History of Stokesay Castle

Set in a peaceful Shropshire valley near the Welsh border, Stokesay Castle presents visitors with the placid face of the English Middle Ages. One of the finest fortified manor houses in England, it 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, a magnificent great hall and a 17th-century gatehouse – the only substantial addition made to its fabric since the late 13th century. Stokesay is also a monument to the art of unobtrusive restoration: it was saved from terminal decay in the 1870s and 1880s by a programme of works which, almost uniquely for its time, left little trace of its own achievement except the buildings it conserved.

Cutaway reconstruction drawing of Stokesay Castle c 1290

A reconstruction showing Stokesay Castle in about 1290
© Historic England (illustration by Chris Jones Jenkins)

Laurence of Ludlow and the Building of the Castle

There was a settlement at Stokesay at the time of Domesday Book, 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.[1] 

The end of Welsh independence in 1284 had made the Marches safer than ever before, 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.

 

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The Later Middle Ages

Laurence of Ludlow was drowned in 1294 while shipping wool to the Low Countries. His son William may have had to attend to the final details of his father’s work on the castle.[2] Laurence’s descendants remained lords of Stokesay until 1498, living as country squires and enjoying a respected position among the gentry of Shropshire.

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, recording 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] 

 

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 ‘folie de grandeur’, and 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 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 indenture recording the sale also shows that the castle now had a park attached, containing red and fallow deer.[8] 

Stokesay timber framed gatehouse

Exterior facade of the 17th-century gatehouse

William Craven and the Civil War Period

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, principally, it seems certain, on the construction of the gatehouse – the evidence of his accounts is matched exactly by the findings of a dendrochronological survey.[9] 

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 parliamentary 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] 

 

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.

Sepia photograph of Stokesay in 1900

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 of Stokesay Castle

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 and by 1887 the castle buildings were structurally sound, while probably looking much as they had done in the late 17th century. 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.

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.

 

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About the Author

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

Footnotes

1. Calendar of Patent Rolls 1281–1292, 450 (accessed 28 Sept 2012).
2He is recorded as purchasing timber in 1302: TNA, E 101/148/17 m. 2.
3TNA, C 134/55 (inquest of 11 November 1316 after the death of William Ludlow).
4Shropshire Archives, estate deeds.
5Shropshire Archives, estate deeds.
6. L Toulmin Smith (ed), The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the Years 1535–1543, vol 2 (London, 1908) (accessed 28 Sept 2012).
7TNA, SP 46/59 and 46/175.
8Oxford, Bodleian Library, Craven papers vol 66 no. 320**.
9. 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 28 Sept 2012).
10In 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.
11Craven deeds vol 245, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
12. Country Life, 27 no. 694 (23 April 1910), 604.

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