The history of Tolethorpe stretches back more than a thousand years, beginning in the year 800 A.D. when Toli the Dane established his settlement on the South-Westerly face of a hill overlooking fertile land. Sheltered to the North, and by the gentle River Gwash, the site provided warmth, shelter, water and a place to grow food. Toli’s Thorpe, or farmstead is recorded in the Domesday Survey of 1086, along with a mill on the river, which is still there today, having been rebuilt around 1720.
After Domesday, some seven generations of Norman landlords occupied the site, taking the name of de Tolethorpe. John de Tolethorpe lived in the 12th century, dying some time before 1166. He is the ancestor of amongst others U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, King Charles III, Princess Diana, and former Prime Minister David Cameron.
The de Tolethorpe family built a manor house, later to be known as the Old Hall, and for over 200 years the property passed from father to son, until two sisters, Matilda and Elizabeth became sole heiresses. In 1316, Matilda married Sir Nicholas Burton, a knight of Rutland, who moved into Tolethorpe Hall and thus began the Burton dynasty that lasted for nearly another 200 years.
The Burtons were soldiers and knights of the realm, and fought for many kings of that time. One, Sir Thomas Burton, fought at the Battle of Agincourt as part of the Duke of York’s entourage, having previously fought Owen Glendower on behalf of Henry IV. For his efforts he was granted the Hundred of Little Casterton, comprising of Little Casterton itself and the villages of Ryhall, Belmesthorpe, Essendine, Tinwell, Ingthorpe, Tickencote and Tolethorpe – an area of nearly 10,000 acres. He became keeper of Cardigan and Aberystwyth castles during the Welsh uprising, and was then keeper of Fotheringhay castle from 1417, where he had the responsibility of safeguarding distinguished French prisoners of war taken by Henry V after Harfleur and Agincourt. These onerous duties that left him severely out of pocket and financial difficulties appear to have been a feature of his life and that of his descendants.
The Burtons tenure at Tolethorpe ended in 1503, when the Old Hall was acquired by Christopher Browne, grand nephew and heir of the wealthy wool merchant of Stamford, William Browne who built Browne’s Hospital in Stamford, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the best medieval hospitals in England.
Christopher supported Henry Tudor against Richard III, and we know that in recognition of this, he was granted the Hundred of Little Casterton, previously awarded to Sir Thomas Burton. An intriguing question presents itself here: did the Burtons lose Tolethorpe for having backed the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses?
The Browne family’s most famous son was Robert, who was born around 1550; he is of special interest to Stamford Shakespeare Company. After the break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England was riven with breakaway factions of its own, one of which was the Separatist movement of the late 16th century. Robert Browne was a founder of the Separatists and they were also known as “Brownists”. They were well known to Shakespeare and they even get a mention in “Twelfth Night” when Sir Andrew Aguecheek says “Policy I hate, I’d as lief be a Brownist as a politician”.
The Hall would stay in the possession of the Browne family for just over three centuries. A document of 1612 records that the Old Hall was much decayed, and in around 1640 the property was substantially rebuilt and parts of the original building were incorporated into the new hall. The last member of the Browne family to reside at Tolethorpe Hall was Mary, Countess of Pomfret, who died childless in 1839.
In 1864, Charles Ormiston Eaton, a wealthy Stamford banker acquired the property and undertook a major refurbishment of the hall, adding the present bay windows. He also laid out the grounds as you see them today. Around this time country poet, John Clare, is said to have walked with his girlfriend from Great Casterton to Ryhall along the banks of the Gwash on summer evenings after spending the day working at the lime kilns in Pickworth.
From 1920 to 1967, the Burnaby-Atkins family leased the hall from the Eatons. The estate was then broken up into separate lots and sold off. The hall and seven acres of land was sold to a property developer, who planned to turn it into a casino, but following the developer’s bankruptcy and having stood empty for nearly nine years, it was acquired in 1977 in a near derelict state by Stamford Shakespeare Company.
