Tudor Wiltshire

Tudor Wiltshire

In the dynastic quarrel which was later called the ‘Wars of the Roses’ by the romantic novelist Walter Scott, Wiltshire men took little interest and the county was lucky that the fighting affected it so little. Richard III had caused some raised eyebrows in Salisbury by having the Duke of Buckingham summarily executed on a Sunday but when the wars ended with his own death in 1485 the news was probably received in Wiltshire with the indifference shown by the ‘Chronicle of London’, which reported it between news of a sheriff’s death and of an outbreak of plague.

In 1497, when Henry VII was well established as monarch, there was little local interest in a threatened invasion by the Scots in support of a pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck, and when Cornishmen rebelling against taxes imposed to finance a war against Scotland (and led by the Wiltshire landowner James Touchet, 7th Baron Audley) marched across the county to defeat at Blackheath, Wiltshire men neither joined nor molested them. Again when Perkin himself landed later that year in the west, Wiltshire people stayed aloof though they provided forced levies which thwarted his siege of Exeter. Nevertheless they were fined by Henry’s General Daubeny for their alleged support of Perkin. They were, of course, more concerned with farm rents and the price of corn, and particularly with the prices of wool and cloth, the chief exports of the county.

Inside Wiltshire the older important families were in relative decline and, while they still held substantial estates, most had lost political power. This was true of the Hastings, who held 14 manors in the county, the Wests, who held 12, the Willoughby de Brokes, who held 11, and the Stourtons, who held 17, and all held extensive lands outside Wiltshire. The eminence of the last ended dramatically in 1557 when the then Lord Stourton, who had been insanely jealous of the rising newcomers, was hung for the murder of his own steward. The Hunger-fords, who had a sheep empire stretching from Berkshire to Somerset, held and extended their own until Sir Walter Hungerford, made Baron Hungerford in 1536, was executed in 1540 for supporting Henry VIII’s discredited minister Cromwell. In addition the Seymours, who had acquired the Savernake estate following the extinction of the Sturmys and had their principal house at Wolf Hall near Great Bedwyn, also prospered, for Sir Edward Seymour’s sister Jane became Henry’s third queen and produced his only male heir. When this child became King Edward VI at the age of 11, Seymour, already made Earl of Hertford by Henry, became Duke of Somerset and then Lord Protector, but he was judicially murdered by political rivals in 1552, though not before he amassed vast estates at the expense of the Church.

One other family, that of the Herberts, was new to the county and has been of importance to it ever since. William Herbert, a favourite of Henry VIII’s, was knighted in 1543 and made Earl of Pembroke and Lord Lieutenant in 1551, obtained the Abbey of Wilton and its extensive estates in 1542 and 1544, and was even more enriched when monastic lands formerly in the hands of the Seymours were granted him. The jealous Lord Stourton would sound his horn derisively whenever he passed the gates of Herbert’s Wilton House, said Aubrey. Lord Stourton was also particularly jealous of another newcomer, John Thynne, a protégé of the Seymours, who built a large house hidden in the park of the former Longleat Priory.

The economy

The population of the country rose throughout the 16th century, though there was some interruption in its rise during the unsettling reign of Henry VIII’s elder daughter Mary, and her joint rule with Philip of Spain, due to an epidemic of ‘sweating sickness’, perhaps influenza. But to Wiltshire more worrying was the continuous and sharply rising inflation which was made worse by the debasement of the coinage under both Henry and his son Edward. Prices rose faster than wages throughout the period and farm prices rose some five times, twice as fast as farm wages. The price of wool, on which so much of Wiltshire’s farm and industrial trade depended, rose about three times. As so often this made the smart and rich richer and the poor poorer.


The county’s cloth industry had lost some ground during the preceding (15th) century, not only to that of East Anglia but also to those of Somerset and Devon, which were somewhat more sensitive to demands for less traditional and lighter cloths. Partly as a consequence, Wiltshire had slipped to sixth county in England in taxable capacity, as is shown by the ‘lay subsidies’ (taxes based on income and land together) of 1523-7, whereas it had been fourth in 1377. From now on Wiltshire declined in the league-table of English counties judged by population or wealth.

The former export of wool had shrunk as a result of royal taxation on its export and by the increased demand from the growing cloth industry. Wiltshire’s own wool was rarely of top quality; the best came from the Welsh Borders or the Cotswolds. But in spite of trouble with wool and competition from other cloth areas Wiltshire remained a principal producer and exporter of cloth.

