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Medieval Castle revealed behind Stuart Mansion

Petworth House

On Saturday 27th March, the magnificent medieval chapel at the National Trust's Petworth House reopens to the public after the completion of a major restoration programme costing 1 million (partly funded by English Heritage) and lasting some three years. Britannia's History Editor, David Nash Ford, paid the house a pre-opening visit to find out more about this conservation work and the new discoveries it has uncovered.

Petworth House is the late 17th century stately home of the 2nd Lord Egremont. He is a direct descendant of the great Northumbrian warlord family of Percy who have owned the property since 1150, when it was given to Agnes Percy by her half-sister, Queen Adeliza, as a wedding present. Owned by the National Trust, it houses one of their greatest collections of works of art and sculpture. The house stands in the heart of the West Sussex town of Petworth within a huge deer park, 14th Century Chapel Exteriordesigned by Capability Brown, sweeping out to the west and north. The high estate wall, surrounding the park, can be seen stretching for many miles before reaching Petworth and here, in the town, it continues, slicing off a corner of the very community with which it holds so many ties. This seems a little strange, at first, until one realizes how the position of Petworth House reveals the very ancient nature of the building. It stands in the traditional medieval manor's slot, right next to the parish church, where it could serve as a place of refuge for the villagers in times of trouble. Where other Lords have so often removed the local communities, in later centuries, for being too close to the estate, Petworth has retained its links with the local people, and still does so today.

Early English Gothic Windows in the ChapelThe building we see today does not easily dispense details of its early origins. The chapel is the only surviving complete part of medieval Petworth; and, even here, only the Early English Gothic windows are obviously medieval. However, recent work, undertaken by the National Trust, to save this room from the ravages of deathwatch beetle, has revealed an early 14th century Castle still remaining at the core of the present house; and fine structural details are now on view to visitors.

The Results of Deathwatch BeetleDeathwatch beetle thrives in the damp conditions which have been predominant at Petworth for the last six hundred years. Though the building was re-roofed throughout in 1970s, this virulent little insect has an incubation period of ten years and its attack on the old chapel timbers was only revealed during a more recent investigation. The roof of the old medieval chapel has been hidden within a ceiling space since about 1684 when the so-called 'Proud' Duke of Somerset had 17th Century Plaster Barrel Ceiling in the Chapelthe entire room remodeled. An elaborate barrel plaster ceiling was installed and the medieval high-pitched roof, of 20 arch-braced trusses, had its top sliced off to make way for a library installed on a new floor above. Turner, the artist, used this as his studio when he was resident at Petworth in the early 19th century.

In early 1995, work began on removing the 8,500 books resident in the library. The floor was taken up and the space below cleared of centuries of rubble, including 19th century clay pipes and 17th century shoes (possible placed there for good luck). The site that greeted the workmen was worse than expected. The 17th century plaster chapel ceiling was, to a large 19th Century Clay Pipesextent, no longer suspended from the huge oak beams of the medieval roof and only its arched shape was stopping it from crashing to the ground! Specialist engineers were immediately called in to find a solution to this unique structural problem.

They erected a complex grid of scaffolding, foam and acid-free paper to support the precarious ceiling, while work began on strengthening the medieval beams above. Leconfield Estate Craftsman, Tim Jemmett, inspects the Chapel RoofAccess was through the library. Existing beams were reinforced with new timbers while seven and a half tons of new steel supports were slid into position to carry the load of the floor and books above. Each piece had to be light enough for four men to carry in the claustrophobic conditions between ceiling and floor. Then the plaster ceiling was invisibly fixed to the new structure using a 'cat's cradle' of 9,000 fixings, 600 rods, 8,000 screws and 400 metres of strapping. No wonder the work continued for some 185 weeks!

The 14th Century Chapel CourtRestoration work elsewhere in Petworth House has revealed an external mullioned window dating from around the same time as the chapel, now visible in situ on the oak staircase; and the National Trust have opened the enclosed 'Chapel Court' to show the outer wall of the medieval manor. There is also the spiral staircase of a medieval castle turret hidden behind some panellingupstairs, revealing perhaps a fortified look to the whole building at this period. This is reinforced by the towered building depicted on a 1610 map of Petworth (though the 8th Earl of Northumberland had made major additions to the medieval house by this time). Indeed, whole medieval complex is believed to have been built by Henry, Lord Percy of Alnwick, who was given a license to crenellate his manor at Petworth in 1309. The National Trust had hoped to prove this by dating the chapel's roof timbers using Petworth House in 1610 (Chapel projecting to the Right)dendrochronology (tree-ring dating). However, this was not possible due to the fact that the timbers were under thirty years old and had been grown using the pollarding method. But you cannot pollard oak trees, can you? Just another mystery of medieval industry still to be solved.

Petworth House and Servants' Quarters
are on the North-Eastern edge of of the small town of Petworth in West Sussex.
Open 27th March to 31st October, daily except Thursdays and Fridays, 1:00-5:30pm (last admission 4:30pm).
Extra Rooms open on weekdays:
White & Gold Room and Library on Mondays (not Bank Holidays)
Three first floor bedrooms on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
There is an entrance fee for the general public.
Free entry for National Trust & Royal Oak Foundation Members.
Pleasure Grounds
Open 27th March to 1st November, 12:00-6:00pm (opens at 11:00am in August)
Open Everyday, 8:00am till Sunset

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