Thomas Tropnell - Builder of Great Chalfield Manor
THE STORY OF GREAT CHALFIELD 1405 – 1487; Owners & Occupiers
“Who is this? painted in 1470 onto the stone wall of the new family parlour or dining room.
A powerful man in his best beaver hat and motley coat with heavy purse or money bag and a dagger. Behind him is a cloth of state and he appears to be rising from an armchair. Does he have five fingers as well as his thumbs, is he the Franklin of the Canterbury Tales?
Thomas Tropenell MP commissioned a series of six painted wall panels of St Katherine of Alexandria, by all accounts a beautiful and intelligent Egyptian girl, for the chapel he added to All Saints’ parish church. Margaret his wife certainly had opportunities to encourage the painter to create this image while Thomas was away on business. His great granddaughter Anne panelled him over and he reappeared again in 1906 during restoration of the Manor.” R. Floyd
Thomas Tropenell stands out among his fellow Wiltshire gentry as more energetic and certainly more astute than most. He built an impressive career, often by using his knowledge of legal procedures to good effect, during a period when the shifting sands of civil war and the rivalries among a new breed of entrepreneurs caused many to come to grief. He has been described as ‘a man of vigour and imagination, able and forceful. He was in many ways a precursor of a Tudor gentleman.’
This view of the Manor and church has altered very little since Tropenell's time
No one stands alone and Tropenell was no exception to this. They say that behind every successful man stands an astounded wife. Tropenell had two. He married the first, Edith Bourton, whose first husband had left her property in Gloucestershire and in Atworth. The marriage was in 1431 when he was about 26. There is no record of any children. His second wife was also a widow, Margaret Erley, whose first husband had been an MP for Ludgershall and whose father, William Ludlow of Hill Deverill, was also an MP. William Ludlow was an important man, in favour at the Lancastrian Court and holder of many influential posts in Wiltshire. Margaret had a son by her first marriage, Richard Erley, who also became an MP and was helped in some of his property ventures by his stepfather to whom he was obviously close. Tropenell married her in 1456 when he was 50 and they lived in Neston in a property Tropenell acquired in 1453. She was to be the first chatelaine of his new Great Chalfield Manor when it was built. This was a very influential responsibility at that time, as the numerous contemporary letters of the Paston family in Norfolk make clear. She would have been in charge of the running of the house and of the estate too when her husband was away, which he would have been frequently, either in Salisbury a day’s ride away from Great Chalfield or elsewhere in the county at one of his other properties or very occasionally in London. She died only shortly before her husband and is buried with him, so theirs was a long and fruitful marriage.
The Tropenell dynasty
They had four children, two sons, Humphrey and Christopher, of whom Christopher was Tropenell’s heir. Christopher died in 1503, when his two daughters, Anne and Mary, became his coheirs. The Hanhams who have lived since then in Deans Court in Wimborne are directly descended from Anne. Mary married Edward Younge of Great Durnford and the monumental brass on their tomb in the church in Little Durnford is their memorial, surrounded, as they still are, by their 14 children. Tropenell’s great granddaughter, Ann, married John Eyre of Wedhampton in 1550. They lived in Great Chalfield Manor proudly leaving their initials in plaster, still to be seen on their new ceiling in the parlour. Her brother Giles was the last direct Tropenell heir but died young in 1553 in a freak hunting accident that provides a sombre warning to those of us who walk dogs! His death is described in detail in a contemporary document: ‘putting one end of a pair of dog couples (leads) over his head, running after his sport and leaping over a hedge, the end of the dog couple which hung at his back took hold of a bough and kept him from touching the ground until he was strangled.’ Yet despite this Thomas Tropenell lives on through his daughter Anne’s direct descendants!
The five shields from the chapel screen show the Tropenell Arms and those of the families with which he intermarried. The centre, No. 3, bears the Tropenell Arms. No. 1 bears the Tropenell Arms on the left side, and the Percy Arms on the right ; this shows the marriage of Walter Tropenell with Catherine, daughter of Sir William, and sister of Sir Harry Percy, Knights, who owned Great Chalfield, by which marriage and the failure of male issue to the third Sir Harry Percy, the estate devolved on Thomas Tropenell. No. 2, on the left side, the Tropenell Arms as before, and on the right, the Rous Arms; this shows the marriage of Roger Tropenell, the grandson of Walter, with Christian, daughter to Sir John Rous, of Imber. No. 5, on the left side, the Tropenell Arms as before, and shews the marriage of Harry Tropenell, grandson to Roger, with Edith, daughter to Walter Roche, younger brother to Sir John Roche, Knight, sons to John the Roche of Bromham. No.4, the Tropenell Arms as before, on the left side, and the Ludlow Arms, on the right side, which shews the marriage of Thomas Tropenell, with Margaret, fourth daughter of William Ludlow, of Hill Deverell, Wilts. Thomas died in 1487, and was buried with his wife in the north aisle, at St Bartholomew’s Church in Corsham, under a magnificent altar-tomb.
Since many of these Wiltshire burgesses were MP’s, a word about what that meant may clarify their position in society. Parliaments then were in general brief and only summoned by the king when he needed money or the means of waging war. Only the most wealthy or distinguished remained in London and attended the court. Most went back to their shires to await another call, which did not happen very often. Tropenell was an MP first for Great Bedwin in 1429/30 at the young age of 25 – interestingly at the very start of his career – and later for Bath in 1449. He may also have been an MP in 1470 since he was listed on a royal pardon issued in that year as Thomas Tropenell of London, gentleman, so it is likely he was in the capital at that time. We know from records that survive from an earlier time that MP’s were paid 2 shillings a day, including travelling time, knights of the shires were better off, being paid 4 shillings a day. This is an interesting insight into the rewards of social standing then in the feudal pecking order. At the close of a parliament the clerk to the House gave them a ‘writ de expensis’ that they took back to their constituencies to claim payment. Large places like Salisbury would generally pay the sums stated in these writs as the 15 th Century ledgers of the city show. However from 1447 the city’s MP’s agreed to serve for half the statutory amount (just one shilling a day). Great Bedwin with a very small electorate and Bath, also small then, would probably not be able to afford the full amount and might take advantage of any prospective candidate prepared to sit for nothing or at a reduced rate!