In 1503 Walter Hungerford III was born at Heytesbury, Wiltshire, the only child of Sir Edward Hungerford of Farleigh Hungerford, Somerset, and his first wife, Jane Zouche. They lived in his family home, Farleigh Castle in Wiltshire, which I was lucky enough to visit recently. And it was there that I learnt the story of the Lady in the Tower.
|The remains of Farleigh Castle today|
Walter was nineteen when his father died in 1522, and soon afterwards became squire to Henry VIII. He married three times, but prospered only after his third marriage in 1532 to Elizabeth, daughter of John Hussey, first Baron Hussey of Sleaford. Walter was keen for advancement, so he asked his father-in-law to recommend him to Henry VIII’s rising minister Sir Thomas Cromwell. This Hussey did, and subsequently let it be known that Walter would like to become Sheriff of Wiltshire, a desire which was gratified in 1533. Walter became Cromwell’s agent in the Farleigh area, a service which bore fruit in 1536 when he was created the first (and last) Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury. Thus far his third marriage had served him well.
|The Hungerford coat of arms|
However, by that time his father-in-law, John Hussey, had fallen out of favour at court, so in punishment Lord Walter began to persecute his unfortunate wife Elizabeth. His treatment of her was remarkable for its brutality. He locked her in a tower at Farleigh Castle
|The tower probably used for her incarceration|
and kept her there for four years, during which time his chaplain, William Bird, brought her food and drink. However, she didn't trust Bird, and in around 1539 she wrote an appeal for protection to Cromwell, saying that she was “continually locked in one of my Lord’s towers in his castle … these three or four years past … under the custody of my Lord’s chaplain, which has once or twice heretofore poisoned me.” She claimed that she was often reduced to drinking her own urine, and that without the charity of “poor women of the country” who “brought me to my great window, in the night, such meat and drink as they had”, she would have starved to death. Apparently they rigged up a basket and pulley system through a window in the tower, and provided her with food and drink. This may have been the window they used.
|The window in the tower|
It is not known whether Cromwell ordered Elizabeth’s release on receipt of her letter, but by that time Henry VIII was becoming increasingly worried about uprisings in the country protesting about his break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. For this reason Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chief minister, also fell out of favour.
|Sir Thomas Cromwell|
Unsurprisingly it was not long before the king also caught up with Cromwell’s protégé, Lord Walter, and in 1540 he accused Walter, together with William Bird, of sympathising with the so-called “Pilgrims of Grace”, a popular uprising that had begun in Yorkshire in 1536 and was spreading. The members were protesting not only about Henry’s split from Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but also about Thomas Cromwell’s policies and other political, social and economic grievances.
On 28th July 1540 both Lord Walter Hungerford and Sir Thomas Cromwell were beheaded on Tower Hill: Cromwell for treason and Lord Walter for treason, witchcraft and the then capital crime of homosexuality. Contemporaries noted that Lord Walter had gone mad by the time of his execution, ‘for he seemed so unquiet, that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise.’
After her husband’s death Elizabeth was finally released from the tower. She survived, and subsequently married Sir Robert Throgmorton, with whom she had five daughters. She died peacefully in 1554.
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