Astley Castle

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Astley Castle
    Unknown London (1920) Walter George Bell


    YEARS ago, when Time sped past me with less haste than he makes to-day, a curious search took me across the City into Portsoken Ward. The name sounds unfamilar since we have ceased to identify the City by its wards, but you know the area well, lying up against The Tower. It has the Minories as its chief highway, along which the heavy drays laden at the river wharves rumble on to Tower Bridge. I turned into America Square to call at an unpretentious house, obviously once some small merchant’s residence. London changes rapidly with the march of improvement, but on renewing acquaintance with America Square only the other day it was pleasant to find the house still standing. Still, too, it bears indications that a school for little boys is carried on there, for even where commerce presses most closely about the waterside there are children dwelling and wanting education.

    My ring brought to the door a man of middle age, sombrely dressed in black. Nature by some subtle power stamps the mark of each profession upon those who follow it. Mix in any large gathering of doctors, of actors, lawyers, artists or merchants, and there can be no mistaking the calling these men represent. Here was no possibility of error. Perhaps it is the constant habit of speaking in subdued tones to visitors looking over the church, and deferential association with the clergy, that give unmistakable personality to the verger.

    "I want," I said, "the head of the Duke of Suffolk."

    It was not an ordinary request for one complete stranger to make of another, calling casually at his house. A maniac might have delivered such a message. The recipient betrayed no token of surprise. He would get the keys, he said. We walked together to the Church of the Holy Trinity,
    Minories, and crossing amidst the traffic I turned towards Tower Hill to seek a glimpse among the trees of what is assuredly the most tragic spot in all England — those few square yards of blood- soaked ground upon which the scaffold and the block stood. On the scaffold raised there Suffolk met his death, and many victims of the devious ways and ends of statecraft, the guilty and the guiltless, before and since his time. Tall ware-houses obstructed my view. Holy Trinity is but a few paces distant from America Square, but perhaps is not easy to find without a guide. It is a plain, drab structure, with stucco laid upon its west front, and nothing to bespeak antiquity, though still its northern wall contains the ancient masonry of the buildings of the nuns of St Olave, whose chapel this was. The church had then the high old-fashioned pews. My companion unlocked a little cupboard, and produced the relic which this City church for so many centuries had sheltered. It was boxed (that seems the most appropriate word) in glass — the head of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk.

    The marks on the neck were pointed out. There the headsman had failed, but this other blow was true. The verger, keenly interested, lost his air of professional sadness, and his face lighted with animation as he talked of this treasured if grim memento now left in his keeping; of the man — soldier, statesman, plotter — whose active brain had dwelt within this mummified skull. In 1554 Suffolk perished on Tower Hill, a conspirator against the Throne. A murmur as the axe fell passed through the crowd swaying and rocking about the scaffold, that involuntary protest of horror that comes from all men, even the most debased, at the taking of human life; the sound must have travelled on the cold still air of that February morning here to the quietude about the church. The headsman, lifting the bleeding relic by its matted hair, exhibited it at the four corners of the platform with the accustomed ceremonial — "This is the head of a traitor! "Little might we regret Suffolk’s end had it not been that his ambition brought to a like fate one who occupies a far nobler place in England’s history, his daughter, the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey. One thinks first of her, looking into this face of her father. The long forehead, the fine nose, the mouth in which some have yet seen lingering the curve of the last agony, have survived the changes after death.

    Holy Trinity stands within the ancient liberties of The Tower. The convent of nuns of the Order of St Olave, bearing the name of their foundress, Santa Clara of Assisi, spread wide about this site, over ground now covered with commercial buildings. There was many another religious house in mediaeval London where to-day are only City streets and commerce. These were the "Sorores Minores," and from them the district is still known as the Minories. The nuns’ house did not survive the suppression of the monasteries. It was granted by King Edward VI to Suffolk, then climbing to those heights from which he suffered so grievous a fall, and there he made his town residence. The church was largely rebuilt in the opening years of the eighteenth century. History is silent, but one may imagine it to have been a pious service of Suffolk’s widow — herself a daughter of Charles Brandon and that Mary Tudor who was the younger sister of King Henry VIII. — to save this loved head from exposure on the pikes above London Bridge, and bring it for final rest in the chapel where both had worshipped. Suffolk’s body is believed to lie in an unknown grave in that sad little church of St Peter ad Vincula, within The Tower.

