Architecture Conservation

The Hidden History of Apethorpe

Apethorpe was built around 1470 for an aspiring courtier Sir Guy Wolston and remains one of the most complete high-status medieval houses surviving from the 15th century.  

The great country house of Apethorpe in Northamptonshire was sadly dilapidated in 2004, when English Heritage (now Historic England) began a programme of urgent repairs. As work progressed, many exciting discoveries were made underneath floorboards, behind modern wall surfaces, inside ancient roofs, or hiding in plain sight. Every single finding, no matter how small, deepened our understanding of the property and its illustrious owners.

Apethorpe was built around 1470 for an aspiring courtier Sir Guy Wolston and remains one of the most complete high-status medieval houses surviving from the 15th century.  However, Wolston’s house was much masked and embellished by the ambitious architectural additions of his successors: the Elizabethan politician Sir Walter Mildmay, 13 generations of the Fane family (the Earls of Westmorland) and finally Sir Leonard Brassey.

On many occasions the house at Apethorpe played host to royalty, but in the 20th century it served as an approved school before declining to the point of ruin. Now weather-proof once again, it has reverted to private hands and a new chapter in its history is about to unfold.

Here are 8 of our most intriguing discoveries:

1. This wonderful ‘grotesque’ wall painting was covered by panelling around 1700. It decorated a room – probably the family’s Withdrawing Chamber – in the early 17th century, when the house was owned by Sir Anthony Mildmay.

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2. By comparing the detail of the elaborate plaster ceilings of Apethorpe with those of Blickling Hall in Norfolk we were able to attribute them to the highly skilled master plasterer Edward Stanyon. He used the same moulds at both sites in the early 1620s.

Apethorpe Hall Plaster

3. The removal of modern plaster revealed this doorway dating from 1622-4. It communicated between the King’s Chamber and an Inner Chamber. This led to the Duke’s Chamber where Prince Charles (later King Charles I) or George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, might have been lodged close to King James I.

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4. Drawings were found beneath the Long Gallery panelling, including this coronet. The painter may have been practicing a stencil, which would have been used to enrich the panelling or ceiling.

Apethorpe Hall, Apethorpe, Northamptonshire

5. Lifting the attic floorboards in the south range we found two ornamental plaster friezes of 1622-24. One belonged to the Great Chamber and the other to the Withdrawing Chamber. Both were masked by new covings around 1740. They were left in place, and are easier to feel than to see or to photograph.

Apethorpe Hall

6. A fine sculpture of a horse, branded on its flank with the Despencer fret (shown here), adorns Apethorpe’s stable. Commissioned around 1653 by the horse-loving 2nd Earl of Westmorland, and perhaps depicting his horse ‘Spider’, it was hidden for many years by a garage roof.

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7. A vibrant Victorian Gothic wallpaper lined the stairs to Sir Walter Mildmay’s Cock Loft – an attic suite created in the 1560s. Many other wallpaper fragments were recorded throughout the house.

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8. The floor voids throughout Apethorpe are littered with debris from St John’s School, the approved school that occupied the site from 1949 until 1982. Findings reveal the main interests and preoccupations of the schoolboys, and include scraps of poignant letters to family and loved ones.

Apethorpe Hall plans and finds

To find out more, look out for our new book Apethorpe. The Story of an English Country House, published in 2016 by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Historic England.

Visits to Apethorpe Palace can be arranged through English Heritage in July and August.

Further reading

Apethorpe – A House Fit For Kings, and Queens (via Yale University Press blog)

17 comments on “The Hidden History of Apethorpe

  1. Charlotte Keys

    For the non-UK readers–what is an “approved school”?

    • Hi Charlotte. In this context, an approved school is similar to a reform school, a residential institution which young people could be sent to by order of the court, usually due to committing offences.

      • Hi yes, Afraid so not as bad. I happened to be there for a while in 76-77. Great place. Any information email me.

  2. Is Apethorpe going to be open for tours at all this year?

    • Hi Neil. There aren’t any tours announced yet this year, but it is expected that the property will be open in the future. You can find more information on the English Heritage website

      • Thank you, I had been looking at that page but it appeared some of the info hadn’t been updated for a while so I wasn’t sure. We’ve just rejoined EH and would like to go as it’s only about 15 mins away from us – couldn’t manage it previously because of the kids. Looking forward to seeing it when it is opened.

  3. The Guardian also published an article yesterday about Apethorpe, including comments from the current owner. From the sounds of it, it should be rather grand when it reopens!

  4. Rosalind Lund

    Please do let us know when it will be open to visitors again. We went in about 2006 just after the roof had been restored and you were trying to sell the property

    • Hi Rosalind, thank you for your comment. We’ll likely post details on Facebook and Twitter when the property is open to the public.

  5. gillian sibley

    I wonder if you could help me?
    Would it be possible to send me, word for word, the inscription written by James I over the fireplace in the Long Gallery of Apethorpe Palace? I have it translated into French and, although I have no problem in understanding the French translation, would love to know the original words that James used.
    Thank you in advance for your time and energy.

  6. Hi all, If I could be of any assistance regarding Apethorpe hall as was then. My name is Alan ,when apethorpe was an approve school I spent many months there as a naughty boy in the 1970’s. I loved this place. I know every nook and crevice of this beautiful house. At the time of my very long stay the room I slept in was king James 1 . Long gallery,Jakcobean ,west wing and kings wing were the 4 wings. George Kelly if you read this ,hello from Alan, came back to visit you and Mr coxhead around 10yrs ago. I left there in 77.

  7. Hi All,l was there in the sixties,(early67to late69)great place,got my education learned a great deal about growing up and have great memories,never forget Mr Groves,Mr Monroe,Mr Smith(smithy)Dodds the night watchman and of course Coxhead,loved this place must go back there!

  8. William Arnold

    My farther worked at St John’s around 1955/56. We moved to up-country Uganda after that. We lived in a staff house that was located on the right of the green as you came through the main gate. We were across from the metal work shop and some other buildings. Whilst we were there, there was a grounded “Spitfire” on a slight rise behind the staff houses. It was trucked away not long before we left the area. My Dad was Mr William (Bill) Arnold and he was a carpentry teacher. He loved the school but moved abroad to make a living wage.

    • Ian Towns

      remember your dad 55/56 when i was there .carpenter shop in old stables, ian

  9. David Williams

    I was there.
    I loved the place, that much would like to buy it, if I could.
    The book live and let die, wondered where that went.
    Me/we found many old passages in the place.
    The upper floor had a old theatre which was never used.

  10. The grounds were split by the guy who lives in apethorpe manor.
    He couldnt afford to keep the hall so moved into the manor house. He divided up the grounds so he had a, view of the lake and planted fast growing trees to block the view which was originally the halls view and grounds.
    Total destroyed the grounds for his own gain.
    He was something to do with hovercraft…!

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