A Hidden Gem in Warwickshire – Astley Castle
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
Ann Evans reveals the fascinating story behind Astley Castle in Warwickshire.
Like the phoenix risen from the ashes, Astley Castle has literally been brought back from a crumbling burnt out shell to become an award-winning historic gem, nestling in the North Warwickshire countryside.
Astley Castle dates back to the 13th century, it’s been home to three Queens, played a vital role in the Civil War and is said to be haunted by the ghost of Lady Jane Grey.
Over the centuries it’s been knocked down, burnt down and vandalised, yet defying the odds, has instilled passion in those who have fought to preserve and renovate it. And today it’s one of architectural charity The Landmark Trust’s most treasured and successful historic building renovations.
Astley Castle is tucked away down country lanes within the little village of Astley near Nuneaton. It’s thought that there was a castle built on this site back in Saxon times and was visited by royalty as early as the 11th century. In 1266 Warin de Bassinghburn was granted licence to enclose his house at Astley with a dyke and a wall and to crenelate it. The banks of the moat were 10 – 15 ft high.
As centuries passed every age has stamped its mark on Astley Castle – or Astley Manor as it was originally known. At one time it was owned by Thomas, Marquess of Dorset and his wife Margaret. Their son, Henry who later became Duke of Suffolk was the father of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days queen’ who spent some of her childhood there. It was also home to the wives of King Henry IV and Henry VII.
There’s a stone monument to Henry, Duke of Suffolk just 500 metres from the Astley Castle, marking his desperate attempt to avoid execution for his part in the Wyatt rebellion. For three days he hid inside the hollow trunk of an oak tree. However, he was betrayed by his park keeper, arrested and beheaded at the Tower of London in 1554.After his execution, Queen Mary ordered Astley Castle to be destroyed. It was dismantled as a stronghold. The Duchess appealed to be allowed to live in the remains of the house. Later she married Adrian Stokes who repaired the building.
During the English Civil War, it was used as a stronghold by parliamentary forces, becoming one of a network of small garrisons. Captain Hunt and Lieutenant Goodere Hunt commanded about 35 five soldiers there in July 1644. Royalist propaganda referred to Hunt as an ‘illiterate shoemaker’.In 1674 Astley Castle was bought by Sir Richard Newdigate who also owned Arbury Hall. It remained in the Newdigate family until the 20th century. It was then leased out. At one time the first Bishop of the revived Coventry Diocese occupied Astley Castle and in 1927 Queen Mary visited during the tenure of the Povey and Harper family.
In 1953 Astley Castle had an almost heroic rescue from imminent decay when it was taken over by a hotel chain. It was a popular hotel for 14 years. Comedian Larry Grayson frequented it, and a cocktail bar was named Lady Jane Grey. However, the hotel chain went into receivership, the furniture was auctioned off and the building left empty, at the mercy of the elements and vandals. In 1978 a fire gutted the building and Astley Castle stood derelict for many years. In 1998 it was put on the Heritage at Risk (HAR) Register.
It was never forgotten however, and over the following years preservation societies and individuals fought to rebuild or save Astley Castle before 1,000 years of history were gone forever. From the early 1990s the architectural charity The Landmark Trust had struggled to find a workable solution to make the building habitable again.
Finally, they launched a competition to design a holiday house that could be created within the ruins. Witherford Watson Mann architects were the winners. Their design went on to win the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture 2013. Funding for the project came through grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and various charitable trusts and individuals. This Grade II Listed Building was removed from the Heritage at Risk Register in 2012.
You cannot help but be reminded of its rich history as you approach Astley Castle on foot and walk beneath the ancient stone archway. At first glance Astley Castle appears to be a ruin with its inner shell exposed to the elements; its mullioned windows gaping openly skywards through which birds fly in and out. However, look again and you’ll see the amazing transformation which took place in 2013.
It’s been beautifully and tastefully constructed, the ancient and the modern sitting hand in hand, a two-storey holiday residence that sits unobtrusively within the Grade II Listed Building’s chunky sandstone walls. Ancient and modern brickwork create a beautiful and visible contrast between the old and new. Go inside and there’s an ambiance of comfort and luxury, yet the history and age of the building totally enfolds you. Speak to some of the staff and they will tell you of the ghostly lady who often passes by and says ‘Hello’.
An elegant oak staircase takes you upstairs to a vast open kitchen area with period furnishings. Floor to ceiling plate glass windows provide perfect views of the Warwickshire countryside and the nearby ancient parish church of St Mary the Virgin. This is novelist George Eliot country and Astley Castle and the church were the inspiration for George Eliot’s Knebley Abbey and Knebley Church in Scenes of Clerical Life. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and her father were known to often visit Astley Castle and the church where her parents married.
Look to the history of St Mary the Virgin church and you learn that it was completely rebuilt by Sir Thomas Astley in 1343 as a collegiate establishment. Originally, a cruciform building with a central tower crowned with a tall spire. A conspicuous landmark that earned it the name of Lantern of Arden because a light was kept burning on its top to guide wayfarers through the surrounding Forest of Arden. Go inside and you’ll find alabaster effigies of some notable castle owners belonging to the Grey family of those bygone times. Gone maybe – but not forgotten.
A stone monument marks the spot where the Lady Jane Grey’s father took refuge from his pursuers by hiding for three days in the hollow of an oak tree. The tree blew down in 1891. The inscription reads: ‘On this spot formerly stood a large hollow oak tree in which Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, Lord of the Manor of Astley, the father of Lady Jane Grey, took refuge from his pursuers. He was betrayed by his keeper, Underwood, and executed on Tower Hill, London, 12th February 1554’.
The chair on which he sat in the tree is said to be at Arbury Hall.
- Book a stay at Astley Castle https://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/search-and-book/properties/astley-castle-4806