We were here last week with accompanying drizzle (so apologies for the gloomy vistas). This is one of Shropshire’s best loved historic gems – Stokesay Castle near Ludlow. Well, all right. It’s not so much a castle as a fortified manor house, though it does have a very huge moat. And it is one of the best preserved 13th century edifices of its kind in England. Pretty much everything still here was built between 1285 and 1290, and the only substantial later addition is the very impressive timbered gatehouse out front. This was built in 1640, and is seen in the next photo from the doorway of the Great Hall.
The man who built Stokesay Castle was Laurence of Ludlow, a commoner and tradesman, but one of the richest men in England. Like his father before him, he was a big wheeler dealer in wool, the nation’s main export of the time. He did his trading face to face too, travelling to Europe – to the Low Countries and to France – operating out of premises in Shrewsbury and in London, selling vast consignments of Shropshire-Herefordshire fleeces which were of the most excellent quality.
His business acumen earned him royal favour. He became Edward I’s financial advisor, and when the king needed funds for his war with France and thought to raise them by seizing all the nation’s wool, Laurence devised a very self-serving cunning plan. ‘Sire, why not triple the tax paid by the wool growers.’ And King Edward did. The wool growers were badly squeezed while the wool merchants got off unscathed. And so when in 1294 Laurence drowned in a sea-storm, en route for Europe to deliver wool and money to the Edward’s allies, there was self-righteous jubilation among the wool producers, or so it was written at the time:
‘Because he sinned against the wool-growers, he was swallowed by the waves in a ship full of wool.’
Anyway, here is what Laurence built with his wool money and where his descendants lived for the next 200 years before the house passed into the hands of other families. This is the Great Hall with its magnificent cruck (A-frame) beams. This is where most of the household business (including feasting) would have taken place.
The hair-raising medieval staircase leads up to the timbered apartment seen in the header. This was probably the guest quarters. As you will see, they are spacious premises and once kept warm by a very substantial fireplace, now sadly lacking its 13th century canopy:
Here are the stairs from the downward perspective. The timbers were dendro-dated to the 1280s. Anyone who suffers from vertigo should look away now:
Back in the Great Hall you must imagine that these windows were probably unglazed but protected at night by wooden shutters. There was a central hearth with no chimney, and so the smoke would have hung about in the rafters. The small window above the doorway allowed the ladies of the house to keep an eye on things from the privacy of the solar (coming up next).
The solar was ‘done up’ in the 17th century with the addition of some very fine panelling and a very extraordinary over-mantel above the fireplace. Not at all the sort of thing you’d expect in a polite drawing room, nor the garish decoration of the original carving that English Heritage have re-created in one of the room’s interpretation panels.
I always find myself quite interested in the toilet facilities. I think I spotted two garderobes or privies on my way round. Usually in castles and big manor houses the outflow simply went out through the external wall, dropping into the moat, or over the ramparts. At Stokesay one of the loos has a very fine view of the moat, now waterless. A draughty experience I should think.