Lacock Abbey

Situated in the county of Wiltshire in South West England is a village that time forgot. Used as a backdrop in many period dramas, Lacock has a history that dates back around 800 years. Originally belonging to a nunnery at Lacock Abbey, followed by its subsequent owners, the village is now almost entirely owned by the National Trust.

Lacock Abbey was founded by Ela, Countess of Salisbury (1187-1261), in 1232 during the reign of Henry III (1207-72). The village predates the nunnery by several hundred years and is recorded in the Domesday Book as the property of Edward of Salisbury, Ela’s great-great-grandfather. The name derives from the Saxon word lacuc, meaning “little stream”, which references the nearby Bide Brook.

While under the ownership of the Abbey, the village inhabitants paid their rent by work and goods, such as hay, corn, hides and fleeces, which were collected in the old Tithe Barn. Lacock Abbey soon became known for its wool trade and owned a flock of 2,000 sheep by 1476. Many village tenants were responsible for shearing the sheep and washing the wool ready for trading. In 1539, Lacock was prosperous enough to be called a town by Henry VIII‘s (1491-1547) dissolution commissioners.

Lacock continued to thrive under the various owners of Lacock Abbey throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The London to Bath road helped bring in more trade, which financed improvements to buildings in the village. Despite being made up of four roads, Lacock opened seven alehouses in the 1620s, of which only four public houses remain. The village also owned a “blind house”, where drunkards were left to sober up.

Despite Lacock’s early success, the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century took trade away from manual workers, replacing them with mechanical factories that could produce wool and other products at a quicker pace. The lack of a railway also reduced trade significantly. Without any money, the modernisation of the village ceased, and some inhabitants sought employment elsewhere. The landlord at the time, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), tried to help his tenants and persuaded Parliament to sponsor a few to emigrate to Canada. Many of the remaining inhabitants ended up in the village poorhouse.

Talbot did his best to support his remaining tenants and established a new school in 1824, which still thrives today. Many people continued to work in the fields, and children occasionally left school early to help their fathers during haymaking season.

As time passed, the villagers set up local businesses in their cottages. These included four grocers, four bakers, two blacksmiths, a draper, a tailor, and a luxury goods store. Several men also worked as carpenters, masons, undertakers and plumbers. Between 1927 and 1966, Lacock had a postman named Harry Potter, who worked six days a week. Coincidentally, parts of Lacock and the Abbey became film locations for the famous film franchise Harry Potter (2001-2011).

Lacock has had a church since the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Although it was rebuilt around 1450, the church retains its Norman dedication to Saint Cyriac. According to legend, Cyriac was a three-year-old child killed by the governor of Tarsus in AD 303. His mother, Julitta, attempted to flee with her son from Christian persecutors but did not make it far. While his mother was being tortured, Cyriac scratched at the face of the governor holding him captive, who subsequently threw Cyriac down the stairs. Julitta refused to weep for her son; instead, she rejoiced that he had earned the title of a martyr. Angry with this reaction, the governor put Julitta to death.

Until 1962, St Cyriac’s Church was the home of the Lacock Cup, “one of the most significant pieces of secular English medieval silver” from the 15th century. Although it was intended for feasting, its purpose changed after the English Reformation in the 16th century. The church used it as a goblet to hold enough communion wine for the congregation. Previously, churches used cups decorated with religious imagery, but these were deemed too Catholic by Henry VIII.

Due to the Lacock Cup’s age and rarity, St Cyriac’s Church lent it to the British Museum for safe keeping in 1962, where it remains on display today. In 2013, the church needed significant money to maintain and restore the building, so they officially sold the cup to the British Museum and Wiltshire Museum for £1.3 million. The Wiltshire Museum agreed the Lacock Cup could remain at the British Museum in London but had a replica made for themselves and another for the church.

Visitors to Lacock may recognise some buildings and streets from period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice (2005). Whilst Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Rosings was filmed at Belton House, parts of Mr Darcy’s Pemberley were filmed at Lacock Abbey, and the Bennets shopped in Lacock, which was renamed Meryton for the duration of the show. For the 2007 show Cranford, Lacock became an 1840s village with earth spread over the tarmac and a false facade erected in front of the Red Lion inn.

