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The Life & Times of Acton Court

J.J. West explores a major Tudor courtier house near Bristol

Acton Court, a major Tudor courtier house, stands just outside the village of Iron Acton a few miles north of Bristol. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission has recently agreed to buy and repair the house which is in severe disrepair and in danger of collapse. The cost of undertaking the most essential structural repairs is estimated at £300,000 to £350,000.

Acton Court is believed to have been built by Sir Nicholas Poyntz (1510-57) during the 1530s and 1540s and is remarkable for the advanced renaissance taste that it displays. Sir Nicholas was at court for the christening of Prince Edward in 1537, and was in the party sent to meet Anne of Cleves in 1540. His daughter married Protector Somerset’s brother, which brought him into the circle of avant garde architectural patronage led by the Protector, who was himself responsible for building, at old Somerset House, the first coherent classical facade in England.

The Poyntz family had held Iron Acton since the fourteenth century, and Sir Nicholas' seat, though new built, was not hastily converted from the claustral or domestic buildings of a dissolved monastery but replaced an earlier manor house. It was centred on an inner court, of which one-and-a-half ranges survive. The ruins of the other ranges can still be traced in later farm buildings, and evidence found of a number of outer courts and gardens. In one of the gardens a sundial has recently been recovered, signed and dated 'NK 1520'. It was almost certainly made by Nicholas Kratzer, the 'master of the king's horologes'. This is a major discovery, since only one other dial by Kratzer is known to survive; made for Cardinal Wolsey, it is now in the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. It seems likely that the Acton Court dial was the focus of a renaissance garden comparable to the Privy Gardens known to have existed at Whitehall and Hampton Court.

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