Acton Court: 'a goodly howse'

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Acton Court before and after restorationIn 1535, in anticipation of a visit from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Sir Nicholas Poyntz tore down his kitchen block and built a range of luxury royal apartments. They are still there, and the full report on their rediscovery has just been published.

Although it is still inhabited,’ wrote Neil Burton in 1977, ‘this substantial mansion is now in a state of advanced decay which is extremely picturesque, but must lead eventually to a partial collapse of the structure.’ It was the occasion of a Royal Archaeological Institute summer visit , and it was the first time that Acton Court, which lies close to Iron Acton village in the Vale of Berkeley about 15km north-east of Bristol, had registered on the archaeological radar. What no-one knew then was that this crumbling old farmhouse had been built to accommodate King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn on a royal progress in 1535.

Detail of freize at Acton CourtWhen the house was sold in 1984 after the death of the owner, it was bought by Bristol Visual and Environmental Buildings Trust, a ‘revolving fund’ committed to doing up old buildings and selling them on in order to preserve them. But preliminary investigations in 1985 revealed that the Trust had taken on too much. Acton Court represented the remains of a major Tudor courtier’s mansion of early 16th century date. This made it an exceptional rarity: such was the remodelling of grand houses in the Elizabethan and Jacobean building boom that very few early 16th century houses survived in their original form.

To break even, the Trust wanted to divide the main house into three separate residences, and create four further houses from the outbuildings, prior to re-sale. The effect of this would have been to trash a lot of sub-surface archaeology, destroy the integrity of the standing building, and transform the atmosphere of the site.

English Heritage stepped in by purchasing the site from the Trust, also on the ‘revolving fund’ basis that it would in due course be sold on. The advantage was that English Heritage could readily access the financing necessary for a programme of archaeological work and buildings conservation. The results would fully vindicate the decision. One result in particular was an astonishing match between obscure historical references and scientific dating.            

Staircase at Acton Court

‘Acton mannor place standithe about a quartar of a myle from the village and paroche churche in a playne grounde on a redde sandy soyle. Ther is a goodly howse and 2 parks by the howse, one of redd dere, an other of fallow.’ Thus did Tudor antiquarian John Leland describe Acton Court in c. 1540. We now know that what he saw was the result of a massive redevelopment project that had taken place just five years before. No building records survived, so this precise date – 1535 – is an archaeological, not an historical, one. Only one type of archaeological evidence yields such precision: tree-ring samples. When cores were taken from primary tie-beams and roof-timbers in the still-standing east range of the Tudor house, they indicated a felling date of spring 1535.

A contemporary record of a progress by King Henry VIII through south-west England between 5 July and 23 October 1535, accompanied by Queen Anne Boleyn and the royal retinue, reports a stay at Acton Court from Saturday 21 to Monday 23 August. The two dates – one for the building of the east range, the other for the royal visit – cannot be coincidence. Other archaeological evidence seems to remove any doubt.          View of Acton Court from the garden

The Bath Archaeological Trust carried out a major survey of the site and a series of excavations of demolished structures, mainly over three 12-week seasons between 1986 and 1988 (though with further interventions through the 1990s). At the same time, York University’s Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies undertook a full photogrammetric survey of the standing remains of the former east range, allowing Kirsty Rodwell,  joint author of the English Heritage report on Acton Court, to carry out a detailed analysis of the evolution of the fabric. The project therefore combined below and above ground archaeology. The aim was to recover as full a history of the house as the surviving evidence allowed.

Acton Court had been inherited by young Nicholas Poyntz in 1532. A mere 22 or 23, his portrait by Hans Holbein depicts an unimposing youth with weak jaw and wispy beard. But he knew the right people. His grandfather had fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth and been knighted on the battlefield. He had retained favour under Henry VIII, serving as Chancellor to Queen Catherine of Aragon, and attending the King at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. His son appears to have played little role in public life, but the grandson was ambitious, well-connected, and successful. At the time of his inheritance, he belonged to the circle of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s powerful first minister, being a friend of both Richard Cromwell and Richard Rich, respectively nephew and right-hand man of the minister. Nicholas was in the King’s entourage at Calais in 1532, and then held a field command against Irish rebels in 1534-1535, for which service he was knighted.

This is a condensed version of the article:  for the full story, see Current Archaeology 218

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