Near Melksham in Wiltshire in the parish of Great Chalfield, is a fifteenth century manor house built by a remarkable gentleman and Member of Parliament, Thomas Tropnell. Like many other upwardly-mobile gentlemen of the period, he was a lawyer. He acquired wealth through service to the Hungerford family and used his legal skills to press his own claim to the manor of Great Chalfield, where he built a house in the latest fashion.
I was interested in Thomas because he kept his legal records in a volume (known as the Tropnell Cartulary) which provides a fascinating source for historians. Its contents are not just dry title deeds, but also scurrilous gossip about his predecessors and rivals. According to Tropnell, Constance, the inappropriately named second wife of Sir Henry Percy of Great Chalfield, committed adultery with Robert Wyvill, Bishop of Salisbury (d.1375), and bore him an illegitimate son. The Bishop is immortalised as one of the three masks overlooking the Great Hall in Tropnell’s manor house. Constance’s ‘naughty lyf’ allegedly drove her husband to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which he did not return. Tropnell was equally scathing about William Rous, whom he claimed was too busy with lechery and adultery to look after his property and had to sell.
Tropnell was far more careful with his resources and was able to build himself a manor house using the latest architectural techniques and fashions (such as fireplaces with chimneys and windows with glass). It is surrounded by beautiful gardens in a delightful rural location. It was used as the filming location for the TV series Wolf Hall.
The manor can be visited by guided tours only. A ‘squint’ in the Dining Room allows the inhabitants (or these days, the guide) to check the identity of visitors before deciding to fling open the main door or the smaller door which forces entrants to bend double.
The great hall has some interesting features. The owners during the Edwardian period undertook a restoration, but as they liked giving parties, they replaced the original stone floors with a sprung dance floor and added a minstrels gallery and screens passage. The original stone flags are in the courtyard. The house did not previously have a gallery or screens passage as these were old-fashioned by the time Tropnell was building. There are also three masks on the walls, through which the hall could be watched by those upstairs. These represent Edward IV (with asses’ ears), the licentious Bishop of Salisbury and Tropnell himself. The Tropnell cartulary is on display.
In the dining room, a separate private space for the family and honoured guests, is a wall painting that can only be of Tropnell himself. This makes it the earliest known portrait of an English MP. The entire room was panelled over by his successors, but the painting came to light during restoration work.
Upstairs is Tropnell’s bedroom, with an original medieval four poster bed (used as Cromwell’s bedroom in Wolf Hall). There is a stair in the corner of the room that leads to a passage over the Great Hall and down the other side of the house – useful for making a hasty exit.
The gardens were designed on Arts and Crafts principles by Alfred Parsons RA and his business partner Captain Partridge to complement the restoration of the Manor for Robert Fuller (the donor to the National Trust) by the architect Sir Harold Brakspear FSA. The design was done over a four year period from 1907 to 1911. Recently the gardens have been gradually replanted under the guiding eye of Patsy Floyd (a member of the donor family and the National Trust’s tenant) using palettes of colours sympathetic to Parsons’ designs. There is a beautiful blue and yellow herbaceous border by the church. An interesting feature are the topiary pavilions: shaped like jelly moulds: they are large enough to stand inside for shade or protection from rain, depending on the weather.
I visited Great Chalfield in July 2015