Avebury Manor Reborn

on Wednesday, 28 May 2014. Posted in Wiltshire Places

We have been experiencing some very fine weather recently and with this day trips come to mind, and visits to some of Wiltshire’s lovely country houses. One such is Avebury Manor, run by the National Trust and restored in 2011.

Avebury Manor is a property which has had a continuous association not with any one family but with a number of owners and occupants who have brought their own stories and experiences to the house and have left their traces there.  A brief outline of its story follows:

The Domesday survey indicates that a priest named Rainbold held the church of Avebury (‘Avreburie’) together with two hides, or approximately 240 acres, of land. No other information appears to inform us of pre-Conquest ownership or manorial holdings at the time of the survey, although it has been suggested that lands at Avebury may have formed part of those in the overlordship of Alfred of Marlborough.  What is certain, however, is that by 1114 an estate at Avebury was granted by King Henry I to his chamberlain, William de Tancarville, who in the same year gifted it to the Benedictine Abbey of St.Georges de Boscherville based at Rouen in Normandy.  The priory at Avebury was small, with only two or three monks in occupation; however, by 1234 some 800 sheep belonging to the priory were pastured on the surrounding downs, including at Hilmarton which was a detached part of the manorial lands.  That life at the priory was not always peaceful is indicated by the fact that in 1249 the Prior was in jail at Marlborough, together with his brother Robert and his nephew Ralph, on a charge of murder.  The precise location of the priory has not yet been determined, although it has been suggested that it might have lain within the confines of the present gardens.

By 1411, with the Hundred Years War in full progress, the French priors had been expelled from England and their possessions taken into the charge of the Crown, who granted them to Fotheringhay College, Northamptonshire. After the College exchanged the manor of Avebury for other lands in 1547, the Crown granted the manor to Sir William Sharington.  Sharington had already purchased nearby Lacock Abbey in 1540 for the sum of £783 and was to become the owner of much land in Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire; he was also the owner of several ships trading from Bristol. He served as a Member of Parliament and was knighted in 1547.  So far so good for Sharington, however, because in an additional role as ‘Under-Treasurer’ of the Bristol Mint, he was found to be responsible for frauds and coin clipping, activities which ultimately led to the confiscation of his estates and expulsion from Parliament.  However, on payment of a fine of £12,867 he regained his properties in 1549.

For the history of Avebury Manor as a building, however, perhaps the most important contribution of William Sharington was the survey which he commissioned of his new property in 1548.  The survey was carried out by Sharington’s steward and describes the approaches, outbuildings and house itself.  The survey indicates that by the time of Sharington’s acquisition of the property the house was a well established and functioning dwelling: 

‘At the door coming in [on the south side of the house] there is a porch of stone wall and an entry going through the midd of the said manor house and on the right side of the said entry as you come in there is a fair large hall and a fair chimney in him with a large range on the porch side.  And on the left side of the door as you come into the hall there is a buttery [and] a parlour on the east side of the hall and a buttery behind the same...’.

Already additions and extensions to the house are in place:  ‘And on the left side of the entry coming into the manor house [at the eastern side of the house] a fair little parlour new built with a chimney in him ceiled over with plaster…’.

The south porch referred to in the first extract above would be rebuilt in 1601 by subsequent owners Sir James Mervyn, High Sheriff of Wiltshire, and his wife Debora and their initials placed above the doorway.  The Mervyns had been engaged in a legal struggle with the owner of the neighbouring Trusloe estate as to the rights to the lordship of Avebury Manor with its corresponding entitlements, including the use of the dovecote which can still be seen today close to the Manor and the church.

During the Civil War the Manor was confiscated from its Royalist owner, Sir John Stawell, but restored to him at the Restoration.  A number of legends of ghosts have been attached to the Manor and it may be Sir John whose representation is reflected in the story pertaining to the so-called ‘Cavalier Room’ at the western end of the house; this is said to be haunted by a weeping cavalier.  Sir John died in 1662 but the property remained in the Stawell family until it was again sold in 1692.  A sketch of 1695 conveying instructions for plantings in the gardens shows the layout of the property at this time:

During the Stawell ownership, the stone circle at Avebury and the Manor were visited by the North Wiltshire-born writer John Aubrey, who described a fireplace at the house made from the chalk-like freestone which he had observed at Compton Bassett, five miles from Avebury; this is  believed  to be the fireplace in a first-floor bedroom at the south-east of the house.  It is possible that Charles II may also have visited the manor in 1663 when he was persuaded by Aubrey to visit the stone circle when both were on their way from Marlborough to Bath.

In 1789 Ann Williamson inherited Avebury Manor.  Ann was married to a soldier who, as General Sir Adam Williamson, would become Governor of Jamaica and Santo Domingo.  Ann wrote to her husband while she waited to join him in Jamaica after he sailed from Falmouth in 1790; after  she had joined him c.1794 she would receive reports of life at the Manor:  the gardener wrote, for example that he had ‘221 lb. cherries, have made them all into Cheri Brandi’.   Ann died of yellow fever in Jamaica and General Williamson would eventually return to Avebury alone.  He died  in  1798 and his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 21 October 1798 reads,

‘At Averbury [sic] House, Wilts, Lieut.gen. Sir Adam Williamson, K.B. and colonel of the 72nd regiment of foot, and for a short time, governor of Jamaica.  His death was occasioned by a violent fall, which fractured two of his ribs, and so terribly bruised him that he languished from Friday till Sunday’.  Tradition has it that the fall was from his chair in the dining room, the Great Hall.

The beginning of the 20th century brought to the house Sir Leopold Jenner and his wife Norah who, firstly as tenants and then from 1907 as owners, began a period of repair and restoration of the house.  Two Country Life articles of April and May 1921 provide descriptions together with exterior and interior photographs of the Manor at this time.  Sir Leopold’s brother and his wife, Norah’s sister, had taken on ownership and restoration of Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset and there  was much contact and visiting between them.  Norah was an expert needlewoman and embroidered bed and window hangings for the house at Avebury.  She also redesigned part of the gardens, creating a topiary which copied the early 17th century plaster ceiling decoration of one of the first floor bedrooms. 

When the Jenners sold the house in 1937 their purchaser was Alexander Keiller, of the Keiller jam family, whose wealth enabled him to exercise his love of archaeology at Avebury.  He recruited archaeologists who carried out a number of excavations in the stone circle and the surrounding landscape.  Many of the finds resulting from his research are now displayed in the Keiller Museum based in the Great Barn at Avebury.

After Keiller’s death in 1955, private owners of the Manor would include Sir Francis Knowles, the eminent biologist, and the Marquess of Ailesbury.  The last private owner of the Manor was Ken King, who aspired, unsuccessfully, to operate an Elizabethan theme park on the site.   Following  his departure the National Trust purchased the Manor in 1991 and from that date to 2009 tenants were in occupation, with limited access for visitors.  When the house was more fully opened to the public in 2010 it was bereft of furnishings, and an understanding of how the interior had appeared when occupied could only be gained from 20th century photographs - or from personal imaginings generated by its history.  

We're sure you'll find that a trip to Avebury Manor would definitely prove worthwhile and we are holding an interpretation day for Avebury on Monday 2nd June, examining archival and documentary sources in the morning and taking a guided walk around the village in the afternoon (please see link below). Although these courses are hugely popular, we still have a small number of tickets available; call 01249 705500 to book your place.

Written by Janis Packham
Retired member of the Local Studies team at WSHC


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