[dropcaps]Brian Spencer visits one of only two remaining medieval Derbyshire castles, the other being Castleton, where the architecture still follows the original builder’s design. A site of historical interest, Codnor is where a rare gold coin dating from the reign of Henry V was found a few years ago.[/dropcaps]
To the east of Codnor, a one-time colliery town barely recovered from the loss of its industry, the dramatic ruins of a once formidable castle stand in mute remembrance of a time long gone. This is Codnor Castle once home to the De Greys, known to many as Barons Grey of Codnor; but Codnor was just one of their many estates spread across the face of England and Wales. They ranged from Thurrock in Essex, Ruthin in Wales, together with Wilton, Rotherfield and Chillingham, home of a rare herd of wild cattle in Northumberland.
Holding great power and influence, Codnor was the home base of senior members of the family. The date of the castle’s foundation cannot be given accurately, but it is fair to say that it, like Castleton, was first built soon after the battle of Hastings. This was when the newly crowned King William began a reign of terror, forcing his will upon the subject Saxon people. England was divided piecemeal amongst the knights who had fought with him on that fateful autumn day in 1066. Most of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire he gave to William Peveril who quickly set bout erecting fortifications, first with a timber palisaded motte and then with stone.
Codnor Castle was built high above the Erewash Valley, surrounded by 2000 acres of deer park that later became part of the Butterley Iron Company’s Codnor Park and stripped of its valuable coal and minerals. Despite its parlous condition, what remains of the castle now stands in mute memory of an ancient splendour. From what is left it is fairly easy to visualise the powerfully strong three-storied keep, massive curtain walls and a ditch flanked by two round towers. Whilst the lords and ladies lived in the keep, lesser mortals and supporting staff would be found in the outer bailey, a structure built later than the keep.
Overlooking the rolling hills of north Nottinghamshire and also part of central Derbyshire, the castle’s first line of defence on the eastern side was a deep ditch, or moat. To the west there was a courtyard strongly fortified by huge round towers with battlements augmented by strategic loopholes cut through the walls where archers could fire down on attackers. Around 1211 Codnor Castle became the feudal home of the Greys; Richard Grey was one of Henry III’s loyal barons. An illustrious family in their time, another Richard entertained Edward II after fighting against rebels at Burton-on-Trent; another was sent by Henry V to bring Hotspur’s son back from Scotland.
Henry Grey last of the line, kept away from knightly pursuits by attempting to turn base metals into gold. Tragic Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for a mere nine days in 1554, was a member of the family. It is thought that the Greys built the present castle, but it was the Zouch family who were among the last owners, living there until a little under 300 years ago, before finding a better life in Virginia. The final resident of the castle was Sir Streynsham Masters, High Sheriff of Derbyshire, who bought Codnor Estate in 1692, living there until his death in 1724.
No one else was interested in living in such a cold draughty place and so its gradual destruction began, simply through neglect. Later depredations of the surrounding countryside due to underground and open cast coal mining accelerated the steady decline. Today all that survives is a length of the great boundary wall of the upper court, portions of the dividing wall, here and there a doorway, a window frame and a fireplace, all standing in defiance of the elements overlooking the wide swell of the Erewash Valley. Farmsteads have been built with dressed stone pillaged from the ruins, the one next to the castle dates from the 17th century. With the passing of the lords of Codnor, the park has changed beyond all recognition, much of it taken up by the Butterley Company, who laid out part of the land above the castle, but that in its turn was later disrupted by open cast mining. Where man has disrupted, nature is steadily recovering its own.
The castle stands at the end of an extremely rough semi-private road from Langley Mill and the best access to the site is along a footpath immediately to the north of Codnor Golf Course; free parking is plentiful in the town centre. Whilst access directly on to the castle itself is strictly forbidden and for safety reasons it is surrounded by a high security fence, nevertheless it is easy to admire the ruins from the safety and comfort of the right of way from Castle Farm to Codnor Park which runs alongside the security fence. Today the ruins are cared for by the Codnor Castle Heritage Trust. This mostly voluntary organisation is committed to ongoing archaeological surveys of the site in order to preserve what is left and guarantee it for the future as a site of national historic importance.
The Trust has developed an educational programme, visiting schools and public events in order to give interpretations of medieval life and inform the public of the fantastic local heritage on its doorstep. Around six years ago the Trust approached the Channel 4 Time Team who, compèred by the ebullient Tony Robinson, carried out one of their intensive three-day surveys. Despite the state of the surrounding land having been disturbed by coal and ironstone mining, the team was able to prove that the inhabitants of Codnor Castle enjoyed a high standard of secure living.
Three phases of construction were brought to light, including a drawbridge and a spacious Great Hall where the Lords Grey held court. Not only was the team able to trace the foundations of the curtain wall, the twin-towered gatehouse and rounded angle towers, but they also discovered masses of animal bones and oyster shells. Despite the team managing to unearth much of the architectural history of Codnor Castle, all this was eclipsed by the finding of a Henry V gold coin, possible the most exciting find by this ambitious team.
The coin was later put on display in Derby City Museum and Art Gallery. Park in the centre of Codnor (free parking). Cross Alfreton Road opposite and turn left for about a hundred yards. Turn right down the second lane and walk past houses lining it. Climb over a stile and follow a clear path (muddy when wet) and ascend towards the boundary of the golf course. Keeping this on your right, continue over the brow of the hill to reach a band of trees overlooking a narrow unsurfaced lane. Turn right here for just under two hundred yards and with the castle ruins clearly on your left follow the lane almost to the entrance to Castle Farm. Climb over a stile on the left and walk over the intervening field to reach the security fence surrounding the castle ruins.