Whittington Castle is nestled in one of the quaintest, picturesque country village settings I have ever had the pleasure to visit.
It is a quintessential English postcard, sitting on the border of Wales and England, close to the historic fort of Old Oswestry.
Two medieval pubs, a church and an old yew accompany this mythical looking, 13th century castle in this now sleepy, fairy-tale-like part of rural Shropshire. The White Lion sits within the Castle’s Scheduled Monument site boundary.
The castle and this village have been the scene of many intriguing tales and legends as well as its fair share of romance and bloody, brutal conflict. The castle is also said to be one of the most haunted places in England.
Primitive fortresses have existed on this site since the Iron age and there is evidence of that this place was occupied by several round houses, each of which was probably occupied by a family group. No man-made defences were required on the north where there was an extended area of marshy ground which is perhaps why it was originally chosen. The site continued in occupation throughout the Dark Ages and into the early medieval period.
Whittington lies on the English side of Offa’s Dyke, which in this area was the Norman boundary between England and Wales and remains so to this day.
In 1138, the site was fortified as a castle for William Peverel, who supported Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I against King Stephen, nephew of King Henry I, and claimant to the throne during ‘The Anarchy’ (a savage civil war in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153, which resulted in a widespread breakdown in law and order).
The castle itself is perched behind two large ponds over which runs a small bridge to the castle’s turreted entrance towers.
The ruins of the fortress as they stand today date from 1221 when the Fitz Warren family gained permission from King Henry III to build a stone castle. The original castle had 2 gatehouse towers and 5 towers within the inner bailey with walls 3.7 metres thick, engineered to withstand almost any force thrown at them.
The owners had a fractious and tumultuous relationship with the Kings of England. Fulk fitz Warren fell out with prince John the future king which resulted in waging guerrilla war on John for several years as an outlaw.
In 1404 the Castle was attacked by the forces of the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr. The castle survived the attack, but this left the manor in financial ruin.
The male line of the Fitz Warines ended in 1420 and subsequent owners did not commit the resources needed to restore the manor. This rendered the castle superfluous and it drifted into ruin. Both castle and manor passed into Crown control in 1545. It was granted to Henry, Earl of Arundel by Mary I but he had little use for it and in 1562 he mortgaged it to a number of London traders. A timber-framed cottage, built behind the Outer Ward gatehouse, was built at this time.
In 1638 the Castle passed to the Lloyd family were major landowners and supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War which resulted in the Castle being attacked by Parliamentary forces in 1643. The damage was severe, and the castle was never restored to its former glory.
In 2003, a historical and archaeological investigation by Peter Brown and Peter King identified that the outer bailey of the castle had been two elaborate gardens and surrounded by water in the 14th century. This discovery was significant in that it proved the advanced state (as compared to those of the French or Flemish) of English gardening habits. The “lavish” garden was installed by one of the FitzWarin family. The viewing mound in the centre may be the oldest of its type yet discovered in England
There are numerous tales of otherworldly encounters and curious goings on within the castle and its surroundings. A hooded figure can often be seen under the arch of the main gateway, the ghost of a blacksmith in a leather apron is seen to walk the ruins and there are faces of ghostly children who are regularly seen peering out of the upstairs windows. Most haunted encountered the ghost of a drowned soldier whose civil war armour was discovered in the lake.
The castle was once moated but all that remains now is a pond. Within its silty depths may lie the key to the cursed Elizabethan trunk that was stored in one of the castle rooms. Chilling anecdotes of the trunk bringing bad luck or death to those who open it are linked to the ghostly sightings of two young children in one of the windows of the gatehouse tower. The legend says that they died a gruesome death after it was opened, hence it is now permanently shut and removed from the castle with the key far away.
It is said that the castle was the childhood home of the great English merchant and lord mayor of London Richard Whittington (1354–1423) who became a well-known figure in legend and traditional pantomime.
The story of Dick Whittington was made into a play, “The History of Richard Whittington, of his Lowe Byrth, his Great Fortun” in 1604. In the 19th Century, this became famous as a popular pantomime called “Dick Whittington and his Cat”. There are several versions of the traditional story which tells how Dick, a boy from a poor family, sets out for London to make his fortune, accompanied by his cat. Eventually he does become prosperous, marries his master’s daughter Alice Fitzwarren (the name of the real Whittington’s wife), and is made Lord Mayor of London three times.