Other television shows and films recorded at Lacock include Downton Abbey (2015 and 2018), Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box (2012), Wolf Hall (2015), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and two Harry Potter films. One quaint building in the village appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) during a flashback scene about the death of the titular character’s parents. More iconic scenes were filmed at Lacock Abbey, which was also used as a setting for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018).

The Abbey Cloisters became corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on several occasions. Several rooms also became the Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts classrooms. The Cloister originally ran around an 80-foot open square, but the west corridor later became part of the servants’ quarters. The medieval plaster still contains traces of wall paintings, such as the head of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child, which is visible in the Chaplain’s room off the South Cloister. There is also evidence of 15th-century graffiti signed Johan fecit hoc (John did this).

Restoration work in the 1980s uncovered other faded paintings, including a kneeling nun receiving the blessing of a bishop. The mural dates back to the early 15th century when Agnes Frary (1429-45) was the Abbess. Only the silhouettes of the two figures remain, but people assume the bishop is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the founder of the Augustinian Order.

The first Harry Potter film used the Chapter House as the location of the Mirror of Erised, in which Harry saw his parents reflected back at him. The nuns met in the Chapter House to read a passage from the Rule of St Augustine. Written around 400 AD, these rules served as an outline for religious life in a community and emphasised chastity, obedience and charity.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Lacock Abbey came into the possession of William Sharington (c.1495-1553), an ambitious Tudor courtier who converted the building into a large house. Despite having three wives, Sharington had no children, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to Sharington’s brother, Henry (1518-1581). Henry entertained Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at the house during her visit to Lacock in 1574, earning him a knighthood.

Following Sir Henry Sharington’s death in 1581, Lacock Abbey became the possession of his daughter Olive (d.1646), the wife of John Talbot of Salwarpe (d. 1581). Their eldest son, Sherrington, predeceased his mother by four years, so Olive’s grandson, Sherrington Talbot the Younger (d.1677), inherited the Abbey instead. Sherrington Talbot was a Royalist and was forced to give up Lacock Abbey to the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. Fortunately, his younger brother Gilbert, a founding member of the Royal Society, managed to claim back the Abbey after the restoration of the monarchy. Gilbert died unmarried, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to the eldest son of Sherrington Talbot, John (1630-1714).

John Talbot only had daughters, so on his death, the Abbey became the home of his eldest grandson, John Ivory, who added the name Talbot to his name. During the 58 years he lived at the Abbey, Ivory Talbot made many changes to the building before passing it on to his son, John. Unfortunately, John died six years after inheriting Lacock, so it was passed on to his sister Martha, the wife of Reverend William Davenport (not to be confused with the fictional vicar in the television series Granchester).

When Martha died in 1790, her son, William Davenport Talbot (1764-1800), inherited the estate. As a soldier, Davenport Talbot racked up many debts and left his wife and young son penniless after his death in 1800. His widow, Lady Elisabeth Fox-Strangways, moved out of the Abbey and let it out until she remarried to Captain Charles Feilding in 1827. The Captain, later an Admiral, helped bring the estate out of debt and made it into a comfortable home for his stepson, William Henry Fox Talbot, the Victorian pioneer of photography and the inventor of the negative.

Lacock Abbey subsequently passed on to Fox Talbot’s son Charles in 1877, who left it to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871-1958), who gave it to the National Trust. The house remained inhabited by Matilda’s great-nephew and niece until they died in 2002 and 2011. Since then, the house has become a museum of Lacock Abbey’s rich and varied history.

Most of the rooms at Lacock Abbey are open to the public, although access may depend on the number of volunteers available on the day. One notable room to see is the Blue Parlour, which William Henry Fox Talbot used as a library. The walls were painted blue by his grandaughter Matilda when she inherited the Abbey in 1916, which she believed to be very similar to its original colour at the beginning of the 19th century.