    It was in the year 1851 that the head was found in a small vault on the south side of the altar of Holy Trinity, bearing a thick incrustation of oak sawdust, such as might have half-filled the basket upon the scaffold. Tannin from oak is a well-known preservative, and to its agency the safe-keeping of this relic through so many years is held to be due.

    Suffolk was the most nerveless man who ever aspired by deep conspiracy to place his child upon a throne. Impotent to take great decisions, and thereby stand or fall, he attached himself to Seymour and Northumberland in turn during the troubled years when a weak boy, King Edward VI filled the seat of the most dreaded of Tudor male sovereigns. When the plot to deprive Queen Mary of her inheritance ripened he was one of the company who, three days after Edward’s death, went to Sion House, Isleworth, to proclaim the Lady Jane Queen. The crowded narrative of her brief reign should be too familiar to need recapitulation. It was Suffolk, when the citizens of London had declared for Mary, and the plotters were beaten, who himself despoiled his daughter of the emblems of Royalty with which she had burdened herself so unwillingly; Suffolk who sought his own life, when all else was lost, by himself proclaiming Mary the Queen from The Tower gates. He was arrested and taken back to The Tower a prisoner. Mary, perhaps contemptuously, set him free, for those of her blood had little tolerance for a coward, giving him liberty to live on his property at East Sheen. The intercession of Suffolk’s Duchess, who was the Queen’s godmother and enjoyed her intimate friendship, is believed to have secured for him this last favour.

    The projected marriage with Philip of Spain a few months later set the country aflame, and Kent and Essex rose under Sir Thomas Wyatt. Suffolk had learnt nothing: neither to know the limitations of his own weak, irresolute character nor to gauge the true feelings of the English people, torn between fear of losing the work of the Reformation on the one hand, and the return of internal anarchy on the other should the new revolution succeed. He was booted and spurred when a messenger came from the Queen summoning him to appear at Court; she desired, it has been said, to give him the opportunity to "make good" by accepting a command against the rebels. He rode away from his house at Sheen — but not to Whitehall.

    Suffolk is next heard of in Leicestershire and Warwickshire, where his extensive estates lay. There he attempted to stir up rebellion among the yeomen, but signally failed. Coventry closed its gates against him and his followers. The Duke was soon a fugitive, and taking disguise in a serving man’s clothes sought to hide himself in dense forests. The treachery of his own servant betrayed him for reward. He was seized when concealed in the trunk of a hollow tree at Astley Cooper, in Warwickshire, and with three hundred horsemen escorting him was brought to London and committed to The Tower.

    Father and daughter were together State prisoners in different apartments of that grim fortress. They never met. Five days after the execution of Lady Jane Grey on Tower Green, Suffolk was led out to Ms trial for high treason in Westminster Hall, "who at his going out," says an old chronicler, "went very stoutly and cheerfully enough, but at his returning he landed at the water gate with a countenance very heavy and pensive, desiring all men to pray for him." Knowledge of his responsibility for his daughter’s untimely death must have added to the bitterness of that day. We have a letter of Queen Jane’s written to her father shortly before her execution; the old spelling is best preserved:

    To the Duke of Suffolk.

    The Lord comforte your Grace, and that in his worde, whearin all creatures onlye are to be comforted. And thoughe it hathe pleased God to take away ij of your children, yet thincke not, I most humblye beseach your Grace, that you have loste them, but truste that we, by leavinge this mortall life, have wunne an immortal life. And I for my parte, as I have honoured your grace in this life, wyll praye for you in another life.

    Your Gracys humble daughter,

    Jane Duddeley.

