Article on pages 6 - 9 of Dickon Independent issue 85

Astley Castle Reborn

Back in 2004 the branch visited St Mary’s Church in Astley, Warwickshire, and looked over the fence at the ruins of the adjacent castle. See Dickon Independent issue 54, pages 6 - 8.

I forgot all about the castle until I saw a copy of Architect’s Journal in July, which featured the castle on its cover. The Landmark Trust had rescued the ruins by having a holiday home built into the castle. It looked fabulous and so Bill and I went to see it on one of the open days.

The new accommodation centres on the original Norman castle. There are four bedrooms and three bathrooms on the ground floor. A staircase and a lift give access to the upper floor, which is one huge room with kitchen, dining and lounge areas. The original windows of the castle have modern windows built behind them, so you look out through the original windows and can only see those from outside. The seventeenth century extension now forms a courtyard the whole length of the house. It is partially roofed over and contains a large table and chairs and an original fireplace which can be used as a barbecue.

Some later extensions and dangerous bits of the older medieval building had to be demolished. The castle remains now enclose the holiday home and form part of its structure in places.

Outside the moat has been cleared and restored, and a new knot garden created to commemorate the three queens associated with Astley. The parkland surrounding the castle has been opened up with a public trail and interpretation boards. We didn’t explore that as it was a very wet day when we visited.

Astley’s history began in Saxon times. When the Normans arrived it belonged to Henry, Earl of Warwick. The Astleys held the manor from the earls to 1420, when the male line died out. Joan Astley the heiress married Reynold, Lord Grey of Ruthin.

The Grey family owned the castle from 1420 to 1600, although they lived mostly at Bradgate House in Leicestershire. Sir John Grey was the first husband of Elizabeth Woodville, and she is the first queen associated with the castle. Sir John was a Lancastrian and following his death the estate was confiscated by Edward IV. It was restored to John and Elizabeth’s son Thomas Grey by the king after he married Elizabeth Woodville. Thomas’s second wife, Cicely Bonneville, was a niece of Richard Neville, the Kingmaker. Her effigy is in the church.

The second queen associated with Astley is the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York, who became Henry VII’s queen.

The third queen is Lady Jane Grey, whose parents are both great-grandchildren of Queen Elizabeth Woodville.

Thomas Grey’s grandson (and Elizabeth Woodville’s great-grandson) Henry Grey was the ward of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and his wife Mary, Henry VIII’s sister. Mary was Elizabeth Woodville’s grand-daughter. Henry married their daughter Frances Brandon. They were the parents of Lady Jane Grey. She lived at Bradgate House which was the main seat of the family. Both Henry and Jane were executed by Queen Mary but Frances Grey remained on good terms with Mary and was allowed to live at Astley.

She married Suffolk’s Master of Horse, but died before him, and on his death the castle passed to the Chamberlain family. They improved the castle and rebuilt the church. It was garrisoned by parliamentary troops in the 1640s, but royalists captured the castle in 1646. The Chamberlains were impoverished after the civil war and abandoned the castle.

In 1674 it was bought by Richard Newdigate. A Sir John Astley rented the castle in 1765, a descendant of the original owner, before it reverted back to the Newdigate family. The castle was used by the army during World War II as a recuperation home for soldiers.

It was left in a sorry state before the Tunnicliffes took it over as a hotel until 1978. A few days after the lease expired it burnt down.

In 1995 the Landmark Trust took over but lacked the funds for a conventional restoration and gave up in 2000. In 2005 they took up the challenge again after agreeing with English Heritage that restoration was out of the question. A competition was held to design holiday accommodation to sit inside the ruins. Witherford Watson Mann Architects won and spent four years creating the amazing accommodation which nestles inside the castle ruins.

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