Birmingham and Wolverhampton are the beating heart of the west midlands area in England. Staffordshire, which sits above these two large metropolises, is a delightful portion with its River Dove flowing through the county. Market towns and unspoiled hamlets dot its progress like a draw-by-number picture. Ellastone, on the northeast border, is said to be the setting of George Elliot’s Adam Bede. Weaver Hills and Cannock Chase are areas of extreme beauty and picturesque properties, the latter with an iron age hill fort.
North Staffordshire has attracted enthusiasts of ceramics, pottery, china and porcelain since the 18th century as Stoke-on-Trent is home not only to the Wedgewood/Johnson Bros factories but also several pottery museums including Potteries Museum and Art Gallery on Bethesda Street just outside the city at Hanley. The southern portion boasts Lichfield as a city of philosophers including the famous Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles and a prodigious inventor) and Anna Seward.
Quadrangular castles typified during the later Middle Ages are present throughout Staffordshire. These are represented by Caverswall and Eccleshall Castles and, unusually, the close wall surrounding Lichfield Cathedral among others. The remainder of the county’s castles suffered slighting after the Civil War, so much so, that Stafford Castle, as it stands today, is a 19th century re-creation of the original medieval castle. Such renaissance edifices can make one feel like they have taken a time-travel excursion into the past. – The Castle Lady
Northeast Staffordshire is graced with Alton Castle and Alton Towers, one mile distance from each other and fifteen miles east of Stoke-on-Trent. Both are a bit of a curiosity, each in their own way. The castle is not a part of the original settlement even though it appears so. The Towers take bows for being the true origin of the seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury. Today, it is a haven for a theme park on the scale of Disneyland, not entirely detracting from the ruins of Alton Towers and the castle. The latter is a Catholic Youth Retreat Center, now, where numerous children, from the ages of 9-13, spend 2 1/2 day forums with varied activities. It is an environment deemed to be a safe haven and fun getaway. The close proximity to a theme park would appear to be another draw for these children and Iain Gordon, the theme park’s business manager, would tend to agree with that assumption, I imagine.
Alton Towers, which was originally known as Bunbury Hill, began as an iron age hill fort circa 1000 BC. Centuries later, it became associated with the Saxon King Ceolred of Mercia. After the Norman Conquest the original castle was built by Bertram de Verdun. The date is uncertain but was most likely 12th century. In 1318 the estate passed into possession of Thomas de Furnival upon marriage to Joan de Verdun and then ultimately, to the Talbot family when Sir John Talbot married the eldest daughter of the Lord Furnival in 1406. Sir John acquired the title of the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury after 340 years of that title in forfeiture by the third Earl. Alveton Lodge, as it was called then, was used as a hunting lodge and summer residence, since the seat of the Talbots was at Heythrop in Oxfordshire.
At the beginning of the turn of the 19th century, Charles, the 15th Earl, moved to Alton along with his wife to make it their permanent residence and began a half century’s worth of labor creating extensive gardens there, based upon plans and recommendations from J.C. Loudon. Along with that, the first decade was spent restoring, rebuilding and extending the house with a drawing room, dining hall, chapel, library, long gallery, banqueting hall, conservatory and entrance hall- all in Regency Picturesque. This doubled the size of the Towers and became known as Alton Abbey although there was no intention to make it a religious venue. Hence, the curiosity. The caste of architects were Thomas Allason, William Hollins and Thomas Hopper and possibly James Wyatt.
A nephew to Charles, Sir John, took over the garden and landscaping construction in 1827 as the 16th Earl and nearly lived long enough to see its completion. The possessions of the original residence at Heythrop were not moved to Alton until 1831 after the mansion burned to the ground. Every piece saved was moved to Alton after that date and Sir John took up residence at the new seat. He brought in Augustus Pugin to design a new entrance and banqueting hall and at that time it was officially renamed Alton Towers. The gardens became public in 1839 and have been open to the public ever since and it has passed on to Talbots since that time. Summer fetes started there during the 1890s under the 20th Earl Charles Talbot which included fireworks, balloon festivals and the like. Under him however, the house languished from neglect and abandonment further exacerbated during WWII when it was requisitioned as an officer training unit. Its interior was stripped and the gardens were closed until 1951 and left an empty shell. Even though it was owned by a group of local businessmen from 1924 nothing was restored until the 1970s when concrete floors were added so that the entire estate could be opened to the public. This is its current status with a Grade II listing. Some areas are closed to the public as part of a 1.1 million project for restoration of the older portions of the ruins. As a result, there is much to see on the upper floors. Pugin’s portions are the Great Banqueting Hall and chapel interior complete with two Gothic fireplaces. A lot of work remains to be done.
