History of Ashby de la Zouch Castle

Ashby de la Zouch Castle was the purpose-built seat of one of the most powerful men in late 15th-century English politics, William, Lord Hastings. His adaptations to the relatively modest existing manor house at Ashby began in 1472–3, but by the time of his sudden fall from grace and execution in 1483 only about half of his grand design had been realised. The castle remained in use as the main family seat of his descendants, playing a prominent part in the Civil War, when it was held for the king. It began to attract visitors in the 19th century after Sir Walter Scott set a scene in his novel Ivanhoe there.

Ashby de la Zouch aerial view, sitting amidst green lawns and mature trees

The castle and surroundings seen from the air

The Early Manor

The manor of Aschebie is first documented in the Domesday survey of 1086 and for the next century formed part of the estates of the Earls of Leicester. They granted it to a family of Breton descent with the name ‘le Zouch’ (meaning ‘a stock’ or ‘stem’) in return for military service.[1] Their apparently modest manor house probably stood on the site of the present castle; fragments of it may be preserved in the hall range.

Following the death of the last direct heir to the Zouch inheritance in 1399 and disputes over its ownership, Ashby was eventually granted in 1462 to William, Lord Hastings (c 1430–1483), as part of a much larger grant of land in the Midlands.[2] Hastings had acquired immense power and wealth in the service of Edward IV.

          

The Building of the Castle

There is no evidence that Hastings particularly favoured Ashby de la Zouch at first. Following Edward IV’s brief deposition in 1470–71, however, and subsequent reinstatement, he was rewarded for his loyalty to the king with much greater powers than previously.[3] He became a virtual vice-regent in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and parts of Warwickshire, and needed a residence that befitted his status.

In 1474 he was granted a licence to fortify four (possibly five) manors and create parks around them.[4] However, building at Ashby actually began the previous year: the first reference to work there is in the manorial roll for 1472–3, which refers to ‘diverse great works within the manor and the wages of carpenters, tillers, masons, plumbers and other artificers and their servants’.[5] 

It is clear that Hastings intended Ashby to serve as his principal seat. He transformed the existing manor house with a series of vastly ambitious buildings and enclosed 3,000 acres (1,200ha) to create a park for hunting.

The architectural centrepiece of his new creation was a great tower, one of the largest structures of its kind in Britain. It placed Ashby firmly in the same architectural league as the greatest existing castles in the kingdom. Hastings apparently intended to create three further towers around the perimeter of a walled, rectangular enclosure.

The idea of Ashby as a regularly planned castle with four towers set around its perimeter wall is breathtaking, but it does match the surviving evidence. In the event only one of these towers was completed, the kitchen tower. The existing manor house was extensively remodelled and expanded with a new chapel and service buildings.

The death of Edward IV in 1483 brought Hastings’s career to a dramatic close. He was an obstacle to the royal ambitions of the Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, and was summarily executed on 13 June 1483.

 

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE FALL OF LORD HASTINGS

Cutaway view of Lord Hastings’s Great Tower showing internal rooms with inhabitants and furnishings

A cutaway reconstruction of Lord Hastings’s great tower in about 1480
© Historic England (illustration by Phil Kenning)

Ashby under Hastings’s Heirs

The castle was developed by Lord Hastings’s heirs, whose rapid return to royal favour was sealed in 1529 when Henry VIII ennobled Hastings’s grandson, George, as 1st Earl of Huntingdon. It is likely that George made important changes to Ashby in brick at about this time; certainly in 1677 Dugdale described the buildings as having formerly been built in a mix of stone and brick.[6] 

As part of this work George probably set out the surviving garden with its towers – perhaps to match the new gardens laid by his local rivals, the Greys at Groby and Thomas Manners at Belvoir, in about 1530.[7] 

George’s grandson Henry, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, who succeeded to the title in 1560, was a trusted royal servant; in the political crisis of 1569 he acted as a jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was briefly held at Ashby in November that year. But he ran up huge debts in royal service and his younger brother and heir, George, was left in acute financial difficulty.

In 1603–4 he petitioned James I for relief, declaring himself unable to maintain the estate of an earl.[8] He also angled to secure a royal visit to Ashby, and was rewarded on 22 June 1603, when Queen Anne of Denmark and her son Prince Henry came to the castle; his petition was granted in February 1604.

