Tuesday 16 October 2012

Castle In The Air: Sue Purkiss

I wonder - does this ruined castle seem at all familiar to you? I'll give you a clue - Bryan Adams singing a really soppy song that was at the top of the charts for months... no? How about this: Alan Rickman: the best Sheriff of Nottingham ever - discuss.

Yes - this castle had a walk-on part in Robin Hood, Price of Thieves. Robin comes back from being a hero in the Crusades to find that his father has been killed and his home - this castle - has been destroyed. It's actually Old Wardour Castle, set deep in the Wiltshire countryside.

It was built in the late 1390s for John, the 5th Lord Lovell, who was doing rather nicely under Richard 11 - until everything went horribly wrong and Richard was deposed and (probably) murdered by Bolingbroke. In the meantime, however, John, who was distantly connected to Richard, had amassed a fortune and a great deal of property in Wiltshire, and his castle was built to demonstrate his wealth and status rather than for any military purpose - though it did have a portcullis and some picturesque machicolations (openings in a parapet through which, had Robin Hood's father ever actually lived here, he could have dropped rocks and boiling oil on the Sheriff when he came calling). In fact, the castle was in a remote spot of no strategic value, and it was unlikely that it would ever be attacked: nor was it - at least, not for a couple of centuries.

It's built in a hexagonal shape, with a small central courtyard containing a well. Now, this is a space open to the skies. Through the empty windows you can catch glimpses of the parkland surrounding the castle; there's something lovely about the way that mature trees and bright green turf are framed by weathered creamy-grey stone. But originally, all this would have been enclosed: the courtyard would have been a dark space, lit by rushes no doubt, which would have flickered on white plastered walls.

Upstairs, on the other hand, the Great Hall was brightly decorated with gilt and bright colours, tapestries and hangings, and lit by two huge, gracefully arching windows. Because of the hexagonal shape, there were odd little corners, which were cleverly utilised to create latrines which emptied into the castle's drainage system - positively the last word in 14th century luxury and convenience.

The fortunes of the Lovell family gradually declined, and in 1547, Wardour was bought by Sir Matthew Arundel. A clever chap, Matthew was a Catholic under Mary and a Protestant under Elizabeth. He married one of Elizabeth's ladies, and proceeded to restore and modernise Wardour. He did this, apparently, with respect for the building's mediaeval charm, enhancing rather than destroying - though some of the modern stonework looks a little out of place.

The Arundels continued to live at Wardour until the time of the Civil War. And this is where we come to the story of how the castle came to be in its present state. There were two sieges of the castle. The first was in 1643. Thomas, the 2nd Lord Arundel, was a Royalist and had gone to fight for the king. He left behind him his 60 year old wife Blanche, with a few male members of the household to protect her - never for one minute imagining that the castle would in fact be attacked by a Parliamentary force of 1300, under Sir Thomas Hungerford. Blanche was determined to resist, and so she did, along with her daughter, two small grandchildren, and 25 men.. They lasted out for a week, only surrendering when the Parliamentarians laid gunpowder under the castle and threatened to ignite it.

Note that. This is what was supposed to happen. The besiegers threatened to blow the castle up: the besieged surrendered with dignity.

However, in the second siege, it all went badly wrong. 

This siege lasted from 1643 - 1644, and this time the besieger was Henry, Blanche's son. His father had been killed, and now he was determined to retake the castle. The garrison was a large one, and they had cannon, so they were not such an easy target as Lady Blanche had been. Eventually, Henry decided to use the same trickas his enemies had not long before. He brought in miners who laid a gunpowder mine in the tunnels under the castle.

But before the negotiations could take place, the defenders somehow managed to set off the mine by mistake - and this was the result.

After this disaster, the castle was never rebuilt. Eventually, a new house was built across the valley, and Old Wardour was reduced to the status of a romantic ruin. In the 18th century they even added artful grottos to add to the effect.

So there you have it. What looks at fist sight like a fortified mediaeval castle, worn away by the years, was actually a luxurious home which was destroyed by a mistake. But what's left is beautiful, peaceful, and evocative. Do go and see it if you get the chance.

And finally, just because it's such fun, here's a little quote from Robin Hood, Price of Thieves. I'd forgotten how good the script was.

Sheriff of Nottingham: Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it?

[Scribe nods]

Sheriff of Nottingham: That's it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.


Jean Bull said...

A wonderful pice of history, Sue. Next time I'm in Wiltshire I'll try and find it.

adele said...

Lovely post and love that quote! Alan Rickman is the Sheriff of my dreams.

michelle lovric said...

No more merciful beheadings indeed!

Penny Dolan said...

Rickman? Yes!

Fascinating turn and turn about of a castle.

I can recall the Arundel family being spoken of as Catholics ( eg when visiting Arundel Castle years ago) but I've never been quite sure how the Catholic nobility hung on to their lands & property if they were so well known as such. Or did they just keep very quiet and not open the door?:-)

Sue Purkiss said...

I think the ones who survived must have been very good at seeing which way the wind was blowing!

I'm interested in Blanche, too - she was a tough lady!

CrazyCris said...

Call off Christmas indeed! He got all the best lines... and Alan Rickman nailed them! :o)

Great story, thanks for sharing it! The place looks fascinating... pity it got blown up!

Laura said...

I'm very fond of Neuschwanstein over in Bavaria - like this castle, it's also not quite what it seems!

If you Google it, you'll spot a fairy tale-esque castle complete with turrets. You may recognise it from a couple of films, especially Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Inside, the throne room is covered in gold-leaf depictions of Wagner's romanticised Nibelungenlied, Germany's equivalent to our King Arthur saga. However, go outside the throne room and soon you'll spot a door, with a little sign on it saying something along the lines of 'Warning, do not open this door - there's no floor'.

You see, Neuschwanstein was built by Ludwig II of Bavaria, handily referred to as 'Mad King Ludwig'. He bankrupted the state paying for his astonishing castles (Linderhof nearby is finished, and also a bit of a jewel!) and was obsessed with the Ring Cycle by Wagner. He met a decidedly dodgy end when he 'drowned' in the grounds of (I think) Linderhof castle, and Neuschwanstein was left permanently unfinished.

Perhaps Old Wardour should twin with Neuschwanstein - both their appearances belie their pasts!

Thanks for a fascinating post and for poking my memory!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this - what a great castle!

Sue Purkiss said...

Bavaria is now definitely on my list of places to visit! What fascinates me is trying to imagine what these places were actually like to live in, and at Wardour the headphone guide and the very simple display boards really enable you to do that.