Did Elizabeth I come to Nunney?
In August 1574 Queen Elizabeth I left Bristol to travel to Longleat. What route did she take – and did it take her through Nunney?
Every now and then local history research poses questions where trying to find the answer is more interesting than the answer itself. This is one of them: a mixture of historical facts and pure speculation that would do Hilary Mantel proud.
This article started off with an entry in the leading account of the royal progresses, the summer tours around the country made by Queen Elizabeth I.
John Nichols’ The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I (London, 1788-1823) simply states, “In her road from Bristol the Queen favoured Sir Thomas Thynn, by a Visit at Long-leat”.
Nichols’ work has for over two centuries been held up by scholars as the most authoritative source of information on Elizabeth I and her court. “It’s in Nichols” was normally enough to end any debate.
If John Nichols was right and the Virgin Queen did indeed travel from Bristol to Longleat, would her route have taken her through Nunney? After all, the main road from Shepton Mallet went straight through Nunney until the end of the 19th century.
Is it possible that Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, and her entire court passed through Nunney and that we have simply forgotten about it? Yes, it is – as we shall see later, Bath also ‘forgot’ about her 1574 visit.
Nunney in the 16th century
Nunney in the 16th century was called Nunney de la Mere, described by the antiquarian John Leland in 1542 as “a good Village all by Champayne Grounde frutefull of Corne”.
The Praters bought the castle in 1577, but didn’t get on with their neighbours, the Mawdley family. In 1586 Richard Mawdley took widow Margaret Prater and her son George to court at the Star Chamber.
He described that his neighbours “conceived great malice against him” because of a dispute over land, and gave details of several serious assaults by George Prater and his brothers that made him fear for his life – including one “in the highway in Nunney” and another in which his 17-year-old son was so severely beaten that he lost both speech and memory and remained at death’s door.
Ironically, the effigies of widow Margaret and her husband Richard Prater are the once on the left in Nunney Church – the ones that had their legs chopped off to fit them in the narrow space.
Elizabeth I and Nunney
The only known direct link between Elizabeth I and Nunney is that in 1561 she granted the castle and Court Farm House, the former chantry priest’s house and orchard next to the church, to the elderly senior statesman William Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, known as the Lord St John.
Nunney Castle was held and occupied by the Delameres until the manor passed into the hands of the Paulets through the marriage of Eleanor Delamere to William Paulet, whose grandson became the Marquess of Winchester, Lord High Treasurer and Speaker of the House of Lords.
This same Marquess of Winchester was given by Queen Elizabeth in 1561 grant of “all that house of mansion of the Chantry of Nunney with the appurtenances situate within the castle of Nunney also those our two tenements and cottages and one vergate of land and three acres of meadow being at Truttoxhill”.
This was the house of the chantry priest plus two cottages and land endowed by the Delameres to provide the chantry priest with an income. All had been confiscated by the Crown at the Dissolution, when the last chantry priest was given a pension.
Much of the following information was painstakingly put together based on poorly scanned digital versions of old books, inaccurate centuries-old accounts and mapping the data available.
The key question seems to be: what were the roads like around Nunney in 1574? After that, the second question is: what was the logical route for Elizabeth I and her entourage to take when she travelled from Bristol to Longleat?
The obvious thing to do is to check if there is a description of the Virgin Queen’s itinerary. There is indeed – as we’ve seen -, but it doesn’t give any details.
The next thing is of course to check old maps of Somerset. The good news is that there is a map from 1575 by Christopher Saxton, a cartographer who produced the first county maps of England and Wales.
The bad news is that the Saxton map of 1575 shows only rivers, not roads. Other maps show also show borders of the Hundreds, the administrative clusters of towns and villages – but still no roads.
The earliest map of Great Britain is the Gough Map, which dates from the late 14th century.
Donated to the Bodlian Library in the 19th century, the Gough map is the earliest known map of Britain to give a detailed representation of the country’s roads.
Frome and Bruton are unfortunately in a badly faded area of the map to the north east of Bristol. Shaftesbury is seen at the top centre of the section above.
The next map of Somerset after that to actually show roads appears to be one by John Cary from 1817.