In 1980 it began to be developed into a theme park but did not become a true resort until it was purchased as part of a large investment for 800 million by a huge Eastern conglomerate. Because of the large money deals its local popularity was an incentive to turn it into a massive English theme park with every type of rollercoaster available. Access to Alton Towers is available to each and every ticket paying guest to the park.
Alton Castle was rebuilt also by the 15th Earl down the valley just above the Churnet River. Pugin took charge of the building although a clear disagreement of vision ensued most likely under objections by the architect. Behind the ruins of medieval curtain walls, Pugin began in 1847 to create a gothic edifice and walked away from the project never completing it. As a result, the castle is smaller than the Towers. It is an L-shaped crenellated renaissance castle with the chapel as a central feature. The stone-vaulted ceiling is a tall, narrow version with yellow and green tiles and the exceptionally beautiful stained glass windows colorize the stone carved angels which adorn the walls. In the exterior photos, the polygonal apse dominates the skyline and adds an interesting vista from a distance with fairytale-like towers, turrets and steep roofs.
The best feature by far is the remainder of medieval portions of the original castle which dates from 1176. Much remains of the ruins although most of the original building is outside the residence. It is an adventure to explore and find pilaster buttresses, the rock-cut ditch on the south side, the eastern wall tower and the D-shaped western wall tower among various surviving staircases. The twin-towered gatehouse still shows evidence of the portcullis slot. All of the medieval features show signs of the Civil War slighting.
You may want to take a peek at Alton Station a short distance south which is the only Italianate railway station in Staffordshire and opened for business by 1849. It is attributed to the architect H.A. Hunt, an architect and engineer who designed other stations on the same line. Today it appears to be a very eclectic Victorian home which was converted to a residence by the Landmark Trust in the 1970s. www.landmarktrust.co.uk for more info. Heading west toward Cheadle you’ll find the most amazing medieval survival in Staffordshire called….
Caverswall Castle from the 13th century survives as a medieval castle with Jacobean additions. It was rebuilt by Sir William de Caverswall, a knight of Edward II in 1275, when he was given license to crenellate his Saxon manor house. This suggests its origins were before the Norman conquest. If so, none of the Saxon manor remains and today you will see the results after the mayor of Staffordshire rebuilt the structure in 1625 to bring it up to the current fashion. However, most of the medieval remains are very much intact. You will find the original quadrangular walls with a magnificent moat, parapet and corner turrets, a Norman tower with the keep, the bridge approach and dungeons which are now used for wedding receptions and the like.
Today, it is privately owned and underwent extensive restorations in the most recent decade, along with modern luxuries. On the approach, a majestic oak and lyme-lined avenue surrounds it and gives the castle a secluded atmosphere which is unique among thriving castles in England. Set in over 35 acres of beautifully landscaped private grounds, it is now used as a wedding, event and conference venue with awesome landscapes primed for photo shoots and filming.
Located 1 mile from the A50 in the Tudor village of Caverswall, 3 1/2 miles southwest of Cheadle.
Tel: 01782 393 239
Further southwest the 13th century ruins of Chartley Castle are delightfully apparent ! Some accounts purport that Mary Queen of Scots was sent here from Tutbury Castle but Chartley was abandoned by 1485 and never rebuilt. Most likely, Chartley Hall was the residence of choice. One rarely is able to see medieval castles of this stature without substantial rebuilding so to visit Chartley is a rare opportunity for the true castle enthusiast. This stone motte and bailey fortress was built by Ranulph de Blundeville, the Earl of Chester (you will remember) perhaps as a support to the Welsh Marches. A cylindrical keep tops the motte with a rectangular inner bailey curtain wall flanked by two gargantuan D-shaped towers and a twin-towered gatehouse including an angle tower! A counterscarp bank with cross-ditch still divides the inner and outer bailey. An unusual additional feature is another moat with a bank which surrounds the entire circumference of the castle. It is easy to find off the A518 just north of Stowe-by-Chartley and is seven miles northeast of Stafford. This is private property so it can only be viewed from the road under normal circumstances.
