Two volunteers, working to support their much-loved local historic monuments, discovered by chance how much their projects have in common. These towers are 900 miles apart, but as the volunteers determined, they are similar in many respects, namely architectural features and the date of construction. However, first and foremost, the walls of their Great Halls carry unique sets of medieval wall paintings. In fact, both Towers appear to have been part of an international trend. In the early 1300’s, a man of wealth, who sought to emphasise his status and security, might well decide to build a tower-house, and additionally, to make his neighbours consumed with envy, adorn its walls with fashionable paintings.
Tower-houses were the simplest, most functional and most cost effective way of defending oneself against both neighbors and enemies. They were also symbol of status, power and rank, meant to impress and heighten their owners’ social position.
What makes Siedlęcin in Poland and Longthorpe in England special are their unique wall paintings preserved in situ. The paintings both entertain and offer a remarkable insight into the medieval world view. They may differ in subject matter, but they both date to approximately 1320s-1340s. and even more importantly, they both are one of a kind.
The dating of the Longthorpe Tower is around 1309/10, during the reign of Edward II. The Tower was built by the Thorpe family, a local family not of noble origin at all. In fact, they had made their way out of the peasantry (an almost unheard of feat in the hierarchical society of Medieval England).
The Thorpes, like the famous Pastons, were named after the village they hailed from, because they were not gentry, and did not have a long pedigree going back to the Norman knights who came over with William the Conqueror. Again, like the Pastons, the Thorpes studied hard, became lawyers, made money, and eventually rose to high positions in society. Robert Thorpe the elder, who added the Tower to the Manor House at Longthorpe, was the chief lay steward to Peterborough Abbey, an important and well-paid position. He collected rents for the Abbey, and later on, his descendant would become Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Siedlęcin tower building project was launched in early 1313. Meticulous dendrochronological research carried out in 2015 and 2016 revealed that the first firs for the timber ceilings construction were cut down in the spring of the said year. Those firs can still be seen in the tower today, being the oldest timber ceilings preserved in Poland. For many years the identity of the founder was a subject of debate.
At present, historians generally agree that the man on whose orders the firs were cut down was Duke Henry I of Jawor, the member of the Silesian branch of Poland’s first ruling dynasty, the Piasts. At the time Duke Henry was an ambitious young man with a newly inherited duchy and probably most eager to heighten his own prestige. And what better way to do that than to have a representative seat built and have its walls adorned with a set of extremely fashionable Arthurian paintings. Duke Henry’s family, the Piasts of Schweidnitz-Jauer, maintained – be it by marriage or other diplomatic ways – close ties with the courts of Western Europe, most notably with the splendid royal court at Prague, Bohemia. That made them up to date with all the fashion trends in art and literature so popular in the west. They were reflected on the walls of the Siedlęcin tower’s Great Hall.
Adding a Tower to the Manor House was a statement of wealth and prestige. It is thought that Robert Thorpe was likely to have used off-cuts of stone from the Abbey buildings, and possibly also workmen from the Abbey to build the Tower, which, to this day, stands out as a particularly tall building.
Longthorpe tower is notably plain, rectangular, three stories and crenelated. Moldings around windows and doors are simple. Although there is a battlement area at the top, it was never defended during any war, or civil war, of which there were many during the periods of unrest in the Middle Ages. Its three stories were divided according to a typical scheme. The ground floor was used for storage. The Great Hall was usually on the upper floors. In case of Longthorpe it is the first floor. The Great Chamber was adorned with paintings around 1320-1340.
With its fabric dating from the early fourteenth century the ducal tower of Siedlęcin is one of the largest and best preserved medieval tower-houses in Central Europe. As it was built by a member of the higher nobility, it is on a much grander scale than Longthorpe, but the similarity of design is evident.
Like Longthorpe it is plain and rectangular, but larger. Its five stories were divided according to a typical scheme, as well. The ground floor was used for storage and had a separate entrance. In case of Siedlęcin the Great Hall is on the second floor. There is evidence for a central heating system. It was probably the cause of a fire that broke out in the late 1570’s. The tower itself, built in 1313 – 1316 survived virtually unchanged with only a new roof added after the fire. However, the timber ceilings on the ground, first, second and third floors luckily survived and today they are the oldest wooden ceilings in Poland.
