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Kirby Muxloe Castle -- Quadrangular Glory in Brick and Water

by Lise Hull

Situated just four miles due west of Leicester is Kirby Muxloe, where one of England's most evocative ruins graces the countryside. Constructed with 100,000 bricks fired on site rather than with locally quarried stone, Kirby Muxloe Castle gleams a fiery red on sun-filled days, the moat reflecting the brilliance of the brickwork contrasted with the green lawns. Often characterized as a fortified manor rather than a true castle, Kirby Muxloe was one of the earliest brickwork castles erected in England but was also one of the last of its type, a quadrangular castle, to be built. Despite having never been completed, the attractive site is an impressive tribute to its builder, William, Lord Hastings, who for a time held a position of great power within the realm.

Kirby Muxloe Castle

Settled by the Danes as early as the 9th century, the spot was identified as Carbi (Caeri's settlement) in the Domesday Book of 1086. The settlement grew gradually and by the 15th century, a manor house stood on the site now occupied by the ruined castle. In fact, the house may have been built in the early 14th century, when the Hastings family first acquired the manor by right of marriage between Sir Ralph Hastings and Margaret Herle, daughter of Sir William Herle, who owned the manor.

Having leased the house for several years, William, Lord Hastings, Edward IV's second cousin and Lord Chamberlain, acquired the manor in 1474. He also obtained a license to crenellate, but did not proceed with work on the castle until 1480. Sadly for Hastings, his political affiliations during the Wars of the Roses, when he fought for Edward IV at the Battles of Mortimer's Cross and Towton and even followed the king into exile in 1471, eventually led to his downfall.

After Edward's death in 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the king's brother, took the throne as Regent of England to rule on behalf of the heir, Prince Edward (who was still in his minority). Though still serving as Lord Chamberlain, within a few months of the king's death, Hastings was charged with treason for allegedly plotting against the Regent. Lord Hastings apparently posed such a threat that, within a week of the arrest, Richard had him beheaded on Tower Green. The execution was a first for the Tower of London. Within a month, Richard seized the throne for himself, declared the two heirs to the throne illegitimate, and became King Richard III. Shortly after, the two boys, Prince Edward and his younger brother, Richard, disappeared. Many historians fault Richard III for the mysterious demise of the "Princes in the Tower."

Despite William's execution, the Hastings family retained control of the brickwork castle, and, for a time, continued the building program, roofing the towers and installing floors. However, in 1484, Lady Hastings abandoned the burdensome effort. During the reign of King Henry VII, which began the following year, Edward Hastings, the rightful heir, regained the lordship. Unfortunately, he never returned to complete the construction work at the castle.

In 1630, Sir Robert Banaster acquired Kirby Muxloe Castle, but did little to maintain it. In fact, masonry from the castle was taken to build the neighboring farmhouse, now the Castle Hotel (www.castlehotelkirby.com). In 1911, Major Richard Winstanley placed Kirby Muxloe Castle under the guardianship of the Ministry of Works, and is now managed by English Heritage. Conservation work was done at the site during 2005.

The ruins today

Designed by master mason John Cowper, the original plan of the quadrangular castle included towers built at the four corners and a curtain wall surrounding the interior which linked the towers to the gatehouse and also to other towers placed midway along each wall. Around the entire built complex, a moat provided defense against intrusion. A timber drawbridge originally spanned the water-filled ditch and gave access to the gatehouse, which in turn allowed entry into the inner ward via a single passageway. The site now primarily consists of the gatehouse, the three-story west tower, and the impressive moat.

Kirby Muxloe Castle

The rectangular gatehouse now only rises a single story over the gate passage. On the exterior, the red-and-black brickwork diamond pattern and variety of carvings still illustrate the prestige of the castle's owner. The finely crafted initials, "WH," the Hastings coat of arms, a ship, and a male figure still adorn the façade immediately above the entrance. Interestingly, garderobes (latrines) emptied into vaulted cesspits inside the gatehouse rather than into the moat, as was typical at many castles, where the regular flow of the water would have helped cleanse the site of waste.

Almost perfectly preserved to its original height, adorned with battlements and composed of brickwork decorated with red-and-black patterns, the West Tower was probably the one structure Hastings managed to complete before his execution. The unusual positioning of the gunports near the base of the tower suggests that they were added more as a show of force rather than to serve a real defensive function.

Only fragments of other building work have survived. Of particular note, however, is the moat, which was lined with brick and filled by water diverted from two brooks. To ensure the moat filled and emptied properly, builders installed two masonry dams, sluices and an intriguing set of hollow oak logs, which could be blocked with leather-ringed wooden plugs. They also constructed a screen across the mouth of one of the brooks to prevent blockage from leaves and other debris. In the early 20th century, when work was done to consolidate the site, one of the plugs, a tapering block of wood covered with leather, was discovered in place still doing its original job.

Kirby Muxloe Castle

Terminology

  • Quadrangular castle: As the designation implies, a quadrangular castle had four sides, roughly equal in length, which enclosed a square or rectangular courtyard (the inner bailey). Each side may also have been fitted with wall towers positioned along their length. A tower -- often round in plan -- dominated each corner and stood at least one story taller than the curtain wall. The main gatehouse generally occupied a central position on one of the sides. Many quadrangular castles were also enclosed by a second, outer curtain wall. Although erected during the late 13th century, quadrangular castles generally appeared during the 14th and 15th centuries, late in the history of British castle-building. Kirby Muxloe was quite possibly the last quadrangular castle erected in England. Other examples include Chillingham Castle in Northumberland, Bolton Castle, in Yorkshire, and Bodiam and Herstmonceaux Castles in East Sussex.

  • License to crenellate: Although never mandated by the monarchy nor a common practice until after 1200, applying for a license to erect a castle or to fortify a standing residence indicated not only that the applicant had the self-confidence to approach the king, but also demonstrated that he possessed the financial and personal status that came with the ability to build a castle. For many lords, receiving the license to crenellate was accomplishment enough, so they felt no urgency to complete the process with an outlandish expenditure of money that could result in bankruptcy. Just having the royal license proved they were qualified to move in the circles of the rich and famous and that the monarch recognized their social status.

More Information

Kirby Muxloe Castle
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk


Lise Hull is a recognized authority on British castles and heritage, with a Master of Arts degree in Heritage Studies from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as a Master of Public Affairs degree, specializing in Historic Preservation, from Indiana University. She is the author of several of books on Britain, including Britain's Medieval Castles (Praeger: 2005), Great Castles of Britain and Ireland (New Holland: 2005) and Castles and Bishops' Palaces of Pembrokeshire (Logaston Press, 2005). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Military History Quarterly, Military History, Renaissance Magazine, Family Tree Magazine and Everton's Family History and Genealogical Helper magazines; she is also a regular contributor to Faerie Magazine. Visit her websites at http://www.lisehull.com and http://www.castles-of-britain.com. Hull also writes TimeTravel-Britain.com's Finding Your Roots column.

Article and photos © 2005 Lise Hull

 

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