Nicola here, talking about a recent visit to a place steeped in history. “At the edge of Wiltshire’s ancient Savernake forest lies a house steeped in Royal history. Shrouded in mystery and lost to the mists of time, Wolfhall stands, a testimony to the rise and fall of the Seymour family, so crucial to the heart of the Tudor monarchy and the history of England itself…” So reads the enticing introduction on The Real Wolfhall website, drawing in all of us who have a fascination with Tudor history.
Long before Hilary Mantel made the name “Wolf Hall” famous all over again in her Booker prize winning novel, many readers like myself had lapped up stories of the Seymour family in the writing of authors such as Jean Plaidy and any number of books about the wives of Henry VIII. Wolfhall is an iconic name that has been in my imagination for as long as I’ve been reading historical fiction and romance. When I wrote The Phantom Tree, about Mary Seymour, the daughter of Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr, it felt appropriate to set part of it at Wolfhall and draw on that rich history.
You can imagine then my state of over-excitement when I received an invitation to visit the real Wolfhall. For a long time I had believed like so many people that the original medieval manor had been lost, demolished in the later 16th century when the Seymours built a new, grander house a few miles away. To discover that part of the Tudor house still stood on the site of the original manor was amazing news.
I set off on my adventure in a day in early May. The route took me through the ancient Savernake Forest which even today is a very atmospheric place to visit with its enormous oak trees and grand avenues. There’s something about forests that lends them to mystery and history. They feel like wild and lawless places where the past is only a step away. The fact that there is a house called Wolfhall in an old forest conjures up the image of packs of wolves slinking between the trees… Except that Wolfhall was actually named after the Saxon personal name Ulfela. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
My satnav takes me to exactly the right place and there I see what looks like a very elegant Georgian house, and Debra Melsom of the Friends of Wolfhall waiting for me. After a chat and a cup of tea with the Friends about the work they are doing to restore the house and garden, and to excavate the parts of the Tudor manor that have been lost, it’s time for the tour. I must admit that I had a whole other-wordly feeling at actually being somewhere I had read about in so many novels. It was unreal in the best, possible way.
The Wolfhall that you see today is, like so many historical buildings, a mixture of different periods. We know from the records that the original manor, where Jane Seymour and her brothers grew up and where Henry VIII stayed in 1535, was a very substantial building. Documents record it as a double courtyard house with a number of grand principal bedchambers as we ll as two galleries, including a long gallery, a gatehouse, a chapel with a resident priest, servants quarters and kitchens, stables, dairy, kennels and barns. There were also eight gardens with charming names including the primrose garden, box garden, my young lady’s garden, my old lady’s garden, and an arbour plus eight orchards. The scale of the house can be inferred from documents which describe that Edward Seymour, later Duke of Somerset, removed 30 beds from Wolfhall to Beauchamplace (later Somerset House) in London.
Outside, where the Friends are sewing the wildflower meadow and have plans to restore the gardens, you can clearly see the Tudor part of the house. This survived when a great deal of the original manor was demolished because it became a farm. Over the years a Georgian wing was built on plus some Victorian additions. Excitingly, the archaeological work in the garden trenches has not only revealed other Tudor foundations but also some medieval glass from the 14th century.
Inside the house has a definite atmosphere. It’s not unfriendly but it’s very strong. Standing at the base of the stair, which is in the same position as the Tudor staircase once stood, I feel a whisker away from the past. I’m told, however, that the biggest clue to the scale and design of the house lies beneath our feet. Yes, it’s a brick-built Tudor sewer that is one of the best-preserved in the country. Dominic, a direct descendent of Edward Seymour and the 32nd generation of the family, offers to show me, and as I’ll do anything in the name of historical research, I don a hard hat and head down the sewers. We end up somewhere underneath the gardens in an area where the excavations have revealed the foundations of a Tudor tower and other substantial walls. It’s totally fascinating stuff.
So often when I visit a historical site the interpretation has already been done, the phases of building are clear and so is the history behind it. At Wolfhall there is so much more to explore and discover. It’s a very exciting time!
I’d like to thank the Friends of Wolfhall for allowing me to use their photographs and for sharing their knowledge and expertise so generously. If you’d like to become a Friend and find out more about the real Wolfhall click here!
Are you a fan of Tudor history? What do you think of the drama of Henry VIII and his marriages? Team Anne Boleyn or team Jane Seymour – or neither?