The grounds of Tolethorpe Hall were landscaped in their present form in 1867. Although completely overgrown when the Stamford Shakespeare Company acquired the property in 1977, the underlying structure was intact, and the grounds have since been restored to their 19th Century glory, including a parterre built around the Victorian pond designed by renowned horticulturist, gardening columnist, author and broadcaster Bunny Guinness.
A picnic in the grounds, a stroll around the lawns, pond, flowerbeds and shrubberies all add to the magic of a visit to the Rutland Open Air Theatre.
Hanging in the orangery is a stunning long-stitch tapestry designed and made by the internationally famous knitwear designer Kaffe Fassett. (standing to the right of the picture). The tapestry depicts hollyhocks, a feature of the Tolethorpe gardens.
Stained glass windows
In the bar are two stained glass windows designed and made by Cambridge artist, Tim Armstrong, in 2000 (seen in the photo putting finishing touches to the installation). The windows are believed to be the only examples anywhere in the world of stained glass depicting scenes from eight Shakespeare plays.
Historic Wall Decoration
An historic ochre wall decoration was found behind a false wall in the entrance hall during restoration work in 1999. The date of the work is uncertain, but believed to be from the 15th, 16th or possibly even 14th century. Interestingly, it includes the French Heraldry, the fleur-de-lys. The first family to build a house on the site around the late 11th or early 12th century came from Normandy after the Norman Conquest.
Stamford Shakespeare Company
When, due to building work, the hotel could no longer accommodate the Company, a new venue had to be found.
Quite by chance, a member of the company was sitting in the estate agents office when the instruction was received to put Tolethorpe Hall up for sale. On the same day, after frantic telephone calls, a few members, including Jean Harley, visited the site. It was not very promising. The grounds were overgrown after nine years of neglect, and the Hall itself was in a sorry state, with a roof almost like a colander. Whilst over the west wing there was no roof at all. The wind and the rain had done extensive damage.
However, just beyond the hall they found a perfect natural amphitheatre hidden in the grounds. A grassy, weed-covered bank, and among the trees opposite a clear space large enough for a stage.
There was a heated discussion among those present, who were divided into two camps. The majority felt that as the company had only £78 in the bank, any plan to buy and repair the hall and then convert it into a viable open air theatre would be too big an undertaking. One or two felt they should press ahead. Finally, throwing caution to the wind, they all agreed to make an offer of £26,000 – well below the guide price even in 1977. A few days later, they learned the bid had been accepted.
Elation was followed by panic. Where do you find £26,000? No bank or building society was interested in supporting an amateur theatre company with no assets to its name, especially for a project which many believed to be a pipe dream with little chance of success. So, in desperation and on the principle of nothing ventured, nothing gained, Jean Harley telephoned a local businessman and asked for a loan of £26,000, plus another £10,000 to cover the cost of the necessary repairs and alterations. The businessman lent the money without delay, against the value of the property and the loan was repaid four years later. That philanthropic businessman was Tim Clancy, and he became the company’s president. He retained that position until his death in 2010.
Members immediately set about the huge task of getting everything ready for the first season, with less than eight weeks to go before the advertised opening night late in May. Between rehearsals for the first two productions members spent their spare hours clearing the overgrown grounds, and cleaning and decorating the rooms of the hall. A new entrance drive, parking areas and septic tank were prepared, and new water and electric services installed. Concrete steps were laid, turning the natural bank of grass and weeds into a raked auditorium. A unique canvas canopy to protect the auditorium from summer showers was purchased together with 382 plastic stacker chairs. Despite the many problems and lack of money, the first Tolethorpe season of four weeks opened on time, after only eight weeks’ work, on June 6th 1977.
Tolethorpe Hall is in Rutland, close to the Lincolnshire border, so the new theatre was named the Rutland Open Air Theatre. However, it was decided to keep the company name, Stamford Shakespeare Company since, after nine years at The George Hotel, it had become so well-known.