Most of the output was now sold through merchants based at Blackwell (once Bakewell) Hall, headquarters of the rising Company of Merchant Adventurers which had superseded the Merchant Staplers, who had previously monopolised wool exports, as the chief export earners of the country. Most cloth from Wiltshire was made up into large bundles and sent to London on pack horses by way of the ‘Bath’ road via Devizes and Marlborough. Distribution and outlets can be judged from surviving account books of the merchants and are particularly illuminated by those of John Kitson of the London Merchant Adventurers and of John Smythe, an independent merchant from Bristol, in the early 16th century. They show that cloth manufacture was then concentrated in west Wiltshire from Malmesbury to Longbridge Deverill, and spread over the Somerset border and down the Frome valley. The Wiltshire clothiers were largely dependent on the Adventurers’ market for both direct sale and overseas export, to which half    their product went, but some cloth made on the Somerset border went to Bristol where a few merchants controlled dyeing and finishing works and exported to growing markets in western France and Spain. Cloth was still made at Salisbury and Wilton but its sale was divided between London and the local market, which also imported dyes and oils for the finishing processes, while some was exported through Southampton to northern France. Production in this area appears to have declined, but thanks to its successful markets Salisbury was the sixth wealthiest town in England in the early 16th century, behind only London, Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle and Coventry. Its population reached about eight thousand in the 1520s but with the decline in its cloth industry, this fell to about seven thousand by the end of the century. It was then only fifteenth among the leading towns. Away from these main areas there was a resurgence of the cloth industry up the Kennet valley as far as Marlborough, at the time when Jack Winch- combe, ‘Jack of Newbury’, was successfully producing cloth at Newbury (Berks.). Many Wiltshire clothiers were now not only prosperous but respected, like the Hortons of Westwood of whom the elder Thomas endowed both a chantry and school at Bradford on Avon and made his successor and heir, his nephew Thomas the younger, one of the richest men in the county by 1545. The latter’s daughters married into other clothing families which included the Longs of Whaddon and the Winchcombes of Newbury. By the end of the century the Hortons had become ‘gentry’ and left the cloth trade, as also had the Longs, Methuens and Yerburys. The most enterprising of the new rich clothiers, however, was William Stumpe of Malmesbury, who claimed some intimacy with the king and was the richest man in Malmesbury and one of the Abbey tenants before its dissolution.

The rape of the monasteries

Map showing the location of Monastic Houses in Wiltshire

After the number of Henry VIII’s wives, the ‘dissolution’ of the monasteries is the most memorable event in the Tudor ‘Reformation’. The two were of course connected, for it was difficulties with the Pope, as head of the Church, over Henry’s proposed divorce from Queen Katherine, who had not produced a male heir, that drove Henry to take over control of the Church and of Church property in England.

Confiscation of monastic property was not new. ‘Foreign’ houses, which owed allegiance to headquarters overseas as did Ogbourne Priory (and its manor of Brixton Deverill) in 1435 to the Norman Abbey of Bec, were confiscated as enemy property when kings went to war, while Cardinal Wolsey had already arbitrarily confiscated the Abbey of Osney, near Oxford, to help build his Cardinal College (now Christ Church) in that city.

The Reformation of the Church followed slowly after the suppression of monasteries. There had been ‘Protestant’ movements to simplify ceremonies, reduce the importance of images and introduce the Bible to the common man, but they did not get far in Wiltshire and as late as 1518 two ‘Lollards’ (followers of John Wycliffe) were executed at Salisbury.

Six years after this the Pope, at Henry’s request, appointed Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate, as Salisbury’s only foreign bishop. In 1529 Campeggio and Wolsey were appointed to consider the question of the king’s divorce. Campeggio managed to defer the inquiry long enough to escape to Rome but Wolsey was disgraced after his failure to obtain the annulment. His successor Thomas Cromwell set himself to subject the Church to the king and at the same time to replenish the treasury which had been exhausted by court extravagance at home and abroad. Much of his plan depended on the suppression of the religious houses throughout the country and in this he succeeded. In Wiltshire, apart from the decayed priory at Longleat which had been appropriated by the Hinton Charterhouse (Somerset) a few years earlier, all were functioning in 1535. By December 1539 none were left.

