Ascott House: remains of 16th and 17th century mansion, formal gardens and warren


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1018009

Date first listed: 01-Feb-1999


Ordnance survey map of Ascott House: remains of 16th and 17th century mansion, formal gardens and warren
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Buckinghamshire

District: Aylesbury Vale (District Authority)

Parish: Wing

National Grid Reference: SP 88649 22315


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

Post-medieval formal gardens are the upstanding or buried remains of garden arrangements dating between the early 16th and mid-18th centuries, their most characteristic feature being a core of geometric layout, typically located and orientated in relation to major residences of which they formed the settings. Garden designs of this period are numerous and varied, although most contain a number of recognisable components. For the 16th and 17th centuries the most common features are flat-topped banks or terraces (actually raised walkways), waterways, closely set ponds and multi-walled enclosures. Late 17th and early 18th century gardens often reflect the development of these ideas and contain multiple terraces and extensive water features as well as rigidly geometrical arrangements of embankments. Other features fashionable across the period include earthen mounds (or mounts) used as vantage points to view the house and gardens or as the sites of ornate structures; `moats' surrounding areas of planting; walled closes of stone or brick (sometimes serving as the forecourt of the main house) and garden buildings such as banqueting houses and pavilions. Planted areas were commonly arranged in geometric beds, or parterres, in patterns which incorporated hedges, paths and sometimes ponds, fountains and statuary. By contrast, other areas were sometimes set aside as romantic wildernesses. Formal gardens were created throughout the period at royal level, by the aristocracy and by county families - evidently as a routine accompaniment of the country seats of the landed elite. As such formal gardens of all sizes were once commonplace and their numbers may have comfortably exceeded 2000. However, the radical redesign of many gardens in later periods allied to developments has dramatically reduced this total and although many examples have yet to be identified or correctly interpreted, little more than 250 examples are currently known nationwide. Although one of many post-medieval monument types, formal gardens have a particular importance reflecting the social expectations and aspirations of the period. They represent a significant and illuminating aspect of the architectural and artistic tastes of the time and illustrate the skills which developed to realise the ambitions of their owners. Surviving evidence may take many forms including standing structures, earthworks and buried remains; the latter may include details of the planting patterns and even environmental material from which to identify the species employed. With the exception of those formal gardens which still serve their original purpose, examples in which the principal features remain visible or for which significant archaeological evidence survives, will normally be considered to be of national importance. The gardens of Ascott House, having seen little disturbance since the demise of the mansion in the late 17th century, contain a wide range of archaeological information, both visible and buried, reflecting the status and influence of the Dormer family and providing a significant illustration of the standard of garden design within the known lifetime of the house. The principal earthwork features, the terraces, walkways, watercourse and ponds survive extremely well, allowing a detailed impression of the original garden layout. Further information is also expected to survive in the form of buried evidence for planting arrangements, paths and perhaps the foundations of garden structures; particular importance being attached to the earthwork flower beds alongside the canal, the design of which is considered unique. The conditions are also suitable for the retrieval of botanical evidence illustrating something of the range of species employed. The location of the Elizabethan mansion, although demolished in the late 18th century, can be inferred from the design of the major garden features, and traced from the marks left by the removal of building materials. Despite this later robbing, traces of the building will remain preserved as buried features, and these will retain valuable information concerning its extent, the methods employed in its construction and the sequence of alterations leading up to its final abandonment. The development of the wider surroundings of the house is also of special interest, in particular the extensive warren which covers the hillside to the west of the formal gardens. Warrens, in an archaeological context, are areas of land set aside for the breeding and management of rabbits or hares. The tradition of warren construction dates from the 12th century following the introduction of the rabbits into England from the continent, and normally involved the creation of purpose-built breeding places, known as pillow mounds or buries, which were intended to centralise the colony and to ease capture, whether by net, ferrets or dogs. Other features of the warren include vermin traps and, more rarely, traps to contain the warren stock and allow for selective culling. Larger warrens might include living quarters for the warrener, who kept charge of the site, sometimes surrounded by an enclosed garden and outbuildings. Profits from successfully managed warrens could be considerable, and although early warrens were mostly associated with the higher levels of society, their use gradually spread to many manors and estates by the 16th and 17th centuries. This popularity declined, however, in the 19th century in response to changing agricultural practices and the availability of imported furs. Although relatively common, warrens are considered important for their associations with a wide range of settlements and other monument classes, secular and religious, and for the insight which they allow into their economy and social status. The warren remains near the site of Ascott House are exceptionally well preserved and, in addition to the variety of pillow mounds, may also include evidence for the warrener's house and other features related to the site's management. Of particular interest is the fact that the warren appears to have been a component of the designed landscape which surrounded the mansion and, in this respect, complimentary to the formal gardens. A recent study has suggested that, in the iconography of the medieval period, the rabbit and the warren came to symbolise spiritual salvation and the husbandry of the Roman Church; furthermore this symbolism may have taken on a special significance amongst some resolute Roman Catholics after the Reformation. The mansion's original owner, Sir Robert Dormer, remained devoted to Catholicism, and his family included Jane Dormer, the Duchess of Feria, who was the chief patroness of religious exiles in Spain. It is possible, therefore, that the Ascott House warren was more ornamental than functional, and was perhaps specifically designed to portray this subversive metaphor. The development of the parkland and the warren to the west of the formal gardens clearly subsumed part of an earlier field system (which may have remained in operation up to this point), part of which is thought to have been enclosed for settlement at an earlier date. This evidence is considered significant in furthering our knowledge of the medieval village of Wing (which is largely overlain by later buildings), for the information which it contains regarding the earlier, medieval Manor of Ascott, and in terms of the impact of the mansion's development on the structure of the earlier settlement. Taken together, the surroundings of the former mansion provide a largely undamaged area of historic landscape of great significance, which is accessible to the public via designated footpaths.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes the buried and visible remains of a post-medieval mansion (Ascott House), the formal gardens which provided its immediate setting and part of the surrounding imparked landscape which contains evidence of an extensive man-made rabbit warren as well as numerous earthworks reflecting earlier settlement and cultivation.

