Longthorpe Tower

Has been described as a Certain Pele Tower

There are major building remains

NameLongthorpe Tower
Alternative Names
Historic CountryNorthamptonshire and the Soke of Peterborough
Modern AuthorityPeterborough; City of
1974 AuthorityCambridgeshire
Civil ParishPeterborough

Longthorpe Tower is a very well preserved example of a solar tower, containing the private apartments of the owner of the fortified house. The tower, which retains most of its original internal and external appearance, is a valuable example retaining a contemporary hall to the south and, most importantly, it retains an elaborate scheme of rare medieval wall paintings. No comparable domestic scheme of such completeness exists in England, and similar paintings of this period and type are extremely rare on the continent. The paintings give a unique insight into the forms of decoration which adorned the houses of prestigious individuals in the 14th century. They contain a wealth of references to the illuminated manuscripts of the period, including bestiaries, moralities, calendars and Lives of Saints; and illustrate cultural references which would have been instantly recognisable to an educated individual at this time.

The association between the tower house and Peterborough Abbey is of particular interest, as are its connections with the parish church and the development of the medieval settlement at Longthorpe. The value of the monument is increased by the survival of good documentary evidence which records the original and subsequent owners. The monument is accessible to the public.

The tower house is located within the village of Longthorpe on the outskirts of Peterborough, in a loop formed by the meandering course of the River Nene, within sight of the cathedral which lies about 3km to the east. The monument includes a medieval tower (a Grade I Listed Building) built around AD 1300, containing one of the most complete and elaborate schemes of domestic medieval wall paintings in England. The tower is attached to the north west corner of an earlier medieval hall (also a Grade I Listed Building). A west wing was attached to the hall in the 17th century, and an eastern wing was added earlier this century, abutting the south wall of the tower

The hall and its wings are not included in the scheduling.