    If atonement were possible, then Suffolk’s bearing on the scaffold should do much. In his last hour he played the man. The little procession came upon Tower Hill on Friday, the 20th February 1554, at nine of the clock.

    "Masters," he said to the people, "I have offended against the Queen and her laws, and thereby I am justly condemned to die, and am willing to die, desiring all men to be obedient; and I pray God that this my death may be an example to all men, beseeching you all to bear me witness that I die in the faith of Christ, trusting to be saved by His blood only, and by no other trumpery, the which died for me, and for all men that truly repent and steadfastly trust in Him. And I do repent, desiring you all to pray God for me, that when you see my head depart from me, you will pray to God that He will receive my soul."

    Then occurred one of those farcical incidents inseparable at times from moments of the deepest tragedy.

    A man standing in the forefront of the crowd called out, "My lord, how shall I do for the money that you do owe me?"

    Suffolk answered, "Alas, good fellow, I pray thee trouble me not now, but go thy way to my officers." He knit a handkerchief about his eyes, laid his head upon the block, and with arms outstretched as a signal and the words on his lips, "Into Thy hands, O Lord," passed into eternity. They were the words used by Lady Jane Grey when the axe fell.

    How little men are, that six small squares of glass can enclose so much!History, weighted by its great task, has dealt severely with the Duke of Suffolk, but in the presence of this frail relic of mortality let me recall words told to his good. It is glorious old Holinshed who speaks. "A man of high nobility by birth: and of nature to his friends gentle and courteous : more easy indeed to be led than was thought expedient: of stomach stout and hard: hasty and soon kindled, but pacified straight again, and sorry if in his heat ought had passed him otherwise than reason might seem to bear : upright and plain in his private dealings: no dissembler, nor well able to bear injuries : but yet forgiving and forgetting the same, if the party would seem but to acknowledge his fault, and to seek reconcilement: bountiful he was and very liberal; somewhat learned himself, and a great favourer of those who were learned. So that to many he showed himself a very Maecenas. As free from covetousness as void of pride and disdainful haughtiness of mind: more regarding plain meaning men than claw-back flatterers. And this virtue he had, that he could patiently hear his faults told him by those whom he had in credit for their wisdom and faithful meaning towards him. He was an hearty friend unto the Gospel."

    Sir George Scharf, a former Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery, examined this head carefully, and writing of it said: " The arched form of the eyebrows, and the aquiline shape of the nose correspond with the portrait engraved in Lodge’s series from a picture in possession of the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield, a duplicate of which is in the National Portrait Gallery." Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower has said of Scharf that no better judge of an historical head, whether on canvas or in a mummified state, ever existed. The medical report upon the relic by Dr F.. J. Mouat, a Local Government Board Inspector, also supports its authenticity :

    "The anatomical characters of the exposed bones show that the head belonged to a man past the prime of life. The narrow retreating forehead, flattened sides and roof of the skull, and disproportionate development of the occipital region indicate moderate mental powers and strong animal faculties. The whole conformation, if there be any truth in external cranial indications of mental and moral manifestations, tends to prove indecision of character, considerable self-esteem, and very moderate reasoning powers.

    "That the head was removed by rapid decapitation during life admits of no doubt. A large gaping gash, which had not divided the subcutaneous structures, shows that the first stroke of the axe was misdirected, too near the occiput, and in a slanting direction. The second blow, a little lower down, separated the head from the trunk below the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The retraction of the skin, the violent convulsive action of the muscles, and the formation of a cup-like cavity with the body of the spinal bone at the base, prove that the severance was effected during life, and in cold weather. The ears are small, well formed, and closely adhering to the head; the aperture being remarkably large, and the lobe clearly defined. The eyeballs must have been full, and a little prominent during life: all the hairs from the head, brows, lips and chin have fallen out: the cheek bones are somewhat high and the chin retreating."

    Suffolk’s portrait by Johannes Corvus in the national collections at Trafalgar Square shows the Duke in lace ruffle and jewelled flat cap and slashed doublet and hose. I again saw this head but the other day, and with the painted portrait fresh in memory I must say that the one did strongly recall the other.

