May and June 2023 saw the forth season of archaeological excavations at Soulton Hall, led by Dig Ventures.
This research compliments ongoing scholarship by James D. Wenn on the thousand year story of the manner of Soulton. Previous seasons have looked at the mound near Soulton Bridge which is now confirmed to be a small chivalric castle-type structure which was established by the mid 1200s and was in occupation until around 1400, when the focus of the occupation shifted to the present home site of the manner.
This year’s work sought to prove some theories about the sixteenth century phases of Soulton’s story, when it was the Shropshire headquarters of the important Tudor statesman Sir Rowland Hill.
A sense of how significant Sir Rowland Hill was will reward anyone trying to get a sense of how important these excavations are, and what they are investigating. It is therefore helpful to provide a quick summary. Hill published the Geneva Bible (the Bible of Shakespeare, John Donne and Oliver Cromwell, and the Bible taken on the Mayflower to found America). While he was doing this England was experiencing Mary I’s counter reformation, making this work treason and heresy. Waht Hill was leading was thus incredibly dangerous: around 300 people were executed in those days for engagement with these matters. This commitment to sheltering that Bible project when it was forbidden, along with his extensive patronage of the arts and wider support for charity and the commonweal caused him to regarded as a kind of benign national godfather to the new Elizabethan age, to the point that he appears to have been memorialised as Old Sir Rowland in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.
Returning the investigations this summer. it is understood the Soulton Hall is built in an elaborate set of codes that draw on the ideas in scripture, humanism, and classical philosophy. For instance, the view of the hall from the bridge with the two tower-like projections is intended to evoke Solomon’s Temple, while the precinct being the same size as the Telesterion of Ancient Greece is consciously suggesting Eleusis, where the Athenians performed the senior mysteries of the classical world.
These allusions to different things in the architectural project go on and on and are very sophisticated. Though outside the scope of this article they are covered in a James’s forthcoming book Stones of the Magi (Canalside Press), as well as in a lecture available on Youtube under the title Garnet as Emblem of Goodness | Philosophical architecture from Henry III to George III .
Rowland Hill clearly recruited the landscape beyond Soulton Hall for these architectural games, and the team were looking into how this might have worked and what remained.
The outputs of this year’s work appear to confirm (1) that there was a large lawn down the currently lost axis addressing the rising sun on Easter morning; (2) that the mound of the lost castle was recruited in some form in this landscape in the 1500s; and (3) that there may have been a very large yard between the current hall (Hill’s elite accommodation block of the wider palace he built which has since been muted and lost) and what is now Soulton Road. These things support the theory that Hill was staging theatre just outside Wem the generation before Shakespeare – which is profoundly important to our understanding of how the renaissance happened in England. Tantalisingly, the dancing pavement behind Soulton Hall begins to look like it shows the lost choreography for the dance performed at the end of As You Like It.
There is a need for further research in several disciplines to get an appropriately deep understanding of the full extent of what was happening at Soulton in these times. It is, however, very exciting in terms of what may be able to be unlocked for our county in terms of heritage and cultural led regeneration and hence economic opportunities for Wem Rural
By Tim Ashton, Soulton Hall
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