Friday, December 13, 2013

Stokesay Castle - To Protect Against the Marauding Welsh

Stokesay Castle is one of my favorite castles in the United Kingdom.  It is also the smallest.  Its remarkable preservation is what makes this jewel special.  The castle, which is actually a heavily fortified manor house sits near the Welsh border in western Shropshire.  The valley where it is situated was one the major thoroughfares across the Welsh Marches were bands of Welsh sometimes crossed the border to prey on English farms and manors.

The castle complex now consists of a tower keep, a great hall, a curtain wall that surrounds about one acre and a curious Tudor style gate house that was added in the 1600s.  Unfortunately, several small out buildings within the curtain walls have been lost to time.  Stone foundations in the soil mark where they once stood.  The level of preservation of this remarkable place is for two reasons.  First is the poverty that owners endured in the years after the Civil War.  That lack of funds did not allow remodeling or changes that occurred in more affluent manors through the years.  The second is the foresight of the Allcroft family who purchased Stokesay in 1896.  They took enormous care to restore and preserve the castle in its original form, although the retained the gate house and other additions that date from Tudor times.

Stokesay Castle is really a 13th Century fortified manor house.  The tower was constructed in 1240 by the de Say family.  The tower was built in a village known as South Stoke. This was later added to the family name - Stoke-de-Say.  It was a wild and lawless time on the border in those years hence the need for the tower and a small moat around the whole village.  Work on a Norman church was also began at the same time. 
From: Castles From the Air: An Aerial Portrait of Britain's Finest Castles.
The following is from the English Heritage web site for Stokesay Castle.  More information and additional photographs can be found there.

Stokesay Castle is quite simply the finest and best preserved fortified medieval manor house in England. Set in peaceful countryside near the Welsh border, the castle, timber-framed gatehouse and parish church form an unforgettably picturesque group.

Lawrence of Ludlow purchased the property in 1291 and began to fortify the manor in earnest.  He added a great hall, and received permission from Edward I to crenelate (build curtain walls).  The curtain wall enclosed the courtyard and rose 30 feet above the moat. During the Civil War, Parliamentarian Forces captured the castle and destroyed the defensive crenelations on the wall.) Lawrence of Ludlow's family lived at Stokelay for 300 years. This illustration from the English Heritage web site shows how Stokesay may have looked during Lawrence of Ludlow's time.
Lawrence of Ludlow, a wealthy local wool-merchant wishing to set up as a country gentleman, bought the property in 1281, when the long Anglo-Welsh wars were ending. So it was safe to raise here one of the first fortified manor houses in England, 'builded like a castle' for effect but lit by large domestic-style windows. Extensive recent tree-ring dating confirms that Lawrence had completed virtually all of the still surviving house by 1291, using the same team of carpenters throughout: more remarkably, the dating also revealed that it has scarcely been altered since.

The stone stairway in the 60 foot tower is unusual in that it wind down clockwise instead of counterclockwise.  Most are done in the opposite manner so a right handed defender can more easily wield his sword. Photo by author.

An arrow slit defends the moat with a view west to the Welsh border.  Photo by author
Stokesay's magnificent open hearthed great hall displays a fine timber roof, shuttered gable windows and a precipitous staircase, its treads cut from whole tree-trunks. It is flanked by the north tower, with an original medieval tiled floor and remains of wall painting, and a 'solar' or private apartment block, and beyond this the tall south tower - the most castle-like part of the house, self-contained and reached by a defensible stairway.

The Great Hall adjacent to the Tower Keep.  The hall was were most manor business was conducted, meal taken, guests lodged and where servants slept.  It has been alter little since it was built in 1291.  As is normal for that time frame, there is not fireplace or hearth.  An open fire was usually built on the floor in the middle of the hall.  Large Gothic windows open to the courtyard to let in light. Photo by author.

Inside the Great Hall.  The oak timber rafters are original as is most of the slate roofing. Photo by author.

View from inside the Great Hall across the courtyard to the Gate House.
The door still has its giant iron reinforced oaken door.
Photo from:

An opposite view across the Great Hall to the stairs to the living quarters.   Photo from:

The solar block contains one of the few post-medieval alterations to the house, a fine panelled chamber. Its dominating feature is a fireplace with a richly carved overmantel, still bearing the traces of original painting in five colours. This was added in about 1641, at the same time as the truly delightful gatehouse: an example of the Marches style of lavishly showy timber-framing, bedecked with charming carvings of Adam and Eve.

The Solar.  This room is in between the Great Hall and the Tower.  This is where the Lady of the manor and her hand maids would have spent their time, sewing, embroidering and gossipping.  These type room were called solars because they normally provided good light through large windows. Photo from:
This Amazing carved mantle was added to the solar during upgrades to the living quarters in the 17th Century. 
Photo by author.

Before the 17th Century additions, a smaller defense tower was positioned at the south end of the Great Hall.  In the 1640s it was converted to living quarters.  The top of the tower did not offer enough floor space, so these added apartments seem to hang from the side of the structure.  Photo by author.
The Gate House entrance to Stokesay was added along with other improvements in the 17th Century.  It seem out of place next to the 13th Century buildings, but adds a unique charm.  Photo by author.
The 17th Century Gate House from the top of the Tower. Photo by author.
One of the many 17th Century wood carvings that still decorate the Gate House.  Photo by author
A few years later, in 1645 Stokesay experienced its only known military encounter, surrendering without fighting to a Parliamentarian force. So the house remained undamaged, and sensitive conservation by Victorian owners and English Heritage have left it the medieval jewel which survives today.
No visit to any English Heritage site is complete without a spot of tea, and a scone, jam and clotted cream!