Unsurprisingly, most of the routes we recognise today were already in use. It seems fair to assume that a vast travelling court would stick to the main roads and that these ran pretty much along the same lines as the main roads today.
So if the Queen indeed went direct from Bristol to Longleat, she is highly likely to have used a very similar route to the one we would use today: along the modern-day A37 towards Shepton Mallet and then following the A361 towards Frome.
From priory to Longleat House
The reason for the Queen’s visit in 1574 was that she wanted to see for herself what all the fuss was about.
Longleat was originally an Augustinian priory that struggled to maintain itself, even during the Middle Ages. It was therefore dissolved and became a manor or grange belonging to the Carthusian monastry at Hinton Charterhouse.
The park, landscaped by Capability Brown in the 18th century, was a marsh at the time. The surrounding woodland was then rough moorland.
After the Dissolution of the monastries, Sir John Thynne bought sixty acres of land, a rabbit warren, orchard, water mill and run-down priory from the Crown in 1540 for £53, and added 6,000 acres of surrounding land to it the next years.
Sir John was a Member of Parliament and steward to Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, who had his estate at nearby Maiden Bradley. Seymour was Lord Protector, equivalent to the Prime Minister today.
Seymour was originally the Earl of Hertford and Henry VIII’s brother-in-law. After the king’s death he was a key supporter of the new king, nine year old Edward VI, and in return was made Duke of Somerset.
The name Longleat refers to the long pond, or leat, beside the house (which now houses sea lions and gorillas). In 1547 Sir John Thynne seriously started work to rebuild his house and create a new “Lodging of many bedrooms”.
One of the key people in the early phase of construction at Longleat was a local mason from Nunney, William Spicer. He first came to Longleat in 1554 aged 20 as a junior craftsman, but quickly rose through the ranks.
In 1559 Sir John Thynne gave him the contract to build a new and more ambitious house, including a great hall and long gallery. This house appears from surviving correspondence to have look much like the current house, although the top had a row of gables.
Sir John Thynne comes across as a perfectionist (“for if I find any fault with the workmanship it shall be made again”) who micro-managed every detail of the construction of the house and constantly changed his mind. After repeatedly clashing with Thynne, William Spicer left.
It is thought that Thynne designed most the house at Longleat himself to the last detail. He is even thought to have been the main architect for the construction of Somerset House in London, the Duke of Somerset’s home in the capital that was given to Elizabeth after his fall from favour.
From 1571 to 1584 William Spicer worked as an architect for the Earl of Leicester, mainly to rebuild and extend the castle at Kenilworth to provide modern accommodation for the royal court – creating the first great Elizabethan progress house.
Wiliam Spicer finished his career as the Queen’s Surveyor of Works, the post later held by Inigo Jones from 1615 to 1943. It meant that Nunney-born Spicer had responsibility for all royal residences throughout the country. He died in 1604.
Thynne hired the best craftsmen from all over the country, including a number of Scottish masons. When they complained that they had no Presbyterian chapel to worship in, Sir John allowed them to build a chapel at Horningsham. It’s still there, the oldest one in the country and still used for its original purpose.
The reputation of these craftsmen spread fast, as correspondence shows. Mason John Chapman was to be sent to work at Lacock Abbey as soon as he had finished at Longleat.
Bess of Hardwick wrote to Sir John Thynne to ask him “to spare me your plaisterer that flowred [i.e. decorated] your halle” “that I may sende hym downe with all spede my selfe” to decorate Hardwick Old Hall.
When Spicer left Longleat he was by Robert Smythson, another stonemason who became a celebrated architect.
Working for Thynne appears to have been a thankless task. Labourers worked from 5am to 7pm, but Thynne insisted on reducing their meal breaks. He also made them work throughout the winter.
A joint letter from Robert Smythson and the head carpenter to Sir John Thynne survives, in which they say that “in all England there ys none that hathe taken in hande to sett out the lyke works, that hath resaved lesser profett and lesser thanks than we.”
A year after the foundations of the cellars at Longleat were laid, in 1567 a fire destroyed a lot of the work done.
Nine months later construction started again with renewed vigour. The present house took twelve years to complete, although changes were made for decades later.