    There the story might well have stopped, where it rested till recently. It is less pleasant to write the epilogue. Holy Trinity still stands, set back against the yards and warehouses of the London and North Western Railway, the scene of a furious fire that lighted the whole City one dark night a few years ago. It has drifted out of the life of the Minories. The church was closed in 1899, and thereupon dismantled. The fine Pelham monument, with kneeling figures of that stout Elizabethan knight, Sir John Pelham, and his young son, who died near together in date, leaving a widow and mother, herself daughter of a Lord St John of Bletsoe, to mourn their loss —

    Death First did strike Sir John Here Tomb’d in claye
    And then Enforst His Sonne to FoUowe Faste
    Of Pelham’s Line this Knyghte Was Chiefe and Staye
    By this Beholde all Fleshe Must Dye at Last
    Best Bletsowes Lord thy Sister Most may Moane
    Both Mate and Sonn Hathe Left Her Here Alone "

    as the inscription tells — that has gone to Stanmer, in Sussex. The pulpit went elsewhere; but the building still does some social service, as a mission room and centre of philanthropic activity in this busy part of the east-lying City. The Duke of Suffolk’s head found a new resting-place at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, to which the parish has been annexed, and there it is today, in the Vicar’s cupboard. The Vicar naturally does not encourage mere morbid curiosity in visitors to his church, but has placed no difficulty in the way of those of historical bent of mind who come, anxious to see the relic. My present concern is sorely with a beadle and sexton, who held office at Holy Trinity so long ago as 1786. Incidentally, to eke out his small fees, he sold coals. So ribalds called him " Mr Smallcole."

    It is a most horrible business. A neighbour chanced to peep into the beadle’s house, and to his utter astonishment disturbed him when in the act of dividing into lengths with a saw what were obviously portions of coffins. He alarmed the churchwarden. Fearing the worst, that official ordered the beadle to give up his keys. The beU was rung backwards, a signal in old days of fire in the parish. Such parishioners as answered the summons were told its true meaning ; they formed therewith a parish meeting in the aisle of the church; then together, with candles borne ahead, descended into the choked vaults of Holy Trinity. The candles burnt dimly in the close air, unwholesome with the contagion of centuries. Coffins lay about, violently torn open, sawn, chopped — and worse!" It had nearer resemblance to a slaughterhouse than a vault for the interment of our deceased friends," said one investigator. The beadle and sexton had made a business of supplying himself with wood from this source, and some neighbours, too, who were participants with him, if not actual instigators of the crime.

    The parish, "to the disgrace of all society," as one wrote, was content to order the beadle to ask pardon, and on his undertaking not to be guilty of the like offence again he appears to have been allowed to continue his office. But the scandal got out, as always foul scandal will. Some leaflets of the day, giving expression to just indignation, though through a vein of forced satire and unpleasant ribaldry, the subject being what it was, came into possession of the Rev. E. M. Tomlinson, a former vicar of Holy Trinity and the historian of the Minories, who has printed them.

    In the light of such facts as these, who shall now decide? Lady Jane Grey has left an imperishable memory. Many were the sufferers in that fearful time of butchery who command our sympathy, but none has so wholly won our hearts as this young Queen of a nine days’ reign, and so pitiful an end. The tragedy of Suffolk is grim enough without these port-mortem wanderings of his head. If sawdust has preserved this rehc of frail humanity, as seems likely, was it the dust of "Mr Smallcole’s" unholy sawing? Is this one of his mutilations? — not Suffolk at all. Contemporary annalists have written of the Duke suffering death at one blow of the axe. Here, on the neck, the marks are distinct of two. Yet the head and the painted portraits are strangely like.

  2. Red Don says:

    Re: Astley Castle
    Philippa Gregory wrote a book about Elizabeth Woodville called ‘The White Queen’.  It is fictional but based upon as much factual research as possible.  One fact she mentions is that her mother was descended from the Dukes of Burgundy and that according to their belief, they were descended from of teh water goddess Melusina. 

