Exploring The Real Wolfhall

Nicola and the wolfNicola 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.

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Forbidden Inspiration!

Forbidden - US My current work in progress is the final book in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series. Here is a sneak peek of the cover!  I hope you like it. I think it looks gorgeous! For this book, Forbidden, I have a heroine who unexpectedly inherits both an estate and a title. I’m braced for those readers who will tell me that it isn’t possible for women to inherit titles. In fact it is, as I’m sure you know. In the British peerage there are by my reckoning currently nine females who hold their title in their own right through inheritance, and throughout history there have been quite a number.

When I was researching an estate on which to base Templemore, the Earldom in the book, I wanted to find an existing estate that could be inherited in the female line and to my surprise found one just down the road from me in Wiltshire. The Manor of Savernake has not been bought or sold for a thousand years and the estate has passed down from father or mother to son or daughter during that time. I blogged about my visit to Savernake on my own blog a while ago but here is an updated blog post with additional material from a recent visit I made there.


There aren't many places in England (as opposed to the UK) where you can still get lost in a wilderness Savernake 1 and there are even fewer ancient forests where you can wander for hours without seeing another person. Savernake Forest is one of those few remaining places. It forms a large part of the Savernake estate, which currently belongs to the Earl of Cardigan.

No one can say how old Savernake Forest is. It pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066 and there is a reference to it as "Safernoc" in a Saxon Charter from King Athelstan in 934AD. After 1066 the wardenship of the forest was given to Richard Esturmy, a Norman knight, and Savernake Forest has passed down from father to son or daughter in an unbroken line for 31 generations, never once being bought or sold in a thousand years. Today it is the only forest in Britain still in private hands.

Wolf Hall

One of Savernake's claims to fame is that it was here, at the fabulously named Wolf Hall, that Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour although they apparently met at Littlecote House nearby. There is a stained glass window in the Great Hall at Littlecote with their individual crests on and also one royal one with H & J on it. Littlecote is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area – it’s a house of great antiquity with any number of ghostly sightings!

Wolf Hall Wolf Hall, referred to as Ulfela, in the Domesday Book of 1086 was the ancestral home of the Wardens of the Forest, first the Esturmys and then the Seymours, who came to it via the female line. Local tradition states that Jane and Henry married in the ancient barn at Wolf Hall although it is more likely that a wedding feast was held there in celebration. The barn survived into the 20th century and when it burned down in the 1920s it apparently still had the hooks on which the wedding decorations and tapestries had hung. The Seymours had left Wolf Hall to live in Tottenham Lodge by 1575  (for a while it was given over to servant accommodation) and in 1665 it was partially demolished to help rebuild Tottenham Park after fire damage. The picture above left is a postcard of Wolf Hall from the early 20th century. You can see how much it has been changed and rebuilt over the centuries. The postcard on the right is the 16th Wolf hall barn century barn. The name Wolf Hall could have several derivations: either from "Wulfan -heall" (Wulfa's hall or palace) or "wulfan-healh" (a corner of land frequented by wolves). Wolves were common in the Savernake Forest until the 14th century, a fact which is all too easy to imagine as you walk along the leafy paths deep within green darkness.

Tottenham House

By the 18th century the forest had come into the ownership of the Bruce family through marriage with the Seymours and a "new" Tottenham House was built in 1742 to a design by Lord Burlington. The family rose in prominence and Thomas Brudenell-Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury, was Governor to the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Prince Frederick. The Earl employed Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to plant huge beech avenues in Savernake Forest including the Grand Avenue which runs through the heart of the Forest and at 3.9 miles (dead straight) stands in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest avenue in Britain. Capability Brown's intention was that the forest should be made part of the parkland Tottenham Houseof Tottenham House. The scattered coppices, meadows, scrub, and heath should be united, into "one great whole." Ancient ponds and wooded glades for animal grazing were all turned into landscape features and other drives and avenues cut through the forest. In 1820 Tottenham House was redesigned again, this time as a grand Palladian mansion, building a much larger structure around the older Burlington house and covering the old bricks with blocks of Bath stone. In 1870 two large symmetrical wings were also added completing the extraordinarily grand house that still stands today.

The Madness of King George

Facing Tottenham House, on a hilltop at the end of another long avenue, is the Ailesbury Column, 200px-Ailesbury-monument-savernake-2005-04-26
erected in the 1781. The inscription on its base reads: "This Column was erected By Thomas Bruce Earl of Ailesbury As a Testimony Of Gratitude To his ever honoured Uncle, Charles Earl of Ailesbury and Elgin, who left to him these Estates And procured for him the Barony of Tottenham, And of Loyalty to his most Gracious Sovereign GEORGE III Who unsolicited conferred upon him The honour of an Earldom; but above all of Piety To GOD, FIRST, HIGHEST, BEST, whose blessing consecrateth every gift And fixeth its true Value." Another inscription was added in 1789 to celebrate the "recovery" of George III from one of his bouts of illness: "In commemoration of a signal instance of heaven’s protecting providence over these kingdoms in the year 1789 by restoring to perfect Health from a long and afflicting disorder their excellent and belov'd sovereign George III this tablet was inspired by Thomas Bruce Earl of Ailesbury." I thought this was a splendidly ostantatious way to display one's loyalty to the King! It was by the column that we stopped to have our picnic in the sunshine. The view down from the hilltop towards Tottenham House was stunning.

Savernake milestone On our walk back through the forest (using GPS to find our way back to the car because the woods are so dense!) we passed a number of the huge, ancient oak trees for which Savernake is also famous. The oldest of these pollarded trees is the Big Belly Oak, which has a girth of 11 metres and is 1000–1100 years old. Of a similar age is the Duke's Vaunt Oak, and other veteran trees we saw included the King Oak, the Queen Oak and the Pointing Oak. Savernake apparently has the largest collection of veteran trees in Europe and it is an amazing feeling to be walking amongst trees that would have been standing when King Henry VIII came here to hunt over this same ground. I think that my heroine is going to feel a similar sense of grandeur and astonishment when she first sees Templemore as I did on my walk through Savernake. She will be overawed too, to inherit an estate that has not once been bought or sold in a thousand years! 

Do you like to know the "real" places behind historical romances? Which are your favourites? Would you like to inherit an estate as grand as Savernake or would you, like my heroine, find it overwhelming? And what would you do with it if you did? Open it to the public, turn the woods into pleasure gardens, or use it for some other purpose?