After 1567, Longleat became one of the first English houses to be built entirely in the fashionable Italian style – the early Renaissance architecture we now call Elizabethan.
The Queen at Longleat
The result was clearly a stunning house. Sir John Thynne’s steward John Dodd wrote to his master, “I think no less than that your house now to see to, is, and will be by it is finished, the first house and handsomest of that size within the compass of four shires round about the same, and so doth all the country report. Some pleased, some grieved.”
Queen Elizabeth became very curious about the new house, and made clear that she would love to take a look. Sir John was less keen on a visit, perhaps because after the cost of construction (£8,016 according to his accounts) the expense of a royal visit to Longleat was the last thing he needed. Or perhaps he wanted to finish it first.
The Queen was clearly annoyed. Sir Henry Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour) wrote to Sir John Thynne, “I thought it good to let you know of late Her Majesty had speech concerning you, that you seem unwilling to receive her this yeare at your house making excuses of sickness and other letts thereby to divert her from the country.”
It was obvious that Sir John Thynne had run out of excuses. In 1574 Elizabeth I, who was 41 at the time, announced that she would visit Longleat with her entourage to see for herself the magnificent new house.
Tudor monarchs tended to spend several months of the year travelling around the country with an extensive entourage. These so-called ‘royal progresses’ were in part necessary because of the stench and outbreaks of diseases in London during the summer, but also served to promote the monarchy, be visible to subjects around the country and honour specific individuals and organisations.
The royal progresses could also be used to promote a specific agenda. James I, for example, was keen to promote the silk industry and his entourage included the royal silkworms and their keeper. He ordered all landowners to buy mulberry trees.
Unfortunately for James, there are are two types of mulberry tree. The 100,000 trees he distributed across England were the wrong type for silkworms – the tough-leaved black mulberry rather than the soft white variety.
The cost of such royal visits could be crippling for the hosts as well as for the court. Not only were hosts expected to feed and entertain hundreds of courtiers (not to mention providing for their servants and horses), but it was not unusual to build whole new tower blocks to accommodate the royal guests and their entourage.
It has been said that the itinerary of Henry VII was “determined by the monastic geography of England”, and that the King tended to be “marvelously offended” by offers that he stay at houses of courtiers and the nobility, saying, “What private subject dare undertake a Prince’s charge, or look into the secret of his expence?”
Henry VIII similarly stayed mainly in royal palaces and monastic buildings. He limited his progresses mainly to the Home Counties and the South East, although he did visit Wiltshire.
Edward VI made at least one ambitious progress: in mid-July 1552 he set out from London with a train of around 4,000 horses. Understandably, the retinue was quickly said to be too great – “enough to eat up the country‟ – and was reduced to “only 150”.
Elizabeth I is most famous for touring the country extensively, and clearly had no problem staying at private residences. The Queen made 23 summer progresses over the course of her 44-year reign.
She didn’t travel light either: typically she was said to have been followed around the country by 400 to 600 carts of luggage. On her greatest progresses, Elizabeth I is estimated to have been accompanied by over 1,000 people. On more regular trips her entourage still consisted of around 600 people, including 150 Yeomen of the Guard.
Teams would travel ahead to get everything ready on forthcoming stops, from installing beds and creating temporary accommodation to inspecting the proposed entertainments and gifts for Elizabeth and her courtiers.
The first step in organising a progress was the preparation of the ‘gestes’ or ‘jests’, a document that detailed the proposed itinerary of the Queen and gave the names of houses/towns, the nights of stay (number and dates), and the number of miles between stopping points.
In the reign of Elizabeth I, the gestes seem to have been compiled by the Queen in collaboration with the Privy Council and the officers directly responsible for managing royal progresses: the Lord Chamberlain and Vice-Chamberlain.
The Queen was notorious for changing her travel plans at the last moment, however, although bad weather and the threat of diseases also affected her itineraries. It was not uncommon for her hosts to stock up on food, only to be told that plans had changed – and again days later, when the Queen was due to arrive after all.
All around the country there are stately homes and castles that have rooms in which Elizabeth I is said to have stayed. In many cases she did.
In even more cases, her advance team may have notified the owners of dozens of houses of Her Majesty’s intention to visit, and they may even have helped to get rooms ready before plans were changed again.
