By Haydn Brown
The Old Hall is a medieval manor house situated on the Honingham Road in Barnham Broom, just south of Norwich in the county of Norfolk – it has quite a history!
Long before the present Old Hall was built, there had been settlements on the Hall’s grounds since prehistoric times. During the Roman period, it is believed that the site was used as a military camp on a conjectured military route from the West to Brancaster, possibly to stem the Iceni uprisings lead by Boudicca. Indeed, many aspects of the moated enclosure in the grounds of the Hall resemble a typical Roman Castra (or camp) – but much of this needs further research. There may also have been a buried Saxon settlement, just to the South of the moat; the site calls out for an excavation for, certainly, some timbers have already been discovered. In medieval times there was also a stockade within the moat boundaries.
In the 13th Century, the land was owned by William Mortimer, the then Lord of Attleborough who also had manors at Scoulton, Little Ellingham, Rockland Tofts, Stanford and Little Buckenham in Norfolk; clearly this branch of the ‘Mortimer’s’ were wealthy and powerful land owners in the eastern region. William was to resist King John, along with his father, Robert, in 1205 and 1215, for which both lost their lands – and after which, neither man appeared in the Book of Fees for 1212. However, in 1216-17, the Sheriff of Norfolk was ordered to return the Barnham land to William; then by early 1250, William received Charters for free-warrens in his manors of Attleborough, Barnham Broom and Scoulton. He died soon afterwards – certainly before 29 May 1250.
In 1347, or thereabouts, ‘Barnham Ryske’ – the former name of Barnham Broom, was decimated by the Plague with many cottages, lying between the current Hall and the local church of St. Peter and St. Paul, were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. This was the time when the land, on which very little stood, may have passed into the ownership of Roger Chamberlayne (b.1380), originally from Gedding in Suffolk. During his ownership, at least a gate house and drawbridge existed on the site, leading to what was probably the timber Great Hall; today, nothing remains of these structures, and it may have been the case that this great wooden hall burned down in the late 14th Century, with the gatehouse finally being demolished in 1849.
Roger’s son, Sir Robert Chamberlayne entered the story of the Barnham estate around the time of the Wars of the Roses, circa 1455. He, unfortunately, became embroiled in that war – but chose the wrong (Yorkist) side! He was subsequently tried and convicted for plotting against Henry VII; the charge of high treason ensured that he was executed on Tower Hill in 1491 – forty-four years and sixteen battles after the savage assault against his father at Bury St. Edmunds. In these incidents the Chamberlayne family were pawns in both the opening and closing of a bloody chapter in English history. Robert left the family with very little money or land. On 14 May 1496, Sir Ralph Shelton, as a Commissioner of the Peace in Norfolk, was directed to assay the lordships, lands and manors of the rebel and traitor, Sir Robert Chamberlain. This resulted in the forfeiture of his Estates. It was at this point when his family moved to Barnham Broom, where Sir Robert’s widow, Elizabeth Fitz-Ralph, daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Fitz Rafe (Ralfe/Ralph), held inherited possessions that had escaped the confiscation. Fifty years later, on the 11 March, 1541 and during the reign of Henry VIII [1509-1547], Sir Robert’s son, Sir Edward Chamberlayn obtained a reversal of his father’s attainder, but without the restitution of any property.
It was this same Edward Chamberlayne, born around 1470, who was eventually in a position to build the present Old Hall on the site of the former Barnham Ryskes Hall; this was made possible by way of his wife, Jane Starkey’s (of West Acre) dowry. He was neither rich enough, nor influential enough, to profit from the Dissolution of the Monasteries’ and, by the turn of the 17th century, the family fortunes has declined appreciably.
The building of the Barnham Old Hall was started in 1510 and completed in 1550; its South wing being completed in 1514 and the porch tower around 1540. The style of the manor, whilst modest in proportions, featured numerous very fashionable elements. For example, the white mortared entrance arch and window pediments were designed to mimic the fashionable marble examples of the Italian Renaissance. The North wing (and crow step gables) were completed in 1614. Again, attempts were made to keep things fashionable with “false” diaper work being applied to most brick walls. Traditional diaper work, that is the dark crosses in the brick work is made from darker, usually burnt bricks. The diaper work here follows the lesser but more common practice of staining select bricks.
From 1514 until 1663 the Old Hall was the local Manor House with the manorial court held there during this period. Plaster relief in the Jacobean Parlour indicates the manorial court duties. It was during this period that Edward’s mother, Lady Elizabeth FitzRalph – an influential woman in her own right, successfully petitioned King Henry VIII to reverse the attainder of her late husband, Sir Robert Chamberlayne, in 1531; however, Henry did not restore any of the family’s assets and the family never regained any appreciable wealth, missing out in the dissolution of the monasteries.
