One day my wife and I decided to go on a quest to explore each and every castle and every stately home in the UK. Twenty months later, we have explored over one hundred of them. I can easily say that that was the most interesting period we have ever had. We saw some of the most beautiful houses and gardens that this country has to offer, set in the most unique landscapes possible. Houses with hundreds of years of history also hide many special stories and as part of our challenge, we also tried to discover as many of these stories as possible. By now we have collected almost 300 stories: we discovered the real Romeo and Juliet (hint – they are not Italians); we learnt about the oldest ghost in England; we found out how much it costs to be a king and uncovered the sad story of the three (yes, three) Ladies Diana Spencer.
But how do you start chasing castles? The short answer is that it all began when we visited Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds. The long answer, well, is a bit longer. We are a family of immigrants. When we first moved to the UK we lived in London and during this time we did not own a car and probably only left the city five or six times only in years. After all, it is London and one can never get bored of that city, right?
Things started to change as our family grew. We needed more space and London was not the best place to find an affordable home fit for our needs so we had to move. We ended up in a beautiful historical town called Cheltenham, located right at the heart of the Cotswolds which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. As opposed to London’s multicultural flair, Cheltenham is as English as one can get. Leaving London and moving to “England” changed our lives completely, most importantly, we suddenly had a car and we started to travel.
Cheltenham became the base from which we started exploring the Cotswolds. For hundreds of years, this region was famous for its wool production. The wealth from this industry fueled the growth of several wool-towns which today attract visitors from all over the world. Places with quaint names such as ‘Stow-on-the-Wold’, ‘Moreton-on-the-Marsh’ and ‘Bourton-on-the-Water’ replaced their wool mills with trendy cafes, art galleries and antique shops.
One of these wool towns, Winchcombe, is known as the ‘walking capital of the Cotswolds’. It is also home to Sudeley Castle. Like so many other castles where the owners still live in them, Sudeley castle is open to visitors for a limited time daily from spring until the end of autumn, so we decided to take advantage of one of the last warm weekends of autumn and visit it. The country we come from does not have any habitable castles, so the first visit to Sudeley Castle made a big impression on us. At the time, we were not aware of this, but we were lucky to visit Sudeley Castle as our first as it is probably one of the best castles for newbies making their first steps in chasing castles.
After visiting many castles and stately homes, I can easily say that most of them are more than just a historical site as they offer something for everyone. Obviously, you could focus on its history and stories, but you could spend your time admiring their formal gardens or take a long walk in its woodland. Many places offer specially designed areas for children, like a mini zoo, children’s trails or playgrounds. Sudeley Castle possesses everything from the list above plus a bonus: a royal tomb. The castle was the last home of Catherine Parr, the sixth and final queen of King Henry VIII’s. Sudeley is the only privately held castle in England that has a royal grave.
Sudeley Castle was involved in almost every significant event in British history from medieval times until the Civil War of the 17th century. And, like many castles, it was heavily damaged in that war and abandoned after it. The castle was left in ruins for 200 years before most of it was renovated during Victorian times. The ruins of the banqueting hall, built by King Richard III at the end of the 15th century, were embedded into the gardens.
Catherine Parr’s grave was lost following the Civil War. In 1782 a group of women travelling in the area asked the local farmer to unearth a pile of stones near the castle. To their amazement, a lead coffin was revealed and inside lay the queen’s body, wrapped up in several layers of cloth and perfectly preserved. The rumour of this great discovery quickly spread and Sudeley became an instant tourist attraction: even King George III came to visit (and almost lost his life trying to climb one of the semi-ruined towers). Unfortunately, opening the sealed coffin affected the preserved body inside and it started to decompose. Some visitors decided to help themselves to a keepsake from the body and so today visitors can see a few teeth and a curl of hair presented in the exhibition hall. I admit it is a bit creepy, but one might say that it is not every day we get to see the remains of a 500-year-old queen.
One of the best stories of Sudeley Castle occurred in the 15th century during the Wars of the Roses. The castle was owned by a local baron of a family called Boteler. The owner’s son was married to a beautiful woman named Eleanor. The groom died shortly after the wedding and left his very young wife alone and – well – bored. Along came a handsome nobleman called Edward, the son of the Duke of York (and later he will become known as King Edward IV). Edward had a very direct way to flirt with Eleanor. He made her an offer: if she slept with him, he would marry her.
Eleanor took Edward up on his offer and fulfilled her part of the deal. But unfortunately for her, Edward did not keep his promise (and I suspect she was not the first young girl to fall for his trap). Furious, Eleanor did not keep quiet and the story reached the Bishop of Bath. The bishop announced that because Eleanor had kept her side of the ‘deal’, the two were in fact married. When Edward became a king a few years later, he imprisoned the bishop, but by then the rumour of his alleged marriage has already spread and the story helped Edward’s brother to perform one of the most vicious acts in the history of the English Monarchy, known as “the princes in the tower”.
When King Edward IV died, his eldest son was only 12 but was still immediately recognised as King Edward V. Unfortunately for him, his uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, had other ideas. He managed to capture the young king along with his younger brother and kept them in the Tower of London “for their own safety”. Next, Richard claimed that Edward was married to Eleanor from Sudeley like the good old Bishop had said, meaning that his second marriage to the “official” queen was illegal and therefore, Edward’s children were illegitimate and had no claim to the throne. The young princes were seen playing in the tower for a few weeks and then one day they disappeared, whilst in the meantime, Richard proclaimed himself King Richard III.
When the Wars of the Roses ended, Richard III became the owner of Sudeley Castle and invested a fortune in its renovations. He did not get to enjoy it for long, however, because his reign was short and lasted only three years. In 1485 Henry Tudor landed in England, gathered an army and won the battle of Bosworth, marking the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.
Sudeley Castle remained a royal castle. Queen Elizabeth the First was one of the royals most closely associated with the castle. She was sent to Sudeley Castle as a young girl to be under the guardianship of Catherine Parr. Parr’s husband, Baron Thomas Seymour, showed an interest in the red-headed girl, albeit a different type of one, and Catherine had to send the young princess away. Catherine Parr’s suspicion was probably right as shortly after her premature death during the labour of her only child, Seymour immediately proposed to Elizabeth. As we know, Elizabeth was best known as a serial refuser of marriage proposals and Seymour was beheaded shortly afterwards.
Our first visit to Sudeley castle marked the start of a new era for us. We soon realised that although there are thousands of grand houses and stately homes scattered all over the island (Wales alone has over 2,000 castles), most of them are in a state of complete ruin. Only a few hundred stately homes and castles are still in a habitable condition and therefore are interesting enough for us to visit. We also realised that for us to fully enjoy a visit to any of these sites, we needed to do our homework and to be fully prepared beforehand.
Winter 2018 for us was devoted to preparations. I immersed myself into history books, learning about British history from the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 until the end of WWII. In the next few posts, we will share with you some of the juicy stories we collected from selected castles and palaces. We will visit the real Downton Abbey and Hogwarts and explore more haunted castles.