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. No matter how small, every finding 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, 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. A ‘grotesque’ wall painting
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 Sir Anthony Mildmay owned the house.
2. Elaborate plaster ceilings
By comparing the detail of the elaborate plaster ceilings of Apethorpe with those of Blickling Hall in Norfolk, we could attribute them to the highly skilled master plasterer Edward Stanyon. He used the same moulds at both sites in the early 1620s.
3. Revealing a doorway
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.
4. Drawings beneath the panelling
Drawings, including this coronet, were found beneath the Long Gallery panelling. The painter may have been practising a stencil, which would have been used to enrich the panelling or ceiling.
5. Plaster friezes under the floorboards
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 see or photograph.
6. A sculpture of a horse
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.
7. Vibrant Victorian Gothic wallpaper
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.
8. School finds
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.
To learn 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.