History of Stokesay Castle

    Set in a peaceful Shropshire valley near the Welsh border, Stokesay Castle was built in the 1280s by the fabulously rich wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow. Today it forms an exceptionally picturesque ensemble of 13th-century towers, magnificent great hall and 17th-century gatehouse – the only substantial addition made to its fabric since the late 13th century.

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    A reconstruction showing Stokesay Castle in about 1290

    A reconstruction showing Stokesay Castle in about 1290

    © Historic England (illustration by Chris Jones Jenkins)

    Laurence of Ludlow and the building of Stokesay

    There was a settlement at Stokesay at the time of Domesday Book (1086), and probably a manorial building on the site of the castle by the early 1260s. Almost everything visible there today, however, was constructed in the 1280s and early 1290s. The wool merchant Laurence of Ludlow, who had become one of the richest men in England, bought the manor in 1281, and set about building an outstanding home there shortly afterwards. The work was probably largely completed by 1291, when Laurence obtained a licence to crenellate – or fortify – his house.[1]

    In building his house, Laurence was taking advantage of the newly established peace on the Welsh border, following Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1284. But the late 13th century was nonetheless a period of increasing activity by bands of thieves. Stokesay struck a balance between the demands of security and its owner’s wish to demonstrate his taste, wealth and importance.

    At the same time Stokesay, then as now, had an unobtrusive quality probably intended to reassure the Welsh Marcher lords – many of whom were eager to borrow Laurence’s money – that this new arrival represented no challenge to themselves.

    Find out more about Laurence of Ludlow
    A reconstruction drawing showing the second-floor room in the south tower at Stokesay Castle in the time of Laurence of Ludlow

    A reconstruction drawing showing the second-floor room in the south tower at Stokesay Castle in the time of Laurence of Ludlow

    © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

    The Later Middle Ages

    Laurence of Ludlow drowned in 1294 while shipping wool to the Low Countries. But his descendants put down roots and remained lords of Stokesay until 1498, living as country squires and enjoying a respected position among the gentry of Shropshire. Laurence’s son William may have had to attend to the final details of his father’s work on the castle,[2] while his grandson Sir Laurence Ludlow suffered arrest by the king for apparently failing in his duties as a tax collector. 

    Estate surveys show that the manor of Stokesay included 120 acres of arable land and six of meadow (for hay), along with a wood, two watermills and a dovecot.[3] Accounts which survive from the late 14th century onwards shed light on how the Ludlows managed their property and lived in the castle. They record labourers’ wages, payments for livestock and farming gear, clothes, food and drink, and music,[4] and essential repairs made at minimal cost when occasion demanded.[5]

    Read more about Sir Laurence Ludlow
    The north tower of Stokesay Castle

    The north tower of Stokesay Castle. The upper floor windows were added in the 17th century

    Stokesay in the 16th century

    When the last male Ludlow died in 1498, Stokesay passed through one of his granddaughters to Thomas Vernon, of a wealthy and important Derbyshire family. The Vernons’ higher social profile may have affected the standing of their house, which in 1539 John Leland described as ‘buildid like a castel’.[6]

    Thomas’s grandson Henry Vernon certainly suffered from delusions of grandeur. He spent most of his time and money litigating fruitlessly to establish his claim to the lands and title of the Barons Grey of Powys. His account books show that he visited Stokesay from time to time,[7] and a dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) survey provides evidence for repairs to the north tower in about 1577.

    In 1591 he was effectively ruined when he was arrested for debt, and in 1596 he sold his Shropshire properties, including Stokesay, to Sir George Mainwaring of Ightfield. The record of the sale also shows that the castle now had a park attached, containing red and fallow deer.[8]

    A Victorian stained glass picture from Stokesay Court, showing the Royalist surrender of Stokesay Castle to the Parliamentarians after the short siege of 1645

    A Victorian stained glass picture from Stokesay Court, showing the Royalist surrender of Stokesay Castle to the Parliamentarians after the short siege of 1645. All the participants seem to be wearing their best clothes

    © Courtesy of Caroline Magnus, Stokesay Court

    William Craven and the Civil War

    Mainwaring soon sold Stokesay on at a profit to a consortium of buyers who in turn sold it in 1620 to Dame Elizabeth Craven and her son William, later first Earl of Craven.

    An enthusiastic soldier, William was also a considerable builder, and made a lasting contribution to the appearance of the castle. In 1640–41 he spent just over £530 on works there, mainly, it seems certain, on building the gatehouse. The evidence of his accounts is matched exactly by the findings of a dendrochronological survey.[9]

    Civil war broke out the following year, but by good fortune Stokesay escaped destruction. Craven was a committed Royalist and Stokesay was garrisoned on the king’s behalf, the only time in its history that it was put to military use. But when Parliamentarian armies moved into Shropshire in 1645, the castle was surrendered apparently without a shot being fired. The victors demolished the curtain walls almost to the level of the moat, but left the new gatehouse standing.