The tower was initially crenelated, surrounded by a curtain wall and a moat, still partly visible today. What is considered the tower’s greatest treasure was commissioned in the 1320’s or 1330’s. According to recent research it was then that the southern wall of the Great Hall was adorned with paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake himself. Today they are the oldest secular wall paintings surviving in Poland.
As in the case of the Ducal Tower, the Longthorpe paintings are of stunning scale and of international importance. Both were whitewashed over for centuries, and survived miraculously. As this was part of a private family home, the Longthorpe paintings show considerable variety. The themes are both religious and secular, but after the English Reformation it was considered heretical to show any religious imagery at all, so the whole interior would have been whitewashed to avoid any trouble.
There is a nativity scene, and a depiction of the twelve apostles, each holding a scroll with a sentence from the Apostles’ Creed. Here is a part of the scroll with the words “Spiritus Sanctus” (the Holy Spirit) just visible. The beautifully even Latin script suggests that possibly monks from the Abbey Scriptorium were drafted in for the work. One of the “Apostles” turns out to be a woman. This figure represents Holy Mother Church, as the words on her scroll inform us.
Other paintings, while not religious, have a strong moral tone. An example is “The Three Living and the Three Dead”. On the left, three Kings are out in their finery, enjoying a hunt. They meet three skeletons in progressive states of decomposition, the one on the far right being eaten by worms. The Kings ask: “What is the meaning of this?” The skeletons reply “As you are now, we once were. As we are now, you will one day be.” This moral depiction, a reminder of mortality, was a popular theme throughout the 1300’s, and appears in church wall paintings and manuscripts.
Numbers were important to the medieval mind, and as well as the Three Living and the Three Dead, and the Five Senses, other paintings depict number sequences. The Seven Ages of Man predates Shakespeare by over 200 years, but follows the same sequence as Shakespeare, showing a baby in a cradle, a child playing with a toy, following through the prime of manhood to maturity and ending with decrepit old age. A sequence of the Twelve Labours of the Months starts with January, showing a peasant warming himself by the fire. Most of the other months are too damaged to see, but December shows the ritual celebration of killing the pigs for Christmas.
Feasting would have taken place in this grand, decorated chamber, and there are paintings of musicians around the ceiling, indicative of private entertainment available to the wealthy.
The Wheel of the Five Senses is another moral, rather than religious theme. The King, controlling the wheel, represents reason. Reason should control the passions and the five senses. Here we can see the spider’s web (touch), the wild boar (hearing), and the vulture (smell). It was thought that vultures detected their prey by smell, although now we know that they see their prey. The other two senses are – sight, depicted by the cockerel, the first to see the dawn, and taste, depicted by a monkey eating.
Other paintings, perhaps done by an apprentice, as they seem cruder, depict aspects of rural life. As education had been their means of advancement, themes of learning are also seen in the chamber. The pictures are dated to approximately 1320- 1340. These dates have been worked out by reference to the style of the Kings’ crowns, and the style of clothing worn by this fashionable young man. The closure of the period (1340) is calculated by a shield showing Edward III’s coat of arms before he announced himself also King of France. The Ducal Tower in Poland calculates that its date of construction and the dates of its paintings are almost identical with Longthorpe’s, indicating an international fashion trend in building and decorating.
More on the paintings on English Heritage website https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/longthorpe-tower/history/
As in the case of Longthorpe, the survival of a set of early fourteenth century wall paintings at Siedlęcin within a tower of about the same date is unusual. Today, being the only Lancelot wall paintings preserved in situ, the Siedlęcin set ranks among the most outstandingly complete and well preserved in Europe. The story of Arthur’s greatest knight, his glittering career, adulterous love for Guinevere and subsequent downfall has been told in two registers and should be ”read” from the lower to the upper one, from left to right (as in case of many other examples of medieval cycles).
