Description of Longthorpe Tower

The three-storey tower at Longthorpe was added between about 1290 and 1300 to an earlier house. It retains much of its 14th-century detail, including, in the first-floor room, Longthorpe’s chief glory: spectacular wall paintings that cover almost all available surfaces. Dating from about 1330, they depict religious, secular and mythical subjects, along with heraldry and images of birds and animals.

A reconstruction of Longthorpe Tower and manor in about 1330, showing the interior of the tower rooms and the great hall
A reconstruction of Longthorpe Tower and manor in about 1330, showing the interior of the tower rooms and the great hall (centre)
© Historic England (drawing by Bob Marshall)

The Medieval House

The tower and associated buildings stand 100 yards west of St Botolph’s Church, about 2 miles west of Peterborough town centre. Until the 1970s the area was entirely rural, set amid orchards and dairy farms, but has since become a suburb of Peterborough.

The medieval house had four main parts: the tower, a two-storey ‘cross-wing’, the ‘great’ hall and (long destroyed) the service rooms and kitchen that went with it. Only the tower is open to the public.[1]

The earlier parts of the complex are the hall and cross-wing, dated by the style of the north-facing (cross-wing) window to about 1250–70. The cross-wing housed the first-floor ‘great chamber’ – part principal bedroom, part reception room. This was reached either by a stair descending into the hall, or an external one on its south side, and communicated directly with the main room in the tower. Its roof is probably 16th- or 17th-century, but an internal offset on the north gable shows that the original was of collar-rafter form.

An area of medieval painted decoration survives below an internal offset on the north gable and, within a roundel, what is probably an eagle, symbol of St John the Evangelist.[2]

The hall seems to have been of two bays, with the main external doorway at the west end, as is shown by its surviving east jamb (at what is now the end of the building). The door would have opened into a cross-passage or screens passage through the building, leading to the left into the hall and to the right into service-rooms, and beyond them to the kitchen.

At the west end, fourteen rafter-trusses survive in place and may be original. When seen in 1968 and 1981[3] they were smoke-blackened, showing that the hall had an open hearth.

The north-east corner of the first-floor room, with the modern visitor entrance on the right at Longthorpe Tower
The north-east corner of the first-floor room, with the modern visitor entrance on the right. The paintings on the north wall (left) depict, from the top, an old man with a crutch; below him, a female figure representing the Church (left) and the Apostle Thaddeus (right); and below them, a stork (left) and ostrich (right)

The Tower’s structure and layout

Built like the other buildings of local rubble with Barnack (a local limestone) dressings, the tower measures about 7.75 by 7.75 metres at the base and rises a maximum of 13 metres from ground level to the highest part of the parapet. Both angle buttresses on the north front are original, although subsidence has separated the north-east buttress from the main structure.

The tower has three stages, with a single main room on each and a parapet walk at the top.

Ground Floor

The ground floor (not open to the public) has a quadripartite rib-vault and windows to the west and east. It is accessible only via a doorway (missing its outer surround) to the south, originally opening to the exterior. 

First Floor

The first floor houses the painted room and is reached by a 1940s timber stair and a doorway, created (probably in the 17th century) by widening a lancet window. The original entrance from the great chamber to the south is blocked. A third doorway opens on to a stair to the room above and another to a garderobe (latrine), both within the thickness of the wall.

An original window survives to the west, at the north end of a wide arched recess in the wall. The north wall was probably arranged in the same way until subsidence required the recess to be reduced in size, leaving the existing embrasure, which now frames a 17th-century window surround. The east wall houses an original fireplace.

Longthorpe Tower’s second-floor room
Longthorpe Tower’s second-floor room is a remarkably complete 14th-century domestic interior

Second Floor

The upper room seems not to have been painted,[4] but remains a remarkably complete 14th-century domestic interior. It has single-light windows on all sides, all with shouldered heads. Three of the windows retain the slot for a drawbar to fasten internal shutters. Doors opening from the southern window embrasure lead to another garderobe, originally projecting from the exterior wall, and to a stair to the parapet walk above.