It was all done legally, step by step, with the help of a pliant or terrorised Parliament. The Acts for the Restraint of Appeals to the Pope and for the Submission of the Clergy were passed, which declared the supremacy of the king over the Church not as a new principle but as one which had previously been obscured by the Pope’s pretension. The rights of visitation and appointments were transferred from the Pope to the king. Cromwell was then appointed Vicar-General and thus empowered to visit and value all religious property in the country. The resulting survey, the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’, showed that it totalled over £300,000 a year or ten per cent of the kingdom’s revenue and that half of this belonged to monastic and religious orders. Relatively to the whole kingdom the value of religious property had in fact fallen by about half since the late 13th century. But whatever the value in real terms, it illustrated what is known from other sources, that religious houses had been disposing of their property for ready money and to provide for their own rising standard of living when popular support and the number of monks and nuns had been declining. Only at Lacock of the Wiltshire houses was there an exception, for here its value had doubled, to about three times the average of such houses.

The number of inmates and the estimated annual income of the chief houses in Wiltshire. revealed by the Valor was as follows:

House Inmates Annual income £
Malmesbury (Benedictine) 24 804
Amesbury (Benedictine nunnery) 34 554
Wilton (Benedictine nunnery) 32 653
Kington St Michael (Benedictine nunnery) 3 38
Monkton Farleigh (Cluniac) 6 223
Kingswood [now in Glos.] (Cistercian) 15 254
Stanley (Cistercian) 10 223
Bradenstoke (Austin Canons) 14 271
Maiden Bradley (Austin Canons) 8 198
Ivychurch (Austin Canons) 5 133
Lacock (Austin Canonesses) 17 204
Edington (Bonhommes) 13 522
Easton (Trinitarian Canons) 2 56
Poulton (Gilbertines) 3 20
Marlborough St Margaret (Gilbertines) 5 39

The value of the Wiltshire houses was about three per cent of the total for the kingdom.

Cromwell’s chief visitors were Doctors Layton and Legh, one coarse and relishing scandal, the other cold, proud and unpopular with his colleagues. The tendentious reports of their perfunctory- visits were given to the king and on the basis of these, often refuted by more careful commissions later, an act was passed in 1536 for the suppression of the smaller monasteries. The Court of Augmentations (of the royal income) was set up to receive the property of all those with an annual income below £200. Commissions of six were then set up for each county and the Wiltshire commission reported on those at Maiden Bradley, Monkton Farleigh, Lacock, Kingston, Stanley, Easton, Ivychurch, Poulton and Marlborough. They had little reason to be partial to the monasteries yet gave them an almost uniformly good character, even in cases where Layton and Legh had been most damaging. Where, for instance, Layton said that the Prior of Maiden Bradley had six natural children and a licence from the Pope to keep a mistress, the new commission stated that he and his brethren were ‘by report of honest conversation’. Lacock was given a licence to continue, though on payment to the court of £200, while the houses at Poulton and Marlborough were allowed to continue because they were cells of a larger Gilbertine priory at Sempringham, but all the others were suppressed.

Following a two years’ lull, a further Act of Parliament granted to Henry all the property of religious houses which should ‘voluntarily surrender’ themselves into his hands. ‘Persuasion’ followed so successfully that within a year no religious houses were left in Wiltshire, nor anywhere in the kingdom. The houses at Kingswood, Poulton, Marlborough, Lacock, Wilton and Edington were surrendered in quick succession, but at the two remaining, Malmesbury and Amesbury, a change of head had to be engineered before ‘voluntary surrender’ was achieved. Pensions were granted to most inmates but the Prioress of Amesbury who had refused to surrender was given nothing, whereas Jane Darrell, who had been Prioress for only two months, was given the handsome pension of £100.

The Commissioners had especially noted the ‘great relief’ given to surrounding areas by the abbeys of Lacock and Stanley and, despite some envy at the wealth of the houses, their total loss must have been felt greatly. Many were the sole sources of education for their areas. There is, however, no evidence in Wiltshire of the unrest that led to rebellion and peasant revolt in the north and east of England.

The Wiltshire properties were all granted away, usually to eager buyers, in the last 10 years of Henry’s life. The courtiers Sir William Seymour and Sir William Herbert did well. Seymour was granted the rich Edington property and the smaller properties of Monkton Farleigh, Easton and Maiden Bradley. Herbert obtained the richer prize of Wilton. Disposals were made at what may then have been considered the going market price, but William Sharington, the master of the king’s mint at Bristol and responsible for considerable debasement of the coinage, purchased the buildings of Lacock Abbey at what seems only a few ‘years’ purchase’ and well below its real value. Disposal and re-disposal of monastic lands and buildings created a speculative market in land and many of the gentry bought them second- and third-hand in quick succession. John Thynne, helped by his mentor Seymour, bought nothing direct from the crown but over £200 worth from intermediaries in eight different transactions.

