The May Bride

The May Bride

I didn’t stand a chance: looking back over thirteen years, that’s what I see. In the very first instant, I was won over, and of course I was: I was fifteen and had been nowhere and done nothing, whereas Katherine was twenty-one and yellow-silk-clad and just married to the golden boy… Jane Seymour is a shy, dutiful fifteen-year-old when her eldest brother, Edward, brings his bride home to Wolf Hall.  Katherine Filliol is the perfect match for Edward, as well as being a breath of fresh air for the Seymour family, and Jane is captivated by the older girl. Over…

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About Suzannah

Launched in 1990 with her debut novel, Darker Days Than Usual, Suzannah Dunn wrote a further 5 critically acclaimed contemporary novels, and a short story collection, published by Flamingo, before writing her first historical novel, The Queen of Subtleties, which was published in 2004. She has since written a further three bestselling historical novels, The Sixth Wife, The Queen’s Sorrow and The Confession of Katherine Howard (a Richard & Judy pick in 2011). The May Bride is her new book….

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A Tudor Road Trip: historical research for The May Bride

Stained glass from Wolfhall text

Posted on 3th March 2014

Katherine Filliol disappeared almost five hundred years ago.  Except that she didn’t, quite, because a trace of her remains in a few facts:   she married Edward Seymour when they were both in their early twenties and had two sons, but a few years later she was in a nunnery and the boys disinherited.  Why?  No one knows for sure, but rumour has it – rumour which has persisted for half a millennium – that Edward believed she’d had an affair with his father.

For years, I’ve longed to know the truth of what was even at the time a horribly shocking turn of events and, by all accounts, uncharacteristic of the respectable Seymours, particularly the eldest son.  But Edward, as ever, did a good job when he banished his wife:  there’s almost nothing, officially, to know.  The historical record gives us only Katherine’s father’s will, leaving her an annual pension of £40 on condition that she lived in ‘some honest house of Relegion of wymen’.  Within a decade, Edward had re-married – meaning that Katherine had either become a nun or died – and altered his succession in favour of the children of his second wife.

It’s a marginal note in Vincent’s Baronage, from as long as a century afterwards, which gives us, in Latin, the rumour that Katherine was ‘repudiated’ because, after her marriage, she had ‘known the father’.

Katherine’s father-in-law keeps himself to himself, historically-speaking: Justice of the Peace for Wiltshire and Warden of Savernake Forest, he was rarely at court, not even when his eldest daughter, Jane, became Henry VIII’s third queen.  Edward was the one making the family name:  clever, cautious Edward who, in the twenty years following his first wife’s disappearance, became de facto ruler of England during the reign of the boy-king Edward VI and ‘The Good Duke’ beloved of the common people, before it all went wrong as, in those days, it so often did.

Of Katherine, there’s no word after 1527, not even of which nunnery took her in.

Having resolved to write about her, about what might have gone so very wrong for her and her young husband, I decided that if the history books couldn’t give me anything, I’d go and look.  Literally.  I’d get up from my desk and go to where Katherine was born and grew up, and if I looked hard enough or perhaps inventively enough, surely there’d be something.  There had to be something.  Anything.  A view to which she habitually woke.   A church or chapel in which she used to sit, freezing.   A memorial, bearing the names of people who’d known her and, once, had hopes for her.

She was born around the turn of the fifteenth century at “Woodlands, Horton, Dorset”.   Open your map and there it is:  Woodlands, a hamlet just outside Horton in south east Dorset.  ‘Woodlands’, though?  An odd address, because prominent residences of the time were usually styled ‘house’ or ‘manor’ or indeed ‘manor house’.  None of my trusty histories of the area mention a Woodlands Manor House.  It was there on my map, though, and the internet provided a postcode.

A new build, then, or re-build?  Whatever, I decided, it would be worth a look.  And, anyway, there’d be a church nearby, a fair chance of seeing the Filliol name in stone.  And up the road, the other side of Salisbury, was Seymour-country.  A trip was shaping up for me:  a Tudor-themed mini-road trip.

So, one fine, late-autumn day, I filled my flask and set off.

Woodlands isn’t wooded, now, if it ever was.  It’s open countryside; unremarkable, in a nice way.  Nor was the hamlet as I’d anticipated:  it’s one long road stretching almost to the nearby conurbation, strung with sizeable modern houses. There’s something like a green, but not particularly green-shaped. No pub, no school.   Church?  A Methodist chapel was what I saw first, then a church which looked like a chapel:  low, brick-built, late Victorian. And locked.

