The Stormy Story of Farleigh Hungerford Castle

These are hectic times in the Templeton household, being mostly caught up as we are in the frenzy of activity that inevitably comes with a big house move. But whilst we’re still living in Buckinghamshire we’ve also been trying visit, or revisit as many medieval sites in and around this region of England as we can. Although there aren’t many castles around this neck of the woods, we’ve made several jaunts over to our most local fortress of Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and travelled further afield for a welcome return to some of my top favourites, including Goodrich in Herefordshire and Portchester on the south coast. And a few of weeks ago, during a brief trip to Wiltshire, I was lucky enough to hop over the border to Somerset and explore a new site for the first time. This was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, home to the remarkable Hungerford family for more than three centuries. But what started so well for the castle’s first owner was to go badly wrong, and over time this seemingly peaceful home was to see political disaster, domestic scandal and grisly murder.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle: the view across the outer court towards the main castle complex

Sitting amid scenic landscape on a hillside above the River Frome, the castle was built on the site of an earlier manor house established by the Montfort family who had owned the land referred to in Domesday as ‘Ferlege’ since the late 11th century. The name derives from an even earlier Saxon settlement known as ‘faern-laega’, meaning ‘the ferny pasture’, and even today in the castle’s tranquil, verdant setting it’s easy to see how the bucolic-sounding name came about. In 1369 the manor was bought by Thomas Hungerford, a member of an established Wiltshire family, who subsequently rose to prominence through his service to Edward III’s younger son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340-99). As Chief Steward of the duke’s extensive southern English and Welsh lands, Thomas was knighted in 1375 and just two years later became the first formally recorded Speaker of the House of Commons. But not everyone appreciated Thomas’s blossoming talents. The contemporary chronicler Thomas Walsingham clearly thought he was nothing more than an oily creep and Gaunt’s pet yes-man, writing that Hungerford was:

‘…a knight on the friendliest terms with the duke, since he was his steward: who wished nothing to be pronounced other than what would please his master’s eyes’.

But whatever Walsingham thought, Hungerford had still gone up in the world. He’d acquired considerable wealth and lands, secured several high positions including sheriff of Wiltshire and served as Member of Parliament for either Wiltshire or Somerset some sixteen times. Thomas’s hard-earned castle at Farleigh, built in quadrangular form with a tall tower at each corner was to serve as a status symbol for his newly elevated position. It appears to have been his main and preferred residence, because when he died in 1397 he was buried here, later joined by his wife Joan, in the parish church he’d built for Farleigh Hungerford that still remains intact today.

‘The ferny pasture’: the Saxon description of Farleigh’s bucolic setting still seems appropriate today

Looking across the remains of Thomas’s original gatehouse towards Farleigh’s intact chapel

The tomb of Thomas (d.1397) and his second wife Joan in the castle’s chapel. The railings were added by their son, Walter Hungerford

Following Thomas’s death his son Walter extended Farleigh, adding an outer court to enclose the church so it became the castle’s chapel. In addition, he added a barbican to reinforce dad’s original gatehouse and a building in the outer court to house the chantry priest he employed to say masses for the souls of his parents. Politically, Walter followed his father’s example, allying himself to the house of Lancaster and continuing to elevate his family to national importance. But going one step further than Thomas, he also became a great warrior.

The imposing interior of the castle’s chapel, formerly Farleigh’s parish church before Walter enclosed it within the castle grounds. In the small crypt beneath there is a collection of rare 17th century lead Hungerford family coffins, some with ‘death mask’ faces.