The earthwork remains extend across an area of approximately 20ha to the south of the A418 Aylesbury-Leighton road and east of the Mentmore road, occupying the crest and the broad south-facing hillside to the south of the village of Wing. The most striking feature within the area of the scheduling is the series of imposing terraces ascending the hillside to the north of Wing Park Farm. These represent the principal formal gardens of Ascott House, a substantial post-medieval mansion built by the wealthy Dormer family in the first half of the 16th century. The tomb of Sir Robert Dormer lies in the nearby parish church (along with those of two other members of the family) and is described by Pevsner as `the finest monument of its date (1552) in England'. The Dormers' residence was clearly also intended to reflect their status, which was sufficient to attract a visit from the future Elizabeth I in 1544. In the reign of Charles I, Robert Dormer, Earl of Carnarvon, began construction of an additional `noble apartment' designed by Inigo Jones. This, however, may never have been completed. The Earl sided with the Royalist cause and the house was ransacked by Parliamentarian forces on the 29th November 1642 during the first phase of the English Civil War. The Earl himself was killed at the Battle of Newbury in 1643 and the house does not appear to have been reinhabited. By 1720 it was ruinous, and towards the end of the 18th century the foundations were cleared away and used for road repairs. No illustrations survive and the building does not appear on any historical map (the earliest of which is the Enclosure Map of 1798). The design of the formal garden earthworks would suggest that the mansion stood centrally above the upper terrace, and the conifer plantation which covers part of this area contains numerous hollows and trenches which are thought to have resulted from the removal of building material. A slight terraced platform, approximately 50m square, extends beyond the western limit of the plantation and could represent part of the site of the Tudor mansion or perhaps the site of the bowling green constructed by the Earl shortly before the Civil War. The imposing terraces are characteristic of the late 16th and early 17th century formal garden design, and clearly developed within the lifetime of Ascott House. Following a north west-south east alignment they cover about 2.25ha, descending into two almost perfectly level steps from the probable site of the mansion and doubtless proving the setting for an elaborate pattern of pathways and parterres. Except to the south, the upper terrace is bordered by substantial banks rising up to 4m above the level of the platform, of which those to the north and west are best preserved. These would have served as raised walkways providing views across the planting areas below, of which the only feature to remain visible is a circular depression marking the location of an ornamental pond in the centre of the platform. A conical mound, or mount, at the western end of the northern bank suggests the location of a pavilion from which it would have been possible to enjoy the prospect of the house, the terraced gardens and the imparked landscape and other garden features to the west. The northern bank is also broken by a central gap which may have contained steps leading from the house. A scarp of about 3.5m descends in two narrow stages to the second terrace which is similarly flanked by a raised walkway to the west and remnants of a matching bank to the east (partly truncated by the access road to Wing Park Farm). A protrusion from the dividing scarp appears to represent a second flight of steps on the same central axis as the gap in the bank of the terrace above. Less pronounced features extend southwards from the foot of the terraces and share their orientation. A low bank extends across the end of the lower terrace and continues westwards for 30m towards the northern corner of a large ornamental pond. A second bank (linked to the first by a bank on the same alignment as the western walkways) runs parallel, some 50m to the south east, before continuing to the south west to form a dam around the southern side of this pond. Aerial photographs taken in the 1940s, before the field to the south of the access road to Wing Park Farm was ploughed, show that this latter feature formed a `T'-junction with an embanked avenue, possibly a planted walkway, also aligned with the central axis of the terraces. The ornamental pond to the south west of the terraces is approximately 80m in diameter and rather amorphous in shape, although remnants of angled sides to the south suggest that it was originally polygonal (perhaps pentagonal) in plan. Now dry for much of the year, the pond was originally fed by a stream channel which descends through a crease in the hillside to the north west. The lower section of this channel (parallel to the garden terraces) forms an artificial canal, approximately 15m in width, the western side of which is flanked by the earthwork remains of two ornate flower beds. The northern bed (measuring some 100m by 25m) is divided longitudinally and the eastern half is compartmentalised by four shallow ditches cut in alternating arcs from either side to create a geometric yet sinuous effect which is considered unique to these gardens. The southern bed is similar in width and design but less clearly defined as it approaches the pond. The stream course continues northwards from the canal along the fenceline which now divides the two main fields containing the monument. The head of the channel is met by a large ditch extending eastwards from a pair of small ponds (now dry) located immediately to the south of the recreation ground. These