Strolling, I saw eighteenth- and nineteenth century terraced cottages that would have been home once to farm labourers, and mid-twentieth century council-built housing.  There’s an old schoolhouse, now a private residence but with those tell-tale big windows and the giveaway name.   An intriguingly round-shaped house (‘Round House’, no less) is reputed, I discovered later, to have been the workshop of Huguenot silk weavers.  Rising above a hedge close to the church were impressive, rickety chimney stacks.  The Old Vicarage, its listing informs us, is partly sixteenth century in origin.  My guess is that it’s an even older something else because you can’t have a vicarage without a church and nowhere can I find reference to any church before the late-Victorian one provided by the Countess of Shaftesbury.  The schoolhouse, too, was Shaftesbury-gifted.  This might have been Filliol land at one time but later became Shaftesbury-land.

Huguenots and Shaftesburys, but no Filliols, or none that I could see.  Next stop, the Manor House.  It’s off the road to Horton, down a long, gated drive shared with a golf course bearing the charming name of ‘Remedy Oak’ in commemoration of a visit of the boy-king Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, who sat beneath an oak to dispense his healing touch to needy locals.  (Something Tudor!)  The touch of a king was believed to cure scrofula, an infection of the lymph glands in the neck, usually tuberculous in origin:  one of the scourges of earlier centuries.  (I’m fairly regularly asked, would you believe, if I’d like to have lived in Tudor times…)

Stuck to one of the gateposts was a planning permission application for solar panels.  Those gates were open and, after what was no doubt some rather shifting-looking deliberation, I braved the driveway.  But further along, that Manor House, with other suggestively-named residences (‘The Coachhouse’ etc), was behind a second, entryphone-controlled gate, so I got no more than tantalising glimpses of Tudor-like chimney stacks – in much better nick, though, than the one near the church.

Was this where Katherine grew up, long before solar panels and entryphones? If not in that house, then on its site?  Here and there in the walls of the existing houses, I’ve since read, are remnants of ‘a major house’ dating from the ‘early sixteenth century’.  But that’s the latest Katherine was born, and anyway the sources attribute that house to a Mr Henry Hastings, who post-dates the Filliols.  And something elsein that gated complex were buildings named as if they’d once been part of a farm.  Every manor house of the time had its own farm, but not necessarily on a shared site.  Those farms were of considerable importance in any locality at a time when farms were what mattered, when most of us would have worked on them.  Over the centuries, ‘Manor farm’, ‘manor farmhouse’ and ‘house’ tend to have been used interchangeably.  So, what I was peering at, through that gate, might not have originally been a manor house but its farm:  a big farmhouse that had become, over time, a des res.  Mind you, it’s just as likely that a fine house fallen into disrepair would become, in time, a farmhouse.  When I was back home, I learned from a local history that Woodlanders from the century before last used to refer to ‘Woodlands Farm’ as ‘Woodlands House’.  See what I mean?  It’s a short step from ‘Woodlands House’ to ‘Woodlands Manor House’.  Maybe ‘Woodlands Manor House’ was actually, in time gone by, just ‘Woodlands Farm’…  although, conversely, of course, it’s just as likely that what became ‘Woodlands Farm’ was once ‘Woodlands House’.

Well, I could stand there at that gate and go around in circles, as it were, or I could take the road to Horton in search of something more tangible.  Horton is home to a spectacular edifice, if not one for which I was looking:  Horton Tower, an eighteenth century folly, nowadays housing telecommunications paraphernalia.  The village is suitably village-like:  plenty of wisteria-roped cottages, tumbledown farm buildings, a Victorian schoolhouse, a vicarage and an ‘abbey house’ (whose eighteenth century frontage hides, says the listing, a fifteenth century timber frame)…and an old church.  Not old enough, though, I saw, for my purposes.  This one was Georgian.

The booklet on sale inside the fetchingly-named St Wolfrida’s informed me that it was built on the site of a medieval church, in turn built on the site of the church of a Benedictine Abbey.   Some of the north wall – I was pretty sure I could see where – dates from the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.  A notice on the wall mentioned, as if in passing, that under the belfry of the old church were memorials to the Filliol family.

There they were, right beneath my feet.  Or some of them, or something of them.   Beneath my very feet!   So near and yet so far.  I stood there, confounded.

