Rutland may very well be the smallest of England’s counties, but it is home to the nation’s finest early Elizabethan manor house. Although there is evidence of the Romans in the region, there is little prehistory to explore here. What you have is a collection of fascinating stately homes and castles, many with historic gardens. A part of the country that has a number of quintessential English villages and picture-postcard cottages.
A large, irregularly shaped earthen mound also called Burley Castle; the exact origins of Alstoe Castle remain unclear. One suggestion is that it was a meeting place in the Anglo-Saxon period. Another, more widely held view, is that it was the basis of a motte-and-bailey castle built in the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066. An excavation in 1936 failed to conclusively determine its origins. Although the tumulus stands on private farmland, decent views of the site are available from the adjacent road. A deserted medieval village known as Alsthorpe is located nearby.
Established on the banks of the River Gwash, Brooke Priory started life in the 12th century. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was home to a small number of Augustinian monks and was one of the Order’s poorer monastic settlements. It had fallen into dilapidation by the time that King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. In later years, a succession of wealthy landowners controlled the area, and in the 19th century the ornate Brooke Reliquary was found buried there. Although no above-ground ruins remain, various earthworks and cropmarks indicate where the priory stood.
Wells and springs have been of vital importance throughout much of English history, and in the late medieval period they were often imbued with a sacred quality, associated with saints and acts of miraculous healing. The village of Ashwell even takes its name from its well, which is situated in a copse of ash trees. A stone structure encloses the well, engraved with the inscription: ‘All ye who hither come to drink. Rest not your thoughts below. Look at the sacred sign and think. Whence living waters flow.’
Britain is replete with quaint villages containing their own medieval parish church, but the church at Braunston-in-Rutland also offers something a little different. In the churchyard of All Saints’ is a small stone carving nicknamed the “Braunston Goddess”. Despite its name, there is no evidence that it ever depicted a deity. Instead, it may be related to the Sheela-na-Gig figurines carved on various churches during the middle ages. For many years, the stone slab on which the carving appears was used as a door stop; it was only in 1920, when the slab was removed, that the Goddess reappeared.
Oakham Castle is a fortified manor house built in the late 12th century for Walchelin de Ferriers, the Lord of the Manor of Oakham. Today, only the Great Hall survives, but displays various original Norman architectural features. 230 horseshoes bedeck the Great Hall’s walls, part of a tradition whereby any peer of the realm was expected to give the castle a horseshoe on their first visit to Lord of the Manor. King Edward IV reportedly gave the collection its current oldest horseshoe after the Battle of Losecoat Field in 1470.
The small village of Wing houses one of Rutland’s most unusual historic sites: a turf labyrinth known locally as ‘the Old Maze’. Its precise origins are unknown, leading to speculation that it may have prehistoric or Viking Age origins. More likely is that it is medieval, with its labyrinthine pattern matching a design on the pavement of Chartes Cathedral in northern France. Monks from the nearby Thorney Abbey owned the land in the later middle ages and it is possible that they created it for religious purposes, perhaps for either penitents or pilgrims to crawl around while in prayer. [Website]
The only English Heritage property in Rutland, Lyddington Bede House began life as a wing of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Lincoln. Amid the mass expropriations that King Henry VIII ordered as part of his dissolution of the monasteries, the crown confiscated the house. The Cecil family took control of the building and converted it into an almshouse housing ‘bedesmen’ – impoverished individuals given alms on the condition that they spent much time praying for their benefactor. It remained a house for the impoverished until the 1930s.
Many sites and attractions listed on this page are managed by English Heritage or the National Trust. While not all charge an entry fee, some do - certainly those that require greater upkeep and care. Joining either of these two organisations does offer many benefits, but also it supports the work of these two bodies. Read more on membership benefits of joining English Heritage.
Oakham has historically been a market town, a place where people came from surrounding villages to engage in trade. Two important Grade-I listed reminders of this heritage still stand in the town center. Traditionally, an English market square was demarcated by the presence of a ‘market cross’; the name is a misnomer, as not all such structures were crosses. That standing in Oakham dates from the 17th century, with eight timber posts supporting a slate roof. Under this structure are the wooden stocks, which would have restrained criminals for the purpose of public humiliation.
In 19 acres of reclaimed quarry, visitors are able to explore the fascinating industrial landscape of a historical ironstone quarry. The site is based on a typical 1950s quarry, and recreates an ironstone tramway system from the extraction of iron ore in a ‘first cut’ quarry to the transport of the ore via exchange sidings of a rail head. Tour the workshop that service over 20 steam and diesel locomotives in various stages of Restoration. Running days offer the chance to ride these historic engines. [Website]
Located in an 18th century former riding school, Rutland County Museum opened in 1969. It contains collections devoted to agricultural life in the county, including farming implements and craftsman’s tools, tractors, and ploughs. More macabre is its original portable gallows, from which condemned criminals were hanged. Also worth seeing is the ornate 13th century Brooke Reliquary, discovered at Brooke Priory and now on display at the museum. Those with a particular fondness for the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods will also find an array of artefacts to interest them. [Website]
In 2008, archaeologists discovered a Roman stone shrine standing in what is now the Rutland Water Nature Reserve. Established in the 2nd century, it remained in use until the late 4th or early 5th. Among the site’s finds were over 200 coins, a partial bronze statue, and a lead curse tablet. Later, in the early Anglo-Saxon period, a man’s body was buried in the temple. The Rutland Water visitor’s centre displays various finds and information about the site, and other nearby archaeology finds. [Website]