Stories of the past

Portrait of King Henry VIII on loan to Montacute House from the National Portrait Gallery

Horton Court has witnessed hundreds of years of history, from it's beginnings as a Norman Hall, to the impressive Grade I listed manor house we see today.

However, the history of people making their homes at Horton stretches even further back. Archaeology provides evidence for Iron Age, Roman, medieval and post-medieval occupation. The nearby hillfort known as 'Horton Camp' is a rare example of a 'promontory fort', a high status settlement built for permanent occupation, display and defence.

Extensive Roman activity has been found archaeologically in the local villages, indeed the nearby A46 road was a principal route from Bath to Cirencester. Furthermore, the ending '-ton' denotes Horton being a saxon settlement. Medieval landscape features include deserted settlement sites, fishponds and pillow mounds.

Horton forms part of a string of medieval manors and estates running along the Cotswold edge, often with deer parks, and in close proximity to the royal hunting ground of the Kingswood forest. These include Dyrham Park (National Trust), Little Sodbury Manor, Hawkesbury, Alderley and north towards Wotton-under-Edge where we find Newark Park (National Trust). This regional group are united by sharing an economy based on wool.

Horton itself has two architectural periods of exceptional significance, making it of international importance. The Norman Hall of c.1185 has elaborate twin Romanesque doorwarys of a very high quality. The roof dates from the late 13th century, and still retains smoke-blackened timbers denoting the original open hearth. It is confidently believed to be the oldest roof of all the properties in the National Trust's ownership.

The Norman hall at Horton Court
The Norman hall at Horton Court
The Norman hall at Horton Court

The hall was built by Robert de Bellafago, who was likely a kinsman of Agnes de Bellafago, the daughter of Robert de Tosney who was standard bearer to William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Tosney was awarded Horton as part of his reward after the Norman invasion.

In the early Tudor period (1520s) Dr William Knight developed several features of the manor which are of exceptional significance. Knight's career followed administrative and diplomatic matters, with his most important task being to secure papal dispensations as part of Henry VIII's campaign to divorce Katherine of Aragon in 1526-8.

Knight employed a Renaissance design at Horton during major developments c.1521, a very early example of this design in the country. The loggia or ambulatory in the garden is the most complete survival, retaining original masonry and roof structure and four decorative roundels, depicting the busts of Julius Caesar, Nero, Hannibal and Attila the Hun.

The beautiful loggia or ambulatory in the garden
The loggia at Horton Court
The beautiful loggia or ambulatory in the garden

Horton may also have had links with nearby Acton Court where the Poyntz family installed ambitious decoration for a visit by Henry VIII in 1535, and the early classical elements employed at Newark Park (National Trust) by the same family.

The spectacular front of Horton Court
The front of Horton Court
The spectacular front of Horton Court

Horton has a documented history stretching back before the Norman Conquest, and throughout has frequently been associated with important individuals. The estate is known to have belonged to Ulf in 1066 before William the Conqueror confiscated the land as documented in the Domesday Book of 1086.

Later residents include Henry Beaufort (Chancellor to Henry V), John Morton (Chancellor to Henry VII, then Archbishop of Canterbury) and Christopher Bainbridge (one of Henry VIII's first ambassadors to the Pope). At the reformation Horton was claimed by Edward, Duke of Somerset, uncle and Lord Protector for Edward VI.

The last private owner of Horton, Hilda Wills, was the daughter of substantial tobacco magnate Sir George Alfred Wills. Before her death, Wills arranged for the house to be left to the National Trust (her father had gifted Leigh Woods in Bristol to the National Trust in 1909).