Room by room, page by page; line by line, the layers of history begin to peel away and give up their secrets. With every receipt, love letter and lock of hair, the evidence builds in forensic fashion; how the medieval stronghold that was Powderham Castle became the Georgian country residence, and a stage for William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay to marry off his 13 sisters.
“From the grains of wood in the North Tower to the shopping lists preserved in thousands of page of archives, we are essentially re-writing the 18th-century history of the house,” says James Daybell, Professor of Early Modern British History. “What we see emerging is a story of gender politics; and one of the key questions is what was it like for 13 girls to grow up in the 18th-century in a house like this?”
Over the course of three weeks last summer, history staff and students from Plymouth worked with counterparts at the world-renowned University of Pennsylvania to pore over different areas of Powderham and its grounds. Using paint analysis and dendrochronology (the dating of wood), and referring to architectural drawings and period era pictures, the team have begun to build a timeline of the architectural transformation of the property. This building chronology is being cross-referenced with the work of the archives team from Plymouth, painstakingly searching through the libraries and archives at Powderham, the British Library, and the Devon Heritage Centre in order to provide the documentation and detail supporting this new architectural narrative. This mammoth archival trawl also makes it possible to populate historic Powderham with successive generations of the Courtenay family.
Professor Daniel Maudlin, Director of Cornerstone Heritage, and an expert on early modern history, said: “The end of the 18th century was a time of great social change, and the extensive developments at Powderham reflect this. The then owner, William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, had to pay particular attention to the fact that, as the only male of 14 children, he needed to create a stage that would impress potential suitors for his sisters."
The ‘Time Team’-style collaborative enterprise, which also featured daily talks and public engagement events, is just one aspect of the wider two-year project. Led by the University’s Cornerstone Heritage research group, it will work towards the publication of a number of collaborative academic papers.
“It is almost like Downton Abbey,” adds Professor Daybell. “At the heart of the project is the story of the daughters, and the socio-political insights of how they were married off to men of extreme wealth and influence. We can also reconstruct their material and mental worlds, through the extensive library, poetry manuscripts and music notebooks, love letters, and even accounts of what they wore and ate. It really offers up a remarkable insight in the socio-cultural world of elite Georgian England."
How we live with the past today.
Cornerstone Heritage is an interdisciplinary research group that brings together staff from across the University of Plymouth working in the field of heritage (or how we live with the past today).
'Live projects' are at the heart of Cornerstone's activities. Live projects engage with community groups and heritage organisations in the co-production of research-led heritage initiatives.