In 1522 Edward succeeded his brother Sir Francis, who had died without issue, in the possessions of their mother, Elizabeth Fitz-Ralph, which had escaped the confiscation consequent upon Sir Robert’s attainder; this included the Barnham Broom estate. He was over fifty-two years of age. On the 11 March 1541 Edward obtained a reversal of his father’s attainder, but without restitution of property. He died on the 15th July 1541 and was buried at Barnham Broome in Norfolk. Ultimately the Old Hall was sold to the Wodehouse Family of Kimberley in 1644 who used it as the principle farm house on their extensive estates.
Approaching the Present Day:
By the 19th century, the Tudor South wing of the Old Hall doubled as the village rectory from about 1815 until 1849. Unfortunately, in 1849 the moat’s drawbridge and porter’s lodge were demolished but otherwise very little was remodelled or changed. The current farm house is next door to the Old Hall and is owned and farmed by the Eagle family who also owned the Old Hall from 1923 until 1963. The house and, in particular, the Jacobean parlour were, at this time used for agricultural storage including hay bales and fencing. Many of the windows lacked glass and the increased dampness caused the magnificent plaster ceiling in the Jacobean parlour to sag with increasing severity over this period. Luckily the parlour had been subdivided into two rooms with a stud work partition wall across the centre. The ceiling finally came to rest, propped up by this partition wall.
After the Second World War a number of restoration and preservation societies sought buyers for the Old Hall – because to its historic importance. However, due to a combination of the Hall’s sad state of repair, combined with owners’ relative poverty in the form of sweeping death duties, it was not until 1963 when a buyer was found – one who was prepared to invest considerably in the restoration. In the meantime, a number of tenants came and went, including members of the Lincoln family, said to be directly related to the US president, Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln family graves are in the neighbouring village of Hingham – for their story see “The Lincolns, Gurneys and a President”
The next owners were the Hawker family who owned the house from 1963 to 1973. They undertook extensive but very sensitive renovation work and, according to Brigitte Webster the present owner, it is thanks to them that so many of the original features were saved. Unfortunately, the octagonal staircase tower on the West facing South wing was beyond repair by this time and had to be dismantled. However, the magnificent plaster ceiling in the Jacobean parlour was largely salvageable by the expedience of fitting hundreds of threaded rods to its reverse surface and ever so slowly screwing them up thus jacking the ceiling back into place. An article in the February 23rd, 1967 edition of Country Life magazine details the restoration process.
In 1973 the house was briefly owned by a Mr. Walwork until 1977, though nothing is known about his tenancy. Then the Hall was purchased by Dr. Hartley Booth (who was related to the founding Booths of the Salvation Army) and his wife Adrianne. Theirs was the start of a 41-year programme of restoration and improvement, which included a long-running battle against death-watch beetle and dry rot. Over time, they rewired and re-plumbed, restored the large, arched, 16th-century window in the dining room, restored a number of other original features such as the Tudor fireplace in the dining room (of original hall) and the Tudor ceiling that lay concealed under a lower (probably) Victorian false ceiling. They also dredged and restored the spring-fed moat, a special feature of the Tudor-themed gardens laid out around the house by Mrs Booth, and they bought more land to protect the setting of the Hall.
In 2001 the Booths also established a John Evelyn (1620-1706) memorial arboretum to the front of the Hall’s East Side. John Evelyn was a founder member of the Royal Society and author of its first ever work being “Sylva: or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions” published as a paper in 1662 and as a book in 1664. The book, in trying to redress the widespread destruction of natural forests in England (due to the Civil War) catalogued all tree types native to England in the 17th Century; the arboretum comprised only trees that were mentioned in the book.
Then, in late 2018, Tom Webster was searching the internet for a suitable house for a friend of his and, as is so often the case when one is online, found himself going down various “rabbit holes” culminating in him discovering that the Old Hall was ‘For Sale’. Against the will of his wife, Brigitte – who reckoned she was never going to move from Parsonage Farm, their previous abode, an appointment was made to view the property. Approximately 5 minutes after arriving at the front of the house both Tom and Brigitte Webster were convinced that this was the house for them. It took almost 12 months to turn that conviction into a successful purchase.
