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.
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. 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.
By 1219 Thurstan’s son William (II) had succeeded to his father’s holdings. 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. 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. His heir, William III, succeeded by the mid-1270s, and died in 1294.
Robert (Robert I), William III’s son, is recorded in 1293 as a lawyer, the profession through which he and his family rose to prominence in the following century. By 1300 he was regularly acting for Peterborough Abbey.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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. The existing scheme, however, is datable on heraldic evidence to between 1321 and 1340, and has been attributed on stylistic grounds to about 1330. An initial scheme may have been completed but obliterated by replastering, 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). Originally it was brilliantly coloured with touches of gilt. 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, 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.
The artists, perhaps up to three of them, 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 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’. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. The Whittleburys held the manor until 1502, when Robert Whittlebury sold it to William Fitzwilliam, a London merchant. Meanwhile the house was inhabited by a succession of tenants, including in the late 18th century Dr Reynolds, Bishop of Bangor.
Antiquarians and Discovery
Longthorpe attracted the attention of the topographer John Bridges and his illustrator, Peter Tillemans, in the early 18th century. But the first (brief) description appears in Thomas Hudson Turner’s Some Account of Domestic Architecture of 1851.
JH Parker took members of the Royal Archaeological Institute there in 1861 and published an article in 1862. In 1906 the Victoria County History included a partial plan, and a derivative was published in 1936.
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.
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. Much of the wax was painstakingly removed in the 1980s.
Fitzwilliam happily paid for Rouse’s work, but was unable to fund essential structural work, and offered the tower to the Ministry of Works. The deed of gift was signed and sealed on 31 December 1947.
Major repairs were swiftly put in hand and arrangements were made for public access, inherited by English Heritage in 1984. The tower is now managed by Nene Park Trust.
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.Save our wall paintings