Then I looked up, and, in front of me, reinstated on the wall is something which does remain of the old building:  a beautifully-lettered seventeenth-century plaque erected by an aunt in memory of a Victoria Uvedale who died when she was “6 years and 9 months”.  The booklet tells how the memorial was discovered upside down in the floor of the old Manor Farm Dairy (which later became the vicarage…See what I mean about buildings coming in and out of different uses, making use of whatever is to hand?).  It was good to see it there, to honour the wish of Victoria’s bereaved aunt, to think for a moment of that little girl now over three hundred years gone.

Victoria-Uvedales-memorial-St-Wolfrida.jpgActually, there’s something in St Wolfrida’s that’s far older than Victoria’s once-lost memorial:  two stunning effigies (one marble, the other stone) of a knight and his lady.  He was the Norman Sir Giles Braose – of, among other places, so says the booklet, Woodland Manor! – while the woman, it’s believed, was his first wife, Beatrice.  She – in stone – has aged less well than he has, but we should be grateful for anything at all of her because, my booklet says, ‘female effigies of this period are uncommon’.  The couple are believed to date from the very end of the thirteenth or very beginning of the fourteenth century.

And that’s why I love old – and not so old – churches:  you walk off the street (or, more likely, lane) and there, for your delectation, will be something from perhaps almost a millennium ago.  No charge to see it, and you’ve almost always got it to yourself for as long as you want.

Braoses, but no Filliols.  Reluctantly, I accepted that I was going to have to give up on the Filliols for the time being and drive north in search of the Seymours.  So, after buying a jar of honey from outside a cottage, I set off for Savernake Forest.

Savernake Forest is true to its name, it is wooded, or at least in parts.  ‘Forest’ didn’t used to mean exclusively or densely wooded, but, instead, areas of copse and scrubland, ideal for hunting.  Savernake Forest hasn’t changed in essence for many hundreds of years.  It’s ancient forest (the New Forest is, by comparison, what it claims to be), and England’s only ancient forest to be in private hands – the Earl of Cardigan’s, since you ask.  The same hands, in a sense, since 1066:  it’s never been sold, but passed down the generations, thirty-one to date.  It’s currently leased to the Foresty Commission and we members of the public are welcome every day of the year except one.  For one day each year – usually the first working day of the year – its roads are blocked, which preserves its private status.

Edward’s father, Sir John Seymour, was Warden of this forest and lived with his family at Wolfhall.  (Nothing to do with wolves, by the way, but a corruption of the Saxon name ‘Ulf).  Wolfhall was to where Katherine Filliol probably came as a bride.  All the usual sources insist that the Seymour’s old home no longer exists and that no one knows where it stood, although the quickest of searches will turn up a ‘Wolf Hall Manor’ and ‘Wolf Hall Farmhouse’ near Burbage, both of which have sixteenth century components.  There are rumours that a house once known as The Laundry might have been just that to the old Wolfhall – but then again, that, too, is disputed.

In the light of all this, I wasn’t looking for any house.  Rather, I’d decided to go to the church in Great Bedwyn, which has some stained glass said to have come from the old Wolfhall, and an impressive memorial to Sir John and his children.

Stained-glass-from-Wolfhall-images5320506fa2f06.jpgGreat Bedwyn is nowadays a large village (shops, pubs, a school), the buildings dating mostly from the eighteenth century and later.  The Church – St Mary’s – is, says its booklet, ‘one of the largest and finest in the district’, Early English in origin but built on the site of something earlier, much altered over the centuries.

Stained glass from Wolfhall textAs well as those fragments of stained glass – ‘badges’, coats of arms – there is on the chancel wall a small brass memorial of Jane and Edward’s eldest brother, John, who died at around the age of ten.  He’s depicted full-length, standing.  Brasses tend to be generic, though – no one’s going to learn anything of him by peering at his face.  What’s interesting, I think, is that Edward wasn’t the eldest son until relatively late in his childhood.  To me, he seems the quintessential eldest child – ambitious and organised – but actually it was a mantle he took on in his later childhood; he wasn’t – in his earliest years – raised as such.  Well, not unless, I suppose, his older brother was unwell long-term or otherwise compromised and unlikely to survive to adulthood or to make a success of it.  Who knows?

Sir John, father of the family, is on excellent form, lying in his armour.  Above the tomb is a fulsome inscription (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen lengthier), giving us a potted history of all the children (“Six Sonnes and Fower Daughters”), including the ones who didn’t survive to adulthood.  We learn, for example, that Elizabeth (who did survive and then some) was ‘first maryed to Sir Henry Ughtred, Knight after to Gregorie, Lorde, Cromwell [Thomas Cromwell’s son] and last to Jhon, Lord Sainet John of Basinge, after Marquess of Winchester.”