Most famous as a temporary residence for Queen Margaret of Anjou when she was preparing her army for the battle of Blore Heath in 1459, Eccleshall Castle had various other interesting associations through the centuries. The estate was given to the Bishop of Lichfield as early as the 7th century. All that remains of it today is a reduced nine-sided tower along with partial wall and part of a drawbridge and sits in close proximity to Holy Trinity Church. The remaining vestiges are what’s left of the castle built in 1305 by Bishop William Langton who befriended King Edward I. He built an imposing fortress with four corner towers and a wide moat.
The castle remained the home to the Bishops for centuries. This estate northwest of Stafford has Eccleshall Manor on the grounds and has been home to the Carter family (distant relations to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter) for just over a hundred years. A town grew up around it, both agricultural and with many skilled craftsmen. When Sir William Brereton showed up on a June evening in 1643 the parliamentary forces encamped around the church and the castle. Within a short period they had badly damaged the castle and found the Bishop had died of a heart attack during the siege. Nevertheless, the Bishops continued to have a seat at Eccleshall from 1693 until Bishop Selwyn sold the estate and severed the long association of the Bishop of Lichfield at Eccleshall in 1867. In the link below, Mark Carter-Morley talks about the history of Eccleshall.
Stafford Castle is located less than two miles outside of Stafford on Newport Road. This is not the original motte and bailey castle erected by Robert de Toeni in 1100 or the one which was built in stone by Ralph, 1st Earl of Stafford in 1348 but is a 19th century renaissance replica of the castle. Master-mason John, of Burcestre, built the original great tower on the 12th century motte with a rectangular keep of three storeys along with octagonal corner turrets of four storeys ! Along with Edward III, Earl Ralph was the founder member of the Royal Order of the Garter and erected Stafford Castle with his own money. The Staffords kept possession of the castle through the centuries. Its era ended with the execution of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, who was put to death by Henry VIII in 1521. The castle deteriorated from that time and its fortunes changed when it saw heavy action during the Civil War. It was successfully defended by Lady Isabel Stafford but ended up demolished, anyway. Today, it is maintained by the Stafford Borough Council who have many artifacts on display at the Visitors Centre, discovered from the excavations done on the site.
Stafford was extensively rebuilt in the Gothic Revival style in 1813 and quickly fell into ruin. One has to wonder how it must have appeared ! Rebuilt in the 20th century and using the same foundations, a keep was re-erected as a four-storey rectangular structure with octagonal corner towers. Some of Burcestre’s original medieval stonework can still be seen in the south wall and the northeast tower. By the 1950s it had been long abandoned and was derelict once again. Decades of restoration and archaeological investigation has given us a whole new program visitors can follow outlining the castle’s history, actual remains and other aspects of castle life unknown until more recent years. Twenty-six acres of keep, inner bailey, outer bailey and woodlands plus an extensive herb garden provides an extraordinary historical environment.
Tel: (01785) 257698 www.stafford-castle.co.uk
The ruins of Tutbury Castle today remain in the ownership of the Duchy of Lancaster and it gets enormous amounts of attention because it once was a prison to Mary Queen of Scots of whom many have claimed to see her ghost. Only a few miles northwest of Burton-upon-Trent, directly on the border of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, Tutbury impresses castle enthusiasts with its land position, its unique configuration, the obvious prestige of what it once was and what remains.
Currently leased by the illustrious Lesley Smith, this castle has received most recent attention on the TV show, Most Haunted and its official web site shows more than a few actors willing to be a part of the dramatic happenings in and around this still impressive series of buildings.
In the photo album for Staffordshire you will find a Sam and Nat Buck lithograph which shows what was still standing in the 18th century. At one time it had a multiple array of outbuildings. The aerial photo from Last Refuge will show what is left- basically the land mass it occupied and the few remains. Its promontory overlooks the River Dove on a natural hill of rock.
At the time of its initial construction it had a moat and three baileys. This became the headquarters of Henry de Ferrers sometime after the Norman invasion. This was taken down by Henry II in 1175. It was rebuilt again and then destroyed by Prince Edward in 1264 after the rebellion of Robert de Ferrers, the 6th Earl of Derby and the land was given to Edmund Crouchback, thereby becoming a stronghold of the Duchy of Lancaster by the 13th century.
