Where is Stourton Castle?

A sketch of Stourton Castle by John Aubery

In south Wiltshire, on the border with Dorset and Somerset was built a great and ancient house. It lay at the centre of a large estate and was known as Stourton Castle… But there is a problem; we don’t know where it is.

We have a picture drawn from a 1670 sketch by the antiquarian John Aubery. The place was massive and must have look a bit like Lacock Abbey. But it’s gone, apparently without a trace.

The story of the removal of Stourton Castle and the creation of Stourhead House has a touch of the Poldark about it. The Stoutons (old money, Poldark) and the Hoares (new money, Warleggan).

The Stourton family had taken their name from the village of Stourton (the farm by the River Stour), a place recorded in Domesday and at least Saxon in origin. The Stourtons 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 Stourtons only 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 via good marriages and military service in France.

Their manor house blossomed and flourished. Aubrey’s picture shows that it was built around two large courtyards and had a tall tower and shows parapets with military style battlements.

Things fell apart for the Stourtons 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, he 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.

As a Catholic, with Queen Mary on the throne, Charles believed that he would get away with the murders. However William Hartgill had friends and they made sure that the Castle was searched, the bodies found and Lord Stourton arrested. He was 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. She was also separated from the eldest son John, who was only a child at the time.

The family back the wrong side in the Civil War and in September 1644 Parliamentarian forces set fire to one of the gates, captured the house, ransacked it and made it untenable. The eldest son John was killed at the battle for Bristol and when Royalist cause was finally lost, the estates were confiscated and heavy fines were imposed.

The family fortunes continued to decline and by 1686 the impoverished Stourton family had mortgaged the ancestral home and by 1704 it was for sale.

Enter the Hoare family who had made a fortune through banking. In 1720 they purchased the whole estate, demolished the castle and built a new flashy Palladian villa, quite the thing. They changed the name to Stourhead, the house at the Source of the River Stour.

The Hoare family made sure the transformation was carried out quickly, they paid for a survey or their new property in 1722 and the estate map show the new house completed. Stourton Castle was gone. 

A 1722 estate map of Stourhead

Finding the location of Stourton Castle has been difficult. The normal techniques have proved to be inconclusive and the quest for the castle has become a great archaeological challenge.

It seemed simple at first. The 1880s 25 inch OS map marks a cross about 100m east of Stourhead House with the legend ‘site of Stouton Castle’ so we geophysed it and the results were very disappointing. Since then year by year we have surveyed around the house, but nothing has been revealed.

Meg joined the National Trust archaeology team on a student placement, and was tasked with finding the Castle, and her MA dissertation tracked down the documentary references and description of its chambers, hall and chapel, which included a decorated tiled floor inlaid with the initials WS for William Stouton. Documents in the record offices of Cornwall,, Wiltshire, Somerset and nearby Longleat House were examined. These built up the background; the estate, the farmland, the deer park and hunting lodge, the warren and the warrener’s lodge, bits about the repair of the great house and its approximate location, but nothing to pin it down.

We looked at the fabric fo the stone lined cellars of Stourhead House, and wondered if they had built the new house on the site of the old.

We examined the Stableyard to the south. This includes in its walls great chunks of reused stone and a 16th century doorway. Was this the remodelled outer courtyard of the Castle? We dug a trench on its north side hoping to find medieval walls leading to the inner courtyard. We just found 18th century pottery above deep soil.

Fieldwork taking place as a part of the search for Stourton Castle

So where is it hiding? A LiDAR 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. A line of pre-Stourhead chestnut trees are aligned north towards this point where there is a mound in the park. From the east, an old drove-way passes through Drove Lodge and runs as an earthwork into the park.

Our site is most likely to exist where these two alignments meet. Surely the backfilled cellars and extensive robbed out walls lie there or thereabouts.

We’ll keep looking.