Montacute House

If you saw the BBC 2 serial Wolf Hall, you will have seen a little of the inside of Montacute House in Somerset. If you didn’t see it, then visiting Montacute will help seed your imagination with Elizabethan plots and intrigues. It’s the windows and their wonderfully uneven glazing that did it for me.

Montacute House in Somerset
The west façade of Montacute House

The Wiltshire manor house of Wulfhall, which gave its name to Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, no longer exists so the BBC used various stand-in properties during their filming of the TV series, one of which was Montacute. The novel documents the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the early 1500s and Montacute was not completed until the end of that century, but its status as a Grade I listed building from the Elizabethan era made it a convincing choice of location.

Montacute House in Somerset
The east façade of Montacute House

The house was built by Sir Edward Phelips, an early and powerful parliamentarian, and the house was occupied by his descendants until the early 20th century. Lord Curzon, statesman and Viceroy of India, lived there with his mistress Elinor Glyn before the National Trust acquired the property in 1927.

Detail of the east façade of Montacute House
Detail of the east façade of Montacute House

Our guide was emphatic that heavily-glazed façades were indicative of great wealth because glazing at the time was extraordinarily expensive. Montacute excelled in this regard with its profusion of mullioned windows, particularly noticeable on the east façade, which was the original approach to the house. The second-floor Long Gallery is spectacular in this regard.

Heraldic glazing in the Great Chamber at Montacute
Heraldic glazing in the Great Chamber at Montacute
Heraldic glazing at Montacute
Heraldic glazing at Montacute

The property is adorned with many examples of heraldic glazing which are original and have – remarkably – retained much of their lustre. Here the motto of the Order of the Garter “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (“Shame on he who thinks evil of it”) seems as vibrant today as it might have been when it was first painted and fired.

Outside Montacute's Great Chamber
Outside Montacute’s Great Chamber

Faces and glimpses of the past

By some special genius, Montacute’s Long Gallery, at 52 metres in length and apparently the longest surviving long gallery in England, is also an outpost for the National Portrait Gallery. With its extraordinary east wall of glazing draped with curtains, the gallery and its adjoining chambers are crammed with paintings on loan from the NPG. Elizabethan notables, some of whom will have visited Montacute, stare out from some exquisitely-preserved canvases, such as this portrait of King James I of England and VI of Scotland after John De Critz the Elder, circa 1606:

King James I of England and VI of Scotland
King James I of England and VI of Scotland

… or this of Letitia, Viscountess Falkland by Cornelius Johnson:

Letitia, Viscountess Falkland by Cornelius Johnson
Letitia, Viscountess Falkland by Cornelius Johnson

This profusion of portraits helps set imaginary scenes in period situ of faces peering through glazing, waiting, glimpsing, falsely hoping, frightened for what messenger may arrive with God knows what missive. Great stuff!

Old glazing at Montacute HouseOld glazing at Montacute HouseOld glazing at Montacute House
Old glazing at Montacute House.

Montacute’s gardens

As with many National Trust properties, the gardens at Montacute are superbly maintained. They were well established by the mid-1600s and have been rearranged and worked on over the generations. Even on a heavily-overcast day, the place is sumptuous.

The Wibbley Wobbley hedge at Montacute HouseThe East Court at Montacute HouseA garden pavilion at Montacute House
A garden pavilion at Montacute HouseA garden pavilion at Montacute HouseThe Orangery at Montacute House
Views round the gardens and grounds at Montacute House.

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Location

France
50° 57' 6.4152" N, 2° 42' 50.4396" W