Littlecote House

Littlecote House is a large Elizabethan country house and estate in the civil parishes of Ramsbury and Chilton Foliat in the English county of Wiltshire, near to Hungerford. The estate includes 34 hectares of historic parklands and gardens, including a walled garden from the 17th and 18th centuries. In its grounds is Littlecote Roman Villa.

Littlecote House
View of the house from the drive
Location within Wiltshire
General information
Architectural styleElizabethan mansion
LocationChilton Foliat, Wiltshire
CountryUnited Kingdom
Coordinates51.4315°N 1.5632°W / 51.4315; -1.5632
ClientJohn Popham

Littlecote House is a Grade I listed building.[1] It is now a hotel and leisure centre.


The first Littlecote House was built during the 13th century. A medieval mansion, it was inhabited by the de Calstone family from around 1290. When William Darrell married Elizabeth de Calstone in 1415, he inherited the house. Sir George Darrell went on to build the Tudor mansion. King Henry VIII is said to have courted Jane Seymour at the house; her grandmother was Elizabeth Darrell. Elizabeth's half-niece, also Elizabeth Darrell, a former maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon, had a celebrated affair with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Sir John Popham bought the reversion of Littlecote, and succeeded to it in 1589; he built the present Elizabethan brick mansion, which was completed in 1592. James I, Charles II, and William of Orange stayed there, William on his march from Torbay to London in the Glorious Revolution. Popham's descendants, the Pophams and (from 1805) the Leyborne Pophams owned the house until the 1920s. Littlecote played a role in the history of deaf education: John Wallis and William Holder taught Sir John's great grandson, Alexander Popham (born 1648), to speak.[2] The Leyborne Pophams refurbished much of the house in 1810. They retained it until 1929, when the house was purchased by Sir Ernest Salter Wills Bt, who was a member of the Wills tobacco family dynasty , and a director of Imperial Tobacco.

During the Second World War, 1941–42, the house was the headquarters of 34th Army Tank Brigade, commanded by Brigadier J Noel Tetley. Then, in September 1943, the US 101st Airborne Division requisitioned part of the house, and it became home to regimental staff, regimental headquarters company, and headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The house provided office space and sleeping quarters for 506th officers, with the best rooms being allocated to Col. Robert F. Sink, regimental commander, and Lt. Col. Charles H. Chase, his executive officer.[3] The colonel used the library as his office, and a memorial plaque can now be found in this room. From airfields in this area, including Ramsbury just to the west, the Airborne Division took off during the night of 5 June 1944, the eve of D-Day, as part of the invasion of Normandy. Easy Company from this regiment have become famous through the book and TV mini-series Band of Brothers.[4] All other ranks lived in Nissen huts built alongside the main drive between the house and the east lodge.

After the war, the owner's younger son, Major George Seton Wills, inherited the estate and sold the house to the entrepreneur Peter de Savary in 1985. On New Year's Eve 1992–93, the grounds were used for an all-night rave run by Fantazia.

Warner Holidays acquired the house and estate in 1996, and now operates it as a country house hotel and resort.

Wild William Darrell

The last of the Darrell owners is connected with several scandals and the house's resident ghost story. William Darrell's father had left the house to his mistress Mary Danyell, but Darrell was able to recover it when he came of age in 1560. He spent lavishly, left his debts unpaid, and went to law with most of his neighbours, acquiring enemies in the process. Sir John Popham was his relative and lawyer.

He had an affair with Anne Hungerford the wife of Sir Walter Hungerford (Knight of Farley), his neighbour; when Sir Walter sued for divorce, she was acquitted, and Sir Walter sent to prison. Some years later, Mother Barnes, a midwife from Great Shefford, recalled being brought in 1575 to the childbed of a lady, with a gentleman standing by who commanded her to save the life of the mother, but who (as soon as the child was born) threw it into the fire. Barnes did not name or indicate either Darrell or Littlecote, but his enemies quickly ascribed this murder to him.[5]

Darrell's financial troubles increased, and he mortgaged Littlecote, first to Sir Thomas Bromley, and then to Popham. He moved to London and spent some time in a debtors' prison, but died suddenly in 1589 on a visit to Littlecote. Legend has it that whilst hunting, the ghost of the murdered newborn appeared to him, causing his horse to shy and throw him. Darrell is said to haunt the site of his death, known as Darrell's stile (or Style, as well as the church at Ramsbury, two miles away), although one famed clairvoyant, Tom Corbett, detected nothing of the sort. But he reported to author Peter Underwood that he did see "a ghost in the garden, a beautiful woman whom he later recognised from a portrait in the house as Mrs Leybourne Popham",[6] and another ghost in the Chinese bedroom he termed a "busybody", a word Mrs. Wills, wife of the then owner Major George Wills, agreed described the presence in that room. Another possible ghost is that of a past tenant, Gerard Lee Bevan, who lived at Littlecote after World War I and later served time for embezzlement. His presence has been felt in the Long Gallery.[7]

The sale of the estate was possibly fictitious to avoid confiscation if Darrell was ever convicted, and that Popham kept Littlecote from Darrell's heirs (which he did not have). John Aubrey tells that Littlecote was a bribe to Popham as his judge in a criminal case, which is impossible: Darrell was not charged or tried, and Popham was not yet a judge.[8] Nevertheless, this story was borrowed by Sir Walter Scott, in Rokeby, and by Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities.[9]

A panorama of Littlecote House from the rear lawn

Littlecote Roman Villa

In its grounds is Littlecote Roman Villa, a Roman winged corridor villa and associated religious complex. It has been archaeologically excavated under the direction of Bryn Walters, and is on display to the public.


Littlecote House is located on the banks of the River Kennet between the villages of Ramsbury and Chilton Foliat, and about two miles northwest of the small Berkshire town of Hungerford. It is also in the heart of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Position: grid reference SU303703

Nearby places of interest: Crofton Pumping Station, Wilton Windmill

Further reading

  • Burke's Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, 15th Edition, ed. Pirie-Gordon, H., London, 1937, pp. 1830-1, pedigree of Leyborne Popham of Hunstrete late of Littlecote


  1. Historic England. "Littlecote House (1300540)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  2. "Find could end 350-year science dispute". BBC. 26 July 2008. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  3. Day, Roger. "101st Airborne Division". Ramsbury at War. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  4. "Band of Brothers". Home Box Office. Retrieved 4 April 2016.
  5. Rice, Douglas Walthew (2005). The Life and Achievements of Sir John Popham, 1531-1607. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 83. ISBN 9780838640609.
  6. Underwood, Peter (1971). Gazetteer of British Ghosts. London: Souvenir Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0285620124.
  7. Norman, Diana (1970). Tom Corbett's Stately Ghosts of England. Taplinger. p. 39.
  8. Aubrey, John (1982). Brief Lives: A Modern English Version. Boydell & Brewer. p. 252. ISBN 9780851152066.
  9. Rice, Douglas Walthew. The life and achievements of Sir John Popham, 1531-1607 : leading to the establishment of the first English colony in New England. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. pp.83-90; Oxford DNB sub Popham calls Aubrey "demonstrably inaccurate", but suggests the mortgage was a fiction. Falconer, J. A. (January 1921). "The Sources of a Tale of Two Cities". Modern Language Notes. 36 (1): 1. doi:10.2307/2914815. JSTOR 2914815. p.8 of 1-10.
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