The three storey tower is constructed in rubble with limestone dressings. It measures approximately 8.5m square with walls c.1.8m thick, supported by diagonal buttresses at either end of the north wall. The ground floor room (which is thought to have served as a store) has a vaulted ceiling and small tapering alcoves with slit windows on the east and west sides. There is no direct access between this and the first floor; the basement room is only accessible through a passage in the south wall, now entered through the eastern extension to the hall. The first storey room was originally entered via a passage in the south west corner of the tower, perhaps on a level with a gallery in the hall. This room, termed 'The Great Chamber' is also vaulted and contains the mural decorations which indicate its use as the lord's private apartment. The west window (a tall single light with a trefoil head) is housed in a narrow, partly splayed recess within a wide arched bay. This is the only original window remaining at this level. A similar arched bay is indicated by joints in the north wall. This is thought to have been infilled to counteract the effects of subsidence shortly after the building was completed. The infill surrounds a square embrasure containing a rectangular, 17th century replacement for the original window. A similar square embrasure formerly housed the east window. This window was later blocked, and more recently reopened and converted to a doorway approached by two flights of wooden steps. Both the east and west embrasures have arched niches or seats in the northern sides. A small, square aumbry (or cupboard) is cut into the southern wall of the eastern bay. The west wall of the Great Chamber contains the only fireplace in the tower. This was narrowed in the 18th century, but has since been opened to its original width. The flue leads upwards through the thickness of the wall emerging in an octagonal stone stack on the roof. The plaster on the walls and ceiling is original and covers several cracks which developed as a result of the subsidence mentioned above. The paintings were applied to a dry limewash finish covering both the walls and the compartments of the vault. They include moral, religious, secular and didactic subjects, originally executed in a broad spectrum of colours, of which the ochres (reds and yellows) now predominate. The nativity is depicted directly above the north window embrasure. Above this is a crescent illustrating the Wheel of Life or the Seven Ages of Man, beginning at the west with an infant in its cradle and ending with an aged figure supported on crutches. Each figure is labelled beneath in Lombardic script. Below the ends of the crescent are paired figures, part of a series of apostles which extends between the east and west embrasures. Only Mark (the evangelist) is absent, and in his place is shown a veiled woman, thought to represent the church. The lower portion of the wall is covered by a dado of scroll work and birds; the latter representing both local species and creatures drawn from contemporary bestiaries. The underside of the north window embrasure has two heraldic shields, one of which has been identified as the arms of Bassingbourne, a tenant of the Peterborough Abbey. St Paul is shown on the southern side of the western embrasure, and on the northern side (beneath the two apostles and in the arched niche) are two didactic or teaching subjects, one depicting a seated, tonsured figure holding a scroll inscribed in French and instructing a child. The eastern embrasure has a further didactic scene (again in the niche beneath the apostles), where an old man is shown addressing three youths. The south and part of the east sides of this embrasure illustrate the allegorical tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead, a moral story pointing out the futility of earthly rank and wealth. Above the fireplace in the east wall is a unique representation of the Wheel of the Five Senses. Reason is shown as a king holding a wheel, the five spokes of which are accompanied by a monkey, a vulture, a spider's web, a bear and a cock symbolising respectively taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight. A young man in fashionable clothes of the period stands above the wheel together with a dog and part of another figure thought to represent an angel in secular dress. Unfortunately, the inscription beneath is illegible. The subjects shown on the south wall appear to be entirely secular, consisting of a tapestry border above a pattern of lozenges alternately bearing the Thorpe arms. Seated above are two figures with shields bearing leopards, thought to be Edward I or II, and Edward of Woodstock, son of Edward I. The space over the two doors in this wall is filled by a scene from a bestiary, showing a fabulous animal called a bonnacon pursued by an archer. The eastern window bay is surmounted by a semicircular arrangement of figures representing the Labours of the Months. January is depicted at the southern end by a man warming himself by a fire, and at the northern end December is symbolised by a figure slaughtering a pig for Christmas. Of the intervening months, only February, March and April, remain. The underside of the arch carries a shield and a number of banners of arms thought to represent some of the co-tenants of the abbey. The west wall within the arch (to the south of the window) is covered by a didactic tabeau with two figures seated opposite (one wearing a doctor's hat) separated by two unfurled scrolls. Above this scene (which is surrounded by a rectangular border of owls and magpies in a scrollwork of leaves and flowers) is an illustration believed to be from the life of St Anthony, depicting his instruction by an angel in the virtues of work and prayer. The vault was originally completely painted with the figures of two musicians in each compartment separated by symbols of the four evangelists, each contained by a barbed quatrefoil. The north compartment has the enthroned figures of Kings David and Saul with harp and psaltery (dulcimer), to either side of a surviving part of the eagle of St John. The south compartment has part of the winged ox symbolising St Luke and two musicians with viols. Two further musicians with pipes survive in the east and west compartments, and a small fragment of a third where the instrument is not visible.

A doorway in the south wall gives access to the upper storey via a narrow staircase within the south and east walls, lit by two splayed slit windows. A narrow passageway runs beneath this staircase from an entrance in the eastern embrasure, to a small chamber or garderobe. The stairs lead to a doorway in the east wall of the upper room. This room retains all four original windows and alcoves. Those to the north, east and west are splayed whilst the southern alcove is more square in plan with opposed doorways in the sides. All four windows are narrow single lights with Carnaervon arches dated to c.1300, with seats below, and slots to either side indicating the original use of shutters in addition to, or instead of, glass. The eastern doorway in the southern embrasure leads into a small L-shaped compartment which formerly contained a limestone garderobe seat, presently located in the west alcove. The western door opens into a narrow spiral staircase which emerges in a small box-like structure on the roof, bonded to the southern parapet wall. The wall is about 1.2m high with limestone coping, and pierced by short tapered slits. The corner sections are raised to about 1.9m, giving an impression of battlements, each containing taller loops, one on each face. The roof itself is pyramidal, and clad like the stair head entrance with slates of Colley-Weston stone. Much of the timber structure beneath (visible from the floor below) has been replaced; although the earlier principal trusses have been retained. The narrow parapet walk has recently been reclad in lead.