The desk in the Blue Parlour is known as a Carlton House desk. It was first made for the home of the Prince Regent in around 1825. Allegedly, the desk was given to Lacock Abbey by Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who wished to pay off the gambling debts incurred by her father. Also in the room are several items and books that allude to Fox Talbot’s studies. Lacock has a collection of almost 4,000 books that span from the late 13th century to the 20th century.

The South Gallery, which served as a corridor between the nun’s dormitory and the chapel, became a family sitting room during Fox Talbot’s time at Lacock Abbey. Guests frequently filled the long room for evenings of entertainment, which included poetry, singing and piano music. Situated next to the piano is an Angel harp made by the French instrument maker, Sébastien Érard (1752-1831). A photograph, presumably taken by Fox Talbot, shows his half-sister Horatia Feilding (c.1809-51) playing the harp. 

Fox Talbot enlarged the South Gallery by adding three oriel windows, which let in plenty of light and provided views across the land. One of these windows played a significant part in the development of photography.

Although Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) both lay claim to the invention of photography, Fox Talbot is credited for the development of the camera negative. In August 1835, Fox Talbot set up his camera in the South Gallery, pointing at one of the oriel windows. Although it took much longer to produce than a simple click of a button, the result was the first negative photographic image. Whilst the negative reversed the light and dark tones of the image, it captured the 200 diamond-shaped panes of glass in the window.

At one end of the South Gallery is the Dining Room, which John Ivory Talbot decorated in the Palladian style. The doors are set in cases with curved brackets and triangular pediments. The fireplace also features Palladian characteristics. Family meals were usually eaten here until Matilda converted it into a ballroom. The National Trust has since returned the dining table to the room to make it resemble the space where previous owners ate in relative privacy.

When John Ivory Talbot moved into Lacock Abbey, he immediately hired the architect Sanderson Miller (1716-80) to rebuild the “horrid” Tudor hall. At Ivory Talbot’s request, the barrel-vaulted ceiling was painted with 45 heraldic shields. Miller salvaged glass from the nunnery to use in the windows and designed the Gothick cornice and canopied niches. Austrian modeller, Victor Alexander Sederbach, produced several terracotta sculptures for the niches.

Many of the terracotta sculptures pay homage to the nunnery. Above the chimneypiece, a statue of Abbess Ela stands with her two granddaughters, who also served as nuns. Another statue is William Longespée (1156-1226), Ela’s husband. When Longespée died, Ela decided not to remarry and devoted herself to God instead. Longespée’s father was King Henry II (1113-89), who also stands in one of the niches, as do two of his grandsons, Ela’s children. The statue that stands out to most visitors is a man and goat, upon whose nose rests a sugar lump. A student staying at the Abbey in 1919 positioned the sugar lump as a prank, but Matilda found it so amusing that she insisted it remain there, replacing it with a fresh lump when necessary.

Outside the Abbey is an extensive parkland, with several gardens and beds of flowers that bloom at various times of the year. For the nuns, the land provided food and a peaceful sanctuary. For the subsequent inhabitants, it became a space to enjoy and escape the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. The gardens are still carefully maintained for visitors to explore.

Lacock Abbey is open daily for paying visitors and National Trust members. In addition to the Abbey, there is a museum about William Henry Fox Talbot, which documents his life and experiments with photography. Lacock Village is open from dawn to dusk, with several shops selling local products. Visitors need to be mindful that people live in the village and must not trespass on private properties.

For more information about visiting Lacock Abbey, go to the National Trust website.


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4 thoughts on “Lacock Abbey

  1. Another extremely interesting blog this time describing a whole village and its long history. Given how picturesque the place is, I am not surprised that it has been used so often as a setting for period dramas and major film franchises.
    Hazel, you give us an in depth history of Laycock and its abbey in a well-written and researched blog which is easy to read. Thank you.

  2. So much history in one place. Thank you for helping me to travel through the centuries in such an interesting and informative way. Would be a great place to explore if one got the chance. This certainly whets one’s appetite!

  3. What I admire most is the research Hazel puts in. Brilliant work and explained in easily digestible chunks.
    Such an attractive village with film backstories I’m grateful you have allowed Lacock to be aired
    Another masterpiece

  4. Pingback: The Father of Modern Photography | Hazel Stainer

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