Detail of wall-painting on the west wall of Longthorpe Tower, a scene from the life of St Anthony

History of Longthorpe Tower

The stone tower at Longthorpe was built by Robert Thorpe, a lawyer, between about 1290 and 1300. Designed as much a status symbol as a refuge, the tower is in itself an unusual feature in southern England. But its great renown derives from the spectacular wall paintings in the main first-floor room. Added about 1330, they are among the most impressive examples of medieval domestic wall painting in northern Europe.

A reconstruction of the manor house after the building of Longthorpe tower in about 1300
A reconstruction of the manor house after the building of the tower in about 1300
© Historic England (illustration by Richard Lea)

The Thorpe Family

Longthorpe Tower’s builder, Robert Thorpe, was a major tenant and employee of Peterborough Abbey, whose family had long been connected with the manor of Longthorpe and the abbey.

The first known member of the Thorpe family is Robert’s ancestor, a William of Thorpe (William I), who had died by 1199.[1] His son Thurstan held lands in the manor of Longthorpe from the Watervilles of Orton Waterville (near Peterborough), and was a minor benefactor of Peterborough Abbey.[2]

By 1219 Thurstan’s son William (II) had succeeded to his father’s holdings.[3] In 1226, following a lawsuit, the Watervilles ceded the land held by the Thorpes to the abbey, and from this point the Thorpes were tenants of both.[4] It must have been William II who built the surviving hall and cross-wing of about 1250–70, the core of the medieval house to which the tower was later attached.

William II also paid to replace the inconveniently situated parochial chapel of Longthorpe with a new chapel, which survives just east of the tower.[5] His heir, William III, succeeded by the mid-1270s, and died in 1294.[6]

Longthorpe Tower viewed from the north-east
Longthorpe Tower viewed from the north-east. The existing entrance, provided with a timber stair for public access in 1948, was created in the 17th century by enlarging an original window opening

Robert Thorpe

Robert (Robert I), William III’s son, is recorded in 1293 as a lawyer,[7] the profession through which he and his family rose to prominence in the following century. By 1300 he was regularly acting for Peterborough Abbey.[8]

In 1309 he became the abbey’s lay steward, responsible for upholding its rights in the Liberty of Peterborough (the large area around the town under its jurisdiction) and its chief legal officer, aided by a substantial staff.[9] His terms of appointment entitled him to ‘half a width of the better kind of clerical cloth, with a fur lining suitable for a clerk’, a perk but also a mark of subservience.[10]

While this enhanced Robert’s social position, it remained an unusual one. He was a professional man, occupying a powerful, prestigious and and lucrative office and a fine house. He was also richer than many knights, but was not yet one himself and socially their inferior.[11] This may partly explain why, between about 1290 and 1300, he attached such a blatant status symbol to his house – a 13 metre (40 foot) tower with battlements.[12]

By 1317 Robert I had left his post as abbey steward and was in the service of King Edward II. By 1320 he had been knighted.[13] In 1330, however, he was reappointed as steward, an event that might well have prompted him to commission the wall paintings. He died in or soon after 1354, when he would have been about 80 years old.[14]

Cutaway reconstruction drawing of Longthorpe Tower
A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the tower at Longthorpe in the time of Robert Thorpe, showing the painted room on the first floor
© Historic England (drawing by Bob Marshall)

Building the tower

Robert’s tower is remarkable but not unique. The association of massive towers with ordinary ‘low-rise’ houses had 12th-century precedents and outlasted the Middle Ages (see Significance of Longthorpe Tower). Most were intended to some extent for show as much as to provide security.

In this case, however, security was a real consideration. Marauding bandits frequented the east Midlands in the early 14th century – although Robert’s precautions failed when in 1327 he was burgled, imprisoned and held to ransom in his own house.[15]

But for the parvenu Thorpes, the symbolic attractions were no doubt paramount, and the effect in the flat Fenland landscape, unrivalled by their towerless chapel, all the more successful. As a bonus, the parapet walk provided satisfying views over their accumulating lands.

