Acton Court

by Nick

This is a portrait drawn by Hans Holbein in about 1535 of Nicholas Poyntz. I share his name, and also a family resemblance. If I’ve worked it out correctly, he is my first cousin thirteen times removed; in other words, I am directly descended from his uncle.

In 1535, Nicholas was living at Acton Court, in the village of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire. This had been in the family since 1364, and at the start of the sixteenth century was a medieval manor house surrounded by a moat. Nicholas had inherited it in 1532 after the death of his father, Sir Anthony Poyntz. In the same year, Nicholas had accompanied Henry VIII to his conference with Francis I at Calais. So he was already known to his king when, in 1535, Henry decided to undertake a royal progress around the west country.

It’s not clear how Acton Court ended up on the itinerary, but whether it was always the plan or was later added, Nicholas seems to have acted hastily to improve the accommodation Henry could expect. Little of the medieval manor building now survives. Instead, this is the sight that greets you as you approach:

This is not the original entrance to the house, but shows the impressive Renaissance brickwork of the east wing that Nicholas had erected. Archaeological work by English Heritage in the 1980s revealed through tree-ring dating that the timbers used in the construction were from the spring of 1535. The building must have gone up in an awful hurry, and would have occupied many local tradesmen as it used a very regionalised technique that did not involve mortar.  The pointing you can see is modern: the walls would then have originally been rendered and whitewashed.

Use of this technique meant it is lucky the building has simply not collapsed under its own weight. Here for example is one end of the east range. The window originally occupied the entire space between the two brick pillars at either side. At a later date, the window has been made smaller and buttresses added to keep the gable from falling down.

The walls have also had to be reinforced:

It’s hard to get a sense now of what this addition to the building would have looked like. In 1680 the building was sold out of the family and became a tenanted farm. What’s left is the east wing, part of a further north range added in around 1550, and various eighteenth and nineteenth-century additions. In this view you can see the remains of the north range, which was originally twice as long, together with the gigantic buttress that supports it. The spiral staircase in the centre, connecting the two, is Elizabethan.

Compare this to a view of the building as it would have looked in 1535:

You can see here the east range with its gigantic chimneys tacked on to the medieval manor.To the south is the original approach to the house. To the north are the formal gardens (still unexcavated), and to the west the original core of the house.

The purpose of the new range was to provide accommodation for Henry and Anne Boleyn. At one end was a gigantic high-ceilinged receiving room, leading through into an anteroom and a bedchamber. A significant amount of panelling and painting still survive inside the building. The reason it has survived is because so little was done to the house after it left the Poyntz family. Most of the buildings came down, the high-ceilinged reception room was used to hang cheeses, and other rooms were partitioned off.

An improvement which seems to have pre-dated the royal visit is this wonderful sundial by Nicholas Kratzer, dated 1520:

It was found in the 1980s in a nettle patch near the building. It seems to have been a broken first iteration: the mason hadn’t carved it correctly according to Kratzer’s plans, so it couldn’t tell the time accurately. It was either thrown away or re-used as a building material. Like so much of what has survived at Acton Court, it is only due to gentle neglect at the time that it still exists. A huge amount of exotic Venetian tableware, for example, has been found in the moat (which had been filled in by about 1550). This would almost certainly have been purchased for Henry’s visit.

There doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence about whether or not Henry did stay at Acton Court as planned: he had to amend some of his itinerary because of the plague. However, the general consensus is that he did. Nicholas was knighted in 1535, possibly at Acton Court, and steps seem to have been taken before the house was sold out of the family to preserve the buildings (not least to stop them falling over), to commemorate what they were used for.

In 1984 the building was sold, first to a trust that tried and failed to get a grant to restore it, before it then passed to English Heritage. The family legend is that my grandfather (who lived twenty miles away) also considered buying it. Since then English Heritage have done an amazing job of excavating and restoring the site. It is a beautiful place to visit on a summer afternoon, with a restored Tudor garden and surrounded on all sides by meadows with long grass and rare flowers. The building only opens to the public for a limited period: I went last weekend, and if you want to go yourself you have until 14 August this year. The Acton Court website has more details.