The Forest and Wolfhall

on Thursday, 22 January 2015. Posted in Wiltshire Places

"There is no place in England quite like it. Savernake is an epitome of every phase of beauty in our countryside"

Arthur Mee

If you travel down “The King’s Way” from Marlborough you will pass through Savernake Forest. Before WWII Savernake was one of the largest areas of virgin forest land in England, having a continuous wooded area greater than the New Forest.

Wolfhall was the house of the Wardens of Savernake Forest and the estate was the home of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife and mother to the future Edward VI. Henry, a keen deer-hunter, regularly stayed there as the guest of Sir John Seymour, Jane’s father. John Aubrey wrote of the King’s wedding some time later in 1672, stating it was observed in the long barn at Wolfhall. At the heart of the estate is the house that eventually replaced Wolfhall; Tottenham House.


King Athelstan’s Charter of 934AD lists crofts lying ‘alongside the woodland called Safernoc’. There are also references to Safernac (in 1156) and Savernak (in 1275). The name is probably derived from ‘a river name identical with the Severn’. Other possibilities include ‘sweet fern’, gravel or hare. All forms use ‘oc’, ‘ac’ and ‘uk’, the old names for oak. This Old English word has continued in the form of ‘acorn’.  The forest has been called Savernake at least as early as the beginning of Henry II’s reign.

A Royal Forest

In the Middle Ages there were nine forests in Wiltshire: Braydon, Chippenham, Chute, Clarendon, Grovely, Melchet, Melksham, Selwood and Savernake. Savernake was a remnant of primeval forest which became a royal forest soon after the Norman Conquest. When its royal owners hunted there, the nearby Marlborough Castle accommodated their entourage.

Savernake Forest has been looked after by successive hereditary wardens since it became a royal forest. By the end of the seventeenth century Savernake was in a sorry state as Edward Seymour, who had become the private owner of the forest (appointed Protector of the Realm, brother to Jane Seymour and the Uncle of Prince Edward) had been imprisoned in the tower and was eventually executed in 1552. The forest is unique in that it still retains its name; most forests became called ‘Chase’ after they had ceased to be royal forests. The warden, the Marquis of Ailesbury leased it to the Forestry Commission in 1939 but the forest remains private.

Successive wardens created the grand avenue and the eight paths which meet at the heart of the forest. It has been said there was once a gibbet that stood at these crossroads. Capability Brown had a hand in planning the many vistas in Savernake. The whole area is marked as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and most of the Forest is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).


The forest stretched to its fullest extent in the reign of King John. By the late 20th century its circumference had shrunk to 16 miles, including Tottenham Park. During WWII large areas of bracken were cleared for ploughing and seeding. The forest provided camouflage and protection for large ammunition depot.

About the Trees…

Savernake Forest is made up of oak, birch and beech. The Beech trees were planted by Charles, Lord Bruce and his nephew Thomas Bruce. The beech trees are native to southern England and the timber can be easily worked in any direction. Its nuts were used as swine food. Even during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, wild boar were a common sight in the forest. King James I visited Tottenham and witnessed the death of a young gentleman called Waldron whilst they were hunting in Tottenham Park. He was killed by the rebound of a stag. Charles I reintroduced wild boar but they became a great nuisance, spreading into other nearby forests. They were eliminated during the Civil War.

Few of the great oaks still survive; in the past the Navy required a large amount of timber which Savernake helped provide. The forest also supplied timber for the frequent repairs of the castle and town of nearby Marlborough.

Two of the oldest and most majestic of the trees in the forest were two oaks, King Oak and Queen Oak. King Oak became a decayed trunk which spread over sixty yards in diameter. Its remains were removed 55 years ago. The original Queen Oak still survives and may have been planted to celebrate the marriage of Jane Seymour to Henry VIII in 1536. It was probably named ‘Queen Oak’ from Victorian times. Another oak, the ‘Duke’s Vaunt’ was said to have gotten its name from having been the ‘glory’ of the Protector Somerset, Edward Seymour. It was described in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1820 as having a twenty foot hollow within it. The writer notes that he had been part of a party of twenty boys who were shut up in the tree along with a violin player, hautboy and bassoon player who played tunes inside it! Big bellied oak is at least 14 metres around its base and is the largest oak in Savernake. The King of Limbs is so called due to its huge spreading limbs. The tree would have been used as a marker years ago due to its wide spreading branches. Its hollow trunk was at one time burnt out inside but the tree recovered. This oak can be difficult to access due to the bracken canopy surrounding it. Radiohead called their new album ‘The King of Limbs’. It has been said that they discovered the tree whilst recording the album at Tottenham House – the tree and its surroundings must have had an impact on both the group and their music.

Julie Davis
Local Studies Assistant


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