Court House, Aldbourne

This little narrative on Court House is based on information from the following people:

IDA GANDY

Well know local personality, author and local historian. She lived in the village at one time.

MAURICE CRANE

Maurice built railways in South America and retired to Aldbourne, where he became something of a local historian. He wrote a short history of the Village.

THE DEUCHAR FAMILY

Owner of the house from 1957 until they sold to us in 1971.

THE FITCH FAMILY

Owners of the house since 1971, The house has been a wonderful home to me, and my family for over 40 years. God bless it’s fabric and all who use it.

The Story of Court House – John of Gaunt 1340-1399

During his lifetime, John of Lancaster (aka John of Gaunt) was the most powerful and richest man in England. As the 1st Duke of Lancaster, he owned huge swathes of land and titles in England, Portugal and similarly so in France where, he also laid claim to the title, Duke of Burgundy.

He was the third son of King Edward III, the uncle of Richard II and his brothers included Edward, the Black Prince. Upon his brother’s Edward’s early death, John was Regent to his nephew the young King, Richard II and as such was very influential, indeed to all intents and purposes King himself. Such was John’s power and influence that all Kings of Portugal and all subsequent monarchs of Great Britain are descended in some way from him.

John of Gaunt owned much land in the Berkshire, North West Wiltshire and the Aldbourne area, and that he at one time owned Court House is evidenced by carvings in the stone surround of the Court Hall fireplace. This magnificent surround contains elements of John’s coat of arms – the Rose of Lancaster and the Fleur de Lys of France. Interestingly the crudeness of the works execution also suggests that they were done in situ, after the fireplace was built, giving rise to the probability that John of Gaunt did not build the house himself, but inherited it.

If this is the case, then the probable route for this inheritance is as follows:

In 1359 John married his third cousin Blanche of Lancaster, herself a high born daughter of the powerful Grosmont family – the original Duke of Lancaster, Blanche’s father Henry Grosmont died in 1361 without a male heir, at which point a half of his property passed to his son in law John, together with the title, Earl of Lancaster. The Grosmonts owned extensive lands in and around the Kennett valley and the probability is that Court House was built by Henry Grosmont for the stewardship of his lands in the area.

Thus, the oldest parts of Court House will date back over 700 years. The original building, a simple but, at that time, impressive stone and brick building under a thatched roof was likely erected toward the end of the 13th Century or early 14th Century as a ‘Leet’ Court House where, in the absence of any centrally administered common law, local justice was meeted out and disputes settled by agents of the powerful land owning medieval aristocracy, of whom Grosmont and Gaunt were certainly two.

John of Gaunt married three times, firstly in 1359 to Blanche; then in 1371 to Constance of Castile and finally following Constance’s death in 1394 he married his longtime mistress, Katherine Swynford in 1396. John had four children with Katherine and after much national unrest, claim and counterclaim, their progeny finally settled the kingdom via Henry Bolingbroke, with the Tudor dynasty.

700 Years of  Construction and Development

Court House in it’s original form comprised a double height court hall with a gallery above part of the space for the officiating agent’s accommodation. Stone fireplaces dominate both hall and gallery. The original entrance was via an impressive dressed stone arch on the south west elevation and the upper gallery reached by an external staircase. Glazed metal windows were set in dressed stone mullions and surrounds so that in its time, the building must have been second only to Aldbourne’s fine Norman Church built two centuries earlier in the 12th Century.

Beneath the house is a large cellar, extending below a large part of the ground floor, accessed by an old brick staircase, now in an internal corridor, but at one time accessed from outside the original building. This cellar looks to have been constructed in two parts. One probably dug at the time Leet Court was built, the other likely an extension in the 17th Century. Plainly this cellar was used for storage but the suggestion is that the oldest part might well have been employed to incarcerate people on instructions of the Leet Court stewards.

As England became more settled, with better governance and the beginnings of common law, the need for Leet Courts grew less. Court House itself was probably converted to a dwelling house in the early 16th Century when the north end of the building was taken down and the house extended. In the 1680’s what is now the kitchen was added as a ‘brew house’ and a new deep well dug outside this building to provide water – this well still exists but is capped and is now inside the kitchen which was extended in the 1970’s.

A Working House – Teachers, Clergy, Chairs, Buttons & Bells

The house has been more than a dwelling house. At various times it has hosted the making of chairs and of wooden buttons. But it’s great claim to fame was as a substantial bell foundry. For much of the 18th Century, the Corr and Wells families established Court House as a leading and successful Bell Foundry. Many and varied were the bells cast here, all of a very fine quality and sent out to many churches in the South of England. Wells also had a manufacturing association with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London’s East End. Bell making at Court House began to decline toward the end of the 18th Century, particularly so after Robert Wells was severely injured putting up a Court House Bell in a London Church. The window and opening for the tuning of the bells and the remains of the original hoisting beam can still be seen above the sunken patio on the north elevation. Today an original Wells bell, cast at Court House in 1749, is hung outside the kitchen door and is rung on a regular basis.

Following the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th Century, Court House became the vicarage for Aldbourne’s St Michael’s Church. This by now quite large, but still rather medieval and probably uncomfortable house needed considerable gentrification, suitable for a vicar owning the substantial living of Aldbourne Parish. Substantial improvements were made including removal of most of the metal windows and stone mullions, replaced by fashionable sash casements; a new drive and entrance formed on the North East side; a new internal staircase erected, together with a new arrangement of rooms at 1st floor provided for a comfortable early 19th Century house. In 1817 a substantial addition to the house was made when the then incumbent built the impressive garden room on the south elevation Double height, with what at the time was the largest sash window in Wiltshire together with a nice fireplace – this structure was built as the original Church school and probably provided accommodation at first floor level for the schoolmaster.

A further two story structure was added in the mid 19th century to the North West corner, this addition filled the space between the schoolroom and the earlier extension, which had been erected in the early 18th Century, for the trimming and finishing of the bells.

The 20th and 21st Century

The house ceased to be the Vicarage in 1957. The Fitch family in 1972, made the final alterations to bring the house to its present state by extending the kitchen, building new utility rooms, re-creating an 18th Century stable block, capping off the original well, which until then continued to provide water to the house, and installing new utilities. Over 700 years, society in general and Aldbourne in particular has changed almost beyond recognition and Court House has itself been subjected to many changes. But the line from Henry Grosmont, through John of Gaunt and Robert Wells to the present day has resulted in a wonderful family home and place to work, which any one of it’s previous owners would continue to recognise.

Prof. Rodney Fitch CBE, 2014