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.
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.
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.
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’.
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, 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.
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’, but it was insufficient to counter the effects of centuries of near-dereliction.