My Low Castles warning light has been doing a lot of flashing this year. Luckily though, between lockdowns I’ve managed to cram in quite a few medieval sites, and that’s helped to keep me relatively sane. Last month we headed down to a quiet corner of the scenic Wiltshire countryside to wander around the delightful castle of Old Wardour. This romantic late medieval ruin has long held a special place in my affections, partly because of its green and pleasant location, but also because as far as castles go, Old Wardour was the setting for one of history’s biggest mistakes.
Old Wardour Castle in it’s tranquil Wiltshire setting
Apart from the obvious point that it’s a castle, one of the main things that attracts me to Old Wardour is the fact that it was built by an ancestor of Francis Viscount Lovell of Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, one of my favourite local haunts – as indeed it still seems to be for Francis himself. The man who built Old Wardour was John, Lord Lovell, the great great grandfather of Francis, and this ambitious baron rose through the noble ranks through his marriage to a kinswoman of King Richard II. When Richard took the throne in 1377 Lovell entered into royal service, eventually becoming part of the king’s inner circle of advisers and courtiers. The king made him his representative in the south-west, and with this new position came some hefty grants of land, so Lovell decided to make Wiltshire his new home and show off his wealth and status by building a castle. In 1393, armed with a ‘licence to crenellate’, Lovell began the construction of his new castle at Wardour, and he made sure it looked the part.
Smaller windows on the lower floors formed part of the defenses,
but the turrets were just for show
Imitating some of the finest geometrically-designed castles in Europe, Wardour is hexagonal in shape, with all the architectural trimmings of the home of a great man. Although England was at peace when the castle was built and Wardour was tucked away in a secluded spot, the political situation was rocky so there was still a need for some defensive features. The lower floors had small windows and the entrance was protected by portcullises, a parapet above with holes (called machicolations) through which missiles could be lobbed at attackers, and projecting towers for flanking fire. Other features, such as the turrets, were purely decorative, but above all the new home gave out the desired message: John Lovell had arrived.
A medieval door studded with nails leading from the storeroom beside
the entrance passage
Relaxing in a quiet corner of the castle kitchens
But the king who gave Lovell his new prestige trod on too many other noble toes and spent too much money on his own lavish lifestyle. In 1399, Richard II was deposed at Flint Castle by his Lancastrian cousin, who claimed the throne as Henry IV, and suddenly Lovell’s elevated position seemed less secure. However, the crafty baron managed to change sides at just the right time, emerging as a champion and servant of the new king until his death in 1408. His son, another John, died only six years later, so his son William, 7th Lord Lovell, inherited the castle as a youngster. But William favoured Minster Lovell, so he moved to Oxfordshire and rebuilt the old manor house in the latest courtyard fashion around 1431, and his new grand Hall was where the slings and arrows of the Lovells’ fortunes came to an untimely end in 1488. Wardour was bought by the Arundell family from Cornwall in 1547, who updated the castle in Elizabethan style whilst proudly maintaining its medieval splendour. The family still owned it a century later when disaster struck the castle, because during the Civil Wars the owner’s son accidentally blew it up. Ooops.
The great hall, where Lord Lovell would have entertained his guests in style
Looking into the great hall from Lovell’s private study
This gigantic fireplace was just one of two in the medieval first floor kitchen. It must have been hellishly hot in here when Lovell had a big banquet…
The castle came under siege twice during the Civil Wars. The first time was in 1643, when the staunch royalist Thomas Lord Arundell was away with the king in Oxford, leaving his 60-year-old wife, Blanche, in charge. The local Parliamentarian commander decided to occupy the castle for the other side, but was surprised to find that the feisty little lady wouldn’t let him in. With Wardour perceived as a threat, a siege ensued, but despite having only twenty five armed men with her to face the 1,300 besiegers, brave Lady Blanche stood her ground, as did the sturdy walls of the castle. However, after a week an hourglass was set in motion and the defenders told that when time ran out a devastating explosion would be detonated. This was enough to spook Blanche into surrendering the castle, and the Parliamentarian leader Edmund Ludlow moved in with his troops on 8th May 1643.
Remodelled by the Arundells, Lovell’s great chamber lies just off the
great hall and his private study
I could get used to this…
But Ludlow didn’t have long to languish in Wardour, because in December the Arundells came back to reclaim their castle. This time, it was the owners laying siege to their own home, and the man in charge was Blanche’s son, Henry. He wanted the Parliamentarian squatters out, but with a sizeable garrison inside and bigger cannons on the outside, this was going to be a much bigger standoff. The castle got a bit battered and bruised, but it still held up well. After months of trying to oust Ludlow and his men, Henry eventually came up with what can only be described as an elaborate bluff. He had his men dig a mine under the castle walls and filled it with gunpowder as a threat to the Parliamentarian defenders. But then, some sparks from a cannon unexpectedly set it off, and the explosion destroyed the whole south-west side of the building, while a snoozing Ludlow was rudely awakened to find most of his bedroom wall had vanished. Nevertheless, the defenders still put up a fight, and it was only after Henry, presumably deciding he now had nothing to lose, dug a second mine, that Ludlow and his men finally surrendered on 18th March 1644. Henry Arundell had got his castle back, but it also cost him his castle. Can you imagine the conversation? ‘Mum, do you want the good news, or the bad news?’
The castle’s impressive inner hexagonal courtyard, although it’s much
lighter and airier these days!
What’s left after Henry Arundell’s unique style of home improvements
The view from the castle walls, showing the parkland that was later
built around the ruins
This pretty grotto was built in 1792, and faces the castle entrance
across the lawn
Old Wardour Castle was never rebuilt after Henry Arundell’s explosive blunder. It’s as though the family gave up on their old home. Instead, later generations embraced it as a romantic ruin, making it the central feature of a surrounding parkland and lake. And it’s still like that today. Walking around the grounds you can appreciate the fine setting they created for Old Wardour, although from the south side I’m certain I can still hear the faint sound of a gunpowder blast reverberating through the centuries. But despite being altered over time and ultimately destroyed by its later owners, the castle is still a pleasure to wander around. It’s easy to imagine the bustling community of servants dashing around the castle while Lord Lovell and his family relax in the opulent lodgings above. I never tire of exploring the rooms and passageways of Lovell’s medieval pride and joy, and as I leave I can’t help smiling at the irony that thanks to the royalist Henry Arundell, this is one castle we can’t blame Oliver Cromwell for spoiling.