Castle of the Week 33 – Ludlow Castle

Ludlow Castle in Shropshire, on the borders of England and Wales, occupies a good defensive position. It stands on level high ground guarded by two rivers and has its own supply of water from a deep well in the inner bailey. It was mostly built of limestone quarried from its own site and is one of the few castles to be built of stone from the outset.

After the Norman invasion, a string of castles was planned along the English/Welsh border to guard against the unconquered Welsh although strangely Ludlow was never attacked by them. This was possibly because it was the strongest of the castles in the chain. Walter de Lacy was given the lands of South Shropshire and his sons built the earliest surviving parts of the castle probably in the late 11th century. His family retained the lordship until the end of the 13th century. Amongst surviving parts built at this time is the circular chapel in the inner bailey, based on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. One of the de Lacys had been very impressed by this when he saw it as a crusader and it is the oldest of its type in Britain. The massive keep also dates from this time as does the curtain wall of the inner bailey and the four flanking towers. Although the castle was surrounded by a deep ditch, this was never filled with water to make a moat and was caused by digging out the stone to build the castle.

The outer bailey was built during the second half of the 12th century to provide a protected area to train troops, hold tournaments and to be used as a safe haven for townspeople. In 1139 during Stephen & Matilda’s civil war, the castle was held by the de Lacy’s enemy, Joyce de Dinan, and was besieged by King Stephen himself. It was the site for the signing of a treaty between Henry III and the Welsh prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1224.

The castle then passed through various hands until it was refurbished and taken over by the Mortimer family who brought it into prominence and did much building including the Great Hall which is a huge room measuring about 60 feet by 30 feet. In 1425 it was passed, through the female side of the family, to Richard Plantagenet, the leader of the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses but it was taken and sacked by the Lancastrians in 1459. In 1461 when Richard’s son became Edward IV, the castle became Crown property and remained so for 350 years, except for a brief period during the Civil War and Commonwealth. It became the administrative centre for the Marches and Wales.

The two princes in the Tower (Edward and Richard) spent most of their childhood at Ludlow and Edward was there when he heard of his father’s death and his accession to the throne as Edward V. They went to London for his coronation but were imprisoned in the Tower of London and shortly afterwards murdered.

Henry VII’s eldest son, Prince Arthur and his wife, Catherine of Aragon, were staying at Ludlow when he died in 1502 and his heart is buried there. His death led his younger brother to become Henry VIII on their father’s death and to marry Arthur’s widow who became the first of Henry’s six wives.

In the 1550s a lot of new building took place because of all the administrative work being undertaken there and the castle began to take on the appearance of a Tudor stately home. It was virtually the capital of Wales at this time which saved it from the decay of most of the other castles in the Marches. Its importance in this respect continued until 1689.

During the Civil War, the castle was a Royalist stronghold. In 1646 the town & castle were besieged by a large Parliamentary army. The castle surrendered after negotiation so wholesale demolition didn’t take place as happened to many other castles. However, this led to a long period of neglect.

When William & Mary centralised government from London in 1669, the castle was abandoned and was in ruins by early the next century. The townspeople looted the castle for the stone and the roof lead and the government considered demolishing it in the 1760s. However in 1771 it was leased by the Earl of Powis and the family bought it outright in 1811. Its final role took place the same year when it was used as a prison for the captured brother of Napoleon. The Earls’ stewardship initially stopped the decline and subsequently, with the help of grants from English Heritage, important repair work has been done.

The castle is open to the public.

Write-up and pictures provided by GillB.


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