Littlecote is not one house but three, the earliest dating back to around 1250. The medieval manor was built by the de Calstone family which in 1415 was passed to the Darrell family who added the Tudor manor. The Pophams acquired the house from the Darrells in 1589 and added the Elizabethan manor.
Because of an alleged curse placed on the house, in 1762 there was no male Popham heir. The heiress, Anne Popham, married General William Leyborne and their son Edward William Leyborne had to add the name Popham to his own in order to inherit.
Much of the house as it exists today was constructed by this family in the laye 16th century. The house remained in the hands of the Leyborne Pophams until 1929 when it was sold to the Wills family. They sold it to the entrepreneur Peter de Savary in 1986. It was bought in 1996 by Warner Holidays, part of the Bourne Leisure Group, who built the present hotel in 1997.
We’re now going to take you on a quick tour of some of most significant parts of the house. We’ll be seeing a few monarchs at work and play, several exquisite artworks, a 17th-century board game, some World War Two documents, a hidden fly and, if you’re lucky (or unlucky), a pair of Elizabethan ghosts.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall is one of the finest examples of its kind. The flagstones are original, as is the long oak banqueting table. Around this table many monarchs have been entertained, including Elizabeth I, James I, Charles II and William III. The table was also used by Alexander Popham as a table for shovel board (similar to shove ha’penny). The lines used to measure the shoves are still visible.
Alexander Popham, whose portrait hangs in the gallery, fought on the side of the Parliamentarians during the Civil War, and had a garrison stationed at Littlecote. The Great Hall was used to house its collection of arms and armoury, one of the finest in England. The collection was purchased by the Royal Armouries and is now in Leeds Armouries Museum, where it is on display in a special Littlecote room, part of which is a replica of the Great Hall. In the four corners of the Hall are the brackets where the firearms used to hang.
Another royal visitor to Littlecote was Henry VIII, (although this Hall had not built at that time). Henry courted Jane Seymour here; her grandmother was Elizabeth Darrell, so she would have been a regular visitoe. When Sir John Popham had the Great Hall built, he commemorated Henry and Jane’s trysts with the four roundels set into the stained glass window. The roundel on the bottom right shows their initials – H and a Latin J (written like an I) – entwined with a lovers’ knot. Above the bar of the H, to make the point absolutely clear, is a cupid’s head.
A portrait of another Popham, Sir John, also hangs in the Hall. He was involved in the trials of Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes.
The Chinese Drawing Room
This was built at the same time as the Great Hall and was, along with the Library, refurbished by the Leyborne Pophams in 1810. The room gets its name from the four beautiful hand-painted Chinese panels. The doors into the library are mahogany, and the fretwork motif on them is repeated around the panels, on the dado rail and on the shuttering. Each panel has an estimated value of £50,000. The chandelier is made of wood and is extremely delicate. It was brought from Ramsbury Manor, the former home of the Wills family.
Leading off the Chinese Drawing Room is the Orangery, intended for growing exotic fruit. It was built, also in 1810, to replace an earlier building which had been demolished. In the 1920s the Orangery was converted into a heated indoor swimming pool, one of the first ever installed in a private house.
The library was refurbished in 1810 when part of the house was demolished to open up the enclosed courtyard outside and creating a commanding view up to Park Coppice. The bookcases have Roman numerals above, and behind one of them was a secret passage. For many years, Judge Popham’s law tomes, annotated in his own handwriting, stood on a central table. They have since been purchased by the Bodleian Library.
On the wall is a small display commemorating the use of the room during the Second World War as the headquarters of Colonel Bob Sink of the 101st Airborne American paratroopers. Their story is told in the BBC mini-series “Band of Brothers”. Elsewhere in the house is a museum dedicated to the wartime period.
The Red Staircase
This was one of the first cantilevered staircases to be built in England. Each step has one third of its width set into the wall and rests on the one below, the whole structure being supported at the bottom by an iron spike sunk deep into the ground..
