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Tutbury Castle

Tutbury Castle

Tutbury Castle has stood guard over the Trent Valley for centuries, especially during the time of unsettled political rivalry that seemed common place until the late seventeenth century.  The only way for anyone attempting to attack the fortress had to be along a steep narrow gully rising from the town.  To do this was potentially suicidal, not only was it so narrow that it restricted movement to anything more than three or four attackers in line-abreast, but far more important from their point of view, the way passed beneath the castle’s eastern walls, totally without any shelter from missiles raining down from above.

There has been a stronghold of one sort or another on this site since at least Neolithic times; during the Viking invasion of northern England it became a winter shelter.  The castle we see today was first built by Hugh d’Avranches, to command part of the lands granted to him by William of Normandy as a reward for the knight’s services up to and including the Battle of Hastings.  He built a motte and bailey castle on this site – typically a fortified tower overlooking a walled enclosure housing military guards, retainers and domestic animals living cheek by jowl following the castle’s self-supporting design adopted by medieval times.  Strangely no wall or tower was built to defend the castle’s western side.  Perhaps this was because the grassy slope below that side was considered too steep to be climbed easily by attackers.

Tutbury seems to have led a comparatively quiet existence, changing hands only after battles further afield.  This was especially so during the Wars of the Roses that took place in other parts of the country.  The only hint of violence in Tutbury’ s existence seems to have been a couple of times during the English Civil War when the castle was besieged by Parliamentary troops attacking the Royalists, but even then it appears to have been half-hearted affairs, ending when both sides ran out of food.  It was during the rebellious times beginning in twelfth century that Tutbury became a royal castle. In later years it frequently changed hands, with its individual then current owners either repairing the damages caused by weather or accidental fire, or maybe improving the strength of its walls.  In 1362 the castle was inherited by John of Gaunt, then the holder of the Duchy of Lancaster, the first of a long line of kings and queens to own it, including our present King Charles lll.  Queen Elizabeth ll visited the castle twice during her reign, in 1957 and 1982, culminating the 1957 visit when along with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, planted two horse chestnut trees that are now fast approaching maturity.


Following the orders of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner for nineteen years prior to her execution on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I in the morning of 8th February 1587 at Fotheringay Castle.  During the nineteen years of captivity, the Scots Queen had been held on Queen Elizabeth’s orders by the Earl of Shrewsbury, the husband of Bess of Hardwick the intrepid scion of the Cavendish dynasty. During the Scots Queen’s imprisonment, the two ladies became good friends whose mutual skills in embroidery can still be seen at places like Hardwick Hall, or Tutbury Castle.  During this time and despite her accommodation being quite comfortable, Queen Mary was moved around properties in the north Midlands owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury.  The reason the queen was moved so frequently is that the places where she stayed were singularly lacking in sanitary arrangements and soon became foul stinking places.  As a result they had to be left until both nature and man-power had sorted things out.  Mary’s lodgings were in a half-timbered cottage below the North Tower.  Because of the nature of its design, a half-timbered structure with walls made from dried mud and straw, only the foundation stones remain.


Entering the castle as it stands at the head of a winding lane from the town, the way into the castle is through John of Gaunt’s Gate. It stands at the northern end of a wide grassy space, called the bailey, an open area with its two attractive, small formal gardens and the remains of two crumbling lookout towers.  The more extensive outlines of abandoned buildings appear in the centre of the bailey; these are all that is left of St Peter’s Chapel where, no doubt the doomed queen once prayed for freedom.  A line of foundation stones beneath the North Tower and another set closer to John of Gaunt’s Gate are, apart from the slightly more modern buildings lining the castle’s south wall all that is left of this once active fortress.  

Tutbury Castle, Shropshire, UK. 1st February 2015. Daytime re-enactment at Tutbury Last Light Photoshoot.

The grassy open space on and around the bailey makes an ideal place for events ranging from civil war re-enactments, costume displays, to weddings, or simply a place where children can play and have adventurous forays around the ruined castle.  In the far south west corner of the bailey, a large mound, known as a motte, is crowned with what at first glance looks like a ruined tower.  It fits well into the overall ambience of the place, but the tower is, in fact an eighteenth century folly. Following the wall eastwards, the next buildings along it encompass in order of appearance moving away from the motte, the tea rooms, then a house built in the seventeenth century to accommodate the curator.  The staircase from here reaches up to the first floor of the King’s Hall, standing high above the semi-ruined spaces of the Great Hall. Beyond this building the outer wall abuts on to the South Tower, the largest part of Tutbury’s defences. 


Lesley Smith, doubles her job as Curator of Tutbury Castle with authentically costumed historical figures, ranging from Queen Boudica to Margaret Thatcher, along with Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Nell Gwynne, orange seller and Mistress of King Charles II.

For details of opening hours (mostly daily throughout the year), contact Tutbury Castle Ltd on 01283 566869: or website www.tutburycastle.com


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