ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 46, July 1999


Uncovering the home of John of Gaunt

Medieval rubble uprooted in the Great Storm marked the site of a lost royal manor, writes Martin Papworth

In January 1990, the Great Storm swept across Kingston Lacy Park in Dorset, and tore up many of its trees. One fell 150m north of Kingston Lacy house - a 17th century mansion now owned by the National Trust - and dragged up in its roots fragments of medieval building rubble. The finds included pottery, glazed ceramic ridge tiles and Purbeck limestone roof tiles.

The following spring, the north park was examined in detail and found to contain many earthworks. Building rubble had been disturbed around a newly planted sapling and more building debris was discovered eroding from a ha-ha. The earthworks indicated the position of a range of buildings overlain by 18th century garden features.

These discoveries later proved to be traces of the home of one of the most important characters of late medieval England - John of Gaunt (1340-99), the fourth son of Edward III whose son and grandson became kings. Once part of a Saxon royal manorial estate, the medieval house was built in the 13th century but was a ruin by the end of the 15th. Its stone was robbed and eventually the remains of the house disappeared entirely from view.

The present mansion was built in the 1660s by Sir Ralph Bankes whose previous home, Corfe Castle, 20 miles away, had been sleighted by parliamentary forces in the Civil War. There is no indication in the 17th century documents that Sir Ralph knew that he chose a site close to the old house but the ruins may have been visible when the workmen arrived to dig the foundation trenches.

Certainly, by the 18th century, the location of old Kingston Lacy had been forgotten. The historian Rev John Hutchins mentioned a rumour that Kingston Lacy was built on the site of a palace of the kings of Wessex but he could find no evidence of this. It would appear that the medieval manor house had been lost to time.

Prompted by the discoveries of 1990, researchers from the National Trust - helped by archivists at the Dorset Record Office - began to investigate the history of the site. Account rolls relating to old Kingston Lacy survive, dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries, which detail repair works carried out on the estate buildings. As the documents were transcribed, the size and complexity of the manorial buildings became apparent.

They also showed that Kingston Lacy received a steady stream of important visitors, including Kings Henry III, Henry IV and Henry V. Many of the letters which John of Gaunt wrote at Kingston survive. One letter written on 1 January 1372 instructs Sir John Yerdeburgh, the clerk of his wardrobe, to deliver presents to notable people including, his father `our redoubtable overlord the king', his wife Constance the `Queen of Castile' and his sister-in-law the `Princess of Aquitaine' all presumably staying at the manor house on that day.

The lists of repairs described in the account rolls indicate the layout of the manorial buildings. There was an inner court surrounded by a thatched cob wall. It had gates in the south, west and north sides, the gate in the south being the principal gate with a chamber over it. Within the court was the stone manor house roofed with Purbeck limestone tiles, together with a chapel, kitchen, bakehouse, garden, dovecote and inner stable. Outside the wall of the court was the outer bailey which was enclosed by a hedge and ditch. There was also a granary, mason's workshop, cattle shed, dairy house and many other agricultural buildings. The repairs suggest that the ordinary buildings were mainly timber framed with wattle and daub walls and thatched roofs.

The names of various men involved in the work of the manor are recorded: William Filiol the steward, Walter Hurdeman the reeve, and craftsmen like John Faire the carpenter and Simon Helier the roofer. The sources of materials are also described - chalk from Hinton Martel for mortar, a brown sandstone known as heathstone from Lytchet Matravers, green-sand from Melbury Abbas and Chilmark limestone from Tisbury.

There are records of repairs to the manorial buildings as late as 1462, but in 1485 the neighbouring manors of Canford and Kingston were granted to Margaret Beaufort by her son Henry VII. She chose to live at Canford. Kingston continued a decline which probably began after 1444 when John Beaufort died at Kingston and the income of the manor was granted to over 30 different people. The manorial buildings were no longer needed and in 1493 they had fallen into ruin. An inquisition of that year records:

And we are given to understand that the mansion of our manor at Kingston Lacy and the chapel of the manor in which the chaplain was wont to celebrate are very much in ruin and decay, and so are the dwellings of the inhabitants adjoining the said chapel.

Two years later the Wimborne churchwardens' accounts show that the buildings were already being used as a quarry for buildings in Wimborne, a nearby village:

For making a boiler at Seynt Mary house. Stones bought at Kyngston Lacy 22s; for the carriage to Seynt Mary house and for sand 12s 8d. For a thousand of `le bryke stonys,' 6s, for four loads of lyme, 20s. Item to Simon the labourer and his associates for cast downe stonys at Kyngston, 7s.

Surveys of Kingston Lacy during the 16th century note the ruin of the once `fair maner place' but the last known historical reference is included in a document dated 1573. An inquiry found that `The chapel and adjoining manor house were both in a state beyond repair and that nothing was sound except the side walls of the house'.

In 1996, Geoffrey Brown carried out a resistivity survey of the north park. The results of his work confirmed the findings of the earthwork survey and added details to the archaeological map of the site. The position of a house measuring 40m by 25m was pinpointed together with the sites of other buildings, boundary walls, ditches, tracks and roads.

In May 1997 permission was given to excavate a small trench measuring 6m by 2m where the resistivity results had indicated the buried footings of the large building. After the removal of the chosen 12 square metres of turf and topsoil, a dense layer of building debris was revealed. This consisted of fragments of heathstone and carved Chilmark limestone, and nodules of flint mixed with lime mortar.

Below the rubble layer was a heathstone wall over 1m wide. It had been cut by a trench dug to rob the stone from the manor house ruins. The pottery from the backfilling dated this excavation to the 17th century. Built up against the heathstone wall were a series of floor surfaces dating from the time the building was in use. The latest was a clay and lime floor containing fragments of pottery and broken ceramic floor tiles which were glazed yellow, green and brown. The floor probably dated to the 15th century but the tiles were of a type produced in the 13th century. Beneath the clay floor were remnants of other floors which were recorded but not fully excavated.

A deposit of animal bones was particularly interesting because it revealed some of the types of meat and fish consumed at the manor house. In addition to beef, mutton and pork, the bones included fallow deer, rabbit, hare, duck, pigeon and goose, in addition to more unlikely meals such as crow, moorhen and magpie. The fish bones were plaice, eel, sea bream and herring with shellfish such as oysters, cockles and mussels probably gathered from Poole Harbour.

A layer of plaster had collapsed onto the last occupied surface of the room before being covered with rubble from demolished walls. The plaster had been painted ochre but had later scratches cut into it. Presumably these were the grafitti which visitors to the ruins of Kingston Lacy had written or drawn on the surviving plaster walls.

Martin Papworth is the National Trust's regional archaeologist for Wessex

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999