The Priests’ House, built into Walter’s outer court wall around 1430. Today the building houses an exhibition about the castle and displays of Hungerford armour and artefacts found on the site

As a close friend and supporter of Henry V, Walter not only regained his father’s old offices, including Speaker of the House Commons, he also joined the king on the field of Agincourt in 1415. After the famous English victory he spent another five years in France serving the king in the Hundred Years War, capturing a string of castles, for which he was rewarded with the highest military honour in the land, a Knighthood of the Garter. Known as ‘the wise lord baron of Hungerford’, Walter remained a loyal Lancastrian, playing a crucial role in government, fighting in France and serving in the royal council until his death at Farleigh Castle in 1449. He must have died content in the knowledge that the Hungerfords had truly arrived. But the political tables were turning, and loyalty to Lancaster was to bring ruin on the next generation.

As well as several family tombs, the chapel boasts many surviving wall paintings. Dating from the 1440s, this superb image to the right of the altar is of St George and the dragon. Some 14ft tall, St George is shown, spear in hand, while the dragon’s tail is curled around his assailant’s right leg. On the adjoining wall, a sadly now barely discernable image depicts a kneeling knight wearing a tabard with the Hungerford arms. As St George is the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, this was almost certainly part of Walter’s refurbishments, celebrating his ultimate achievement of admission to the Order on 3rd May 1421.

Walter’s son Robert wasn’t a patch on his father, enjoying only a short tenure of the castle during which time he had to raise an enormous ransom for his own son who had been captured fighting in France in 1453. The sum Robert was required to hand over amounted to a staggering £10,000, which in those days represented several times the annual income of the Hungerford family, and when he died in 1459 he left his poor wife severely in debt. And was the financial sacrifice worth it? No.

When the famously thuggish son, another Robert known as Lord Moleyns, returned to England he plunged himself straight into the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses on the Lancastian side. But Lancaster was about to take a dramatic hit, and Moleyns wasn’t as good a warrior as his grandfather. Failing to hold the Tower of London against a heavy Yorkist attack, he fled into exile, returning in 1461 just in time to be a part of the shattering Lancastrian defeat at the Battle of Towton. With the Yorkist Edward IV now on the throne, Lord Moleyns was deprived of his lands and titles, so he fled north to Scotland intent on continuing the Lancastrian cause but was caught at Hexham in Northumberland and executed in May 1464. Worse still, his own son, Sir Thomas Hungerford, suffered a full traitor’s death for allegedly plotting with the Lancastrians to kill King Edward. After the elimination of the Hungerford threat, Edward awarded Farleigh Hungerford Castle to his 16-year-old brother Richard, duke of Gloucester, later to be Richard III.

Taking a break and enjoying the views from the South East Tower

The remaining Hungerford, Walter II, was a bit more switched on and allied himself with York until Richard was crowned in 1483, when he joined a rebellion against him and swapped sides, fighting with Henry Tudor at Bosworth. Knighted by the new Tudor king, Walter got his castle back and he kept it, leaving it to his son Sir Edward Hungerford when he died in 1516. With the royal conflicts finally settled, you’d think all might be well at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, but far from it. Now it was time for a bit of domestic cruelty, intrigue and scandal, and it all started with a murderous lady.

Edward Hungerford remained loyal to the Tudors, but he made a decidedly dodgy choice of second wife. Agnes Cotell had been married before to one John Cotell, most likely a prominent member of Sir Edward’s household. But Agnes was an ambitious woman and, fancying herself as lady of the castle, set her cap at the boss instead. On 26th July 1518, she persuaded two local yeomen to strangle John with his own linen neckerchief and then:

‘the body of the aforesaid John (was) … put into a certain fire in the furnace of the kitchen in the Castle of Farley … and did burn and consume’.

