Where is Stourton Castle?
A great and ancient house known as Stourton Castle lay at the heart of a large estate in south Wiltshire, on the border with Dorset and Somerset. A picture drawn from a 1670 sketch by the antiquarian John Aubery is our only clue to the historic building which predated Stourhead. The castle was huge and must have looked a bit like Lacock Abbey. But it’s gone, apparently without a trace. Find out about the rise and fall of the Stourton family who once called Stourton Castle home, and our efforts to locate the lost castle.
The Stourton family
The Stourton family took their name from the village of Stourton, which was recorded in Domesday and is at least Saxon in origin. The family claimed that their line went back to a mighty Saxon lord, Botulph. William Camden, writing in 1607 saw a ‘monstrous bone’ displayed in Stourton Castle; a leg of their legendary ancestor.
The surviving records trace the family back to the 12th century, but the Stourton’s emerge as lords of the manor in the 13th century documents. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the family did very well and built up cash reserves through good marriages and military service in France.
The Stourton’s downfall
Things fell apart for the Stourton’s in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early 16th century, William Lord Stourton was working for Henry VIII in France and left the care of his estate to his trusted steward, William Hartgill, who also looked after Lord Stourton’s wife Elizabeth.
When Lord Stourton died in 1548, his hot-tempered son Charles inherited the estate. He rode with a band of henchmen to Kilmington near Stourton and found his mother living at Hartgill’s house. A feud grew up between the men and eventually in 1557 Lord Stourton kidnapped William and his son John, murdered them and buried their bodies in a cellar within the Castle.
Charles believed that he would get away with the murders. However, the Castle was searched, and the bodies found. Lord Stourton was arrested, convicted and executed in Salisbury. His wife was forced to pay for her husband’s property which had been forfeited to the Crown following his trial.
The Stourton family fortunes continued to decline. By 1686 they had mortgaged the ancestral home and by 1704 it was for sale.
The Hoare’s purchased Stourhead
The Hoare family, who had made a fortune through banking, purchased the estate in 1720. They demolished the castle and built a new Palladian villa. They changed the name to Stourhead, the house at the source of the River Stour.
The transformation was carried out quickly: the Hoare family paid for a survey or their new property in 1722 and the estate map show the new house completed. Stourton Castle was gone.
Locating the lost castle
Finding the location of Stourton Castle has been difficult; normal techniques have proved to be inconclusive and the quest for the castle has become a great archaeological challenge.
It seemed simple at first. An 1880s map marks a cross about 100m east of Stourhead house with the legend ‘site of Stourton Castle’ but despite searching, results have been disappointing. Since then we have surveyed further around the house, but nothing has been revealed.
We’ve also looked at the fabric of the stone-lined cellars of Stourhead house and wondered if they had built the new house on the site of the old. We’ve also examined the Stableyard to the south. This includes in its walls and a 16th century doorway. Could this be the remodeled outer courtyard of the castle?
Where is Stourton Castle hiding?
A laser survey of the parkland might help, or more sensitive geophysics, perhaps even ground probing radar. Everything seems to point near the cross marker by Ordnance Survey.
Pre-Stourhead chestnut trees are aligned north towards this point where there is a mound in the park and from the east, passing through Drove Lodge runs an earthwork pathway into the park.
Our site is most likely to exist where these two alignments meet. Surely the backfilled cellars and extensive walls lie there or thereabouts?
We’ll keep looking.