How To Look Like A Lord In The 13th Century ~ Build Yourself A Castle

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Stokesay is in the care of English Heritage

Line Squares #22

 

37 thoughts on “How To Look Like A Lord In The 13th Century ~ Build Yourself A Castle

  1. I love this place even the stairs. I’d love to live here, although might need a little bit of modernisation such as bathrooms and heating! Not been for years, maybe it’s time I revisited.

    1. I’ve been told they have an updated audio (which we didn’t use for some reason) narrated (I think) by Janet Suzman – that really brings the place to life. I think the Gatehouse would make a nice home – not so draughty. Clearly the ‘to do’ in Shropshire list is growing, Becky.

  2. I went here quite a few years ago, before we even lived in Shropshire the first time, and it is quite a lovely place. I always like the audio at EH sites, they really do bring a place to life. I have enjoyed seeing it again. Thanks Tish.

  3. This is absolutely fascinating. Exploring old places like this in your own time is an experience of its own (I hate guided tours).

    P.S: Great to see dark humor enjoyed even in Medieval England, with that quote about how the wool trader died in a ship full of wool 😛

  4. A big Wow for your post Tish, much enjoyed your eye for detail. I was amazed to find that the ladies would also have had a lookout window which is something I found on the island of Gozo in the traditional houses, there the gallery jutting out of the upstairs gable is said to have served the same purpose. Interesting. The brightly painted woodwork above the mantelpiece was something that was done in that time period, even though we would not see traces of it now, I like the plain wood better anyway. The stairs look as if made from strong oak, for being that age they look good – though steep indeed. Thanks for a great post, much enjoyed.

  5. You took me right back there. I’m so glad it was only in imagination and that I didn’t have to actually live under those conditions. 🙂
    That Laurence certainly got his just desserts. Karma and all that.
    Alison

    1. Thank you, Alison for those very kind words. I don’t think I’d care for the conditions either – even with a castle full of servants to do everything. What amazes me too is that a Shropshire wool merchant can become the king of England’s fixer. These days we feel very very far from the ‘seat of power’ and getting anything fixed.

  6. hmmm – when I look at a large stone castle like this one, I can’t imagine how they can be destroyed by fire … but now I can. I guess I didn’t realize how much timber was used in the interior construction. When you factor in the open fireplaces, Stokesay Castle now becomes a near miracle that it’s still intact after all these centuries!!
    The picture of the worn stairs is worth a thousand words!

    1. The fact that so much of Stokesay has survived is very unusual. It even escaped the Civil War when there were often retaliatory assaults on landed properties for the owners supporting the wrong side. But as you say with all the timber inside it’s easier to see how a castle might be sacked. The stone work of towered keeps with several floors would possibly act like a chimney if they were fired from below. Hm. Horrid thought.

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