Download a plan of Longthorpe Tower
The scene on the upper part of the south wall at Longthorpe Tower, though to show Edward II or III facing Edmund, Earl of Kent
The scene on the upper part of the south wall. To the left is a seated king, identified by the coat of arms behind him as Edward II (r.1307–27) or possibly Edward III (r.1327–77). The other figure is probably Edmund, Earl of Kent, Edward II’s half-brother

The painted room

The design of the first-floor room, including the off-centre arrangement of the windows, suggests that a comprehensive scheme of wall painting was intended from the start.[16] The existing scheme, however, is datable on heraldic evidence to between 1321 and 1340,[17] and has been attributed on stylistic grounds to about 1330.[18] An initial scheme may have been completed but obliterated by replastering,[19] perhaps after subsidence had required major alterations to the north wall. The existing decoration would have been painted over this (see Description of Longthorpe Tower).

The paint was applied onto dry limewashed plaster (although some outlines had been incised in the plaster while it was still wet).[20] Originally it was brilliantly coloured with touches of gilt.[21] The result, enhanced by the complex volume of the room and the many geometric effects, must have been overwhelming, perhaps especially in flickering artificial light.

Latin and French inscriptions,[22] now largely lost, would have made sense of individual scenes and perhaps the grand scheme behind the mixture of political, heraldic, religious and mythological references and images. The whole is leavened by naturalistic paintings of birds and other creatures based on bestiaries, with which Peterborough Abbey was abundantly supplied.[23]

The artists, perhaps up to three of them,[24] may well have done work for the abbey. They were highly skilled by northern European standards, although not those of the south – the Italian painter Giotto (c.1266–1337) and his patrons would have thought the paintings provincial and backward.

Read more about the painted room
The lower part of the south wall of the painted room at Longthorpe is painted to mimic clothing hanging
The lower part of the south wall of the painted room is painted to mimic a cloth hanging, on which the Thorpe family arms can be identified by the horizontal band and six stylised lilies alternating with each other. Such real or imitation hangings were common backdrops to throne-like chairs

The Paintings’ Imagery

Much has been written about the intent and message of the scheme as a whole and its component parts. Roughly speaking it may have given an impression of ‘what the well-educated Prince or Nobleman should know’.[25] Although it may appear to be an unordered jumble of material, the patron’s intention to display his devotion, status, learning and links to the ruling elite is clear.[26]

Quite possibly it was Robert Thorpe himself – Latin-literate, able and with access to learned men and the superb monastic library – who chose the themes. The concentration on erudition, meanwhile, rather than the martial and chivalric scenes beloved of the traditional knightly class, reflects the values of Robert’s profession.[27]

The result suggests that the room had a very special function, perhaps as an innermost space to impress chosen visitors and clients. This would be in keeping with the fictive ‘drapery’ on the south wall, beside the fireplace, perhaps intended to dignify the setting of Robert’s chair. Perhaps it was also, in keeping with its position in the innermost and securest part of the house, a place for private study and contemplation.[28]

View of the house and Longthorpe tower from the north-west by Peter Tillemans, dated 10 August 1719
View of Longthorpe house and tower from the north-west by Peter Tillemans, dated 10 August 1719. The arched doorway to the right led into the hall, and the windows shown by Tillemans were of medieval origin as shown by the lintel of the eastern one (the in situ transom of a larger opening, and perhaps a 15th-century improvement)
© British Library Board (Add MS 32467 fol 153)

The later Thorpes and their successors

Robert I’s descendants held the ‘New Manor’ of Longthorpe until 1391, although from the 1350s their main residence was a more ambitious house at Maxey, 10 miles north-west.[29]

Robert I’s sons, Robert II and William IV, were both distinguished lawyers: William (d.1361) was knighted and became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1346, and Robert was appointed Chancellor of England shortly before his death in 1372.[30] Both did much to increase the landholdings and social status of the family. William’s receipt of a licence to crenellate (fortify) Maxey in 1374 is consistent with an aspiration to raise the Thorpes from the ranks of the upper gentry into the nobility.[31]

Robert II had no children, but William had two – Robert III and William V, both childless. William V died in 1391, and left his property, including Longthorpe, to his ‘kinsman’, John Whittlebury.[32] The Whittleburys held the manor until 1502, when Robert Whittlebury sold it to William Fitzwilliam, a London merchant.[33] Meanwhile the house was inhabited by a succession of tenants, including in the late 18th century Dr Reynolds, Bishop of Bangor.[34]