One example near Nunney is Leigh Park in Bradford-on-Avon, a gift to the Earl of Leicester from Queen Elizabeth I in 1574. “It is possible that Queen Elizabeth stayed in the house during the same year,” according to the website of Leigh Park, now a Best Western hotel and conference centre.
Elizabeth’s successor James I is known to have made detours to see specific buildings, so who knows? Despite the massive operation involved in the royal progresses, remarkably little is often known of the exact itineraries.
Specifically in the case of the 1574 progress through the West Country, until recently little more information was available than what was published in works such as that by John Nichols: the Queen visited Berkeley Castle, Bristol, Longleat and Wilton before heading back via New Sarum (Salisbury).
Elizabeth in Bristol
Elizabeth I’s visit to Bristol was first expected in 1570, but postponed until 1574. That meant that there was plenty of time to fix the roads and raise taxes to pay for it all.
Bristol pulled out all the stops for the royal visit, staging a three-day land and sea battle in the docks for the entertainment of the royal guest (wearily described by Nichols as “the regular Siege of a Fort”). There were speeches, of course, and fireworks; a full description of all speeches and entertainments, written by a man called Thomas Churchyard, was published a year after the visit.
After three days the city bid Elizabeth a ‘dolfull a Due’ – a tearful goodbye.
The elaborate saddle she used during the royal visit to Bristol was auctioned in 2012. It was given to a member of the Kington family after the visit and most recently owned by the later writer Miles Kington, who wrote for The Times and The Independent (and who was a huge fan of Nunney and the Nunney Jazz Café).
Taking to the road
Nichols says that the Queen went from Bristol to Wilton, staying overnight at Longleat. Progress was slow on these journeys (12-18 miles a day on average), because Elizabeth made a point of stopping to acknowledge the adoration of villagers wherever she went – whatever the weather.
Elizabeth usually rode on horseback. If the roads were good enough she would make her entrance into towns in a tall, open coach designed to make her as visible as possible to the people.
To protect her complexion against the dust and dirt of the 16th century country roads, she changed into her travel clothes and wore a velvet face mask, called a vizard mask, to protect her against the sun (as became fashionable for noble ladies did in those days).
Elizabethan scholar Randle Holme, wrote: “[It] covers the whole face…holes for the eyes, a case for the nose and a slit for the mouth…this kind of Mask is taken off and put [on] in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside… against the mouth.”
From the detailed description of her stay at Wilton, we know that it rained heavily for three days (forcing the royal guests to dine inside the house rather than in the marquees built for the occasion).
When the Queen left for Salisbury after dinner, entertainers and servants had lined the driveway in dark and the pouring rain. Despite the terrible weather, Elizabeth stopped the coach and removed her face mask to thank the people.
Coaches were introduced into England from France by Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel. In 1555 Walter Rippon, one of Elizabeth’s favoured coach-builders, built the first ever coach in England for the Earl of Rutland.
A rare early coach thought to have been constructed by Rippon survives in a museum in Moscow. It was gifted by Elizabeth I to Tsar Boris Godunov, but presented to him after her death in 1603.
Known as the Moscow Coach, it consists of carved and gilded timber, reliefs of hunting scenes and battles and hangings of red velvet. Clearly coaches were sufficiently fashionable to be considered a suitable gift from one ruler to another.
Direct descendants of Walter Rippon were still constructing coach-built bodies for Rolls-Royce as late as 1958.
Yet however ornate a royal coach was, the roads in England were still very primitive.
A change of direction
“It’s in Nichols” – the Queen left Bristol, paid a short visit to Longleat and then stayed at Wilton for three days. That’s what John Nichols said. It must be true.
Bizarrely, despite the barrage of books and studies that have been written about Elizabeth I, there are things that are still a huge blur.
Not only can many stately homes not say for sure if she visited them, in some cases so little is known that even major visits have simply been left out of history. Bath is one example.
Because the Queen did not go direct from Bristol to Longleat. She visited Bath. It was a very important visit too, one that changed the face of the town and transformed its fortunes.