ponds, and their connecting channels, may have been purposely dug to exploit the spring line which rises hereabouts in order to serve the canal and pond. The arrangement lacks the symmetry seen elsewhere in the garden design, however, and it is possible these features were originally designed as fishponds and only later adapted to suit the needs of the garden landscape. The hillside to the west of the canal (between the canal and the Mentmore road) is covered by numerous low earthworks, amongst which are several which have been interpreted as pillow mounds - artificial mounds built to encourage and control the breeding of rabbits. Six individual mounds have been identified, varying between 0.3m and 0.5m high and surrounded by shallow drainage ditches. Two of the mounds are roughly circular and about 10m in diameter, the other four being sub-rectangular and averaging 17m in length and 8m in width. They are all located in the northern half of the field above the more severe southern slope, and all but the northernmost example (which lies close to the outflow from the northern ponds) clearly overlie an earlier pattern of medieval cultivation which provides some indication of the date of their construction. Two small ditched enclosures to the south are also superimposed over this earlier field pattern. These two may relate to the operation of the warren. In particular, the square enclosure at the foot of the slope has been tentatively identified as the curtilage of a warrener's house, which itself may be represented by traces of a stone building in the north western corner. It has been suggested that the warren earthworks are contemporary with the designed landscape of Ascott House - forming a feature within the surrounding parkland which, as 18th century records state, also contained deer. Examples such as Wrest Park in Bedfordshire and the Triangular Lodge at Rushden demonstrate that warrens were fashionable items within the grounds of substantial early post-medieval houses; perhaps, in addition to any practical use, embodying a long standing Christian metaphor for resurrection made topical by the recent suppression of the Catholic Church. The position of the mount overlooking the warren from the western side of the garden terraces suggests that the warren was indeed a component of the designed surroundings of Ascott House, whose owner, Sir Robert Dormer, remained devoted to Catholicism despite having been enriched as a result of the dissolution of St Alban's Abbey. The dating evidence for the warren, however, is presently limited to its relationship to medieval cultivation remains and the warren could conceivably have developed at any later date - perhaps after the demise of the mansion when the parkland was abandoned. However the lack of documentary evidence tends to weigh against such a possibility. Underlying the warren earthworks the remains of two furlongs of medieval cultivation can be seen on the western side of the monument, the most prominent examples covering the hillside to the west of the large ornamental pond where the pattern of lands (or ridges) descends in line with the slope and is partly overlain by the ornate flower beds alongside the canal. The crest of the slope retains traces of a second furlong set at right angles to the gradient, and a further remnant of this furlong survives to the east of the upper ponds, partly truncated by the outflow to the main stream course. The north western corner of the western field (to the south of the bungalow estate by Park Gate) generally lacks the visible remains of ridge and furrow which cover the hillside futher south. A geophysical survey undertaken in 1993, however, demonstrated that the pattern did once extend across this area before being superseded by a series of enclosures. In the same year, test pits following the route of the (now abandoned) Wing Bypass revealed concentrations of medieval pottery in this area, which indicated an expansion of medieval settlement from the core of the earlier Anglo-Saxon village (futher north towards the church), taking in part of the former field system in the process. Some evidence for this settlement is still visible on the ground. The narrow strip of land to the north of the bungalows contains a number of low earthworks including traces of a small rectangular building platform and several shallow ditches leading eastwards towards the ponds at the head of the canal. The mansion built by the Dormer family in the 16th century is known to have superseded an earlier manor of Ascott, first recorded in 1317. The house platform, the enclosures and even the upper ponds, could be considered as the possible location of this earlier residence, or indeed as the site of a small Benedictine community which was said to have preceded the establishment of the medieval manor. The crest of the slope to the south of the bungalows is crossed by a number of shallow ditches, some of which form a drainage system linked to the canal. A ditch traverses the field some 100m to the south of the bungalows and combines with an outflow channel from the upper ponds to form two large enclosures, the western of which is subdivided and contains a small, incomplete ditched enclosure. The date of these enclosures has not been determined, and whilst it is apparent that they post-date the medieval cultivation pattern, it is not certain whether they reflect changes in land use in the medieval period or later. It has been suggested that they represent a series of small closes laid out in the 18th century after the abandonment of the park. The surface of the road to Wing Park Farm, together with all fences and gates within the area of the monument, are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29417

