Between November 1548 and June 1549, the King of England’s Sergeant Plumber, George Hind, made several visits to a major Tudor construction site near Marlborough – now called Bedwyn Brail.
Between 2007 and 2014 members of the Archaeology Field Group from the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Society (WANHS) uncovered the engineering work Hind had designed – and, buried deep beneath Bedwyn Brail’s woodland, it was still in perfect condition with water flowing through it.
In privately owned woods close to the Wilton windmill, they had rediscovered the complex water system that would have supplied the Duke of Somerset’s planned mansion. Its more immediate use was to supply his builders with water.
“The perfection of the system is breathtaking”, local historian Graham Bathe told Marlborough News Online. “The top water engineer in the land, the king’s Sergeant Plumber, came here to manage the project, at a time before water-pumps were invented.”
“Everything had to be engineered so that water could gravitate wherever it was needed, from fountains to the kitchens and stables. This mansion was to be vast, capable of housing and dining hundreds, including the king himself, and the water supply demonstrates state-of-the-art technology”.
The discoveries are revealed in a paper by Graham Bathe, Robin Holley and Brian Clarke in the latest issue of the Society’s annual Magazine – Volume 107 of WANHM. [See below for details.]
Apart from this water supply, the Duke of Somerset’s new mansion was never finished – and probably never got substantially beyond the laying of foundations.
The Duke of Somerset (eldest son of the Seymours of Wolf Hall) had become Lord Protector (or regent) for his nephew, the young Edward VI, who was Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour’s son. After their deaths, Somerset was in virtual control of England and his powers seem to have gone to his head. He sought out regal trappings and ordered personal building schemes on a megalomaniac scale – including Somerset House and Syon House in London.
Plans for his Wiltshire house were cut short when he was accused of felony, his Wiltshire lands seized and, soon after, was executed. The mansion would have replaced his father’s Wolf Hall where he and Jane Seymour were brought up, but which was simply not grand enough for the man who had become Lord Protector of the realm.
The Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group have discovered the amazingly preserved system that collected water from four natural springs and from seepage along the conduit’s length, and channelled it into a carefully constructed storage tank at Tidcombe Gate.
The collection of seepage along the length of the conduit was engineered through a band of rubble on its eastern (uphill) side. This band was called ‘the vault’ in the Tudor letters about the construction as the WANHS paper makes clear:
“There was debate about whether enough coarse quarry stone was available for ‘the vault of the conduit, being a thousand foot long’, when such stone was also needed for the foundations and infill of walls.”
It has long been known that there was an ancient ‘great ditch’ running through the Brail – since 1880 it has been marked on Ordnance Survey maps as a ‘Conduit’. Most of the rediscovered conduit was inserted below the great ditch – the total length of the conduit is 469.9 metres.
The extent of the brickworks was a great surprise to the archaeologists. The use of bricks in this sort of sixteenth century water system is rare in England.
From the surviving letters in the archives at Longleat, it is clear that enough local clay was dug to create up to two million bricks – about 100,000 of them were made on site and used for the water system’s conduit.
Sergeant Plumber Hind was also known for his work on lead roofing – ‘plumber’ comes from the Latin for lead: ‘plumbum’. We will probably never know why Hind chose to make this system almost entirely from brick rather than lead piping – but the amount of water this mansion would require certainly gives us a clue.
The authors of the WANHS paper believe that the use of brick showed just how large Somerset’s new house was planned to be. This brick conduit could certainly carry in excess of 25 times more water than the usual diameter of lead piping. And, as the archaeologists have now proved by their discoveries, the brickwork was very durable.
The other unusual thing about this water system is the very shallow gradient of the system. The Brails conduit has an overall fall of 1 in 150 which may be the shallowest channel gradient recorded for systems of this period.
Water systems relying on gravity-flow had been installed in royal palaces, castles and some great religious houses since the late twelfth century. But the Tudor period saw great advances in water and plumbing technology – and Sergeant Plumber Hind was at the forefront of the advances.
The unearthing of this massive and rare water supply system in Bedwyn Brail, studied in conjunction with the surviving documents about its construction, gives a unique glimpse into the Tudor period. But, tantalisingly, it also shows what a huge and powerful house Lord Protector Somerset had been planning – before his ambition and unbending self-importance tipped him into ultimate disgrace.
[Individual copies of the Wiltshire Archaeology and Natural History Magazine – Volume 107 (2014) can be bought from the Devizes Museum. It is free to members of the WANHSociety.] [Click on photos to enlarge them.] [With thanks to Graham Bathe for his assistance on this article.]
LORD PROTECTOR SOMERSET
The downfall of the Duke of Somerset (formerly Edward Seymour) was caused in part by his penchant for building on a flamboyant and extravagant scale, which he funded by pillaging dissolved monasteries.
In July 1548 he persuaded his nephew, King Edward (then aged 10) to give him Reading Abbey and he soon employed George Hind to take as much lead as possible from the Abbey buildings. He obtained about 450 tons of lead as well as other reclamation materials to be used for his grandiose building programme. (The remains of this Abbey can still be seen in the town.)
In October 1549 one of the charges against Somerset was that “he did convert, to his own use, lead and material from Sion, Reading and Glastonbury of great value”. In fact lead and stone from Reading ended up in a new water conduit for Windsor Castle.
GEORGE HIND – SERGEANT PLUMBER
George Hind was awarded the office of Sergeant Plumber by Henry VIII in 1542. He was charged to carry out plumbing work at all the King’s palaces and works in England. He was paid a salary of 12 pence a day. And he was also awarded an annual livery, vesture [clothing] and fur or, if he preferred, 40 shillings instead. (For comparison, the steward at Wolf Hall at about this time was paid £3.10s a year.)
The post of Sergeant Plumber was one of seven expert craftsmen the Tudor Kings appointed. The others were master mason, carpenter, joiner, painter, glazier and – most importantly – locksmith.