Visit to Farleigh Hungerford Castle

On Saturday 21st of May 2022, 10 members of CDAS and friends visited the castle. We were guided around the site by Simon Ball of English Heritage . When I booked the tour last year he was the manager of the site. Since then he has been promoted to managing the EH sites at Old Wardour Castle, Sherbourne Old Castle, Old Sarum as well as Farleigh Hungerford Castle. The castle was the home of the Hungerford family for 300 years. Members of the family played important roles in English history. In addition several led colourful personal lives!

The Castle and Chapel

 The present castle was started by Thomas Hungerford  (d 1397) after he had bought the Manor of what was then Farleigh Mountford in 1369. He was employed by the King's brother, John of Gaunt, who inherited the House of Lancaster from Blanche, his first wife. His plan was to build an imposing  home on a pleasant site with defence not being a major consideration. It was built to  a rectangular plan with ranges of rooms built into the walls. The inner courtyard contained a Great Hall, decorated with colourful tapestries and wall paintings and the Great Chamber, for exclusive use of the family. It had a chapel that went on to house the elaborate tombs of successive Hungerfords with their bodies placed  in lead coffins in the chapel's crypt. It has a wall painting of St George, which is currently undergoing conservation work, The ceiling of the side chapel was decorated in the 17th century with scenes of Paradise.

The Rise to Power

Thomas' link to the unpopular John of Gaunt made him a target during the Peasants' Revolt and he quickly castellated  the walls and added towers at each corner and strengthened the main gate. Undertaking this work without Royal permission led to a fine. In 1377 Thomas was  the first formally recorded Speaker of the House of Commons. Thomas's son Walter, extended the castle adding the outer wall, reinforced the inner gatehouse, building the Priest's House and refurbished the chapel. When John of Gaunt's son became Henry IV, followed by his grandson Henry V, Walter was a major figure in the country, Steward of the Royal Household, Speaker of the House of Commons, Knight of the Garter and  Guardian to the King's son, the future Henry VI. He fought with Henry V at Agincourt and other battles in the 100 Years war against France. He made and lost vast sums from money from receiving but also paying out ransoms. On his death he had vastly increased the family's wealth.

Simon, our guide,  speculated that the Hungerfords' connections in Wales where they had lands and managed Lancastrian properties could have led to them introducing the Welshman Owen Tudor to Court where his marriage to Henry V's French widow Katherine, charmingly played by Renee Asherson in the Laurence Olivier 1944 film, led on to the founding of the Tudor Dynasty.

 The Wars of the Roses saw various members of the family including a father and son both called Robert Hungerford, lose their heads as well as the family  losing the castle. Another Walter Hungerford (d,1516), was on the winning side at the Battle of Bosworth 1485, when Owen Tudor's grandson became the first Tudor King, Henry VII. The castle was restored to Walter. Walter and following Hungerfords were very much in favour with the early Tudor monarchs. Walter's son Edward (d. 1522), accompanied Henry VIII to the Field of the Cloth of Gold,  in 1520.


Edward's marriage  to his second wife the “widow” Agnes Cotell caused a scandal. She had her first husband  strangled by two of her servants who then burnt the body in one of the kitchen furnaces in the castle. Agnes married Edward soon after. Although the murder was common knowledge in the area. nothing happened to Agnes until after Edward's death when she and the two servants were tried and hanged at Tyburn (now the site of Marble Arch) in London. The castle then went to Edward's son by his first marriage (another!) Walter (d.1640). Agnes had tried to disinherit him as she had persuaded her husband Edward to leave everything to her. However  her trial and execution put paid to that scheme.

Walter's third marriage was  to Elizabeth, daughter of Lord Hussey, which brought him in to favour with Thomas Cromwell and he became his agent. Lord Hussey fell out of favour with the King and this led to Walter mistreating his wife by locking her in one of the castle's towers where she was reduced to drinking her own urine and being secretly given food via a rope and basket by kindly villagers. Elizabeth was eventually free when Walter was executed on Tower Hill with Thomas Cromwell. Walter's crimes were listed as treason, witchcraft and buggery!

With him died the title and  the castle reverted to the Crown. Elizabeth remarried Sir Thomas Throgmorton and had 5 daughters. Some of their descendants were involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

Walter and Elizabeth's son also Walter, bought the castle back  from the Crown for the considerable sum of £5.000.

Walter married a close  (Catholic) friend of “Bloody” Mary,  Anne Dormer. However when the Protestant Elizabeth became Queen, Walter tried to divorce his Catholic wife on the grounds of adultery, murder and trying to poison him. The accusations were unproved and Walter was ordered to pay alimony to Anne. He was imprisoned for refusing to pay the alimony.  Anne eventually   received the alimony although by this time she was an exile in Flanders plotting the over-throw of Queen Elizabeth. Could the Hungerford wives Elizabeth and Anne's connections to the Catholic cause, have led to Shakespeare leaving out the Hungerfords from his history plays despite the major role they played in supporting the Lancastrians?

Decline, Mismanagement, Ruin

On Walter's death in 1596 the castle passed to his brother Edward and on his death in 1607 the castle passed to his great nephew another Edward. He was a not particularly successful Parliamentary General in the Civil War. He lost several towns to the Royalists. His greatest success was the capture of Old Wardour Castle which had been defended mainly by the women of the household!

The Farleigh Hungerford Castle fell into the hands of Edward's Royalist half brother John, before being returned to Edward following the fall of Bristol to the Parliamentary troops in 1645. Another half brother Anthony inherited the castle on Edward's death in 1648. He was a Royalist but was able to retain the castle by paying fines to Parliament. He died in 1657 and was succeeded by his son Edward “the Spendthrift”.

 This Edward made a massive gift to Charles just before his restoration. He lavishly entertained the King later in his reign. He once spent 500 guineas on a wig and  lost one of his manors in a  bet playing bowls. In 1670 he was one of the founders of the Hudson Bay Company. He also set up a market at his London property, Hungerford House (near the present Hungerford Bridge which is named after the house) on what is now the site of Charing Cross station. Neither of these or other schemes  helped him with his debts. In 1686 he had to sell the castle and his other West Country properties for the massive sum of £56,000 but he still died a poor man in 1711. The castle was sold for salvage in 1705. When the more valuable parts of the castle had been removed local people were invited to use it as a quarry. However the Priests House was used as a farm house and the chapel housed “Curiosities”

The castle came in to guardianship of the Ministry of Works in 1915 and English Heritage in 1984.

After our very interesting visit we went on to the historic George Inn in Norton St Philip for an excellent lunch. One of the trials in Judge Jeffreys' Bloody Assizes after the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685) took place at the Inn.

Particular thanks to Simon Ball for his excellent tour.

Tom Chown 26.05.2022