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Allcroft, A H, Earthworks of England, (1908), 610
Johnson, A E, A418 Wing Bypass Manetic Susceptibity and Magnetometer Survey, (1993)
Lipscomb, G, The History and Antiquties of Buckinghamshire, (1847), 523
Lipscomb, G, The History and Antiquties of Buckinghamshire, (1847), 523-25
Page, W , The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire450-53
Page, W , The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire, (1912), 450
Page, W , The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire450
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire, (1960), 296
Rowse, A L, The Elizabethan Renaissance, (1974), 154
Sheahan, , History of Buckinghamshire, (1860), 782
Taylor, C C, Former House and Garden Remains, Wing Buckinghamshire, (1993)
Taylor, C C, Former House and Garden Remains, Wing Buckinghamshire, (1993)
Taylor, C C, Former House and Garden Remains, Wing Buckinghamshire, (1993)
Taylor, C C, Former House and Garden Remains, Wing Buckinghamshire, (1993)
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993), 17
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993), 16-24
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993), 16-24
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993)
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993), 16-24
Carstairs, P et al, 'County Museums Service Report' in A418 Wing Bypass Archaeological Assessment (Stages 2-4), (1993), 16-24
Stocker, D, Stocker, M, 'World Archaeology ('Sacred Geography')' in Sacred Profanity: Theology of Rabbits and Symbolism of the Warren, , Vol. 28 (2), (1996), 264-272
Ancient Monument Record Form, BU 120 Deserted Medieval Village In Wing Park, (1972)
Ancient Monument Record Form, BU 121 Site of Askett House and 17th century bowling green, (1972)
Mss Earl of Cowper iii 77 & 167,
RCHME, Inventory of the Historic Monuments in Buckinghamshire, (1912)
Schedule entry (NB: AI:139006), Went, D, SM:27146 Wrest Park, (1995)

End of official listing