The Treasures of the “Rarely” Open Castle

Since we started “chasing” castles, we have visited many houses and castles around the country that have hundreds of years of history like Broughton Castle. Very rarely have we explored a house that maintained its historical look and feel as Broughton Castle has and this makes it a unique place, mainly due to its sheer size.

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The history of the castle starts at the beginning of the 14th century when it was built as a moated manor by Sir John de Broughton by. It was then bought by William of Wykeham who was the Bishop of Winchester and the chancellor for both King Edward III and King Richard II.  The bishop obviously did not have children and so the house moved to his nephew and a few generations later, moved again into the hands of the Fiennes family in 1448 through marriage. It is still lived in today by Nathaniel Fiennes, the 21st Baron Saye and Sele. 

The house saw its most extensive redevelopment during the middle of the 16th century by the 6th Baron. However, the medieval manor house was not destroyed and still remained the core of the house and the baron added a further two floors and a whole new wing. When passing in the corridors and great hall on the ground floor, you can still explore the 14th-century parts of the house. 

Broughton Castle was never a real “castle”, but like any proper manor house of the 14th century, it needed some sort of protection against invaders. The original manor house was built near several streams which were used to create the massive moat that surrounds the house today. The house was also protected by a gatehouse and a drawbridge. This could not stop an army, but was definitely enough to protect the family. 

In the 17th century, Broughton Castle was owned by William Fiennes who was the 8th Baron (and later the 1st Viscount of Saye and Sele). He was a great friend of King James the first who visited Broughton Castle on several occasions. When the king died, and his son Charles the first became king, the relationship with the crown deteriorated. William was a puritan and he opposed many of the steps Charles took against parliament. 

In the months that led to the Eglish Civil War, Broughton Castle hosted several meetings of the leaders of parliament who planned their moves in what is now called the “Council Chambers’’. Fiennes, along with MPs like Pym and Vane, was committing treason by having these meetings so they needed a very safe place in which to conduct them and the room at the top floor of the castle was perfect. Later, when the war broke out in 1642, the first battle of the war, “The Battle of Edgehill”, was fought not far away and since the royalists were the dominant force in the area, they besieged and captured the house. 

Like many nobles who supported parliament, William was against the execution of the king at the end of the war and he subsequently left parliament (which was very helpful when Charles II was restored to power). Fiennes was fully pardoned by Charles II and you can still see the document detailing this in the historical exhibition at Broughton Castle. 

During the rest of the 17th century, the house was neglected and the famous diarist (and member of the family) Cilia Fiennes sadly wrote that “my brother Saye’s house being much left to decay and ruine’’.

Things became even worse during the 19th Century when in 1837, the 15th Baron (who was heavily in debt due to his lavish lifestyle) sold everything he could from the castle in a twelve-day long sale. He even sold the swans that called the moat their home. Though future generations of the Fiennes family did try to restore the house, the most considerable restoration effort took place in the middle of the 20th century. 

It is impossible to write about Broughton castle without mentioning the unique connection it has to popular culture. The film actors Ralph Fiennes ( who played Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film franchise) and Joseph Fiennes (Commander Fred Waterford in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ television drama) are second cousins to the family and the house itself has featured in various movies and TV shows, such as ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (where Joseph Fiennes starred along with Gwyneth Paltrow), ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘The Madness of King George’ and many others.

Broughton Castle is still lived in by the Fiennes family and is open to the public for short periods only (please check the website for the exact days and hours they are open). The house offers free entrance to HHA members. for more information, please check Broughton Castle official website

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Visiting the House of Lord Voldermort’s Family

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Broughton Castle during the Easter Break. It is not an easy task to visit the house as it is open only two to three days a week for just three hours and only between April and September, meaning that if you want to visit the house, you need to plan carefully.  

Whenever we visit a house that is opened for such short periods such as Broughton Castle, I am always curious to see how the visiting experience will be designed. There are places where you can easily see that a house is not built to receive visitors daily. At Broughton, the only available toilets, for example, are near the parking area and the ticket sales are conducted from a small table at the gatehouse rather than a proper stand or office. The coffee shop, however, was really impressive and not something you would expect to find at a house opens so sporadically. As always, I did my research on Broughton before the visit and I knew that this house has a fantastic story to tell. The question was, how would it be told?

There was no guided tour on offer, which was disappointing news for me. True, there were several guides in the house, but they were not placed in every room so they could not really explain the entire story of the house (especially on the ground floor that dates back to the 14th century). I had a chat with one of the guides and it seems that you can book a tour in advance if you are visiting as a group.

I had several conversations with the guides on the first floor, and at least one of these led to a fantastic story about one of the portraits in the hall (a lady who commissioned a portrait only to ask the artist a few years later to change her appearance to suit changes in fashion). I think that this type of story is what makes a visit to a historic house more personal and relatable and so a way should be found to tell them even without a guided tour (an excellent example of this can be seen at Sherborne Castle in Devon). 

On the first floor at Broughton, you can also explore a great historical exhibition with some fascinating artefacts related to the house. To be honest, much like the coffee shop, I was surprised to see such a detailed, well-thought-out display in a house that opens so rarely: well done!

On the upper floor, you can also delve into the “Council Chambers’’, the only room in the house that has significant historical significance and it was a pleasant surprise to encounter here a volunteer guide who immediately engaged with every visitor. Apparently, this room was considered a safe place for the most senior leaders of parliament in the period that led to the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century. The guide did a great job not just in telling the story of the room, but also the story of the entire house during that period and even managed to engage my young son with the story. 

Finally, I was very happy to meet the baroness who still lives in the house. We met by chance while she was arranging the flowers in one of the staterooms and had a wonderful discussion about the history of the house and the current challenges of running it. This is an ambition fulfilled for me, as whenever I visit a house or a castle that is still occupied, I wonder if I might have a chance to meet the owners and, finally, it happened!

To sum things up. Broughton Castle is an interesting and exciting place to visit. Like many houses that are still lived in and rarely open, it is managed as a historic house and not as a theme park and it is therefore not particularly family-friendly (although my kids enjoyed playing on the lawn outside the gatehouse). For the amount of time it is open, the house offers one of the best visitor experiences available and if only they could have a guided tour on offer, they would probably be the best in their category.