The exposed roof carpentry, reset in the 1940s,[5] is of pyramidal form, and retains timbers which probably date from the 15th or 16th century. The original roof may have been flat.

A turret at the head of the stair opens on to the narrow, leaded parapet walk. The parapet and the loopholed merlons at the corners, clearly intended to mimic the turrets of an 11th- or 12th-century great tower, are original.[6] The octagonal medieval chimneystack partly survives.

Download a plan of Longthorpe Tower
The ‘Seven Ages of Man’, shown in the semicircular border at the top of the north wall, framing a Nativity scene. From lower left, a cradled infant (INFANS) is followed by representations of boyhood, youth, manhood, middle age, old age and decrepitude (DECREPITUS)
The ‘Seven Ages of Man’, shown in the semicircular border at the top of the north wall, framing a Nativity scene. From lower left, a cradled infant (INFANS) is followed by representations of boyhood, youth, manhood, middle age, old age and decrepitude (DECREPITUS)

Wall Paintings: North Wall

The central scene on the north wall, above the window, is a Nativity. Above and around it, separated off by a dark red band bearing inscriptions, are depicted the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, from infanthood to decrepitude.[7] Much detail is missing, but the figures and parts of their accompanying Latin labels remain legible.

Below, to the left of the window recess, two standing figures representing Apostles form part of a series running from the west window recess to the north side of the entrance door. The odd one out is the female figure to the right of the window: the scroll she is holding suggests that she represents the Church as an institution.[8]

Below the Apostles are four large birds.[9]

The ‘Wheel of the Five Senses’ on the east wall is a representation of man’s place in nature
The ‘Wheel of the Five Senses’ on the east wall is a representation of man’s place in nature

East Wall

The east wall has two Apostles in the doorway recess, and in a niche, a bearded older man teaching three young ones. Above the doorway and on the south side of the recess are shown, respectively, the ‘Three Living Kings’ (two of whom survive) confronting the ‘Three Dead Kings’, a variation of a well-known medieval reminder of mortality.[10]

The major scene here, however, shows a standing figure, a large wheel, and a number of creatures – a combination which historians have called the ‘Wheel of the Five Senses’. Around the rim, clockwise from lower left, are depicted a monkey eating (representing taste), a hawk (smell), a spider’s web (touch), a poorly drawn mammal,[11] and the head of a cockerel.

The crowned figure behind the wheel holds a spoke with one hand and points to the rim with the other, perhaps implying control and understanding.[12]

The models for this scene have been much discussed. It is essentially a conflation of the graphic concept of the ‘wheel of fortune’ or ‘wheel of life’[13] and the literary pairing[14] of animals and senses which ultimately derived from Aristotle and Pliny[15] but was formalised in Thomas de Cantimpré’s mid-13th-century Liber de Naturis Rerum.[16] If Cantimpré was the model,[17] the mammal represents a boar (hearing) and the hawk a vulture.[18]

The overall message probably contrasts the inferiority of man’s senses with his unique possession of reason, and the resulting ability to control impulses triggered by sensory experiences.[19] More elaborate interpretations derived from Aristotelian philosophy, however, abound.[20]

Whatever its precise meaning, the composition is extremely rare.

The south wall at Longthorpe Tower. Below them the wall is painted to imitate a cloth hanging, and above the door an archer’s bow is aimed at the rear end of a bonnacon, a mythological beast
The south wall at Longthorpe. The two main figures are thought to represent Edward II or Edward III (left) and Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent (right). Below them the wall is painted to imitate a cloth hanging, and above the door an archer’s bow is aimed at the rear end of a bonnacon, a mythological beast

South Wall

The lower part of the south wall is painted to mimic a cloth hanging, on which the Thorpe arms[21] alternate with another, now unreadable.[22]

