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Old Wardour - Wiltshire's Hexagonal Castle

by Lise Hull

Now known as Old Wardour Castle, the impressive Arundell home near Salisbury reflected the status of its owners. Even in ruin, it remains an imposing sight. Surrounded by a lush expanse of green grass, the white stone castle dazzles the eyes even on drab rainy days. Recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, the manor of Wardour was modest by most standards, only covering 120 acres of land. Apparently, the Saxon kings of Wessex had occupied the small site, but by the time of the Norman conquest, it had been granted to Wilton Abbey, a Benedictine nunnery about ten miles away. Eventually, ownership passed by right of marriage to John and Maud Lovel, who owned vast estates throughout England, including Minster Lovell, their ancestral home.

Old Wardour Castle

In 1393, John, the 5th Lord Lovel, acquired a license to crenellate and began construction of his new castle at Wardour. Taking its inspiration from contemporary French design currently in vogue, Lovel's master architect, probably William of Wynford, created a splendid hexagonal castle which combined beauty and comfort with defensive might. Fronted by a drawbridge and enclosed by a dry ditch, Wardour Castle would have posed quite a threat to attackers. Among its defensive features were a series of portcullises, massive walls, and corner turrets crowned with battlements. Around the perimeter, a substantial curtain wall provided added security for the keep-like stronghold.

The castle's four stories surrounded a central courtyard, where the well was located. Several doorways led from the courtyard to the upper levels. An enormous kitchen block filled the ground floor and much of the first floor with several huge fireplaces, bread ovens, walk-in cupboards, sinks, and drains leading to storage cisterns in the basement. The pantry and buttery stood near by, poised to serve the guests in the ornate great hall, which spanned the area immediately above the main entranceway. Spiral staircases allowed access to the uppermost levels, which held the private apartments and, possibly, the chapel, before their destruction in the Civil War.

Old Wardour CastleWardour Castle remained in the hands of the Lovel family until 1461, when Edward IV ordered the seizure of the Lovel estates in retaliation for John Lovel's support of the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. This John Lovel was the great-grandson of the John Lovel who built the castle 70 years earlier. In 1547, Sir Thomas Arundell, from Lanherne in Cornwall, purchased Wardour Castle, and it remained the property of the Arundells until its demise after the Civil War.

When Sir Matthew Arundell altered the castle into a more comfortable home in 1570, he weakened the structure's defensive capabilities by removing the towers that flanked the main entrance. In their place, however, Arundell added one of the castle's finest features, a curious set of decorated shell-headed seats, and adorned the facade with a bust of Christ and the family's coat of arms. Above the entryway he also embedded an inscription, which emphasized his role in the rebuilding of the castle and his hereditary ties to the Arundells at Lanherne. It also included the date, 1578. Besides embellishing the main entrance, Matthew remodeled the great hall, added a new minstrel's gallery, realigned the doorways, added more fireplaces, and replaced most of the windows.

Almost 75 years later, Wardour Castle and its occupants threatened the stability of the emerging Parliamentary government despite its weakened defenses. In late April 1643, a force of some 1,300 men led by Sir Edward Hungerford and General Edmund Ludlow besieged the castle, in an effort to reduce Lord Arundell's influence with the king. With her husband engaged elsewhere and despite having only 25 troops and some household staff to help defend her home from the Parliamentarians, Lady Blanche Arundell refused to surrender. For eight days, she withstood the onslaught and the attackers' small cannons inflicted only minor damage to some windows and a chimneypiece.

Finally, Hungerford ordered his men to plant gunpowder mines underneath the castle walls. They laid one in the service tunnel that led to the cellars under the eastern side of the main entrance and another in the base of a latrine chute that drained the private apartments. Incredibly, the building resisted the explosions, but the garrison persuaded Lady Blanche to surrender on May 2nd.

Ludlow and his Parliamentarian troops promptly moved into the still very livable castle. In December of 1643, Henry, the new 3rd Lord and heir to the Arundell estate, led a Royalist assault on Wardour, determined to reoccupy his family home. Unlike the siege earlier in the year, this battle raged for several months. Pounding by cannons broke windows and gouged the walls, but the castle remained strong until mid-March, 1644, when Arundell ordered his men to lay gunpowder mines. Yet, unlike the assault the previous May, this time the Royalist mines devastated the castle.

Old Wardour CastleApparently, one of Ludlow's men unwittingly tossed a match into the tunnel where a mine lay hidden. The resulting explosion ripped a gaping wound in the rear of the building, and destroyed the upper floors of the castle. General Ludlow, asleep at the time, was forced to single-handedly defend what was left of his bedchamber until his men could reach him. After four days, the threat of more mining and their increasing hunger forced the Parliamentarians to admit defeat. Henry, Lord Arundell, had indeed regained control of his castle, but had inadvertently destroyed it in the fray!

After the Parliamentarians finally gained control of the government, not only did they execute Charles I, but they also seized the Arundell estate at Wardour. The family moved to Hampshire, but later in the century they began a new building program at Wardour. Rather than rebuilding the castle, they opted to remodel the outbuildings and, for a time, lived in the renovated stable block. Life was fairly comfortable, for they not only made use of a brewhouse and a banqueting house but also had a fine bath house, an orchard, and lavish gardens.

During the 18th century, the Arundells built New Wardour, which is visible in the distance. They hired the famous landscape architect, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, to transform the grounds and several lakes and a new banqueting house soon appeared in the shadow of the ruins. In the 19th century, Old Wardour Castle became a popular destination for visitors who enjoyed the romanticism of the ruins, and in 1944 it was taken over by the State when the last Lord Arundell died.

Today, Old Wardour Castle remains a stunning ruin. At the northern end of the property, two unusual features complete the lingering impression of a romantic era long since past. An 18th century stone grotto serves as a nesting place for birds, while the remains of a prehistoric stone circle hide in the woodland behind the ticket booth. During the 1990s, the castle was the setting for the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner.

To reach Old Wardour Castle from Salisbury, head west on the A30 about 12 miles. At the minor road at Ansty, turn northward toward Tisbury. At Tisbury, watch for signs to the castle, which is open daily throughout the year, for a small fee.

Related Articles:

Salisbury: Designed to In-Spire, by Moira Allen

Timeline: Salisbury, by Darcy Lewis

Old Sarum: A Layer-Cake of History, by Moira Allen

More Information:

Old Wardour Castle

English Heritage

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 © 2007 Lise Hull
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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