George’s grandson Henry, the 5th Earl (1586–1643), also used the castle for court entertainments, including a reception of James I in 1617 and another for Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1634. It was probably for such visits that the gardens at Ashby were developed. Surviving accounts record the purchase of plants, fruit trees and new furniture, as well as the creation of a ‘wilderness’.[9]


The Civil War

During the Civil War Henry Hastings, younger brother of Ferdinando, the 6th Earl, occupied Ashby as a Royalist base, and Ashby formed a crucial link between Royalist operations in the north and south.

Hastings fortified the town and castle on an impressive scale;[10] the great tower was described in 1644 as ‘Hastings’ stronghold’.[11] Charles I twice visited the castle during the fighting: on the second occasion he stayed the night at Ashby following the Royalists’ decisive defeat at Naseby on 14 June 1645.[12] 

After a series of successful Parliamentarian raids on the town, Hastings eventually surrendered on 28 February 1646. He agreed to demolish the newly constructed fortifications around the town, while the garrison was allowed to march free with ‘trumpets sounding, drums beating, colours flying’.[13]  

The castle buildings were initially used to imprison prominent Royalists, but later in 1646 it was directed that the defences be demolished. The earl subsequently complained that the demolition squad had far exceeded its orders and entirely ruined his ‘only convenient mansion’.[14] 

The Great Tower, Ashby de la Zouch

The great tower, seen here from the gardens, was partially demolished in 1648, probably with gunpowder, to render the castle indefensible following Henry Hastings’s surrender

Ashby Place

After the Civil War the Earls of Huntingdon mainly lived elsewhere, but did not altogether abandon Ashby. The remaining buildings, including the medieval hall, were patched together as a house called Ashby Place. This appears principally to have been used as a dower house by widowed Countesses of Huntingdon.

One of the last family occupants was Selina, who lived here after the death of her husband, the 9th Earl, in 1746. In old age she became a religious enthusiast and in 1783 established the Calvinist sect called the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.

The last Hastings Earl of Huntingdon, Francis, died without children in 1789 and his estates passed by marriage to Francis Rawdon, later Earl of Moira, a noted soldier and imperial administrator.


Ivanhoe and Ruin

In 1819 the novelist Sir Walter Scott published a medieval romance, Ivanhoe. A tournament scene in the novel was set at Ashby and visitors flocked to see the castle ruins. Lord Moira’s agent repaired the ruins, transforming them into a popular resort, and the first guidebook to the town was published in 1824.[15] 

Lord Moira benefited from the redevelopment of Ashby, and allowed his son, John, to demolish Ashby Place and replace it with the gothic Ashby Manor, which is now used as a school.

Repairs to the castle ruins continued throughout the 19th century, focusing on the two towers. There was limited excavation of the site, probably about 1900, and the first accurate surveys of the castle were published in 1911.[16] Ashby de la Zouch came into state guardianship in 1932 and has been in the care of English Heritage since 1983.

       

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About the Author

John Goodall is architectural editor of Country Life and author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Ashby de la Zouch and Kirby Muxloe Castles.

Footnotes

1. For a summary of this history with the relevant documents transcribed see AH Thompson et al, ‘Ashby de la Zouch’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, 15 (1927–8), 69–96.
2Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward IV 1461–67 (London, 1897), 103–4.
3. C Cross, ‘William, Lord Hastings’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
4. Calendar of Charter Rolls, 1427–1516, vol VI (London, 1927), 242.
5Huntington Library, Map Drawer 11 U2 [formerly HAM Box 22 (3)].
6Huntington Library, Hastings Misc Box 13, 1677 Dugdale MSS.
7. J Goodall, The English Castle (London and New Haven, 2011), 410–11.
8Huntington Library, HAP BOX 14 (9).
9Huntington Library, HAF Box 7 (22).
10. National Archives C93 43/inq/24/9, cited in CJM Moxon, ‘Ashby de la Zouch – a social and economic history of a market town, 1570–1720’, unpublished DPhil thesis, University of Oxford (1971), 256.
11. Perfect Diurnal, cited in TH Fosbrooke, Ashby de la Zouch Castle (Leicester, 1911), 17.
12. CE Long (ed), Diary of the Marches of the Royal Army during the Great Civil War, kept by Richard Symonds, Camden Society, old series 74 (London, 1859), 194.
13. Fosbrooke, op cit, 20–21.
14. Huntington Library, HAP Box 19 (7).
15. T Wayte, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Castle of Ashby de la Zouch (Ashby de la Zouch, 1824).
16Fosbrooke, op cit.

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