  3. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Astley Castle
    ‘Parishes: Astley’, A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6: Knightlow hundred (1951)

    Astley Castle is situated 60 yds. north-east from the church. It is surrounded by a moat with banks 10–15 ft. in height. The bailey is in the form of a circle drawn out towards the north-east, increasing the diameter in that direction from approximately 60 yds. to 80 yds. The average width of the present moat is 10 yds., but, if it originally spanned the full width between banks, it would have an average width of double that amount.

    There are only scanty remains, in grey and red sandstone, of the original curtain walls and gatehouse. Some portions appear to be 14th-century work but may date from 1266, when Warin de Bassingburn was granted licence to inclose his house at Astley with a dyke and a wall and to crenellate it.

    The bailey is level with the surrounding country, and the present edifice is built on the west side with its principal elevation slightly south of east, and its outbuildings lining the west curtain wall. It consists of two main stories with attics above, and the roofs of lead and tile are partly concealed behind embattled parapets. The work of every century, from the 15th onwards, appears to be represented.

    The brick chimney-stacks, rising above the parapet on the south side, are of late-16th or early-17th-century design and the shafts of the individual flues are bound together by a continuous capping supported by oversailing brick courses.

    The main entrance is marked by a single-storied porch which projects from the northern half of the eastern façade. This front is in two stories, it is of stone, and the embattled parapet is continuous. The windows fall into three groups, that to the south having two four-light mullioned windows with square heads at the first-floor level and two similar though somewhat deeper windows below them; there is a horizontal string-course at first-floor level across the width of this window group only. At the north end of the front there is a similar group, but the entrance reduces the lower south window to only two lights. In the centre there are five—two above placed centrally over three below; these all have four-centred heads, the upper ones each have three lights with tracery in the heads and are both grouped under a single hood-moulding, the ends of which return vertically downwards and stop on carved heads. The three windows below, though narrower, seem to have been similar, but the mullions have been removed to accommodate modern french windows. This portion of the façade is of the 15th century and evidently formed the nucleus for later extensions.

    A stone gargoyle protrudes immediately to the south of the hood-mould described above.

    The porch, although of the late 16th or early 17th century, appears to have been built after the adjoining main walls, for its north wall, which is without openings, slants inwards to admit light to the entrance hall by means of the small two-light window encroaching on its width. The east and south walls have large openings, that to the east being square-headed and of two plain chamfered orders, the head being constructed of three stones held in line on a heavy wrought iron bar of square section and contemporary workmanship over the 6-ft.wide opening. There is an oak lintel behind the iron bar supporting the remaining thickness of masonry. The 4-ft. opening on the south side has a four-centred head framed in by the square head of the outer order. The oak door to the entrance hall is studded and has shaped 16th-century strap-hinges.

    The northern façade consists of three gables which abut the end of the main façade wall, the parapet of which ends abruptly. It is of early-19th-century brickwork plastered over, with sash windows of the same period. The opposite end, facing nearly south, consists of two portions; that to the east has a horizontal embattled parapet which returns round from the main front and bears the date 1627 carved on the centre merlon; that to the west is some 6 ft. higher, and the parapet steps up between them. The former has a string-course at first-floor level, with a four-light squareheaded mullioned window above, and a six-light window with central major mullion below, its upper portion blocked by masonry and the lower covered by a modern glass conservatory. The portion to the west has a fourlight window of similar type but modern workmanship above and a modern timber casement below, and there is no string between them. There is a single buttress reaching to first-floor level immediately to the east of the timber casement, which has weathered offsets. A string-course carries through unbroken above the heads of the first-floor windows wherever the embattled parapet occurs round the building; and on the southwest façade an additional buttress reaches this upper string in line with the step in the parapet.