The new land market helped towards a partial revolution by distributing wealth over a wider range of society, right down to John Adlam, a clothier of Westbury, who made the smallest purchase from the crown, a close at Rode (now Somerset but then in Wiltshire) worth 17s. 11d, a year. And it brought new and rising gentry into the county.

Of the men taking over monastic property, the most interesting was the above-mentioned William Stumpe, the second-generation clothier of Malmesbury who already leased some of the abbey lands. He paid the comparatively large sum of £1,517 for the abbey and some of its land, granted to the town the nave of the abbey church, for use as a parish church, and then filled the rest of the site with looms for weaving cloth, from which he was turning out some three thousand cloths a year by the time of Leland’s visit in 1542. Stumpe was a Member for Malmesbury at the ‘Reformation’ Parliament, was High Collector for North Wiltshire of the king’s benevolence in 1545, when he was described as ‘gentleman’ by reason of his property qualification, and was by far the richest man in the town, even though not in the county’s top fifty. He was not content with his Malmesbury factory where he had hoped to build a street of houses across the abbey cloisters, for he intended to rent Osney Abbey (Oxford) and to employ two thousand workers there – a scheme which did not proceed. He invested wealth in land so successfully, however, that his son could be knighted in his own lifetime and his three granddaughters marry three earls.The treatment of the other houses varied. Lacock was converted to a grand house by Sharington, though he pulled down all of the church but the north wall. Remains of the priory at Longleat were also converted to a house by John Thynne, though it was destroyed in a fire not long after and the present great house was built on the site. A new house was built by the Herberts at Wilton, where only a few fragments of monastic buildings remain. The smaller building at Edington was converted into a more modest house but the others were converted to baser uses and most decayed, particularly because the king’s commissioners took the lead from their roofs.The Reformation

There was little ‘reform’ in the early stages of Henry’s revolutionary moves but there was immediate effect on other churches and most of all on the cathedral church of Salisbury. The bishop and dean were now appointed by the crown and the chapter came more and more under the thumb of Cromwell. Complaints by its members about the king’s divorce led to their removal and when one of the canons, Dr. Powell, refused to acknowledge the king’s supremacy over the Church he was hung, drawn and quartered. The chapter suffered also from the loss of those prebends which had been attached to monasteries, but most serious of all was deliberate damage to the cathedral itself. In 1539 two men were employed for 50 days to destroy the shrine of St Osmund, the Bishop of Salisbury from 1078 to 1099 whom the chapter had laboured until 1457 to get canonised, and to send all its jewels to the king’s treasury.

In 1547 and 1548, following an act of Edward VI’s first parliament for the abolition of chantries, the latter were smashed, their priests sacked and their property confiscated, like that of the monasteries, by the Crown. In rural areas such as Heytesbury chantry priests often acted as village schoolmasters and their dispossession was another loss to education in Wiltshire.

In 1549 a further order was received from the crown for the dispatch of 2,000 marks-worth of the cathedral’s plate to the royal mint at Bristol, while during the 1560s and the 1570s the cathedral’s stained glass was smashed, probably without any authority, and windows let in wind and rain. An inventory made in 1583 showed that of the cathedral’s formerly extensive treasures only 29 items of little value were left.

The changes were not popular and Bishop Shaxton, the reforming bishop appointed by Cromwell to replace Campeggio in 1535, complained two years later to Cromwell that he was still called a heretic by the townspeople who ‘hoped to see him burned’. But by the end of his tenure in 1539 the king’s orders for the removal of statues and for changes in the services had been accepted in the city, although to its west and over most of the county they were largely ignored. His successor, Bishop Capon, was more pliant and survived the accession, after Edward’s early death, of his Catholic sister Mary I; indeed he died in office. A number of Church properties were ‘exchanged’ by him for the benefit of rapacious courtiers like the Seymours. The Vicar of Bray, immortalised in popular song, was another member of the Salisbury chapter (Berkshire was in the diocese of Salisbury) during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, but died in 1551 so he cannot have served under Mary. Nevertheless the song, which has more relevance to Bishop Capon, gives some indication of the popular scepticism of its pliant clerics.

The effect of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation under Mary on the rest of the Church was curiously muted and one of ignorance and confusion rather than distress. It took years for churches even in Salisbury to readjust to Protestant directives concerning ritual and was even more difficult for them to adjust under Mary to former rituals which had been so ridiculed by her predecessors. But under Mary a farmer from Bulkington who in 1556 had been teaching a form of Protestantism based on Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was burnt with two of his companions, and two years later two farmers from Marlborough narrowly escaped the same fate. In her reign, too, 37 priests who had married were ejected from their parishes. But the greatest resistance to the Counter Reformation came when Mary demanded the return of Church property which had been appropriated not only by the courtiers but by numerous less influential men such as Sharington at Lacock, the St Johns at Lydiard and the Goddards at Castle Eaton, and widely dispersed among even smaller men.