Above sit two enthroned figures flanked by shields. The one to the left bears the royal arms of England as used until 1340[23] and may represent Edward II (r.1307–27) or more probably Edward III (r.1327–77). The other shield identifies the right-hand figure as Edward II’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent, executed in 1330.[24]

The reason for their presence here has been much discussed,[25] but it is most likely that it pays homage to the king as Robert Thorpe’s employer and to the earl, perhaps, as a landlord, drawing attention to Robert’s ‘strong links to the ruling elite’.[26]

To the lower right, over the doorways, an archer (the figure is missing) rashly aims at the back end of a bonnacon, a mythological beast armed with projectile flaming excrement.[27]

Read more about the significance of Longthorpe Tower
The west wall, showing a scene from the life of St Anthony (top) and two figures below, probably a pupil (standing) and his teacher. The window may have been placed off-centre when Longthorpe tower was built, to make room for the intended paintings
The west wall, showing a scene from the life of St Anthony (top) and two figures below, probably a pupil (standing) and his teacher. The window may have been placed off-centre when the tower was built, to make room for the intended paintings

West Wall

Much of the west wall is taken up by a broad arched recess, above and around which were depicted the Labours of the Months. Of these, only January (a man sitting by a fire), March (digging) and December (pig killing for Christmas) remain legible. A bittern and a bestiary-derived crane decorate the wall to the lower right.[28]

The main wall surface has two scenes, one above the other. In the upper one, a man stands praying (left); behind him, birds and rabbits denote a wilderness setting. Opposite him a seated figure is making a basket, with a further figure standing behind him. God (head and shoulders) appears in cloud above.

The inscription proves that the left-hand figure represents St Anthony. He is receiving a message from God in the form of an angel, alternatively working (making a basket) and praying (the standing figure), who says (see last fragments of the inscription): [SIC FAC ET S]ALVUS ER[IS] (‘Do thus and you will be saved’) – a story from the early Christian Sayings of the Elders.[29]

Below, framed by a border (with realistic lapwing and bestiary-derived parrot),[30] are two men, one seated and probably teaching, and the other, his pupil, standing.

The ceiling of the first-floor room at Longthorpe Tower. Each of the four quarters displayed one of the symbols of the Evangelists, and musical instruments being played, with one exception, by angels
The ceiling of the first-floor room (the south quarter is at the top). Each of the four quarters displayed one of the symbols of the Evangelists, and musical instruments being played, with one exception, by angels

Vault

Each quarter of the vault once displayed one of the symbols of the Evangelists (the authors of the four Gospels) in quatrefoils, and figures of two musicians. The musicians illustrate the words of Psalm 150[31] (‘Praise him with the sound of the trumpet’) and all but one of the seven instruments it names can be identified.[32]

The intent was partly to represent heaven, held to be filled with music, and partly to show the relationship between earthly doings and the enjoyment of heaven, picking up on the saying of St Anthony spelt out on the west wall.[33]

The images and figures on the four quarters of the vault are:

  • in the west quarter, to the right, an angel playing a bagpipe; neither the figure to the left – presumably an angel playing a stringed instrument or cymbalum (row of bells) – nor the Evangelist’s symbol (which must have been the lion of St Mark or the angel of St Matthew) survives
  • in the north quarter, the eagle of St John, labelled JOHANNES, flanked by King David playing a harp on the left (see image at top of page) and a psaltery player on the right
  • in the east quarter, an angel playing a 16-pipe portative organ (right), opposite a figure – of which only the lower legs survive – which could have been a string or cymbalum player; the Evangelist’s symbol is lost
  • in the south quarter, the ox of St Luke and angels playing the rebec, a precursor of the viol and violin, and (just visible to the right) the upper rim of a drum.
Longthorpe Tower viewed from the north-east
Longthorpe Tower viewed from the north-east

Footnotes

1. Thanks are due to Mr and Mrs Marco Cereste who kindly allowed access to their property and the interior of the house.

2. Now barely visible but described as ‘what may be the symbol of St John’ by Robert Taylor in 1981 (R Taylor, RCHME, to Mr Walker, proprietor, 1981; in possession of Mr Marco Cereste); EC Rouse and A Baker, ‘The wall-paintings at Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough, Northants’, Archaeologia, 2nd series, 96 (1955), 3–4 (subscription required; accessed 7 July 2015).

