Littlecote House, Wiltshire: The Romans meet the Tudors

Littlecote House, Wiltshire: The Romans meet the Tudors

For a rare treat visit Littlecote House on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border where you can visit the Tudor house, stroll down to the site of a Roman villa and even wonder what the estate must have been like when it was the home to a regiment of American paratroopers! Walk the path from Littlecote House, with its typical Tudor warm red brickwork, interlaced with classic leaded windows of the period, and head along the meandering Kennet Valley towards a cluster of ancient oak trees and you take a journey back into history over 1,500 years.

For lying beside the almost bubbling river is the most complete Roman villa found anywhere in Britain. Its outline, marked by white flint stone, is remarkable in that the once thriving Roman community lie under the turf while just across the field the Tudors followed their way of life intertwined with their usual games of intrigue, power-games, deceit, war, lust and revolution. And let’s not forget the final ingredient that completed the mix. During the Second World War, the house and grounds became the home to over a 1,000 American paratroopers, the 1st battalion, 506th Parachute Regiment, which was based on the estate training and preparing for the Normandy invasion.

So, Littlecote can tell a few stories but how did it all begin? The Romans, as we know, where passionate builders. No matter where you travel in Europe you see stunning examples of their work. It was no different in Britain after they invaded the country, building roads and garrisons to subdue the locals, move troops and, more importantly, food and military equipment sometime after AD43.

A military site was erected at Littlecote but it soon fell into disuse, then between AD70-100 it became a Roman farming community, with a series of grand buildings, for their time, being built and being defended by a curtain wall. What the Britons made of the buildings it is hard to imagine; they had never seen a hypocaust, the first form of underfloor heating, or a frigidarium, yes, a Roman chilled bathroom, but, as they say, they hadn’t seen nothing yet!

Around AD360-362 Roman craftsmen started to build the Orpheus Hall suggesting that the original buildings were becoming more residential. Emperor Julian decreed that the people should follow the old religions, and the mosaics that are still clearly seen today, are links with the cults of Eleusis. The mosaic was unearthed in 1727, and then reburied three years later by the order of Sir Francis Popham. Thought to be destroyed it was then rediscovered in 1977 and by 1980 had been fully restored and can now be seen and enjoyed lying under a clear-sided roof, which protects it.

Fast-forwarding almost 1,200 years we arrive at a time when Littlecote House, not far from Hungerford, was expanding due to the income from the estates sheep, and the valuable wool they produced. The Tudor house we see today is built on the typical Elizabethan E formation of one long building, with large matching wings at each end, and a shorter central line, which was the main entrance. It is thought that the design of such grand and expensive buildings were a taste of traditional Dutch architecture mixed with the more flamboyant Italian Renaissance. The overall look is balanced and pleasing to the eye, the main bay windows, sitting in stone mullions, being made from square cut leaded glass.

It may all look peaceful today but consider the history, the intrigue and the fact that King Henry VIII, invited to the house in 1520 by the then owner Sir George Darrell, sparked yet more gossip when he met Lady Jane Seymour, who became his third queen. The best way to unravel the mysteries and enjoy the history is visit Littlecote House, which is now a Warner’s Hotel, grab a guidebook and walk around the house and estate.

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Mel Russ