the three living kings and the three dead. Above this image is a great wheel.
It is not a wheel of fortune but something much rarer, a wheel of the senses. The spider’s web stands for touch, the bird (probably a vulture) for scent and the eating monkey represents taste. It is not quite clear who the tall crowned man behind the wheel is – he may be Reason, informed by the senses but superior to them.
LABOURS OF THE MONTHS
On the west wall, Thorpe looked at another set of scenes: the labours of the months. Life is hard but there are comforts in it, even in January (sitting by a fire) and December (killing a pig for Christmas). On the same wall, there are two strange scenes.
A man prays, while another weaves a basket. God the Almighty looks down. A scholar seated in a chair is teaching a standing student. ‘Sic Fac Et Salvis Eris,’ says the motto: do this and you will be saved. Work, learn, pray. Thorpe seems to be saying through these images that all work is prayer and can lead to salvation.
SEVEN AGES OF MAN
However good their works, all men will come to death. The stages of human life are represented on the north wall in the Seven Ages of Man, from babyhood (Infans) to extreme old age (Decrepitus).
Thorpe had probably built his tower in his third age. He was now in the fifth or sixth. From his chair every day he would see these images of the course of his own life. Above the window there is the birth of Christ, which gave mankind the possibility of salvation after death.
HEAVEN ON EARTH
Around the walls and dotted among the other scenes, were figures of the Twelve Apostles headed by Peter, the titular saint of Peterborough Abbey. They and the nativity scene stood for Christ’s coming and the establishment of his church. When Thorpe looked up, the vaulted ceiling of his chamber was painted with symbols of the four Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, authors of the Gospels. All around them are musician angels, eternally playing the bagpipes, the cymbalum (a row of hanging bells), the harp, rebec and organ – for here we are in Heaven.
Look around and you see the stages of human life, the work we do, the senses by which we understand the world, and the inevitability of decay and death. Look up and contemplate eternity and the possibility of salvation. Thorpe died some time after 1354, probably aged about 80. He may well have died here, in his private chamber, looking up at the angel musicians and hoping to hear them play in the next life.
PLAN A VISIT TO LONGTHORPE TOWER
See the extraordinary medieval art – among the most complete and important sets of 14th-century domestic wall paintings in northern Europe – for yourself by visiting Longthorpe Tower. The property is situated on the outskirts of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, and it’s possible to combine going here with visits to nearby Kirby Hall and Lyddington Bede House. Entry to all three sites is free to Members.Plan your visit
Behind the Scenes at Osborne
Watch our video to find out what happens in preperation for the season at Queen Victoria's seaside retreat.
8 Interesting objects
Find out about 8 of the most fascinating objects in the English Heritage collection.
The new bridge at Tintagel
Go behind the scenes and learn about the making of Tintagel's spectacular new bridge.