With the accession in 1558 of Henry’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth, matters changed again. Jewel, who had been in exile, succeeded Capon as bishop of Salisbury, and by tireless example and widespread preaching re-introduced discipline into the scattered churches of the diocese. In this he was hampered by the loss of all the monastic and chantry properties and also by the veniality of his predecessor. ‘Capon has eaten all’ he., is reported to have said. He put the diocese in good order, however, and comparative harmony was then maintained down to the time of Laud and Charles I, well into the next century.

To the man in the field the major change in all this ‘reformation’ was the loss of 43 Holy Days, i.e. holidays, though there was some compensation in the increased importance given to the Sabbath when work (not always defined) was prohibited by law. The Protestant faith was strengthened with patriotism during the long years when England was threatened with invasion (and renewed religious persecution) from Spain. This danger was acute from about 1580 until well after the dispersal of the ‘invincible Armada’ in 1588. Preparations for Wiltshire’s resistance were in the hands of the Earl of Pembroke, who following the disgrace of the Seymour Duke of Somerset was undisputed master of the county. The county itself was subdivided into military commands under the chief gentry: Sir James Mervyn for the south, Sir John Danvers and Sir Thomas Wroughton for the centre and Sir Henry Knyvett for the north. But apart from lighting of beacons on such high points as Cley Hill to announce the arrival of the Armada, and Pembroke’s attendance on the queen with his troop, little other than contribution of funds was demanded of the county. In the special contribution five Wiltshire landowners, Sir Walter Hungerford of Farleigh Castle (Somerset), Edward Horton of Iford, John Hunt of Enford, William Darrell of Littlecote and Sir John Danvers of Dauntsey, paid £50 each. Seventy others, who included Edward Long of Monkton Farleigh, Laurence Hyde of West Hatch, John Thynne of Longleat, Sir Edward Baynton of Bromham and Edmund Ludlow of Hill Deverill, paid £25 each.


There is little building of the early Tudor period to be seen outside the vernacular architecture of scattered farmhouses, but the reign of Elizabeth was one of great building activity. The first of what Sir John Summerson called the ‘Elizabethan prodigy houses’ was built at Longleat for Sir John Thynne. As said earlier Thynne got the site of the ruined priory in 1541 and, with the help of well-known craftsmen such as the French carver Alan Maynard, converted the remains into a comfortable house. This he went on improving for over twenty years with the help of the dowry of his wife, sister of the Elizabethan financial wizard Sir Thomas Gresham, whom he had married in 1548. The house was destroyed by fire in 1567 but Thynne started again in 1568 and spent the rest of his life (till 1580) in building the present palace. Much of the new house has been attributed to Robert Smythson, the architect of Wollaton (Notts.) and of the refurbishment of the old Wardour Castle, and he was certainly employed here, but the greater credit for the ‘nobel and delicate’ design should go to Thynne, who had experience in building Seymour’s Somerset House, London, and knew what he wanted at Longleat. It was the first English mansion to have the regular consistent treatment of all facades which marks the true Renaissance. The siting of the great hall is still medieval, but the only external quirk is the eccentric spacing of little domed banquetting rooms on the house’s flat roof. It was certainly a revolutionary addition to the conservative Wiltshire scene and Thynne was anxious that it should not be seen by his queen until it was finished.

Little of the first great Wilton House on the abbey site is now visible beyond the great porch attributed to Holbein, as it was so much rebuilt and extended in the 17th and 19th centuries. Mention has already been made of the conversion of Lacock Abbey and the improvement of Wardour Castle undertaken by the Arundells in 1598. Corsham Court was built for a London tax collector in 1582 and Littlecote was largely rebuilt for the Somerset lawyer, Popham, later Chief Justice, who had acquired it from Darrells. One large and eccentric building was done for an older Wiltshire family, the triangular Longford Castle near Salisbury which was completed for the Gorges in 1591. More modest buildings included: Lake House, of about 1580, built for the clothier George Duke, Stockton House for another clothier, John Topp, and Upper Upham, belonging to the Goddards, which was completed in 1599.

There was little church building during the 16th century. In 1591 the Seymours pulled down the former friary church at Easton Royal and built a plain, new, Perpendicular-style parish church, the only new Tudor church in the county.