How Agnes covered up the gruesome crime is a mystery – perhaps Edward was away at the time – but she clearly charmed lord Hungerford as they married soon after. Six months later the two yeomen returned to the castle and the new Lady Hungerford received them, ‘well knowing that they had done the murder aforesaid’. Perhaps Edward knew about his wife’s dark past, as it’s said that the murder was widely known about locally, but it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have believed such scandalous stories of his beloved wife, because when he died in 1522 (presumably without any assistance from Agnes) he left her everything he owned. Either way, the law caught up with her in the end, and the following year the murderous trio were all hanged at Tyburn in London for the deadly deed. But not all Hungerford husbands were as benevolent to their wives as Edward had been to Agnes…

The kitchens and service areas. The kitchen can be seen at the rear, with steps leading out, and the remains of two fireplaces set into the walls…

The castle’s well lies just outside the main kitchen, with the bakehouse beyond…

The remains of an oven in what is believed to have been the castle’s bakehouse. It was one of the ovens found in this area that was used to dispose of the body of poor John Cotell. Prepare for a shivery spine around here…

The next incumbent of the castle, Walter Hungerford III (d.1540) was the only son of Edward and his first wife, but his own third wife, Elizabeth, was to become a victim of the ever-shifting politics at the court of Henry VIII. Walter did well out of marrying Elizabeth, as his new father-in-law, Lord Hussey, got him a job working as an agent of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s then rising minister. All was well until Lord Hussey fell from favour at the king’s fickle court, and suddenly Walter found himself married to the wrong woman. He began to persecute Elizabeth, though she had done nothing wrong, and imprisoned her in a tower at Farleigh Castle, even trying to do away with her.

Around 1539, the unfortunate Elizabeth wrote a beseeching letter to Cromwell, stating that she was:

‘…continually locked in one of my Lord’s towers of his castle in Hungerford, as I have been these three or four years past … under the custody of my Lord’s chaplain, Sir John Lee, which hath once or twice heretofore poisoned me’

She goes on to say that she would have died by now had it not been for the help of local poor women who took pity on her and brought me to my great window in the night such meat and drink as they had’.

The South-West Tower, also known as the Lady Tower, where tradition holds is where Elizabeth was imprisoned. It’s current state is, strangely, due to a later accident on Guy Fawkes night in 1842, when a group of children set fire to the winding labyrinth of ivy that was then holding the walls together!

…It looks better from the outside!

Cromwell’s response to Elizabeth’s plight is not known, but by this time he too was falling from the king’s favour, and on 28th July 1540 both he and Walter were beheaded on Tower Hill for treason. Contemporary reports noted that by the time of his execution Walter, who had also built up a string of other charges including sodomy, had gone mad, ‘for he seemed so unquiet that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise’. Once more the Hungerfords lost their castle to the crown, but mercifully poor Elizabeth’s story has a happier ending. With or without Cromwell’s help, she survived her ordeal in the castle’s tower and went on to remarry. Her new husband was Sir Robert Throckmorton of Warwickshire, a seemingly much nicer Catholic chap, with whom she had five daughters before her peaceful death in 1554.

Added by Walter Lord Hungerford in the mid 1440s the East Gatehouse, still the main entrance to the castle, formed part of the outer court defences, with a built-in drawbridge to span the moat.

Greeting the visitor above the window in the gatehouse is the well preserved carving of the Hungerford arms, with the Hungerford sickle badge below

The Hungerford fortunes continued to wax and wane with each successive generation but ended badly in 1686, when Farleigh Castle, among other estates, was sold to pay off a portion of the last Sir Edward’s colossal debts. Known as ‘the spendthrift’, this Sir Edward had splashed out so spectacularly beyond his means on lavish hospitality, gambling and fashion that he was reduced to living out his days as a ‘poor knight of Windsor’, dying a pensioner in 1711. Farleigh Castle itself was sold for salvage in 1705 and was stripped of most of its materials and fittings, leaving the former grand Hungerford residence in ruins.

We can only imagine what the original Sir Thomas would have thought of the machinations and follies of his descendants through the centuries as his body lay silently in Farleigh’s chapel. But if he is able to see what became of his beloved castle that still encircles those hallowed walls, he would surely turn in his tomb. At least, though, he could still appreciate that ‘ferny pasture’ setting, just as we did during our idyllic day at the rocky remains of his home.