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Archaeology and History

Heritage and Locality

The South West region's historic landscape offers unrivalled opportunities to explore its archaelogy, landscape and architectural histories, and also the myths and stories associated with particular sites, such as that of Tintagel which was, according to medieval legend, the birthplace of King Arthur.

Powderham Castle

Powderham Castle is the ancient seat of the Courtenay family. Their history is recorded back to the ninth century and they have lived in Devon since arriving with Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1150s.

The work of Professors James Clark and Henry French will help the Earl and Countess share 1,000 years of history with the public at Powderham, which is a very popular destination for visitors to the South West.

Researchers from the History department and our Digital Humanities team are using the latest digital technology to recreate the Courtenay medieval family tree, revealing the fascinating lifestories of their ancestors and their role in shaping national and local history.

This partnership between the University of Exeter and Powderham has so far led to the digitisation of a medieval family tree and cartulary. The documents are preserved in a 600-year-old book richly painted with the branches of the bright green tree running across each page and the coats of arms of each generation picked out in gold leaf. The digitisation will enable the original medieval “tree” to be put together for the first time.

Professor Clark said: “The striking thing about the medieval family tree is that it is not just a list of names, it presents the lifestories of some of the Courtenays’ most remarkable ancestors, put together by those who knew them at first hand. It especially celebrates some of the formidable women in the family, many of whom break the medieval mould as fearlessly independent, politically active defenders of their family’s interest. We have been able to translate it from Latin and digitally recreate it as a tree. It will hopefully be displayed at the castle for visitors and will bring to life the story of the Courtenay family.”

Professor French said: “We are delighted that the Earl got in contact with us to suggest we work with him to examine the Courtenay family. We have been thrilled to work with the materials at Powderham.”

The Earl, Charlie said: “It has been fantastic to work with Henry and James on the digitisation of the cartulary. My wife AJ and I are looking forward to bringing to life a piece of Devon’s history and sharing this at Powderham.”

Charlie has recently discovered very colourful but little known stories of the Courtenay family. Documents have shed new light on the friendship between Richard Courtenay – who was born at Powderham – and King Henry V, the hero of Agincourt. Richard was Henry’s boyhood companion, loyal friend and perhaps the greatest influence on his outlook when he took the throne. Richard was buried alongside Henry in Westminster Abbey and the researchers believe there is more to be discovered about the closest of friendships with medieval England’s most memorable monarchs. 

Poltimore House

The Poltimore House Trust knowledge transfer project with the University of Exeter utilised the research expertise of Professor Henry French on patterns of land ownership and elite political and cultural behaviour which allowed him to provide the social, economic and cultural context for archaeological research on the elite landscape at Poltimore House, and to guide Poltimore House Trust volunteers in archival research projects.

Poltimore House is a country house on the edge of Exeter, previously owned by the Bampfylde family, Lords Poltimore. The house, which contains elements from the Tudor period onwards, is now semi-derelict, and along with the surrounding grounds, once a garden and landscaped park, is owned a local charity, Poltimore House Trust which is dedicated to its renovation.

His research into personal and estate correspondence of 19 gentry households from across England in the period 1670-1900 allowed him to guide the volunteers in analysing the composition and turnover of the household and garden staff at Poltimore, their geographical origins and career patterns from census, estate letters and newspaper sources.

The project developed on-site educational activities with primary and secondary schools in East Devon, plus A-level students from Exeter College. During the course of the project 721 school pupils from seven partner schools in Devon participated in 18 training and outreach events mapped to the National Curriculum. Events included on-site training workshops on masonry recording, archaeological survey, landscape analysis and visits to schools, and a film made by Broadclyst Community Primary School.

Public access

The project increased public access to Poltimore House and its grounds. It also stimulated public interest in the neglected historic landscape at Poltimore, by making techniques of landscape research more widely accessible. During the course of the project 2,127 members of the public participated in 86 training and outreach events (including flagship launch events and an end-of-project symposium), two project open events and other ‘local history days’.

The project made the history of Poltimore House publicly accessible with information about the heritage of the estate presented to the general public through the creation of a specific project website, which contains 101 documents, photographs and analyses of census, newspaper and mapping evidence undertaken by project volunteers.

The project created new archaeological find collections for the Poltimore House Trust, moveable on-site displays and five permanent on-site visitor display boards to present new interpretative materials about Poltimore, its gardens and estates, incorporating the work of school children and volunteers involved in the project, and leaflets providing key information and maps. These have been built into on-site presentations at open days by volunteer guides, and a new guidebook to be written by the volunteers, sold to raise funds for the Poltimore House Trust. Material from the project will be incorporated into a new volume on the history of Poltimore House, published by the Trust in November 2013 to raise funds.

In October 2013, volunteers trained as part of this project formed a dedicated history society (The Poltimore Estate Research Society, PERS) to continue pursuing research projects that began during the knowledge transfer project.