The Roman legions in their conquest of the East Midlands used a natural mound a little to the south of the River Dove as a lookout. Since then the hill as it developed into a fortification, has featured more than once in our island’s often turbulent history. To indicate its strategic importance, through her northern title of Duke of Lancaster, Tutbury Castle is still officially owned by our present queen. She has visited Tutbury twice during her long reign, once in 1957 when she and Prince Philip planted trees and again in 1982.
Approached by a side road winding through the older part of the village, Tutbury Castle dominates the northern approaches over the bridge connecting Staffordshire Tutbury to its neighbouring Derbyshire twin, Hatton. Although it has seen development over the centuries, some of it quite artificial, or simply residential, the castle’s layout is still built very much along the planned layout created by Hugh d’Avranches, one of William the Conqueror’s knights. By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 when the castle and its developing village were known as ‘Totesberie’, the borough it commanded was considered to be the third largest in Staffordshire.
The layout of the castle follows the traditional ‘motte’ and ‘bailey’ layout. The motte, the first defensive structure to be built on the site, topped by a wooden building, is the large mound at the highest point of the fortress. This is where the nobility lived, in the most secure part of their domain. The rest of the castle’s retainers lived in and guarded the bailey, the wall circling the garrison, stables, kitchens and chapel; all the people who were employed in and around the castle lived here. Immediately outside the castle, roughly on the site of the present day car park, is where all the early inhabitants of Tutbury village congregated. Here would be found the stalls of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, alongside blacksmiths and farriers, all providing the everyday needs of people sheltering under the protecting walls of the castle. Such was the rapidly developing importance of the place, that as early as 1089 Henry de Ferrers was able to found Tutbury’s priory. By the early 12th century the wooden building was replaced by a much stronger stone tower.
The only way to enter the castle is still by way of the track climbing up from the modern village. Completely in the open and without any protection, anyone wanting to gain access would have to pass beneath the scrutiny of troops either lining the castle walls, or garrisoned in the north and much larger south towers. Safely passing this effective control, visitors providing they could be accepted, passed through the sturdy portals of John of Gaunt’s Gate, a 15th century edifice. Only a fraction of the jumble of buildings once filling the bailey can still be traced. Where there is now a large grassy space, present day visitors must use their imagination to fill it with the constant activity of soldiers drilling, cattle driven for slaughter and the rich panoply of medieval life.
On the left as present day visitors enter the bailey are the remains of the still impregnable outer wall and a grassy mound is all that is left of where the Receiver a kind of general manager, had his quite comfortable quarters. Next are the still accessible ruins of the North Tower. It overlooks on the bailey side, a physic garden where medicinal and culinary herbs are still grown, an essential addition to any grand house in times gone by. The next feature is where a half-timbered wattle and daub house once stood, a short walk from the chapel whose foundations still outline its shape.
Despite the overriding military aspect of the castle, as time went by, small luxuries managed to find their way into existing structures. A simple pleasure garden where traditionally, captive Mary Queen of Scots took her ease, fronts the expansive remains of the massive South Tower, while next to it is the Great Hall, a place where visiting royalty would be entertained on a lavish scale. Water for the garrison came from a well sunk deep within the rocks of the hill on which the castle stands; to protect it, a fountain has been built over the top of the well.
During the 18th and 19th century, the bailey became a huge farmyard and the farmer and his family lived in comparative splendour by developing the King’s Lodging into a comfortable home. Part of the house is now used as the Tea Room. From the tea room, the ground rises steeply to the rounded slopes of the motte. Although there are still a few remaining stones of the original round tower which stood on top of the mound, the present day ruins are a folly built on the instructions of Lord Vernon of Sudbury between 1780 and 1792, as a romantic background to events held, as now, at Tutbury.
Through royal ownership, Tutbury was held by the Earl of Shrewsbury, husband of the famous Bess of Hardwick. Running the castle must have put quite a strain on his finances, because in 1562 it was described as decayed, but due to its importance was in need of repair. This was carried out by 1566 just in time to hold captive Mary Queen of Scots who for many long and tedious years was the responsibility of the earl. Despite the essential maintenance, the place, like most other grand houses, lacked proper sanitation. This meant that each time life became unbearable, the earl, his family and retinue of several scores of men women and children, plus their furniture would be moved en-masse to another less disgusting house or castle. During this time the Scottish queen had to frequently endure much discomfort and inconvenience. Her only entertainment seems to have been through her friendship with the earl’s wife, Bess of Hardwick. Both were expert needlewomen and they must have spent many convivial hours chatting together as the plied their needles over one of the embroideries that still survive at Hardwick Hall.
Despite being on the side lines of medieval battles, Tutbury has seen its share of fighting. During the rebellion of the Welsh Marcher Lords against the English King Edward II in the so-called Despenser War, Thomas 2nd Earl of Lancaster was defeated at the Battle of Burton Bridge in 1322. He fled to Tutbury, but was eventually captured and executed when Edward’s troops overran the place. In 1831 a group of workmen discovered a hoard of thousands of coins on the bed of the River Dove. As the latest coin dates from 1321, it is reasonable to assume that they were abandoned in the river when the earl fled from Burton.
During the English Civil War, Tutbury was briefly garrisoned in 1643 by Sir Andrew Kniveton and Sir John Fitzherbert on behalf of King Charles who visited the place on at least two occasions. While there was never any actual fighting, the castle was besieged by Parliamentarian troops until lack of supplies and disease forced the king’s soldiers to surrender. As was the practice at the time of the Civil War, the castle was partly demolished – the term used was ‘slighted’, in order to make it untenable. The result has left the romantic ruins we see today, with most of the felled stones and timber finishing up as building material in many of the houses in and around the village of Tutbury.
Regular excavations through the Tutbury Castle Research Project are bringing more and more of the castle’s ancient history to the light of day.
The castle curator, Lesley Smith regularly dresses in costume to portray such female historical figures as Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Boudicca and Mary Queen of Scots. She also portrays the last 45 minutes in the life of the tragic Queen Anne Boleyn on the eve of her execution; but on a lighter note she sometimes acts as the mischievous Nell Gwynne, King Charles II’s favourite mistress. Bringing her performances of famous women up to date, she appears as Margaret Thatcher in an act based on the iron lady’s autobiography, ‘the Path to Power’. Many of the costumes used in these acts are displayed in the upper rooms of the King’s Lodgings.
For details of events at Tutbury Castle go to the web site www.tutburycastle.com, or phone 01283 8121129