A HISTORIAN'S 39-year-long hunt has led to the discovery of the old priory house at Appuldurcombe in Wroxall - more than 300 years after it was demolished.

Chris Gardner, who lives in New Zealand, has discovered the location of the old priory house from the other side of the world while researching his book Mansion of Memories: The Definitive History of Appuldurcombe House.

Chris’s hunt for the old priory house began in 1982 when he lived on the Isle of Wight and he began working as a schoolboy guide at Appuldurcombe alongside custodian Peter Wilkinson.

Back then Sir Robert Worsley’s masterpiece of beautiful Baroque architecture fused with Sir Richard Worsley’s plain Palladian mansion was a roofless ruin.

Isle of Wight County Press: Former Isle of Wight resident Chris Gardner as a schoolboy guide at Appuldurcombe House.Former Isle of Wight resident Chris Gardner as a schoolboy guide at Appuldurcombe House.

Appuldurcombe Priory was founded in 1090 and became the seat of the Worsley family in 1529 when Sir James Worsley and his wife Anne inherited the lease from her parents.

Who was Sir Robert Worsley, Baronet Worsley of Appuldurcombe?

Sir Robert Worsley, 4th Baronet Worsley of Appuldurcombe, replaced the old priory house with a masterpiece of English Baroque architecture.

Nearly a century later Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet Worsley of Appuldurcombe, completed the Baroque house in Palladian and claimed “the old priory house was situated a small distance from the present mansion” in his 1781 History of the Isle of Wight.

Foundations of an earlier building was found to the south and west of the Baroque mansion in the 20th century.

Sir Richard also claimed the new house was built in 1710, repeating the date put forward by Colen Campbell in Vitruvius Britannicus.

A careful reading of the estate accounts kept by the Steward of Appuldurcombe Caleb Dowding accompanied by Lady Anne Worsley’s letters to her father Lord Weymouth of Longleat House prove that Campbell and Sir Richard were both wrong on the date of commencement.

Sir Richard was wrong on the location of the old priory house too.

Isle of Wight County Press: Appuldurcombe House. Picture courtesy of Chris Gardner/Appuldurcombe House.Appuldurcombe House. Picture courtesy of Chris Gardner/Appuldurcombe House.

When was Appuldurcombe's new chapel on the Isle of Wight built?

Estate accounts show construction of the new Baroque house was well underway by November 19, 1701, when Sir Robert paid “Mr Fisher, Stonecutter” for putting up two chimneypieces, one in the “best chamber over the chapel” and the other in the dressing room.

Lady Worsley’s letter home suggests Appuldurcombe’s new chapel, best chamber and dressing room were built on the site of the old priory house’s north east wing containing the stable and chapel.

“The Chappell goes up apace,” Lady Worsley wrote to her father in 1701. “I wish he would let them go on as fast with the rest of the building, that we might see an end of it, which I hard hope to do.”

This is corroborated by Dr Lindsay Boynton’s suggestion in the Appuldurcombe Guidebook of 1967 that the new house was constructed north to south.

The accounts show that when the chapel block was completed Sir Robert moved onto the Great Hall at the centre of the building which, first, he repaired, following the Great Storm of 1703, and then rebuilt.

Archaeologists suggested, early this century, that the internal ground floor wall of the Great Hall may be from the old priory house.

Sir Robert finished by demolishing the southern wing of the old priory house containing the Great Drawing Room and Library and building the south elevation of the new house containing the southeast pavilion (Drawing Room), Library and southwest pavilion for Dowding to occupy.

The function of rooms in Sir Robert’s new Baroque house match almost exactly those of the old priority house if, indeed, one is constructed on top of the other.

Foundations uncovered on the Isle of Wight

Archaeologists uncovered foundations of an earlier building beneath the southern elevation of the current house in 1986 as well as Tudor rubble.

Architectural historians describe Appuldurcombe as eccentric, unusual and strange on account of its large protruding pavilions dominating the central block. Pavilions are usually set back into the main building, or completely separate of it. One reason for such an unusual footprint is that it follows the footprint of the original priory house.

Architectural historians are also divided on Appuldurcombe architect. They agree he was well schooled in the English Baroque architecture popularised by Sir Christopher Wren, bringing the identity of Appuldurcombe's architect down to three real possibilities.

Isle of Wight County Press: Chris Gardner at Appuldurcombe in more recent years.Chris Gardner at Appuldurcombe in more recent years.

Boynton believed, beyond reasonable doubt, that John James designed Appuldurcombe on account of Sir Robert mentioning a Mr James in a letter to his father-in-law.

“Mr James’s business (who left me last Munday) was to fix the best manner in conveying the water from the roofs. He was much pleased with the Building, as indeed I am also.”

William Talman and Sir John Vanbrugh are other contenders, according to the experts, but both are known for a far more ornate interpretation of Baroque compared to James’ much plainer approach.

Evidence revealed

A part-elevation design for a baroque house might be further evidence for James. The design, possibly drawn by James in approximately 1700, could be his first attempt for Sir Robert. The design shows a central five-bayed three-storey block with a large single-bayed three-storey corner pavilion. Sir Robert built a central five-bayed three-storey block with large three-bayed two-storey pavilions occupying the same footprint as the design possibly drawn by James.

  • More details of Chris's discovery will be published in Mansion of Memories. Chris has almost finished his research and writing, and will soon be seeking a publisher.