But unfortunately Bath did not have a Thomas Churchyard to chronicle events. As a result, this 1574 royal visit was almost forgotten for centuries and does not feature in John Nichols’ descriptions nor in detailed histories of Bath – unlike her subsequent visit in 1591.
The actual route
Records of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, entitled an account for Appareling and making Readye of the Queen Majesty’s Howses with others in Progresse tyme, help us piece together a day-by-day itinerary.
In July 1574 the Queen suddenly – and it appears with very little notice – decided to start on her progress, barely allowing time for the usual preparations.
Starting in Greenwich, she went to Richmond and then Windsor. Leaving Windsor on 11 July, she moved to Reading, visited Sir Henry Unton (Ambassador to France who was married to Anne, the daughter of the 1st Duke of Somerset) at Langley in Oxfordshire and went on to Ewelme, a village in the Chiltern Hills.
From there a Yeoman was sent off in a hurry to prepare houses in Halton and Woodstock for the Queen’s unexpected arrival. From Woodstock she travelled to Langley and Sudeley Castle in the Cotswold.
Elizabeth reached Gloucestershire on 8 August, where she visited Frocester, Berkeley Castle (11 August) and Acton Court.
At Berkeley Castle she greatly upset her host by killing 27 of his priced stags in a single day. Hunting was always a popular pastime for English monarchs, although for Elizabeth it was more like shooting fish in a barrel: the animals would be driven into a small enclosure where the Queen would shoot them with bow and arrow.
All this time court officials and their assistants were being sent back to London to fetch specific items. They spent six days going from Gloucester to London and back for an embroidered gown of ‘whyte satten’ and a hat wanted for the royal visit to Bristol.
The Queen arrived in Bristol on 15 August.
Accounts show that houses were readied not only for Elizabeth to dine and lodge in (she stayed in Mayor John Young’s house and knighted him before her departure), but that there were others used only for her as changing rooms.
Another house built by Sir John Young is now the Red Lodge museum, by Colston Hall. Open for free, it has some of the oldest rooms in Bristol and the last complete Tudor room in the UK.
The Queen in Bath
The accounts of the churchwardens of St Michael’s parish in Bath clearly show that “against the queen’s coming” the town’s walls were cleaned up and people were paid to ring the bells at the West Gate.
The Queen did visit Bath in 1574. She stayed for several days and preparations were made to welcome the royal guest.
With these preparations came Symond Bowyer, one of the Gentlemen Ushers of the Queen’s Chamber, with one Yeoman Usher, three Yeomen of the Chamber, two Grooms of the Chamber, two Grooms of the Wardrobe and one Groom Porter, to make all things ready, for which work he was duly paid.
Bowyer was an important court official and 12s. 8d. were paid to the “tapster of the Harte for the Gentleman Usher and hys company’s dynner”.
The accounts don’t mention where the Queen stayed in Bath, only what the expenses were. On Sunday Elizabeth attended a church service for which the choristers of Wells Cathedral were brought over the occasion.
Two days after her arrival the Queen held a meeting with the privy council, attended by all of her most senior courtiers.
We don’t know if she personally used the old Roman baths, although she did express surprise to Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon that he had not been drowned by ‘those extreme water-pourers’, a reference to ‘bucketing’ at Bath.
The visit was a real game-changer for a number of reasons. First of all, Elizabeth gave Bath permission to raise funds across England for a period of seven years to pay for the restoration of Bath Abbey.
Secondly, the ancient Roman Baths were in a terrible state at the time. Elizabeth’s visit – whether she personally took to the waters for improve her health or not – gave Bath the endorsement it needed.
The baths were redeveloped as a result and became hugely popular with the aristocracy. They started to spend at least part of the summer in Bath every year – for social reasons more than expecting to be cured, but creating jobs and providing a massive boost for the local economy after the decline of the cloth industry.
The Earls of Leicester, Warwick and Sussex were among those who visited Bath regularly after the 1574 visit and brought with them their own servants and entertainment – tumblers, bear baiting, musicians and theatre groups.In turn, the town became an excellent alternative to London for those seeking a courtier’s patronage. Shakespeare’s lines from Sonnet 153 suggest that he too sampled Bath:
I, sick withal, the help of Bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure
From Bath to Longleat
Leaving Bath on Monday 23 August, the Queen rested at Haslebury [?] and then went on to Lacock.