His wife’s family seat was Whittington Castle so it’s therefore likely he would have visited and stayed at the castle during this time as well as at a cottage known as ‘Dick Whittington’s Cottage’ in the small town of Newnes, a few miles down the road.
With the old A5 passing very close to the castle and the cottage it seems entirely reasonable that Dick did indeed set out from this very place along the ancient route to London to seek his fortune.
The Real Robin Hood?
There is a legend that the once owner of the Castle, Fulk FitzWarin III (born circa 1160) is in fact the real Robin Hood. A remarkable similarity exists between the life of Fulk and the legendary figure of Robin hood.
After his death he became the subject of a famous romance story which embellished accounts of his life. As a young boy, Fulk was sent to the court of King Henry II (1154–1189), where he grew up with the king’s younger son, the future King John (1199–1216). John became his enemy after coming to blows over a game of chess that John belligerently never forgot, retaining his animosity toward Fulk into adulthood.
He prevented Fulk from claiming his rights as heir of Whittington Castle after the death of his father, instead passing the estate to a rival, Morys FitzRoger. Fulk retaliated by murdering FitzRoger and branding himself an outlaw in 1201, waging war on John. For three years he stalked the woods of Shropshire, ambushing the unwary and robbing them. His moment came when he accosted the King and his hunting party. Disguised as a charcoal-maker, he lured the King into the forest by promising to show him a particularly fine stag. On capturing the King, it is said he struck a bargain: he would release John and his men in return for his rightful ownership of the Whittington estate.
John agreed but soon reneged on his bargain; Fulk remained an outlaw for several years, and stories of his exploits during this time vary wildly. Some portray him as a crusader for the poor, distributing the spoils of his robberies among them, while others claim he was a dangerous, bloodthirsty criminal.
He eventually received a pardon in November 1203 when he recovered Whittington and remained in the king’s peace until joining the baronial rebellion in support of Magna Carta in 1215.
The Holy Grail
Perhaps the most famous legend is that at one time the Holy Grail was kept at the castle.
This concerns the Marian Chalice, considered by many to be the actual Holy Grail. This was the cup used by Mary Magdalene to collect Christ’s blood after the Crucifixion.
Well into the Middle Ages legend persisted that it had been taken to safety in Britain, the last outpost of Roman civilisation in Western Europe when Rome was sacked by the marauding band of Visigoths in AD 410.
If the chalice did exist and went to England it was most likely taken to the chief city of Britain in the 5th century, Wroxeter, the capital of King Arthur’s domain, 24 miles away from Whittington.
Fulk FitzWarin was the great grandson of Payne Peveril and one in the line of guardians of the Grail and King Arthur. A 13th century ballad claims that the Grail was housed in Fulk’s private chapel at the castle. Many Arthurian tales describe the Grail as being in the white castle. The castle, built from light-coloured stone, was known as the White Castle, and the old English for Whittington was “White Town.”
It is said that the Grail was removed to Alberbury Priory on the death of Fulk and was recovered by Robert Vernon in the late 16th century. It was eventually hidden in a statue of St. John erected in Hawkstone Park, near the family estate, in the 1850s. Here a small Roman onyx scent jar was discovered in 1934. Is this onyx jar the Holy Grail?
One thing is for certain, that we will never know for certain but somewhere in the midst of this myth lies some truths and ones which have long since passed into legend. The story has captivated for centuries and will continue to do so for as long again as time shrouds whatever was once fact and whatever was once fiction.
As I walked around and climbed up to peer out of the window of the remains of what is likely the actual Grail Chapel of the Arthurian Romances it was astonishing to think that this place could have been right at the centre of one of the most fascinating and famous legends of them all.
The local community acquired a 99-year lease to manage the Castle that sits in the centre of the village. In 2007 the castle was re-opened to visitors after a restoration with the assistance of a £950k grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was the first Castle in the UK which was owned and run by a local community which I think is such a marvellous idea.
If I was to move anywhere away from my Staffordshire roots, a cottage in this village would absolutely be on the list.
As time has passed, the ruins have gained their own sense of self, with ivy now climbing the walls of the gatehouse like a scene from a fairy tale as swans glide along the long pond in front of the battlements. Imagining the horror that once occurred in this peaceful, romantic spot takes a leap of faith of the imagination but the steadfast, solidarity of the 882-year-old walls tell their own story within the 3,000-year history of this extraordinary, mythical place.