Stafford Castle is situated on the outskirts of the ancient County Town of Stafford.
This has been a place of historical significance, important activity and imprisonment for well over a millennium and the scene of Royal visits, sieges and a furtive meeting that determined the outcome of a battle and a dynasty that ruled England for over a century. It has also been home and a place of work to many thousands of ordinary, local people down the centuries.
There has been a castle at Stafford since at least the 1070s and possibly before; the extent of the extensive earthworks at the site could be indicative of an earlier settlement. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle has been cited as evidence that Æthelflæd, the Saxon warrior-princess, ruler of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred the Great built a castle at Stafford in the year 913, along with an adjacent burg (meaning a fortified town). However, the exact site of this first castle, probably made of wood, is now unknown
William the Conqueror ordered a system of earthwork defences constructed at Stafford to keep the rebellious natives in check following the Norman invasion of 1066.
The striking remains of a 19th century Gothic fortress stand on remains of a 14th century stone keep which stand on top of an 11th century castle mound (motte). The castle stands within a remarkable system of earthworks enclosing two large baileys and a now-vanished settlement.
There were more changes made in 1444 when Humphrey Stafford was created Duke of Buckingham. The new Duke extended the stone castle and enhanced the residential quarters to make them suitable for a man of his standing.
In 1100 the Norman lord Robert de Toeni (Robert of Stafford) built a timber fortress atop the high motte, with a pair of large bailey enclosures to house secondary buildings and a new settlement outside the baileys, protected by yet another earthwork enclosure. In total the castle defences covered 14 acres.
Ralph de Stafford rebuilt the castle in stone in 1347 starting with the Keep. The work was undertaken by John of Bicester, Master Mason who constructed a rectangular stronghold with octagonal towers in each corner. The new work reflected Ralph’s increasing status – he had enthusiastically supported Edward III’s campaigns in France and Scotland – and in 1350 would become a founding member of the Order of the Garter and also be elevated to Earl of Stafford.
Interestingly, the castle played a pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, when in 1485 Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, met here in secret with Lord William Stanley to forge an alliance against Richard III.
Stanley, ostensibly Richard’s supporter, agreed to side with Henry, and at the Battle of Bosworth, when his intervention might have swung the battle in the king’s favour, he kept his men out of the conflict, assuring Henry’s victory.
Had it not been for this meeting England’s history would have been very different indeed. As I wandered around the site I wondered where this meeting took place. It most likely would have been within one of the rooms in the keep as both men looked out over the castle grounds and made their momentous pact which would literally change the course of history.
Henry’s granddaughter, Elizabeth I, came to Stafford Castle in August 1575 following a 10 day stay at nearby Chartley with speeches of welcome being delivered on 6th August.
The Queen and her court were entertained for dinner. There is one anecdote of this visit that the Queen asked what was the cause of the decay of the town and was told this was down to the ‘decay of Capping’ and that the Assizes (periodic courts) had been taken away from the town to which she agreed to resolve these issues. It is fascinating to think Queen Elizabeth once looked out over this view and took the path leading up to the keep.
During the early phases of the Civil War in 1643 it was held by Lady Isabel Stafford (née Isabel Forster), a staunch Roman Catholic and Royalist, the widow of Edward Stafford (1572-1625), who had been buried at the nearby Castle Church.
The Parliamentarians had captured the town of Stafford on 15 May 1643, following a brief siege, but some of its garrison escaped and held Stafford Castle, in the hope of using it as a bridgehead to recapture the town. Colonel William Brereton rode up to the castle with some of his men and called upon Lady Stafford to surrender, to which she refused. In response “some of the poor outhouses were set on fire to try whether these would work their spirits to any relenting. All in vain, for from the castle they shot some of our men and horses which did much enrage and provoke the rest to a fierce revenge. Almost all the dwelling houses and outhouses were burnt to the ground.” The siege was raised when Colonel Hastings led a relief column which arrived on 5 June.
Lady Stafford was eventually persuaded to leave, a small garrison remaining to defend the castle against a renewed siege. Finally, in late June, the Royalist garrison fled, having heard that a large Parliamentarian army was approaching, complete with siege cannon capable of overwhelming the small garrison. The castle then fell into Parliamentarian control and was demolished. On 22 December, not many months after its capture, the “Parliamentarian Committee of Stafford” ordered: “the Castle shall be forthwith demolished.”
When the traveller and diarist, Celia Fiennes passed through the town of Stafford in 1698, she noted: “…the castle which is now ruinated and there only remains on a hill the fortified trenches that are grown over green.”
In 1813, Edward Jerningham, the then owner of the estate, commissioned a new castle to be constructed upon the foundations of the earlier 14th century castle. It appeared to match the exact dimensions of the earlier castle but did not include the fifth tower (the original medieval 5th tower was a late addition to the 14th century construction). The ruins of this structure are what remain visible today.
The deserted medieval settlement on the outskirts of the remains is a fascinating sight. Now, there remains no more than an unremarkable, overgrown field in which locals walk their dogs. There are still small mounds and it is incredible to imagine a whole community once lived in this very place, it would have bustled with daily life and now lies completely quiet and abandoned.
As you walk around the great area of ancient earthworks and steep defensive ramparts it is easy to see how this was an incredibly well defended place. It is as though you are walking through time as you scale the top of the earthen mounds, created almost a millennia ago to protect the inhabitants and to give them the advantage over any invaders or attackers.