An early 20th-century watercolour showing the north wall of the painted room much as it looked before the discovery of the wall-paintings in 1946
An early 20th-century watercolour showing the north wall of the painted room much as it looked before the discovery of the wall paintings in 1946
© Mrs D Ambrose

Antiquarians and Discovery

Longthorpe attracted the attention of the topographer John Bridges and his illustrator, Peter Tillemans, in the early 18th century.[35] But the first (brief) description appears in Thomas Hudson Turner’s Some Account of Domestic Architecture of 1851.[36]

JH Parker took members of the Royal Archaeological Institute there in 1861 and published an article in 1862.[37] In 1906 the Victoria County History included a partial plan,[38] and a derivative was published in 1936.[39]

But real interest in the site began with the discovery of the paintings under many coats of limewash and distemper in 1945 by the tenant, Hugh Horrell, while he was preparing to redecorate the interiors after the tower’s use during the Second World War by the Home Guard.[40]

Conservation

Horrell reported the find to the owner, Captain William Thomas George Fitzwilliam (1904–79), later 10th (and last) Earl Fitzwilliam, and his agent, Herbert Elliot. Elliot called in EC Rouse, pupil of the pioneering wall-painting specialist Ernest William Tristram. Rouse spent ‘many months’ uncovering, consolidating and recording them in 1946–8, treating them, unfortunately, with limewater and wax.[41] Much of the wax was painstakingly removed in the 1980s.[42]

Fitzwilliam happily paid for Rouse’s work,[43] but was unable to fund essential structural work,[44] and offered the tower to the Ministry of Works.[45] The deed of gift was signed and sealed on 31 December 1947.[46]

Major repairs were swiftly put in hand[47] and arrangements were made for public access, inherited by English Heritage in 1984. Since 2012 the tower has been managed by Vivacity Culture and Leisure.

In 2019, a project by English Heritage in partnership with the Courtauld Institute of Art saw students conduct a high-tech examination of the paintings and complete much needed conservation treatments to stabilise the flaking plaster and minimise the appearance of old restorations, allowing the original scheme to take centre stage.

   

About the Author

Edward Impey is Master of the Royal Armouries and a specialist on aspects of medieval architecture and history. He is the author of the English Heritage guidebook to Longthorpe Tower, published in 2014.