3. DM Wilson and DG Hurst, ‘Medieval Britain in 1968’, Medieval Archaeology, 13 (1969), 273 (accessed 7 July 2015); R Taylor to Mr Walker, op cit.

4. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 5.

5. Ibid, 31.

6. A Emery, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300–1500, vol 2 (Cambridge, 2000), 273, describes these as ‘a rebuild’, but there is no break between the walling below and the parapet masonry, and the much-worn coping stones are carefully fitted to the crenels.

7. EL Sears, The Ages of Man in Medieval Art (Ann Arbor, 1984).

8. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 38–9.

9. WB Yapp, ‘The birds and other animals of Longthorpe Tower’, Antiquaries Journal, 58 (1978), 357 (accessed 7 July 2015).

10. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 12, 41.

11. Ibid, 12, where it is described as a boar, but as Yapp points out (op cit, 355), it hardly looks like one.

12. C Nordenfalk, ‘Les cinq sens dans l’art du Moyen Age’, Revue de l’Art, 34 (1976), 25. For alternatives see G Casagrande and C Kleinhenz, ‘Literary and philosophical perspectives on the wheel of the five senses in Longthorpe Tower’, Traditio, 41 (1985), 311–27 (subscription required; accessed 7 July 2015), and B Yun, ‘A visual mirror of princes: the wheel on the mural of Longthorpe Tower’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, 70 (2007), 1–32 (accessed 7 July 2015).

13. HW Janson, Apes and Ape Lore in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (London, 1952), 240–41.

14. See for example Nordenfalk, op cit, 21–2.

15. See for example L Vinge, The Five Senses: Studies in a Literary Tradition, Acta Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis (Lund, 1975), 47–53.

16. Casagrande and Kleinhenz, op cit, 311–12.

17. Cantimpré was the first author to associate the ape with taste (Janson, op cit, 240).

18. Not a vulture, as Rouse and Baker have it (op cit, 12), but an eagle (Yapp, op cit, 355), which it more closely resembles. But as the painter is unlikely to have seen a vulture, this was probably his best approximation, and does not infer a deliberate departure from Cantimpré and his models.

19. Janson, op cit, 255, note 11; Nordenfalk, op cit, 24. The wholly convincing conclusion that it is indeed a cock is given by Casagrande and Kleinhenz, op cit, 316.

20. Casagrande and Kleinhenz, op cit, 322.

21. Gules a fess between six fleurs-de-lys argent.

22. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 27.

23. Gules, with three lions passant gardant in pale or armed and langued azure.

24. On the identification of the shield, made on EA Greening Lamborn’s advice, see ibid, 2, The leopard’s claws seen by Rouse cannot be identified today, although the white border is clear.

25. For example, ibid, 35–7; Yun, op cit, 4–5.

26. 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), 288–90.

27. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 22, 47–8; F Klingender, Animals in Art and Thought to the End of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, MA, 1971), 429.

28. Yapp, op cit, 356. He sees the former as a bestiary-derived stork: it is surely, as Rouse thought, a bittern.

29. RM Ogilvie, ‘The Longthorpe murals’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 22 (1959), 361.

30. Yapp, op cit, 356.

31. Rouse and Baker, op cit, 38.

32. I am grateful to Alexandra Buckle for essential advice and observations. On the instruments see D Munrow, Instruments of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (London, 1976), 15–16 (portative organs), 9–11 (bagpipes) 21–4 (harp and psaltery), 27–9 (rebec).

33. I am grateful to Dr Alexandra Buckle for advice on these points.

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