Old Wardour Castle and the Echoes of Destruction

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 the 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 8 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 blew it up. It’s as though they all gave up on their old home. Instead, later generations of the family 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.

34 thoughts on “Old Wardour Castle and the Echoes of Destruction

  1. Great photos and what history! I can’t imagine blowing up your own castle, but I guess if you want the squatters out bad enough that is the choice you have to make. Glad to see you are getting a chance to enjoy the castle and history – and sharing it with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another cracking post Alli. Once again, you’ve brought a castle to life.
    A kitchen is hot enough without fireplaces like that. but it pales into insignificance to the sweat Ludlow must have had on his brow when he woke up to that explosion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, as always, for the lovely comments, Malc. Glad you enjoyed this great little castle and it’s history. Yes, what an alarm call that would have been! There’s nothing like a quick roasting to get you going first thing in the morning… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well that was an entertaining read – and I could do with one right now! Blanche sounds an excellent brave lady – nothing mousy about her! 🙂

    Of course, now, if you accidentally blew up your castle, you’d probably put a caravan/mobile home in the garden so you could live near your ‘romantic ruin’ and admire it daily. There was a house in Skipton just above the canal which burned down years ago but they still live in a caravan in the grounds (well, 2 caravans actually). They must have had the insurance money by now but just don’t seem interesting in rebuilding but seem happy to live in the caravans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to have entertained you, Carol! We all need a bit of lighthearted diversion right now, so I know how you feel. 🙂

      That’s an interesting story about the house in Skipton, because that’s what the Arundells did in the end too. They built a new ‘castle’ much further out in their expanded estates in the late 18th century (historically, I tend to glaze over by that point), although it’s not a castle at all, just a mansion, but I guess they liked the name. Admittedly, it’s a step up from a caravan in the garden, but the principle’s the same 😉 New Wardour ‘Castle’ privately owned now, but I’d much rather visit the proper medieval castle any day! 🙂

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    • Thanks for the lovely comment, Mike, and I’m glad you enjoyed Old Wardour. It’s well worth the trip when you’re down that way. And if the ghosts have been there for all those centuries I’m sure they’ll wait for you. 😉

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  4. Fascinating history Ali – and yes, I can well imagine that conversation between Henry and his mother – oops! The story of Blanche reminds me of Lady Bankes defending Corfe Castle. I grew up with that story as she came from Ruislip where I lived and my primary school was named after her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sarah! Glad you enjoyed Old Wardour and it’s quirky history. I know the Corfe Castle and brave Dame Mary story, and funnily enough I thought Blanche reminded me of her too. I didn’t know she came from Ruislip though. 🙂

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      • ‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

        I find it interesting to note that the daughters don’t get named!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting inscription, thanks for showing me, Sarah. The daughters are just an afterthought, aren’t they? Strange, really, considering how great their mother was. A real sign of the times, I suppose. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right there! I often wonder how many of our modern houses will still be standing in 600 years time – and our homes won’t even have been besieged! Thanks for reading. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure if I am even allowed into this conversation as a “mere” male! I would simply point to two women, both bearing the same given name and who were arguably the two most influential monarchs in British history. I am glad to say that the latter is still ruling the country I had the privilege to fight for.

    As for this piece, I have played a load of gigs in Wiltshire and had never even heard of this place, and it looks like somewhere I should have known about. I know a whole lot more about it now.

    Not only is your writing hugely informative but I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there is an obvious humour in your pieces that drags the reader in. For understated “gags” I would put you alongside P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, two of my favourite humourous authors, and I can offer no higher praise than that. Your “Oops Mum” line is nothing short of literary genius.

    When you have finished being a qualified (I still predict a 2:1!) historian, you might want to turn your hand to writing novels! They’ll be brilliant.

    P.S. purple is definitely your colour!

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