The History of Sherborne House

Sherborne House - its site

Sherborne House presents as a Palladian-style 3-storey house sited on gently rising south-facing ground on the north side of the west-east road known as Newland (sometimes 'Newlands') which links Castleton with The Green, a former large market area which gives access to today's A30. Before recent building development behind the House, the garden extended as far as the A30 now Coldharbour, formerly known as 'The King's Way' following the Turnpike Acts. The early maps show a north-south route running from the 'Kings Way' to Newland along the west side of the House as to provide ready access to both roads, and to the extensive stabling block sited here. The road has long since gone out of use and its course is today presented by a north/south dividing wall.

Sherborne House; its location with reference to the 13c Borough of Newland and the Bishop's horreum, 'grange'

Sherborne was the site of a bishopric from the later seventh-century until the Normans 'moved' the cathedra 'bishops seat' to a more secure site at [Old] Sarum. Sherborne was, however, to remain a large ecclesiastical manor until the Henry VIII Dissolution of 1542. And such 'underpins' our understanding of the siting of Sherborne House in relation to its origins. Newland was formerly known as 'St Swithin Street.'

St Swithun was promoted by Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester as a heavenly supporter of the Benedictine-style monastic reforms brought about in the tenth-century and which included the Abbey at Sherborne. Bishop Aelfwold of Sherborne (1045-1062) received a St Swithun relic from Winchester which duly worked miracles for local people.

In 1100 Henry I was crowned King. Roger of Caen in Normandy was Henry I's vice-regent and the King granted Roger the proceeds of the Sherborne St Swithun's Fair. In c1135 Roger, now Bishop Roger of Salisbury, granted the proceeds of the St Swithun's Fair to the Abbey sacrist (responsible for the fabric of the building). The Fair was held for 5 days every year, two before and two after St Swithin's Day, 15 July. And this was held along the route leading from Bishop's newly-built castle and residence (the Old Castle) to the Bishop's chapel on The Green. Today's 'Newland Garden' was a market place.

Bishop Roger le Poore of Salisbury, Lord of the Manor, was to oversee the drafting of a legal charter in 1227/8 as to 'regulate' trading here in the setting out of a borough along St Swithin Street. The 13c was a prosperous period characterised by the 'chartering' of new towns set up as boroughs; 'new towns' often planned and laid out (as here in Sherborne) alongside existing settlements. In exchange for a fixed annual rent (the lord of the manor thus receiving a regular income), those living within these legally-designated areas, the 'burgesses,' were free to trade, to agree weights and measures, and - depending on how much they paid - to run their own court. Sherborne is fortunate indeed in the survival of a copy of this 13c borough charter. And it is this which provides us with the medieval 'setting' (and indeed origins) of Sherborne House.

The charter registers three distinct groups of 'burgage tenements' literally borough 'holdings' or plots, each paying a different rent. The layout of these plots can be traced on the map to this day. The largest plots, the prima pars 'first group' were the most expensive to rent and lay between St Thomas Chapel on The Green and nostrum horreum 'our grange' and which provides us with the first reference to the Sherborne House site. In Norman/French 'grange' is a term to imply a farm complex, a barn, and stabling and in this setting we may suggest as to imply a residence, 'a bishop's estate office.' The barn complex west of the Sherborne House-to-be is now the Antiques Emporium (see also below) divided from the House by a later north/south wall. On the c.1570 map, Newlandes is an area which includes a tract of grazing land north of the House bounded by today's Coldharbour and stretching east as far as Castletown Way.

The Medieval West Wing of Sherborne House

It is here that the surviving west wing of Sherborne House immediately attracts attention. Clearly pre-dating the Palladian mansion by several centuries it was Martin Valatin an architectural historian with a particular interest in the medieval who visited the House in 2008 and on carefully inspecting the distinctive architectural features presented in the surviving woodwork noted the doorway 'with the massive pegged oak frame' 'suggesting a date in the early thirteenth century. He went on to note that the walls may be older than the ceiling' which latter was to be confirmed by the tree-ring analysis carried out by Martin Bridge for English Heritage in 2014; the moulded ceiling presenting a mid 15c origin and the unmolded beams a mid 17c date. In short, we may date this west wing as finding its origins in the building of the bishops horreum 'grange' referred to in 1227/8.