This royal castle had many royal visitors among whom were Henry III in 1251, Queen Eleanor in 1257 and the previously mentioned Mary Queen of Scots. Many of the ruins date from the 14th and 15th centuries, rebuilt on the grand scale that is depicted in the Sam and Nat Buck lithographs. Of course, a good part of the ruination of Tutbury was done during the Civil War and its slighting was more like a demolition. This was for their part in the harboring of Charles I and his army. Today, you can still view an 18th century folly on top of the motte, a 12th century chapel and the Great Hall has been restored and opened to the public. Events are staged on the grounds for visitors by their veritable drama team. To find out more just visit…
www.tutburycastle.com Tel: 01283 812129
The town of Lichfield may be the oldest in the county by proxy to the Roman fort called Letocetum. Only two miles south of Lichfield center at the strategic crossing of the major Roman roads of Ryknild and Watling Streets, its remains are a bathhouse and inn plus many archeological discoveries which can be viewed at the Watling Street Roman Wall Museum. Lichfield can boast quite a few landmarks and unique features. Samuel Johnson’s birthplace and Erasmus Darwin’s home are within the city.
Lichfield Close surrounds the famous Cathedral associated with its three spires, a unique feature among many medieval cathedrals. They are referred to as the Ladies of the Vale. Lichfield Cathedral predates medieval times however, when it was established in the 7th century as Bishop Chad moved his diocese to the city. The Saxon church which remains beneath the present building was gradually rebuilt from the 11th century and some of the original stonework from that building period remain in the Consistory Court.
The Civil War caused extensive damage because of the fierce aggression of parliamentary forces around the cathedral. After three bitter sieges the damage and vandalism had devastated the building. Bishop Hacket initiated what was to be a long process of restoration, with the help of Charles II. It declined further in the 18th century and a 15th century library had to be removed to the Chapter House, statues on the west front were taken down and stonework cemented over. By the end of the 18th century James Wyatt rebuilt the High Altar and added a stone screen. Not long afterward, the Cathedral was gifted with its most famous treasures. In 1803, Sir Brooke Boothby bought Herckenrode Abbey’s Flemish stained glass and placed it in the Lady Chapel at Lichfield. Then, at the request of Ellen Jane Robinson, a monument was sculpted in 1820 by Francis Chantry and titled The Sleeping Children in honor of her daughters which were deceased.
Much of the cathedral’s current state is due to Sir Gilbert Scott who undertook a large commission of complete restoration during the Victorian age. Many of the features are a result of his vision from this era and have been continually restored to his specifications throughout the years. Many concerts and events are held there including the International Lichfield Festival each July.
Only four and a half miles from Stafford, Littywood Manor which is a 14th century farmhouse is surrounded by a ringwork of unusually large proportions along with two concentric circular moats. The manor itself is listed in the Domesday book as it was the home of the Baron of Stafford. Later it passed through several well-known Staffordshire families such as the Caverswall, Willoughby and Grevilles. By 1502 this manor was being leased to John Stapledon and his family claimed that they had actually been tenants as far back as the 12th century. Now a national scheduled monument it is also used as a wedding and conference venue and open to private functions.
Telephone: 01785 780234
Stourton Castle sits in the far southern region of the county near the Worcestershire border with Dudmaston in Shropshire as its closest neighbor along with the Stourton Junction. This primarily fortified manor house has a regal air and portions of it date from the reign of King William II as it was used as a royal hunting lodge in medieval times. It passed through many royal hands and was given to quite a few of the landed gentry but its most interesting association was that of being the birthplace of Cardinal Pole, distant cousin to Edward IV and Richard III. Pole was the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury and his mother Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury was beatified in 1886 by the Pope.
Before his time, the whole place was remodeled and rebuilt in part by Robert Smirke late in the 19th century, hired by James Foster, a wealthy industrialist, to bring it into fashion. The north, south and east wings which were 16th century additions were roofed over during the process. The only apparent medieval portion that remains is the late medieval gate tower which guards the main front.
In the southernmost portion of Staffordshire, Tamworth Castle, sits high on a motte upon which Mercian Queen Ethelfleda originally built a burh in defense against the invading Vikings. The remains which overlook the Tame River at present were restored in 1781 by The Townshends of Raynham who had taken up residence at that time. In my photo album you will see a black and white of a portion of the herringbone repair under the approach which was most likely done after the Civil War. It is much the same, in appearance, from its original 11th century Norman beginnings. The shell keep which is high atop the motte has a 12th century gate tower and additions of a 13th century three storey north range, an oak-timbered 15th century Great Hall and 17th century three-storied Jacobean south range- all arranged on an H plan courtyard configuration, completed its look.
