The mysteries of Ightham Mote, from its early origins to the skeleton discovered behind a bricked-up door

Ightham Mote is one of the most beautiful medieval houses in Britain. The tale of its murky origins and recent restoration is a fascinating one.

Every week, we take a look into the Country Life architecture archive for an article from the past. Today, it’s Michael Hall’s piece from June 28, 1990, about Ightham Mote in Kent, written  just as its 15-year renovation was about to begin. The Country Life Picture Library images you’ll see here include some of those taken at the time, some from a previous Country Life article in 1900, and some from a further update in 2016.

A thousand colour calendars and dozens of picture books have firmly enshrined Ightham Mote among the icons of the English countryside. They are entirely justified, for this is a house where reality lives up to the dream: it is every bit as perfect as it looks. Yet, perhaps in part because it is so familiar and so beautiful, its complex fabric has not until recently been looked at closely by historians.

New investigations have been prompted by the National Trust, which this year began the immense task of restoration that it has been planning almost from the day it was bequeathed the house in 1985. The Trust’s guidebook, based on fresh research into the documents by T.H.M. Edwards, was the first stage.

This has recently been taken further by the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England, which has examined Ightham Mote in meticulous detail as part of an investigation of medieval houses in Kent. Such work was much needed, for although the broad phases of the house’s development were understood, the detailed changes over 600 years were not. Indeed, the sequence of alteration and restoration is so complicated that on occasions even the Royal Commission has thrown up its hands in despair.

Ightham Mote’s stables seen from the kitchen garden, published in Country Life on 17th March, 1900. ©Country Life Picture Library

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Part of the problem is that the history of the house’s ownership up to the 16th century is equally confused. At only a few points before the 1870s is it directly helpful for understanding changes to the building. This is especially true for the house’s origins, which are surprisingly obscure.

The choice of site in a narrow, wooded valley in the Weald, two miles south of Ightham village, takes full advantage of a narrow stream, the Dinas Dene, which feeds the moat that gives the house its name. But who built it?

The first recorded owner was the Staffordshire-born Sir Thomas Cawne, who refers to “La Mote” in his will. He died in about 1372, and his stern, armoured effigy under a richly cusped arch in Ightham church suggests a man with the ambition and resources necessary to build a large house. However, doubt has now been thrown on the traditional identification of Sir Thomas as the builder of the Mote. Exhaustive trawls through records of mid-14th-century Kent have failed to reveal any trace of him in the county before 1363, and there is nothing to link him with the Mote before the reference in his will.

Ightham Mote in 1990. ©Country Life Picture Library

Tree-ring dating of the earliest timbers in the house by Nottingham University in 1986 produced estimated felling dates of between 1340 and 1347. It is, therefore, likely that Sir Thomas acquired rather than built the house, whose original owner is entirely unknown.

The form of this house is fairly clear, because its major elements survive. Ightham Mote developed by piecemeal addition over 200 years until it had four ranges facing into an internal courtyard. The earliest range is that on the east, which contains the hall, with a twostoreyed block to its north, in which were the chapel and principal chambers.

Roughly built of ragstone, the hall is 30ft long and 37ft 6in high to the ridge. The main entrance leads straight into it, or would do if it were not for the little lobby created by Richard Norman Shaw in 1872, when he panelled the hall. Investigation of the roof timbers has confirmed that originally there was a two-storey, timber-framed porch in front of the door, dealing with the problem of draughts that so vexed 19th-century owners.

Inside, there is now no trace of a screens passage, and the existence of a 14th-century traceried window opposite the main door has been taken to mean that one never existed. However, the Royal Commission argues that disturbed masonry around the window suggests that it replaces a door. The insertion of the chimneystack later in the Middle Ages (there was originally a central hearth) may have displaced the window from another part of the wall.

Ightham Mote in 1990. ©Country Life Picture Library

The position of the bridge over the east side of the moat, in direct line with the putative passage, is additional evidence that was was the original arrangement. Access to the service ranges, to the south of the hall, was through two doors, one small and one large.

Evidence for a third door may have been lost by Shaw’s insertion of the lobby. When he uncovered the small door, which had been blocked, he discovered behind it the crouching skeleton of a young woman — a mystery that has never been solved.

Later in the article, Michael Hall goes on to tell the later history of Ightham Mote, beginning with its sale by the Selby family as the Victorian period was coming to a close:

The Selbys had owned Ightham Mote for almost exactly 300 years when they sold it to Sir Thomas Colyer-Fergusson in 1889. Their personality is most apparent in the drawing room, the main living room in the gatehouse range. The large Jacobean fireplace bears the arms of Sir William Selby, who died in 1637.

Mid- 18th-century Selbys were responsible for the deliciously incongruous Venetian window at the opposite end of the room, and in about 1800 fine 18th-century Chinese wallpaper was hung here (it is at present in store after conservation). Elsewhere the Selbys inserted new windows with Gothick glazing bars that luckily survived a major campaign of restoration in 1890-91.

Ightham Mote in 1990. ©Country Life Picture Library

In 1951 Sir James Colyer-Fergusson sold the house after auctioning its contents. Henry Robinson, an American businessman, was idly flicking through the pages of Country Life when he saw a photograph of the house he had fallen in love with during a cycling holiday decades before. On impulse, he bought it and devoted the last 30 years of his long life to its care.

From him the National Trust inherited a building that had received no extensive restoration since the 1890s. Stonework was crumbling, timbers were infested with deathwatch beetle, wet and dry rot were rampant, medieval glass was on the point of disintegration . It will clearly be an immense and lengthy task to make the house safe; 15 years is only a rough estimate…

That ‘rough estimate’ was to prove entirely correct: restoring Ightham Mote took 15 years and £10 million, a process which is documented on the National Trust website. It’s great to see that the ethos of that restoration stuck close to the stated intentions, as detailed by Hall in is closing section:

A strict policy of conservation is being followed: there is now no thought of removing Victorian servants’ quarters or Edwardian bachelors’ bedrooms to return the house to a more purely medieval form. lghtham Mote is rightly being treated as a vast, fragile work of art that has been created by many small touches over many centuries and should be preserved intact.

Appropriately, repair of the stonework is in the hands not of masons but of sculpture conservators. However, unlike a painting that has been cleaned, it should look almost the same after conservation as before. If it is beginning to appear different, that is thanks to the historians and archaeologists who are stripping away the varnish of tradition to reveal more about a familiar masterpiece.

The restored billiard room in 2015. ©Justin Paget for Country Life Picture Library