Today presenting as two floors, wall markings in the west wall of the House suggest this was originally a 3-storey construction and which is borne out by the description presented in the 1726 Inventory. Here we find ground floor recorded as the 'Steward's hall' with access to the 'Servant's hall' - which gave access through to the 'Kitchen' which presents to this day the remains of a large bread oven. The first floor is given as the 'Chamber over the Steward's room' and the 'Housekeeper's Room' and then 'three rooms over the kitchen.' The second floor - which is now lost - is presented as comprising the 'Chamber over the Steward's Room 3rd storey', 'Chamber over the Housekeeper's room 3rd story' and 'Three old garrets.'

In short, this wing dates from the time of the 1227/8 charter implying that the 're-building' of the south-facing thirteenth-century Episcopal residence as a high status Blondel/Palladian mansion was to retain the original medieval 13c kitchen/servants western wing and - probably - the original water supply, pipes and drains. Jim Gibb skilfully drew a suggested 're-construction' of a large open hall medieval house - that which preceded its 're-build' as to present us with the House of today in complement of the still-surviving medieval west wing.

Water Supply and Drains

Matters relating here to the early water supply (and drains) invite further enquiry. It was in 2002 that Christine Stones was kindly to record on CD our meeting with Molly Robertson, whose father rented the House from Lord Digby in the 1920s. Molly will have been the last surviving occupant of Sherborne House as a private residence whose memories were those of her girlhood - a unique record of the House at this time. She vividly recalled the steps down into to a deep well in the back garden and recalled a watercourse/gulley/drain running under the House from the rear garden. The House presents a cellar and the course of the brick wall along Newland 'bends round' a mound topped today by trees - a feature which invites explanation. It was not until the Public Health Act of the early 1850s that a rate was levied as to fund the installation of mains water - and sewage disposal. (The filthy, stinking state of the town recorded in the street-by-street report is one which invites reading).

The 'Dissolution' of the Bishop's Estates

The Newland burgage tenements are traceable on the c1570 map of the area as three distinctive groups of houses and which we may best understand as that surveyed following a commission by the then Bishop of Salisbury John Capon, as to set out the Episcopal estates following the Dissolution of 1538. In 1578 the Bishop had however to finally to relinquish these Sherborne estates. Something which we might perhaps describe today as the 'privatisation' the 'selling off' of all these which mostly lay to the south of the town. We are given to understand that the bishop's mansion and barn complex, horreum, was not demolished and it would be interesting to learn as to who was to 'inherit' this - and to live there. And almost exactly 30 years later much of the former Episcopal estate was to be 'inherited' by the Digby family; the making of the 'Sherborne Castle Estates' of today.

The Civil War

Between 1642 and 1645 Sherborne was badly affected by the Civil war - the town was Cavalier and experienced long periods of occupation by Roundhead forces - not least the prolonged siege of the [Old] Castle. The Kings School buildings and Abbey were used as a barracks and an estimated 'two thousand pounds' of structural damage was done as reprisal for sniping from windows (this surely included Newland), Cavalier musketeers picked off Roundheads in town gardens.'

Warden and Governor of the King's School, Hugh Hodges, Cavalier, is understood to have lived in Sherborne House during these troubled years and to 'have lost three houses.' The Castle 're-taken,' Hodges was to assist in repairs to the town and probably to the House. Recent work here presents a date of 1670 as that to witness the insertion of the moulded ceiling beams of the west wing ground floor - evidence presented here by tree-ring analysis.

In 1679 we learn that John and Elizabeth Jeffrey sold the House to George Keate of Sherborne. He died in 1698 leaving it to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband John Abingdon of Over Compton who died in 1703. Memorials to John Keate and the Abingdons may still be found in Over Compton church.

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The Friends of Sherborne House, St Andrew's, Westbury, Sherborne DT9 3RA

info@sherbornehousedorset.org.uk