The earlier rectangular hall to the south of the tower is thought to have been built in the late 1260's by Sir William de Thorpe, the grandson of Thurstan de Thorpe, a former villein of nearby Waterville Manor who was manumitted by Sir Robert de Waterville between 1199 and 1212. William's father was confirmed in possesion of property at Thorpe (later Longthorpe) in 1226. In 1263 Sir William obtained permission from the Abbot of Peterborough to relocate the parochial Chapel of St Botoloph from its former location on the outskirts of Peterborough, so that it would be of greater benefit to the villagers at Thorpe. The new chapel (later the parish church) lies some 90m to the east of the hall, and has similarities with the hall which indicate contemporary construction. William's son Robert was appointed Steward of the Abbey in 1310, and is thought to have added the tower, partly for his security, but largely as an expression of his new status. It is uncertain whether Robert commissioned the paintings, or if they were created for his son of the same name, who succeeded to the position of Steward in 1330. The latter is considered more likely, both on stylistic grounds, and from the time which is thought to have elapsed between the initial subsidence of the building, and the application of the wall plaster. The Thorpe estates later passed to the Wyttilburys of Milton and, in the late 15th or early 16th century, were acquired by the Fitzwilliam family. Over the intervening years, as tastes changed, the paintings were covered over by coats of distemper and limewash. Fragments of colour were revealed during World War II when the local Home Guard were stationed in the tower; and larger sections of the paintings were discovered by the then tenant, Mr Horrell, immediately after the war whilst preparing the walls for redecoration. Their significance was quickly realised and a programme of cleaning and preservation by E Clive Rouse took place between 1946 and 1948. Such was the importance of the discovery that in 1947 the owner, Earl Fitzwilliam, presented the tower to the nation, and it was taken into the guardianship of the Secretary of State. (Scheduling Report)

House consists of the original north-south wing, built in stone with a stone slate roof by William de Thorpe circa 1263. Solar window in North wall of 2 lights, divided by a shaft and with a quatrefoil in plate tracery. East-West wing with C17 details and modern additions to the East. Tower added at the north-east circa 1300. Square plan with turrets on corners. Walls 6 to 7 ft thick. Small windows of single lights with trefoiled heads on shouldered lintels. Some early C17 alterations. 3 storeys the 2 lower having quadripartite vaulting to the single room. Wall Paintings in the Great Chamber on the 1st floor discovered after the Second World War are unique survivors of the secular decoration of the first half of the C14. North wall has the Nativity and the Wheel of life. Below are pairs of Apostles which continue round the room. Dado of birds and scroll. South wall has the morality of tile 3 living and the 3 Dead. West wall has the Labours of the Months. (Listed Building Report)

Gatehouse Comments

The internationally important C14 wall paintings can draw attention away from the tower itself which is a well preserved solar tower of gentry status rare in the English midlands.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceTL162983
Latitude52.5708503723145
Longitude-0.286830008029938
Eastings516200
Northings298380
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Books

  • Salter, Mike, 2001, The Castles of East Anglia (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 21
  • Emery, Anthony, 2000, Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales Vol. 2 East Anglia, Central England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 272
  • Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 167
  • Taylor, Alison, 1986, Castles of Cambridgeshire (Cambridge)
  • King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 2 p. 319-20
  • Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 256
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus, 1961, Buildings of England: Northamptonshire (Penguin) p. 284-5
  • Serjeantson, R.M., Ryland, W. and Adkins, D. (eds), 1906, VCH Northamptonshire Vol. 2 p. 456-7, 459 online copy
  • Turner, T.H., 1851, Some account of Domestic Architecture in England (Oxford) Vol. 1 p. 153 online copy

Journals

  • Yun, Bee, 2007, 'A Visual Mirror of Princes: The Wheel on the Mural of Longthorpe Tower' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 70 p. 1–32
  • Speight, Sarah, 2004, ''Religion in the Bailey: Charters, Chapels and the Clergy' Cha^teau Gaillard Vol. 21 p. 271-80
  • Casagrande, Gino and Kleinhenz, Christopher, 1985, 'Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Wheel of the Five Senses in Longthorpe Tower' Traditio Vol. 41 p. 311-27
  • (Fletcher), 1969, Medieval Archaeology Vol. 13 p. 273 online copy
  • Rouse, E.Clive and Baker, Audley, 1955, 'The wall-paintings at Longthorpe Tower' Archaeologia Vol. 96 p. 1-57
  • Country Life Vol. 101 p. 604

Guide Books

  • 2001, Longthorpe Tower Cambridge (London: English Heritage)
  • Rouse, E.Clive, 1987, Longthorpe Tower (London: English Heritage)
  • Rouse, E.Clive, 1949, Longthorpe Tower (HMSO)