Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Secret Peterborough by June and Vernon Bull

West Hall - Longthorpe Tower. (Author's collection)

Longthorpe Tower and its Mystical murals

With tales of remarkable characters, unusual events and tucked-away historical buildings, Secret Peterborough will appeal to all those with an interest in the history of this fascinating city.

Just one, of many examples of our ancient buildings, is Longthorpe Tower and its Mystical murals.

Longthorpe’s Manor House had a three-storey tower added in 1310 to the fortified house that dates back to 1263. It was a farmhouse for about 500 years from the mid-1400s. The last agricultural occupier of Longthorpe tower and manor house was Hugh Horrell and it was he who found the famous murals (wall paintings) when decorating in 1946. The paintings are said to be the most comprehensive of any domestic medieval building in England (and possibly Europe) and they display a range of biblical, monastic and secular subjects.

 

Longthorpe Tower taken from the Tower side c.1950s. (Author's collection)

Many historians and archaeologists believe that Longthorpe Tower represents a unique example of the appearance of the private apartment of a man of means and taste in the early 14th century, and that it gives some indication of the learning and moral ideas of his period.

The tower section of the manor house was possibly erected by Robert de Thorpe, steward of Peterborough Abbey from 1330, and tenant of the building.

The paintings are generally dated to c.1330 with the decoration covering all the walls, the window splays and the vault. In the vault are the four Evangelist Symbols and David with his Musicians.

Mural depicting the seasons. (Author's collection)

These murals represent the Labours of the Months (e.g. pruning, digging, hawking etc.) along with various birds and animals, the Apostles holding scrolls with the articles of the Creed accompanied by personifications of the Church, a scene involving a hermit, the Seven Ages of Man, the Nativity, the Three Living and the Three Dead, a Wheel of the Five Senses and seated figures of Edward III and Edmund Woodstock.

There are several other subjects, but the meaning is unclear owing to the loss of the accompanying inscriptions. The reason for the inclusion of Edmund Woodstock (1301–1330), 1st Earl of Kent and half-brother to Edward II, who was sentenced to death for supporting the deposed King Edward II, is ambiguous as he was the most important tenant of nearby Peterborough Abbey (Cathedral). It is generally thought that there may have been some political meaning to his depiction with his nephew, King Edward III. What is known is that the children and widow of the executed Edmund Woodstock were treated as members of Edward III’s Royal Household.

 

West wall murals St Anthony. (Author's collection)

All the illustrations combine religious and moral teachings with secular themes - including some unusual representations like the Wheel of the Five Senses. There is a related late 13th-century version at Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome, which depicts a wheel held steady by a King, possibly personifying common sense, with various creatures characterising the senses around its perimeter.

The West Wall shows St Anthony and the basket maker above, and the philosopher and pupil below.

Longthorpe Tower was given to the nation by Captain Fitzwilliam under the Ancient Monuments Act 1913. The Tower is presently managed by Vivacity an independent, not-for-profit organisation with charitable status on behalf of Peterborough City Council. The Tower house itself was sold in 1981 along with a single building plot for a bungalow to be built. The remaining agricultural buildings, previously part of Tower Farm and Tower House were sold separately for conversion to private dwellings.

June and Vernon Bull's new book Secret Peterborough is available for purchase now.