A tour of the castle includes quite a few of the rooms in nearly every wing with a visit to the dungeon under the tower but the most magnificent room of Tamworth is the Great Hall which still has its timbered beam roof, display of armor and weaponry and the magnificent Jacobean fireplace. Be prepared to see wax figures a` la Tussaud throughout the tour. The interior features can be delightful surprises. The doorway to the 15th century banquet hall is renaissance and the state rooms were originally a long gallery. The overmantel in the dining room is beautifully carved and was brought to the castle from Chislehurst in Kent in the 19th century. The Cooke family tenants in the 1880s Victorian furniture and artifacts are still in residence on the top floor!
No less than six wealthy or influential families have resided at Tamworth and it has had a good share of visiting royalty as well. These include Henry II and also James I and his son Prince Charles. As home to the Marmion family who were Royal Champions to the early medieval kings of England, their occupation was nearly 200 years. In 1291 it passed by marriage to Sir Alexander Freville and remained in that family until it passed to Thomas Ferrers of Groby by 1423. It saw almost no Civil War action because by that time the castle was held by a governor Walyve Willington. It was quickly surrendered because a large portion of the defending garrison had been sent to Lichfield under the governor’s command !
From that time the Shirleys of Chartley gained possession until 1715 when Elizabeth Ferrers married the 5th Earl Compton of Northampton. When Charlotte Compton, the grandniece of 1st Earl Ferrers, married George Townshend of Raynham, Tamworth became their residence but from the 19th century on it was leased to tenants. Marquess Townshend put the castle up for sale by auction at the turn of the 20th century and the castle has been run by the Tamworth Corporation since that time.
Tel: 01827 709629 enquiries http://www.tamworthcastle.co.uk
Reconstruction by AT Finney
Heighley Castle at Madeley has been described as ‘a couple of bits of wall crowning a rock’ but if one has the opportunity to survey the site there is much more to be seen for the trained eye. If you are a casual observer you’ll need a telescope, however. The earthworks alone reveal once impressive features. The photo above is a depiction drawn up by an artist working with the supplied photo to show what the castle may have looked like shortly after it was built by Henry de Audley in 1233 and the estate became their principle seat. The lands which the ruins occupy were given by Harvey Lord Stafford to a Henry de Aldithlege during the reign of King John. This same family also claimed Red Castle in Shropshire as one of their many holdings. No other family ever resided at Heighley until it harbored Charles I. Parliamentary forces leveled it in the 1640s and was most likely abandoned thereafter.
Areas where the walls survive reveal mostly dressed sandstone with the best preserved portion on the lower south end of the motte where there also appears to be remains of a tower. More footings of wall can be found along the northwest and southeast where excavation by amateurs has been done and the main entrance ruins have appeared on the west with a partially intact causeway which runs across a rock-cut ditch. There are also remains of a well site and a portion of an Early English arcade indicating springers for a groined roof as part of an outbuilding. The southeast corner of another outbuilding has remains only of the footings of its southeast corner where it joins the curtain wall. A major excavation took place around the year 1830. Presently, most of the remains are grown over with interesting plant life.
No public access to this site.
Only two miles distance from Stoke-upon-Trent, Newcastle-under-Lyme had an important stronghold of the Earls of Chester with a 12th century square Norman keep. A low mound in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, on the outskirts of the town, marks the site. It was protected by damming the River Lyme to produce a sizable lake. During excavations some ruins discovered were a long and narrow building with pilaster buttresses which may have been residences. King John spent more than 200 in rebuilding and maintenance on the keep but it remained ruinous for a number of years and the town of Newcastle grew up and around it. A charter was given to the town by Henry II in 1173 and by John Leland’s time (early 1500s) only a single tower remained of the castle. By the 20th century any historical interest in its beginnings were eclipsed by the inclusion of Newcastle in the canal network which started with Trent and Mersey canals.
Most recently an ITV film crew visited the town to include Newcastle’s Queen Elizabeth Park on Orme Road in a bid to win lottery funding for a children’s play area there which is nearby to St. Giles’ and St. George’s Primary School. It was featured on the show Central Tonight at 6 pm on last 23rd of November where the viewers were asked to vote for the park by phone. The plans drawn up included a colorful castle-themed play area for children 5 to 12 years of age. Now there’s an interesting way to serve up history !
Tel: 01782 717717