Chartley Castle

My Dad saw a note in the Leek Post and Times about a guided walk around Chartley Castle in June 2016. I have driven past the castle countless times and have always wanted to have a walk around inside. The Castle is not open to the public so this was an excellent chance to have a good look around being guided by the current owner.

Chartley Castle is a Grade II listed building, featuring a rare cylindrical keep.

The walk was on Monday 13th June 2016 beginning at 6.30pm. We were 10 days out from the Brexit vote and I recall a few conversations regarding this taking place at the beginning and end of the walk (it was practically anyone was talking about in the weeks and months leading to the vote) so having a stroll round a local castle on a calm, balmy summers evening was most welcome.

The castle lies in ruins to the north of the village of Stowe-by-Chartley in Staffordshire, between Stafford and Uttoxeter.

The walk began in the field directly in front of the castle as viewed from the A518. A bustling Medieval village once thrived here and it was enchanting to walk through the now peaceful fields contemplating the hustle and bustle of markets and traders and the sights and sounds that once engulfed these fields. The tour continued up to and into the Main castle and around the back across some fields and very uneven terrain to a large abandoned moated area which was once part of a watermill overlooking a deer park and the newer Chartley Hall.

Overlooking the lost medieval village in front of the castle

Chartley belonged to the Earls of Chester from the end of the 11th century and it is to this period that the original motte and double bailey castle with its timber defences are to be dated. The re-building of the castle in stone by Ranulph, Earl of Chester, was underway in 1223 alongside his building at Beeston to form an enclosure castle, the remains of which are Grade II listed.

The Bailey and remaining stonework viewed from the remains of the keep on the motte
The castle bailey

Royal connections

Chartley Old Hall was visited by Elizabeth I in 1575, with Chartley being well renowned within her Court being the home of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. She stayed here for 10 days during July 1575 before progressing to Stafford.

The first house within the moat perished by fire in 1781, as did a smaller one, built upon the same site, and this was replaced in 1847 by the present hall.

The most famous story is that Mary, Queen of Scots was kept here during her imprisonment.

On Christmas Eve 1585, Mary was moved the 12 miles from Tutbury Castle to nearby Chartley Hall by her jailor, the infamous Puritan, Sir Amias Paulet, taking a route avoiding the busy market town of Uttoxeter. Mary would spend just under a year at Chartley.

The overgrown keep at the top of the motte

The motte is located at the western end of the castle and is separated from the bailey by a wide ditch. Access to the inner bailey was originally through a gatehouse, with two towers, on its eastern side. The motte is surmounted by a circular keep with walls which are amost 4m thick. There are three semicircular towers situated at the eastern edge of the bailey. The two towers at the south eastern corner formed the gatehouse between the two baileys and a further three-quarter round tower survives in a greatly ruined state at the north eastern corner of the bailey. 

By 1485 Chartley Castle had been abandoned and the newly constructed moated mansion of Chartley Old Hall had been built by Walter Devereux, Baron Ferrers, as the main residence of the Ferrers family. In 1545 the nearby castle was described as being a ruin. 

The modern day moated Hall
Excellent surviving example of a cylindrical keep
Chartley Old Hall as it would’ve looked during Mary Queen of Scot’s time here

let the great plot commence…

The infamous Babington Plot, Beer Barrels, Code Breakers and Chartley

Anthony Babington was a young Catholic noble who joined a plot to depose the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne.

Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Chief Spymaster, on the orders of William Cecil, the head of Elizabeth’s Secret Service and Secretary of State, captured a Catholic plotter named Gilbert Gifford and ‘convinced’ him to act as a double agent. Gifford would act as an intermediary – smuggling letters to Mary who was imprisoned in Chartley Hall. With the help of Walsingham he arranged with the man who provided Chartley Castle with beer from a brewers house in Burton, to smuggle the letters to Mary.

The letters were wrapped in leather and hidden inside a hollow bung used to seal a barrel of beer. The brewer delivered the barrel to Chartley Castle and one of her servants would open the bung and take the contents to Mary. The same process was used to send messages to Mary’s supporters.

All the letters were given to Walsingham. The letters were written in a secret code called ‘a nomenclator cipher’ which Walsingham had deciphered. Walsingham played a waiting game, hoping for that one piece of evidence that would implicate Mary in a plot against Elizabeth.

Anthony Babington wrote a letter to Mary on 6 July 1586. Babington asked for Mary’s approval and advice to ensure ‘the dispatch of the usurping Competitor’ – the assassination of Elizabeth I.

Babington was a man with a plan, writing “Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, from the obedience of whom we are by the excommunication of her made free, there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty’s service will undertake that tragical execution.”

Mary’s reply on 17 July sealed her fate. Thomas Phelippes, a Cambridge-educated language specialist, who under the instruction of Walsingham, copied the letter, added a gallows sign (an indication to Walsingham and Cecil that they had got their Woman), and forged a short postscript asking Babington for the names of those involved. Not suspecting anything amiss, the names were forthcoming, and the individuals were swiftly rounded up and executed in a pretty brutal, but effective 16th century root and stem counter terrorism operation, all orchestrated by the cunning Walsingham.

Whilst Mary did not explicitly condone or support the plot she effectively signed her own death warrant by not protesting against it. Mary wrote: “Orders must be given that when their design has been carried out I can be … got out of here.”

In August 1586 Walsingham made a plan to arrest Mary and move her from Chartley by having Paulet pretend to take her hunting, while the leading members of her household were arrested and her papers seized. Acting on the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested on 11 August 1586 while out riding with Bastian Pagez, her doctor Dominique Bourgoing and others and they were surprised by armed soldiers who took them to Tixall where she spent two weeks. Walsingham wrote to Paulet from Windsor Castle on 25 August stating that Elizabeth ordered that Mary should not leave Tixall. However, on that day, Paulet brought Mary back to Chartley.

On 25 September 1586 Mary was removed from Chartley to the strong castle of Fotheringay in Northamptonshire where she was tried in October. Elizabeth finally (and still somewhat fairly reluctantly) signed the death warrant on 1 February 1587 and a week later Mary was beheaded – the form of execution reserved for the nobility.

The level of sheer skulduggery at play is enthralling and the story plays out like that of a bestselling novel. Chartley played an absolutely key role and had a first hand, eye witness account (…if these walls could talk) of the downfall of the much fated Mary, Queen of Scots, a legend that seems to transcend the centuries and still vividly captures the imagination today, 434 years later. What is interesting is that it was not the mythical looking, enchanting ruins of the stone castle that provided the backdrop but the building that stood on the moat next door.

Date of visit – 13th June 2016

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