Again it’s the recorded expenses that confirm that preparations for her visit to Lacock took ten days. Her host, Sir Henry Sherington, was knighted in the same year, most likely at the end of her visit.
On 28 August she reached the house of Sir William Brouncker, MP for Westbury and Wiltshire, at Erlestoke (Earl Stoke Manor) in Wiltshire.
Heytesbury Manor was the home of former Shaftesbury MP Hugh Hawker. She arrived in Heytesbury on 31 August, Longleat on 2 September and left for Wilton with a stop for lunch with Dame Elizabeth Mervyn – widow of Wiltshire MP Sir John Mervyn – at Wyley Manor on 3 September.
Sir John Thynne’s big moment had finally arrived. A Gentleman Usher, with two Grooms of the Chamber, two Grooms of the Wardrobe and one Groom Porter, had made ready “a dining house at Longlete”, which took them two days at a cost of 39s. 4d.
Sir John Thynne presented the Queen with a piece of jewellery, “a falcon preying on a fowl, with a great emerald in her breast, and a pearl pendant, with divers sparks of diamonds and rubies on the wings and breast”.
This occasion is listed under 2 September 1574 in an old account book found at Longleat, by the entry of a payment of £50 to John Bridge and Nich Webbe of Kingswood, in part-payment of £140 (by comparison, the wealthy merchant city of Bristol presented the Queen with £100 in cash), paid by them to London jeweller Henry Pope for “one jewele, called a Phenex sett with one great emerald and 50 other dyamonds and rubies with an appendant Perell, which Sir John Thynne gave to her Majestie being at Longleat.”
There is no record of which rooms Elizabeth used during her stay at Longleat, no ‘Queenes Chamber’. The Queen’s visit of 1574 is not recorded by any room name mentioned in the inventories of 1594, 1639, 1682 and 1719, although it is clear that some suitable furniture was especially created for the occasion: an inventory of 1682 for Longleat mentions ‘progresse furniture’, including curtains, stools and a bed.
The royal visit to Longleat was a success, as is clear from a note to Sir John from Edward Hertford at the court: “Thanks be to God, Her Majesty is well returned with good health and great liking her entertainment in ye West parts, and namely [especially], at your house, which twice since to myself, and the last Sonday to my Lady’s grace, she greatly commended.”
When the fourth owner of Longleat, Sir James Thynne, died without offspring a nephew, the fabulously wealthy Thomas Thynne, inherited the house. Among the many improvements he made at Longleat was the construction of a hard road to Frome.
The royal progresses didn’t stop after the death of Elizabeth I. James I and Queen Anne both travelled extensively; Queen Anne visited Wells, Longleat and Lacock in 1613 and also paid visits to Bath, Bristol and Warminster.
King Charles II and Queen Catherine visited Longleat on their way back from Bath. The Queen hoped that the famous waters of Bath would help her produce an heir to the throne.
There had been hopes that she was pregnant after a previous visit to Tunbridge Wells, but that turned out to be no more than wind caused by the unsanitary conditions in Tunbridge’s spa.
If their journey through the Cotswold to Bath was made worse by heavy rain and strong winds, the narrow country lanes of the Mendips led to fears that their coach might overturn.
The Queen vowed that she would never again venture out in “such a mountainous country”.
The Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick recently conducted the John Nichols Project.
Described as a ‘significant research initiative’ by the university, the project aimed to publish a new critical publication of John Nichols’ The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I (available on Amazon for a mere £495 for five volumes).
We have seen that Nichols was wrong in his description of the royal progress through our part of the world. The Queen didn’t go directly from Bristol to Longleat and Wilton; after Bristol she also visited Bath and Lacock.
So now we know: Elizabeth I did not travel through Nunney, although she came close. Does it even matter? At least we’ve learned more about roads, coaches and the ties between Elizabeth, Nunney and Longleat in the process.
Research usually starts with a question; if you only like ‘yes’ answers, local history research is not your thing. If we stopped being curious when the likely answer is ‘probably not’, we would never have discovered America or Australia.
“And did those feet in ancient time”?
Let’s not even go there.