Figure 1: Longford Castle Entrance Facade (1591).

On a summer visit to Longord Castle in Wiltshire my eye was caught by some ornamental details that reminded me of Montacute House in Somerset. Whilst a completely different building to Montacute, I found myself wondering about these designs.

The ornamentation I observed was:

  • Obelisk finials.
  • Openwork, stone finials: On top of the dome of the stair turret at Longford was an openwork stone finial, the same decoration as on the pavilions at Montacute. This was ascertained from Thorpe’s drawing as they do not exist nowadays (see Figure 3 Thorpe’s drawing below).
  • Shell-headed niches. These occur on a number of houses of the late Tudor/Early Stuart period across the South West, particularly at the ground floor level.

Figure 2: East front of Montacute House, Somerset (circa 1601).

Upon further research I discovered that Sir Edward Phelips, the builder of Monatcute was close friends with Sir Thomas Gorges, and Gorges remembered Phelips in his will. Montacute was completed circa 1601. It is possible that William Arnold, Phelip’s mason worked at Longford, or at least was familiar with its design and build. Arnold also remodelled Cranborne (worked commenced circa 1608) where there are 2 smaller loggias, one on either side of the house with shell-headed niches on their interior.

Bird’s-eye view of Longford Castle from the Thorpe AlbumFigure 3: ‘Bird’s-Eye View of Longford Castle from the Thorpe Album Vol. 101/158’, Image: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. Detail of John Thorpe’s drawing of Longford Castle (or Longford House as it was known initially)– notice the niches, obelisk finials and openwork, stone finials. The latter being on top of the stair turret.



Figure 4: North Pavilion of Montacute House. Note the obelisk finials along on the wall and on the corners of the pavilion, and the openwork, stone finials crowing the pavilion and wall feature. The balustrade is also similar to that at Longford Castle.


Figure 5: Openwork, stone finials crowing the entrance to Wadham College, Oxford (from the quadrangle). Built 1610-13. William Arnold was the mason.


Figure 6: Shell-headed niche at Longford Castle on ground-floor exterior. There are niches on the Strand façade of Somerset House in England, which may have been built earlier. The façade at Somerset house was started in the mid-16th C.

Figure 7: Shell-headed niche at Montacute House on ground-floor exterior – shell is facing downwards in this design. These niches appear on other houses from the late 16th/early 17th C in the region. The source for the niches came via Serlio’s Regole Generali Architettura, which had been published in the mid 16th C in Europe.

Those circulating at court had the opportunity to share ideas and drawings. They could recommend masons to each other. It was a time for aspiring individuals, not from the noble or royal classes, to use spectacular architecture to express their wealth and status. This also involved demonstrating taste by applying classical ornamentation to the new house. The key treatises and drawings of classical architecture were well known in England by the late 16th C. However, the patrons and masons of English architecture put their own flourishes in. They were not purely building in a classical manner. They enjoyed adding ornamental touches that linked back to the idealised or imagined past of English chivalric castles.









‘Bird’s-Eye View of Longford Castle from the Thorpe Album Vol. 101/158’, Image: © Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Thurley, Simon, The Building of England (London: William Collins, 2013)