But the tomb and its inscription don’t date from the death of Sir John in 1536, nor the lifetimes of any of his children.  Instead, it was the project of one of his grandsons, who, in 1590, had Sir John disinterred from ‘Eston priorie church’ – traditional resting place of the Seymours – after the site had been ‘ruined [and] much defased’ during ‘the Mynoritie of Edwarde’  (the 1540/50s, the later stages of the Reformation).  The Seymour who had this impressive tomb built was clearly keen that Sir John Seymour be remembered well;  indeed, it’s his stated aim, up there in that inscription:  ‘for the better Continuans of his Memore’.In-the-church-at-Easton-Royal.jpg

Where-Easton-Priory-once-stood.jpgA notice near the tomb explains that no one knows exactly where Easton Priory once stood.  Back in the car, I peered at the map.  There’s a village called Easton Royal, which seemed a fair bet.  Despite longing for a nice cup of tea in nearby Marlborough, I couldn’t resist a dash to Easton Royal in the dying light.   It’s a mere handful of miles from Great Bedwyn but the gentle Vale of Pewsey makes for very different countryside.   The village itself is chocolate box, a profusion of thatch.  The church, by contrast, might best be described as unobtrusive.  Open, though, even at the late hour:  there’s that to say for it.  one-side-of-a-doorway-at-St-Marys-at-Great-Bedwyn.jpg

Inside, a lovely 1950s plaque commemorates the Seymour family for all it did over the centuries for the church and priory.  In fact, this plain little church – lively with the scrabblings of a mouse, when I was there – has had a chequered history.  The current building is late-Tudor, Victorian-rebuilt.  A medieval church had fallen into such disrepair by the fourteenth century that villagers requested to be able to use, instead, the priory church.  The priory, a sign told me (no equivocation), had been sited across the lane.  Nothing remains to see:   just the thatched houses in the gloom, and, behind them, fields.  It burned to the ground at the end of the fifteenth century and was re-built only to be in ruins again within a couple of decades.  From a later read-up at home, I learned there were usually between two and five priests in residence, attended by a couple of servant-women.  I must admit I’d been envisioning something like Rievaulx:  hundreds of monks, a herb garden, infirmary, library.  The reality of the majority of religious the-other-side-of-a-doorway-at-St-Marys-at-Great-Bedwyn.jpghouses, though, it seems, was more likely this Father Ted-like scenario, quite possibly without the laughs.

That, then, was where Sir John chose to lay until Judgement Day, only to be upped and shifted fifty years later.  His daughter, Jane, who died after giving birth to Henry VIII’s longed-for heir, lies beside the king in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.  Her brother, Edward is probably stowed – the two supposedly traitorous pieces of him – beneath the floor of the chapel at the Tower of London.  No one knows the final resting place of his first wife, Katherine Fillol, as elusive in death as she was in life.  Perhaps she was buried where she died – perhaps at nearby Shaftesbury or Wilton Abbeys.  Of Wilton Abbey, nothing remains; of Shaftesbury, a few stones in a garden.  It’s not impossible, though, I suppose, that she was reclaimed in death by her family and buried alongside her forebears in the old, subsequently built-over St Wolfrida’s.  Her father isn’t there, though:  in his will, he requested burial at Grey Friars in Salisbury.  If you look for Grey Friars in Salisbury, now, what you’ll find, in the lee of the cathedral, is Greyfriars Close – 1960s blocks of flats – and a research paper about excavation of part of a wall in 1966.  Grey Friars is gone, itself buried.  Yet I imagine that Sir William was laid to rest there in as much splendour as he and his family could afford, because that was what people did, back then – especially those eschewing their local church for a friary.  What mattered to people at that time, above all, was to be remembered;  you could even say that it was, in a way, what pre-Reformation people lived for, because being prayed for by the living would facilitate your passage to Heaven, would help save your soul.  Sir William would’ve died entrusting his everlasting life to those friars, who had been on that site for so many hundreds of years.  He couldn’t have seen – nor did anyone – how, in less than a decade, they’d be gone.

Gone, now, any sign of them, probably many times over, five hundred years of layers, the topmost of tarmac.   And that’s the closest I’ve come, so far, physically, to Katherine:  the road beneath which, almost certainly, lie the remains of her father.  What I learned from my fieldtrip is that there’s no rhyme or reason to what survives under five hundred years and what – or who – is lost to us for ever.


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