Stokesay Castle is a remarkable survival and fortified manor house which has hardly altered since the late 13th century. The house was built by Lawrence Ludlow, a leading wool merchant of his day, who created a comfortable residence combining an aesthetically pleasing design with some defensive capabilities. In doing so, he took advantage of the newly established peace on the Welsh border following Edward I’s defeat of the Welsh prince Llywelyn the Last. This enabled him to build a large hall, comfortable solar, or private apartment, with windows on the outside world, without fear of attack. It remains as one of the best places to visit in England to experience what medieval life was like.
Laurence’s descendants continued to own the castle until the 16th century, when it passed through various private owners. By the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1641, Stokesay was owned by William Craven, the first Earl of Craven and a supporter of King Charles I. After the Royalist war effort collapsed in 1645, Parliamentary forces besieged the castle in June and quickly forced its garrison to surrender. Parliament ordered the property to be slighted, but only minor damage was done to the walls, allowing Stokesay to continue to be used as a house by the Baldwyn family until the end of the 17th century.
In the 18th century the Baldwyns rented the castle out for a range of agricultural and manufacturing purposes. Restoration work was carried out in the 1830s and 1850s by William Craven and In 1869 the Craven estate, now heavily in debt, was sold to the wealthy industrialist John Derby Allcroft who paid for another round of extensive restoration during the 1870s. Both of these owners attempted to limit any alterations to the existing buildings during their conservation work, which was unusual for this period. The castle became a popular location for tourists and artists, and was formally opened to paying visitors in 1908.
Allcroft’s descendants fell into financial difficulties during the early 20th century, however, and it became very difficult for them to cover the costs of maintaining Stokesay. Going forward to today, it’s maintained beautifully by the English Heritage who carried our extensive restoration on the castle in the late 1980s, it’s now continuing as a tourist attraction and is one of the more popular sites they have.
The castle comprises a walled, moated enclosure, with an entrance way through a 17th-century timber and plaster gatehouse. Inside, the courtyard faces a stone hall and solar block, protected by two stone towers. The hall features a 13th-century wooden-beamed ceiling, and 17th-century carved figures ornament the gatehouse and the solar. The castle was never intended to be a serious military fortification, but its style was intended to echo the much larger castles being built by Edward I in North Wales. Originally designed as a prestigious, secure, comfortable home, the castle has changed very little since the 13th century, and is a rare, surviving example of a near complete set of medieval buildings. English Heritage has minimised the amount of interpretative material displayed at the property and kept the castle largely unfurnished.
The gatehouse is a two-storied, 17th century building with exposed timber and plasterwork, constructed in a distinctively local Shropshire style. It features elaborate wooden carvings on the exterior and interior doorways, including angels, the biblical characters of Adam, Eve and the serpent from the Garden of Eden, as well as dragons and other nude figures. It was designed as essentially an ornamental building, with little defensive value. It’s worth taking some time here to have a look at those important and interesting details.
We are able to walk through the castle garden, interestingly the gardens here are planted as a cottage style Edwardian garden, this particular style was typical of the times in 1908 when the garden was first opened to the public, not much is really known about the use of this space when the castle was built in the late 13th century as unfortunately no traces survive. But what is known is that some castle gardens during that period of time were functional, and they grew herbs and vegetables. As we take a look around we will be able to spot key species of flowers typically Edwardian favourites like lilacs, roses, hydrangeas and globe thistles.
By good fortune Stokesay escaped destruction during the Civil War despite being involved in a skirmish. As with many early manor houses, the church and castle are now isolated, the village of which they were have either moved or disappeared. The first records of Stokesay date from the period immediately following the Norman Conquest. William the Conqueror installed Roger Montgomery as earl of Shrewsbury, and he in turn granted Stokesay to one of his retainers, Roger de Lacy.
Certain features of the design clearly indicate that Lawrence was as concerned to impress with the elegance of his house as with its strength. The moat surrounding the castle is entirely artificial, as the castle stands on a slope. The water came from a large pond to the south-west of the castle. Of the post-medieval additions to the castle, only the gatehouse now remains. This is an elaborate example of the regional style of timber framing built around a central gate passage. To the north of the castle is the Church of St John the Baptist, its churchyard extending almost to the castle walls.
The south tower forms an unequal pentagon shape and has three storeys with very thick walls; the walls were built to contain the stairs and Garderobes. The first floor of the south tower had the original entrance and also contains a beautiful 17th century fireplace. The second floor had been sub divided in the past but restored to form a single chamber as it would have been when first built.
A great and surprising part of wandering here was climbing the stairs to the roof of the south tower for wonderful views of the surrounding landscape of the Shropshire hills.
The hall and solar block are adjacent to the south tower and was designed to be symmetrical when seen from the courtyard; the solar block contains two storeys and a cellar. This would have more than likely acted as a living space for Laurence of Ludlow when he first moved into the castle. The room itself is on the first floor and can be reached by steps. The woodwork around the fireplace would have been brightly decorated and included spy holes so that the hall could be observed from the solar.
The three-storey north tower is reached by a 13th-century staircase in the hall, which leads onto the first floor. The first floor was divided into two separate rooms shortly after the construction of the tower, and contains various decorative tiles, probably from Laurence’s house in Ludlow. The great hall is a magnificent structure, topped by a lovely timber roof. The hall features three large windows in the outer wall, making it clear that even this close to the Welsh border, the owner felt safe enough to make comfort a priority over security.
At one end of the hall a steep stair leads to chambers on the upper floor; this stair is worth going-over; its treads were sawn from whole tree trunks. At the top of the stair a landing allows you to get a close-up view of the superb timber roof, supported by huge timbers.
Stokesay is one of those places you’ll remember, it’s so unique and interesting with lots of history attached to it it becomes quite addictive to walk away. They have a onsite tea room which is cash only and it serves up some beautiful hot and cold snacks.