At some point, we do not know precisely when – art historians generally agree that it must have been at the beginning of the 16th century – the paintings were whitewashed. This saved them for posterity. In 1887 one Wilhelm Klose, the tax inspector from the nearby town of Jelenia Góra, paid a visit to the then owners of the estate – at this point the tower was used as a granary and the powerful Schaffgotsch family built a manor house in front of it on the previous, original outer walls which had been pulled down. Was it just business or perhaps a flair for history that brought Wilhelm Klose to the tower itself? We can only guess. The important thing is that during his stay he uncovered part of the paintings from underneath the layer of whitewash. Obviously, he did not know the true value of his find, but he made sketches and notes and later turned them into a meticulous report on the tower, its closest surroundings and the paintings on the second floor.
It took art historians one hundred years to determine the identity of their main character. The lower register shows Sir Lancelot and his cousin, Sir Lionel, claiming the world shortly after they had been knighted. To prove their valour and knightly skills in hand-to-hand combat they set off for their first big adventure. The story goes with the tale of Lionel’s capture and Lancelot’s duel with the knight named Tarquin, whom Lancelot defeats and kills. Thanks to this victory sixty-four knights imprisoned in Tarquin’s castle (including, Lionel and four other knights of the Round Table) obtain their freedom.
The upper register shows fair Guinevere with her ladies before the walls of Camelot. Lancelot accompanied by his entourage presents himself to her. The next scene depicts the wicked knight Meleagant as he carries the queen away. He is going to be ultimately slain by Lancelot. The latter hurries to his lady’s rescue, suffering – among many a hardship – a total humiliation of riding in a cart, a form of travelling reserved for criminals. He rescues the queen in the end, the sinful nature of their love being shown in a depiction where they hold their left hands – a clear symbol of their adulterous affair.
In addition to the Lancelot story, wall paintings at Siedlęcin display strong Christian symbols. Put together the central depiction of St Christopher combined with the scene called Memento mori and the Lancelot story carry a clear moralistic message. A knight should be, in opposition to Lancelot who betrayed his sovereign, as faithful and obedient as St Christopher, who carried the infant Christ across the water on his shoulders never to abandon him.
The Great Hall window embrasures are too worth mentioning. They are covered with paintings as well. They still carry the images of the Old Testaments kings and prophets plus the depiction of the Heavenly Jerusalem and coats of arms of two of the knightly families who owned the tower after it had passed to them from the ducal family.
The Siedlęcin set has never been finished, perhaps due to its founder’s death or for more down-to-earth reasons such as lack of means to continue the expensive work. The unfinished portion on the western wall of the Great Hall shows the duel between Lancelot and Sagramour le Desreez and Lancelot healing Urry de Hongre.
The Towers today
By a lucky chance, both Longthorpe Tower and Ducal Tower of Siedlęcin have survived. Each is situated in a quiet backwater in a small village outside a town which escaped, until recently, major re-development projects. The paintings survived because they were white-washed and later uncovered. After the Fitzwilliam family acquired the Longthorpe Manor in the early 1500’s, the Tower was not their main residence, and it was used as a farm storage building, left undisturbed. Similarly the Siedlęcin tower was used as a granary after the Schaffgotsch built a new manor in front of it, on the relics of the original curtain walls. The Longthorpe Tower was donated to the nation by the then owner, Earl Fitzwilliam, shortly after the paintings were re-discovered in 1945. The Siedlęcin tower has been under the care of a society founded in 2010. The Siedlęcin set underwent major conservation in 2006. Thanks to it the paintings are a true marvel to behold.
Recently the past and the present have combined at Longthorpe Tower, as well, when English Heritage in cooperation with the Courtauld Institute of Art conducted a hi-tech examination of the paintings in preparation for conservation.
Today, historians, archaeologists and volunteers show the towers and the paintings to the public, and a growing body of background knowledge is being accumulated by experts in the field.
To learn more about the towers themselves, opening times and organized events, pay viist to their official websites.