Today, the Old Hall at Barnham Broom is the home of the Tudor and 17th Century Experience. Its surviving features include:
The Front Porch: This leads into the porch tower and displays many interesting period features. For example, the white archway and window surrounds were intended to mimic the Italianate renaissance use of marble and had been made fashionable by Henry VIII. However, the “crows’ steps” at the gable were probably added during Elizabethan times as a fashion, introduced by the Dutch and Flemish protestant immigrants. Inside the porch there are left and right stone benches upon which the property’s tenant cottagers would have waited to pay their rent. One benefit of the large covered porch is that the huge early Tudor linenfold front door has remained remarkably intact with its Tudor rose motif. Though this door is the current front hallway with the Hall’s oldest furniture item, an original French or Flemish oak dressier dating circa 1485.
The Dining Room: (Great Hall – as the Tudors called such a dining room): This is narrower than when it was built in 1514, the Victorians having added the corridor to the rear. However, it still retains its original oak ceiling mouldings and large inglenook style fire place. The original lintel was largely damaged and now a reproduction frontispiece adorns the original woodwork to give a clearer idea of what it would have looked like. At one time there would have been a minstrel’s gallery at the North end and indeed the original gallery window is still visible on the outside of the house.
The Library: This was also part of the 1514 wing of the house, and was probably the ladies withdrawing room now containing the family antiques, places of interest and history library. The room also features interesting “squint” windows to allow occupants to observe people approaching from the side – it is yet to be discovered their true purpose. All the furniture in the library dates before 1600 and includes some superb Italian Renaissance “Cass bancas” – being an Italian take on the idea of a bench married to a sofa.
The Staircase Tower: To the rear of the entrance hallway is the grand staircase in a tower that makes the Leaning Tower of Pisa look like it was levelled with a spirit level. It is of a solid oak construction outwardly clad in bricks. One very interesting feature is an original “dog gate” at the foot of the stairs. This was intended to keep the family’s deer hounds downstairs and dates circa 1620?
The Great (Jacobean) Parlour: At the top of this staircase is a fine Jacobean door leading into the Great Parlour, dating from 1614. This room sports arguably one of the finest plaster ceilings in all of England! It was once used as the manorial courtroom as the winged angel motif on one of the frieze panels attests. In the centre is an inverted finial with the remains of Jacobean courtiers and wild boar motifs.
Sir Robert Chamberlayne Chamber: Through the side door of the Great Parlour is the Sir Robert Chamberlayne ensuite bedroom or chamber (as they referred to bedrooms in Tudor times). The room is named after the patriarch of the family. As already mentioned, Sir Robert was executed for treason by Henry VII in 1491 but his attainment was reversed posthumously by Henry VIII in 1531. In the 17th Century this was the master bedroom and still bears the Chamberlayne crest above the fireplace. This currently houses one of the nicest examples of a 17th century four poster bed to be found. It is largely original and in superb condition. The views from the ensuite bathroom across the water meadow to the river Yare to the West are stupendous!
Tudor Games Room: The other door from the Great Parlour leads to the Tudor Games Room. Dating from the early 16th Century this was originally an oratory where the resident priest would hold mass every day for the family. The original wall recessed bible box is still present. The walls were once all painted and one still retains near perfect original wall painting. This date to circa 1590 and is intended to represent the blood of Christ (possibly remembering the family’s Roman Catholic past in a now protestant England). The room is now used for the Hall’s collection of Tudor board and card games.
Chapel: Leading up from the Games Room is a narrow spiral staircase to the household chapel. This was once the bedroom for the resident priest, the last being Father Richard Chamberlayne who died in 1570. Currently still being restored it is intended that authentic Tudor wedding services will be performed here.
Sir Edward Chamberlayne Chamber: This is the first bedroom in the South Wing of the Hall and was so named after the man who oversaw the construction of the house from 1510. The bed in this chamber is an original “truckle bed” dating to the early 17th century.
The Great Chamber: This bedroom is also in the South Wing and is so named because it is located directly above the Great Hall below. It is a generously proportioned room and contains an original four poster bed dating to either late Elizabethan or early James I. It boasts fine views to the front of the Hall. This room is the only other room in the house with a lockable bible box set into the wall.
The Duke and Duchess of Suffolk Chamber: The final bedroom in the wing is currently the master bedroom, which has the most magnificent panoramic window overlooking the front garden and reproduced early Tudor knot garden. The bed is an original early Tudor four poster bed of modest proportions. The room also boasts a fine heavy beamed fireplace complete with impressive apotropaic fire scorch marks. The furniture in this room is all 16th Century and includes a rare example of a “Dante Chair” and an exquisite Cassone (or chest).