    The garrison’s occupation left the castle in a run-down state, but during the Commonwealth period it was restored by its tenants, members of the Baldwyn family. Its condition at this time is unusually well recorded, providing evidence for the surrounding fields, meadows and woods, for farming equipment, and for the buildings and their contents.[10]

         
    Below: A reconstruction drawing showing the comfortable solar, or private apartment, at Stokesay in the mid-17th century 
    © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

    A reconstruction drawing showing the solar in use in the 17th century
    An early 19th-century watercolour showing the solar being used as a granary. By this time the panelling and overmantel had clearly lost the coloured paintwork with which they had been decorated

    An early 19th-century watercolour showing the solar being used as a granary. By this time the panelling and overmantel had clearly lost the coloured paintwork with which they had been decorated

    © Courtesy of Caroline Magnus, Stokesay Court

    Between Restorations

    William Craven recovered all his estates after Charles II’s restoration in 1660. He and his heirs only occasionally concerned themselves with the castle fabric. Early in the 18th century the Baldwyn family left, and Stokesay was let to a series of tenant farmers, who occupied at least parts of the castle for much of the 18th century. Some buildings were used as stores and workshops; the hall became a granary, while the basement of the south tower was converted into a smithy – a fire there in 1830 burnt out all the floors above.

    While the buildings were falling into seemingly irreversible decay, Stokesay was beginning to arouse antiquarian and aesthetic interest. Increasing numbers of watercolours and engravings were made, some showing the castle in a romantic light, others illustrating the uses to which its buildings were now being put.

    Visitors who wrote appreciatively of the castle’s historical value also lamented its dilapidated condition. The castle found a committed champion in Frances Stackhouse Acton, a talented artist and antiquary, who in 1853 appealed to Lord Craven to save it from utter collapse. Just over £100 was spent two years later on ‘Clearing out and securing Stoke Castle’,[11] but it was insufficient to counter the effects of centuries of near-dereliction.

    Photograph taken in about 1900, showing the wall of the solar block at Stokesay Castle with its windows covered with ivy

    Photograph taken in about 1900, showing the wall of the solar block with its windows covered with ivy

    © Shropshire Archives (PH/S/30/2/4)

    Rescue and preservation

    In 1869 John Derby Allcroft, a successful London glove manufacturer, bought the estate, and soon began an extensive and sympathetic programme of repairs. He built himself a new mansion nearby, at Stokesay Court, and ‘decided that the Castle should be left empty but kept safe and sound as an historic monument’.[12]

    The resulting ‘substantial and greatly needed repairs’ began in 1875. By 1887 the castle buildings were structurally sound, while probably looking much as they had done in the late 17th century. Almost uniquely for its time, the work left little trace of its own achievement except the buildings it conserved. As such, it is a monument to the art of unobtrusive restoration.

    Probably the most intrusive part of Allcroft’s restoration involved making the gatehouse fit for occupation by a caretaker, and even that affected only the internal fittings.  

    Stokesay Castle seen from the air

    Stokesay Castle seen from the air

    Allcroft’s descendants did all they could to preserve the essential elements of Stokesay’s fabric. They opened the castle to the public, spending on its upkeep much of what they received from admission fees. But the cost of maintainance increasingly outstripped their resources, and in 1986 Jewell Magnus-Allcroft entered into an agreement whereby English Heritage was to become responsible for Stokesay’s conservation during her lifetime, and assume ownership upon her death, which occurred in 1992.

    By then a second restoration of the castle had taken place – one which had been as careful as its Victorian predecessor to respect, and preserve, what were increasingly valued as structures of time-honoured beauty and authenticity.

       
    About the Author

    Henry Summerson is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Stokesay Castle.

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      Footnotes

        Calendar of Patent Rolls 1281–1292, 450 (accessed 7 June 2018).
        He is recorded as purchasing timber in 1302: The National Archives (TNA), E 101/148/17 m. 2.
        TNA, C 134/55 (inquest of 11 Nov 1316 after the death of William Ludlow).
        Shropshire Archives, estate deeds.
        Shropshire Archives, estate deeds.
        L Toulmin Smith (ed), The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the Years 1535–1543, vol 2 (London, 1908) (accessed 7 June 2018).
        TNA, SP 46/59 and 46/175.
        Oxford, Bodleian Library, Craven papers vol 66 no. 320**.
        Henry Vernon’s account books; DH Miles, ‘Lists 81–85: tree ring dates from DH Miles and MJ Worthington’, Vernacular Architecture, 28 (1997), 159–63 (accessed 7 June 2018).
        In Charles Baldwyn’s negotiations for a lease in 1647, a parliamentary survey made in December 1652, and a few other estate documents: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Craven papers vols 4 and 14.
        Craven deeds vol 245, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
        Country Life, 27 no. 694 (23 April 1910), 604.
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