Tropenell and Chalfield and Naughty Lady Constance
Last week I visited an enthusiastic meeting of the Atworth W.I. and talked about the meanings of pub names. At the end of the meeting I suggested that I might run a History Centre day course about the history and development of the village later in the year; this met with approval and I will be organising it for June 2013. At the moment we’ll selling surplus copies of older and better quality (although not always better physical quality) Wiltshire books; this week a gentleman came in and bought the two volumes of the limited edition Tropenell Cartulary as he is writing a new guide to Great Chalfield Manor (in the civil parish of Atworth). This reminded me that I once had a friend with the surname Trapnell, descended from that medieval family. All these coincidences gave me a subject for this blog!
Thomas Tropenell was born around 1405 and married twice, both times to widows, but it was only from his second marriage, when he was over 50, that there were any children. He seems to have been a man of the law and claimed the manor of Great Chalfield as he was a descendent by marriage of the Percy family, who had held it from 1201 until a time of dispute by various branches of the family in the early 15th century.
An interesting sidelight on this family is provided by the antics of Sir Henry de Percy’s second wife Constance, described as “bedfellow and cosyn to Maister Robert Wayville, bisshoppe of Salisbury, born to no land, neither to none arms”. Possibly because of “the naughty lyf the said Constance his second wyf lyed in with the bisshoppe Wayvile and with others” Sir Henry went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1354. Unfortunately he never reached the city, dying at Cologne. Constance managed to survive a further three husbands, including John de Percy, no relation to her first husband, of Little Chalfield.
Thomas Tropenell was a totally different character; a shrewd businessman who accumulated a great deal of property. There are suggestions that he was somewhat unscrupulous in his dealings but he was probably no different to most other landowners in the 15th century. One way in which he differed from most though was in his meticulous and careful keeping of records recording property transactions and law suits. He ordered that these should be kept from 1464, by which time he was in possession of Great Chalfield, and they continued until his death in 1488 at a very respectable age of over 80. The manuscripts, mostly in Latin, relate to property throughout Wiltshire, with much in Corsham and Neston. They were tanscribed and published in a limited edition of 150 copies in 1908.
Like many landowners of this period Thomas was a great builder. He took over what was probably a fortified, moated manor house with a tiny patronal church within the moat. We can still see the moat and the remains of some bastions but the marvellous house – “one of the most perfect examples of the late medieval manor house, mellow in its buff stone and perfectly balanced in the composition of its façade . . . .” ( Sir Nikolaus Pevsner) – is the creation of Thomas Tropenell. In the early 20th century it was restored by the then owner, Robert Fuller, using the excellent advice of the Corsham architect and architectural historian, Harold Brakspear. It has fine oriel windows and atop the roof are stone soldiers, griffins and monkeys.
Thomas made alterations to the church, rebuilding the chancel, the west porch and bellcote in 1480; he also built a lovely little chapel, just 12 feet by 12 feet, at the same time. It has a panelled wagon roof and there are many other charming delights to be found in this little church. In the chapel there are the remains of six panels depicting the life of St. Katherine, which were still extant in 1760, and a painted 15th century consecration cross on the nave wall.
Great Chalfield house and attractive gardens have been given to the National Trust; the house is open from 31st March with admission only by guided tour on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and also on Sunday afternoon. The gardens are open from 2.00 to 5.00 on Sundays but from 2nd April will open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 11.00 to 5.00.
If you’re visiting do go and have a look at nearby Atworth. The church has a four storey mid 15th century tower from an earlier church. It’s connected to the replacement church of 1832 by a narrow passage. The early village was here around a small triangular open area and the oldest houses are to be found in this area. The turnpiking of the Bath road however created the ribbon development that is what most drivers see, including some fine late 17th and 18th century houses. One feature of the village is the many former workshops to be seen as lean-tos or in gardens.
County Local Studies Librarian