The opening season at Tolethorpe Hall saw productions of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew. Members who recall the early days describe it as a chance happening which began with no grand ambitions, no business plan, just a love of Shakespeare and a passion to continue performing in the open air for the enjoyment of local audiences.
The theatre itself has seen many changes. Following a major refit to coincide with the 1993 season, its seating capacity was increased from 450 to 600 and a permanent canopy was erected over the auditorium to protect the audience. The canopy, a high tensile fabric made of PVC-coated reinforced polyester and designed to withstand winds of up to 100mph, was manufactured in Germany and fabricated and erected by Landrell Fabric Engineering. It is similar material to the high-tensile fabric used for the roof of London’s Millennium Dome. The new theatre was opened by acclaimed actor and director Sam Wanamaker, responsible for the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. He loved Tolethorpe very much and regularly attended with his wife, Charlotte.
In 2002, a 30ft-high gantry was erected to enable actors to fly across the stage in that year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since then stage lights have been hung from the gantry, which has significantly increased the number of lighting effects possible for each production. In 2005, a trap room was built beneath the stage to provide access to the stage floor from below. This has been used to great effect every year since.
Jean Harley retired as artistic director of the Stamford Shakespeare Company in 2008 after an incredible 41 years of loyal and devoted service. Succeeded by Carol King, Jean was duly appointed President, a position she held until her passing in 2014. Her two sons, Jonathan and Justin, subsequently became President and Vice-President of the Company. Justin sadly passed away in 2022.
In 2012, a comprehensive restoration of the roof of Tolethorpe Hall took place. This had been an objective since the Company acquired the hall in 1977. Work involved rebuilding the roof and gables over the east and west wings, a complete re-slating, and the replacement of rotten leadwork and ineffective guttering. Natural wool insulation was also installed along with the replacement of some of the more inaccessible windows. Although the final cost was over £500,000, the building is now water-tight for the next 70+ years.
In 2018, the bar, orangery and restaurant were revamped to celebrate the company’s 50 year anniversary. There are now costume and photo displays, exhibitions of the Company’s history, and much more. The 50th anniversary was not the only company milestone in 2018, as that year also saw the sale of the one millionth theatre ticket since the Company began performing at Tolethorpe Hall. What began as a modest, local, amateur venture has become a leading regional theatre with a growing national reputation, attracting audiences from around the United Kingdom and overseas.
The Company has a unique tradition of not taking curtain calls. The success of each production relies on an army of unseen people who give generously of their time and expertise. It was our founder, Jean Harley’s belief that the applause at the end of the performance should not just be for the actors on the stage, but for the entire Company of people who have worked so hard to make it all possible. It is this belief that has borne the Company tradition of no curtain calls, a tradition which has been the case since the very first performance over 50 years ago.
Tolethorpe Youth Drama
Tolethorpe Youth Drama (TYD) was founded by Central School of Speech and Drama graduate, Carol King. Carol had been an actress and teacher all her life, teaching at London’s famous Goldsmiths University for many years. After her retirement in 1999, Carol joined the Stamford Shakespeare Company and directed The Winter’s Tale in 2000, before establishing TYD in September 2001 with a mission to provide professional yet affordable tuition in the performing arts for local young people between the ages of eight and eighteen years. TYD is unique in that it is part of a working theatre and the students have the opportunity to take part in Stamford Shakespeare Company’s productions as actors, dancers, assistant stage managers, as well as lighting and sound operators.
TYD Theatre Makers Programme is a recent addition to the line-up at TYD. The programme offers young people, aged 16 to 22, the incredible chance to join a prestigious company of young theatre makers, take part in an exciting creative learning experience and perform in a major production in the 600-seat Rutland Open Air Theatre as part of the Stamford Shakespeare Company’s season of productions at Tolethorpe.
After a rigorous audition process, a group of young people are assembled to become TYD Theatre Makers. This group helps craft a production from the beginning, working closely with the design and creative teams to learn about all aspects of staging a production and how to make theatre that is bold, exciting and inspiring.