    The western front, overlooking the moat, presents a haphazard group consisting of (a) a stone wing forming the southern half, and carrying an embattled parapet which returns back at both angles; it bears traces of 16th- and 17th-century masonry although the openings have mainly been modernized; (b) a lower 16th-century half-timber wing ranged against it on the north side, being partly rendered in plaster; and (c) a 19th-century addition of brick returning round the north-west angle. Half of this frontage is skirted by a long, narrow yard, which divides the main building from a line of derelict 18th-and 19th-century outbuildings.

    The interior has lost much of its original character, as extensive alterations appear to have been made about 1800. The entrance hall and passage-way at its rear are lined with small 17th-century oak panels, but the passage-way gives access to a large square hall, two stories in height, wholly re-decorated in the early 19th century, the only original feature being a fine six-light mullioned and transomed window overlooking the moat in the rear elevation; it is of lofty proportions and the transom is set high to give greater height to the lower lights, the upper three being approximately square. A landing beneath the window takes the double return flights of the staircase, which is modern, and under it a doorway leads to the kitchen quarters. The back stair is original and of the 16th century; each baluster is turned, and each square newel terminates in a turned ball-finial.

    To the south of the entrance hall are two reception rooms; the first, opening on to the lawns by the three french windows, is modern in treatment; the second, which reaches to the south-east angle of the building, possesses a large early-17th-century fire-place with an original cast-iron bushel-grate. It consists of a moulded opening with a four-centred head containing leafy enrichments in the spandrels; above is a strap-work frieze with an ovolo-moulded cap over, all of stone. The surround is of panelled oak, with four rectangular panels over the stonework, the two in the centre containing semicircular heads filled with shell enrichment, and those on the outsides each contain two diamond shapes side by side. The frieze above is jewelled and terminates in two lions’ heads supported by fluted Ionic pilasters from the floor level. The whole measures 7 ft. 5 in. high by 8 ft. long. Opposite the fire-place a door gives access to the conservatory.

    On the north side of the entrance hall is a single reception room with an early-19th-century oak fireplace surround, with large interlaced diamond patterns and fluted pilasters somewhat in the early-17th-century manner; Dutch tiles surround the fire-place opening. A fourth reception room leads from the staircase hall into the south-west angle and contains early-17thcentury panelling, a group of panels on the north wall being enriched with decorative circles containing fans, with foliage, strap-work, and other carving.

    The rooms on the upper floors are of little interest, having all been modernized, and the roof timbers above the attics are concealed above the plaster ceilings.

    Of the whole area within the moat the half lying towards the north-east is banked up from the moat with wooded slopes, whilst the other half, which includes the present buildings, is bordered by stone retaining walls, the lower portions of which may date from the 14th century or earlier. Opposite the porch a 60-ft. length of sandstone walling rises above the level of the lawns and borders the moat. It contains mainly the lower portions of three ancient windows, probably of the 14th century, and it terminates at the jamb of a fourth at its north-eastern end. They are of varying width and their jambs are faced towards the moat with two chamfered orders; the sills are stepped on the opposite side. Only one has a head, and this is but a wooden lintel, probably added in later years to carry over a course of masonry.

    A gateway on the south side, 8 ft. wide, is built within the line of the moat. It has a four-centred head, and on the south side two heavy chamfered orders which, together with the jambs and abutments, appear to be 14th-century work, but the north side of the arch has been recently refaced. The stone bridge leading to it has a semicircular arched opening of a single order and modern embattled parapets of grey sandstone, and is now disintegrating. On the west side is a stone doorway, which seems to have been rebuilt in modern times above the springing level; it leads by means of a path alongside the moat to the yard at the rear of the house.

    On the opposite side of the site there are the remains of a secondary bridge of timber added for convenience during the 18th or 19th century. The decking has been removed. It originally gave access to the spinney on the opposite bank. Between this and the irregularly shaped lawn lies a formal garden of parterre work, which takes the form of a circle, 80 ft. in diameter, and is split up by narrow walks into circular and triangular flower-beds. These are edged by low, trimmed box hedges, and a higher holly hedge of considerable age, which has recently been cut down, formed the perimeter. An 18th-century sundial of bronze set upon a shaped stone pedestal forms the centre feature.