The Dutch Parlour
This small room is so called because of the richly painted panels which were created by Dutch prisoners of war in the 1660s which feature scenes from popular stories of the time including Don Quixote. In one corner is a painted spider in a web: elsewhere in the room is a painted fly. The challenge is to find it!
The Brick Hall
The brick floor and oak panels are original. This would have been the family dining room and is where Colonel Alexander Popham planned his campaigns during the Civil War. The wax models were made by Madame Tussauds for Peter de Savary and depict Alexander and his brother Edward. It is in this room that the secret passage entrance can be found.
The Diamond Hall
This is the oldest part of the house and was the entrance hall of the Medieval manor.
This would have been the Great Hall of the Medieval manor but after the completion of Sir John Popham’s Great Hall, the family had it converted into a chapel. It is the finest example of a Cromwellian Chapel to be found in a private house anywhere in England. There is no altar but, instead, a high pulpit.
If you take a seat in one of the pews, you will notice that it is not only high but also tilted forward. The pews were designed to keep the congregation awake, and have given us two expressions still used today: “keeping you on your toes” and “dropping off”, the former being necessary to prevent the latter.
The baby whose statue stands in the glass case is that of Francis Hugh Leyborne Popham, another victim of the Littlecote curse, which decreed that no male first-born would ever inherit Littlecote. He died in 1861 of pneumonia at the age of five months.
The organ was purchased by the Wills family and came from Taymouth Castle in Scotland. It was steam driven until its later conversion to electricity
The Haunted Landing and Bedroom
In 1575, Mother Barnes, a midwife from Great Shefford, was brought blindfolded to the bedside of a masked lady in labour. She was met by a tall man in a velvet coat, who later cast the newborn baby into the fire. The man was allegedly “Wild” William Darrell, the owner of Littlecotee. Darrell had as his legal adviser Sir John Popham, who kept him from trial and gained possession of Littlecote House on Darrell’s death in October 1589. Darrell is said to have been responsible for the curse on the house.
Mother Barnes eventually told her story to a local magistrate and her deposition still exists to this day. The wax models in the Haunted Bedroom represent William Darrell and Mother Barnes. There are several theories as to the identity of the lady in the bed. Her ghost is said to haunt the landing, crying for the lost child, which has also been heard, crying pitifully.
One (anonymous) writer was moved to set the tale to verse:
And fame reports, the lady comes
With babe of fire at dead of night,
But harmless to the innocent-
They come to see that all is right.
Whilst Darrell’s wretched spirit, ‘tis said,
As if in magic circle bound,
Oft by benighted rustics seen,
The fatal spot to wander round.
The Long Gallery
The Long Gallery was built by William Darrell and still has the original ceiling frieze, with the Darrell coat of arms, and oak panelling. The floor and ceiling were refurbished in 1899 by a tenant at the time, Vernon J Watney, of the brewing family. Part of the Tudor manor, the Gallery provided an area where the ladies could take their exercise without spoiling their long dresses or exposing their complexions to the elements.
The Jerusalem Staircase
In 1530, Sir Edward Darrell, who was Vice Chamberlain to Queen Katherine of Aragon and Keeper of her Park at Chilton Foliat, received a gift of ten oaks. These were almost certainly used to build the Jerusalem Staircase: since they were reputedly 500 years old when cut, the oak is now 1,000 years old.
The Cromwellian soldiers would climb these Jerusalem Stairs to reach their dormitory, which was located in the attic and ran the length of the Long Gallery.
Littlecote House is reputedly the third most haunted houses in England (however such things are measured). What is beyond doubt is that it is one of the most beautiful. Every old building also has a claim to historical significance with regard to royal visits, dramatic events, important associations, surviving artefacts and fascinating stories. On any of these criteria, Littlecote’s case for inclusion in a list of noteworthy British houses is probably stronger than most.