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Footnotes

    R Kinsey, ‘Legal service, careerism and social advancement in late medieval England: the Thorpes of Northamptonshire c 1200–1391’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of York, 2009), 26. I am extremely grateful to Dr Robert Kinsey for having provided me with a copy of his thesis and permission to use it for the purposes of this entry. The genealogy of the family presented here is his. For a brief published account of the Thorpe family, see R Kinsey, ‘The location of commemoration in late medieval England: the case of the Thorpes of Northamptonshire’, in Memory and Commemoration in Medieval England, ed CM Barron and C Burgess (Donington, 2010), especially 41–5.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 26.
    Ibid, 26–7; Calendar of the Fine Rolls of the Reign of Henry III, ed P Dryburgh, B Hartland et al (Woodbridge, 2007–9), 75 (online at the Henry III Fine Rolls Project; accessed 7 July 2015).
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 27, 30.
    Ibid; WT Mellows, Peterborough Local Administration: Parochial Government before the Reformation (Kettering, 1939), 205–6, gives the text. J Bridges writes that ‘The place in which it [the old chapel] stood is still called Chapel-close’, in The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire … compiled by the Rev. Peter Whalley, 2 vols (Oxford, 1791), 572. The site was rediscovered in 2009, near the junction of Thorpe Parke Road and Westwood Park Road, about a mile north-east of the tower (TL 176 994): Stuart Orme, personal communication.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 32.
    Ibid, 33; T Stapleton, Chronicon Petroburgense, Camden Society, 1st series, 47 (London, 1849), 152 (accessed 7 July 2015).
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 33.
    Ibid, 33, 52, 63. On lay stewards see also RB Dobson, Durham Priory 1400–1450 (Cambridge, 1973), 124–7; on the steward’s subordinates see S Raban, ‘Lawyers retained by Peterborough Abbey in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries’, in Laws, Lawyers and Texts: Studies in Medieval Legal History in Honour of Paul Brand, ed S Jenks, J Rose and C Whittick (Leiden, 2012), xxii–xxiii.
    E King, Peterborough Abbey 1086–1310: A Study in the Land Market (Cambridge, 1973), 35, 132.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 80–81.
    Datable on architectural grounds (see Description of Longthorpe Tower). The tower was not mentioned (although not surprisingly) in the survey of 1321 on the death of Abbot Godfrey of Crowland: Walter de Whytleseye, ‘Historia Coenobii Burgensis’, in Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores Varii e Codicibus Manuscriptis Nunc Primum Editi, ed J Sparke (London, 1723), vol 2, 177 (Thorp. Item dicunt quod est ibidem unum capital messuagium cum gardino, ie ‘Thorp. Also, they say that there is there a capital messuage with a garden’).
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 33–4.
    Ibid, 36. The identification of Robert I as the commissioner of the paintings, and not his son or descendant, as postulated by EC Rouse and A Baker (‘The wall-paintings at Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough, Northants’, Archaeologia, 2nd series, 96, 1955, 6–7), is Kinsey’s.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 282.
    I am grateful to Dr John Goodall for advice on this point.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 256 (for 1321); Rouse and Baker, op cit, 13 (for 1340, the date at which Edward III quartered the royal arms with those of France).
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, 31–2; D Park, ‘Great chamber murals’, in Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200–1400, ed J Alexander and P Binski (London, 1987), 249–50.
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, mention no signs of an earlier scheme underneath the existing one.
    C Pinchart, ‘Longthorpe Tower: a report on the March 1995 fieldwork’, unpublished report, Courtauld Institute of Art (1995), 12. On the techniques in general see H Howard, Pigments of English Medieval Wall Painting (London, 2003).
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, 25–6, 30.
    Ibid, 48.
    R Baxter, Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages (Stroud, 1998), 176–7.
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, 28–9.
    EC Rouse, ‘Mediaeval paintings at Longthorpe Tower: a remarkable discovery’, Country Life, CI (4 April 1947), 605.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 290.
    Ibid, 358.
    D Thornton, The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy (New Haven and London, 1997), 27–8, 175.
    Kinsey, ‘Legal service’, 203, 284.
    Ibid, 38, 42.
    Ibid, 284–5.
    Ibid, 44–5.
    Ibid, 354–5.
    Bridges, op cit, 571, states that the ‘old tower’ was ‘demised under a lease from the Dean and Chapter’, one of a number of hints that the descent of the manor from the Whittleburys to the Fitzwilliams may not have been as straightforward as usually assumed.
    BA Bailey, Northamptonshire in the Early Eighteenth Century (Northampton, 1996), 110; Bridges, op cit, 571.
    T Hudson Turner, Some Account of Domestic Architecture in England from the Conquest to the End of the Thirteenth Century (London, 1851), 153 (accessed 7 July 2015); the engraving is based on an original by Edward Blore (see Sources for Longthorpe Tower).
    JH Parker, ‘Medieval houses near Peterborough’, Gentleman’s Magazine (June 1862), 677–87.
    M Bateson, ‘Longthorpe’, in Victoria County History: Northamptonshire, vol 2, ed RM Serjeantson et al (London, 1906), 459 (accessed 7 July 2015).
    JA Gotch, The Old Halls and Manor Houses of Northamptonshire: An Illustrated Review (London, 1936), 10.
    EC Rouse, op cit, 605.
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, 1; KJ Barakan, ‘Longthorpe Tower, Cambridgeshire’, unpublished report, English Heritage (1981; WPE 043248/001).
    Ibid; David Park, personal communication.
    B St J O’Neill, memo (1946; registry file AA043248B/3/Pt1).
    EC Rouse to B St J O’Neill (1946; AA043248B/3/Pt1).
    H Elliot, agent, Milton Estates Company to the secretary, Ministry of Works (1946; AA43248/3).
    Note from FJE Raby, inspector of ancient monuments (1946; AA43248/3).
    Rouse and Baker, op cit, 31.
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