Sudeley Castle: A Potted History

  • Sudeley Castle Banqueting Hall (Val Corbett)
  • Sudeley Castle View (Nigel Schermuly)
  • Sudeley Castle Chandos Bedroom (Nigel Schermuly)
  • Sudeley Castle Knot Garden (Val Corbett)

Matt Dicks gives a digested read of the castle's illustrious history - and the monarchs that have owned it.

A more detailed look at the history and features of Sudeley is available in the book A Story of Kings and Queens: A Guidebook to Sudeley Castle and Gardens

1000-1369

Ownership: King Ethelred ‘The Unready’, his daughter Goda and the ‘de Sudeley’ family

The notorious Ethelred – infamous for ordering the massacre of all Danes who had settled in England - had passed Sudeley to his daughter as a wedding gift before he was replaced after his death by the Danish king, Cnut. Against the odds, Goda survived and retained Sudeley.

The de Sudeleys were resident for over three centuries, participating in the crusades and siding with Matilda in the 12th century civil war known as The Anarchy. Matilda’s adversary, Stephen, seized Sudeley and built a garrison thee that was destroyed before the war’s end.

1369 - 1469

Ownership: The Boteler family including Ralph Boteler who built the castle where it stands today

John de Sudeley died fighting for the Black Prince in Spain in 1367. As he was childless, the estate passed to the Boteler family through his sister. Ralph Boteler campaigned in France under Henry V and VI and became captain of Calais (and also, curiously, the King’s Butler). By 1443 he had become High Treasurer of England and was made Baron Sudeley, setting to constructing a castle to match his stature. His design, which formed the essence of the castle we know today, even included the then-luxury of glazed windows. The Portmare Tower and partially ruined Dungeon Tower survive from these times.

1469 – 1485

Ownership: Edward IV who gave it to his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester who became Richard III

But when Edward IV took the throne from Henry VI, Ralph was penalised for his affiliations with the Lancastrians and he was forced to sell Sudeley to the new king. He never saw Sudeley again, dying a mere four years later.

Edward granted Sudeley to his brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester (and Shakespeare’s notorious ‘hunchback’), who in time would become Richard III. First Richard exchanged Sudeley for Richmond Castle, but when Edward died (and Richard infamously had his sons kept in the Tower of London before declaring them illegitimate and taking the throne) he came to possess Sudeley once again. Richard made a number of improvements, including a grand banqueting hall, but he was soon killed at the Battle of Bosworth (the last English king to die in battle). In September 2012 his remains were exhumed from a Leicester car park under the direction of the Richard III Society.

1485-1547

Ownership: Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford and Henry VIII

The victorious Henry VII succeeded Richard and the castle found its way into the hands of the notorious Henry VIII (after first passing through the hands of Henry VII’s childless uncle Jasper).

Henry VIII spent a week at Sudeley with Anne Boleyn in 1535 (the year before he had her beheaded). Henry was accompanied by his most infamous agent, Thomas Cromwell, who was accommodated by Winchcombe Abbey. Together they orchestrated the Dissolution of the Monasteries. From Winchcombe Cromwell sent out his ‘visitors’ who were instructed to report on the moral and financial status of the country’s religious institutions – a flimsy pretext for the smash ‘n’ grab that was to follow, as Henry VIII seized control of the Church’s considerable assets.

Winchcome Abbey and nearby Hailes Abbey – which claimed to have a phial of Christ’s blood (later denounced as duck’s blood) - were ruined. Having lost its important Abbey, Winchcombe’s status declined and Sudeley was largely neglected until Henry died. Cromwell, having fallen foul of his king, was executed in 1540.

1547-1554

Ownership: Edward VI, Sir Thomas Seymour who married Henry VIII’s widow, Katherine Parr, and her brother William Parr, Marquis of Northampton

The caddish, conniving Sir Thomas Seymour – uncle of Henry’s son, Edward, and new Baron of Sudeley – revived his relationship with Katherine Parr, Henry’s widow, after the king’s death. He set to improving Sudeley - and is also said to have pursued Princess Elizabeth at Chelsea, visiting her in her bedchambers.

A few months after her marriage to Seymour, Katherine fell pregnant and decorated the nursery with twelve grand tapestries portraying the months of the year. Meanwhile, Thomas schemed against his elder brother, Edward Seymour, who had been made Protector of the young King Edward VI (a title Katherine had perhaps expected to receive herself).

But the ambitions of Thomas and Katherine came to nothing. Katherine died of fever a mere seven days after the birth of her daughter. Lady Jane Grey served as Katherine’s Chief Mourner as she was entombed in the Chapel of St Mary – tragically, Thomas was not in attendance, as he had departed for London in fresh pursuit of Princess Elizabeth. For his audacity, Thomas was ordered executed by his own brother, and was denounced by Bishop Latimer as ‘a wicked man, covetous, ambitious and seditious.’ Elizabeth herself remarked: ‘This day died a man with much wit and very little judgement.’ Little record remains of Katherine’s orphaned daughter, Mary, suggesting she died in infancy.

1554-1649

Ownership: Mary I, Sir John Bridge, Lord Chandos of Sudeley and the Castle remained with his descendants. During the Civil War, Charles I took refuge at Sudeley

Sudeley passed to the crown again after the untimely end of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen, and Mary I gave it to the man who had escorted Lady Jane Grey to her execution: Sir John Brydges, Lieutenant of the Tower. He was named Baron Chandos of Sudeley, and his descendants ruled Sudeley for the next century.

As Queen, Elizabeth visited Sudeley – the home of her late stepmother, Katherine – several times as she toured her kingdom. Celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth and her retinue descended on Sudeley and embarked on three days of partying and feasting which nearly bankrupted the Baron and his family, who received little in the way of the social advancement they had hoped for in return.

Years later, in 1642, Civil War broke out and the Sixth Lord Chandos sided with the King, marching out with 1,000 men. Oliver Cromwell’s commander, Edward Massey, attacked, captured and looted Sudeley, abandoning it when they heard Chandos and Prince Rupert of the Rhine had taken nearby Cirencester. Charles I himself decided to lay siege to Gloucester, but failed, and returned to Sudeley with his tail between his legs.

In 1644, the castle was besieged a second time (a fired cannonball decapitating a man and smashing a hole in the Octagon Tower, which can still be seen). A defecting lieutenant opened the gates and the castle was quickly overwhelmed. Although renouncing his support for the Royalists, Chandos was fined and ruined, and the victorious Cromwell ‘slighted’ Sudeley’s roof, leaving it to nature to dismantle the remains of this grand castle.

1649-1837

Ownership: The castle lay in ruins but became a tourist attraction. Visitors included George III

Sheep and rabbits occupied the remains of the once-proud buildings. Indulging the fashionable taste for ruins, ‘Mad’ King George tried to climb the Octagon Tower, but fell. George’s fall was interrupted by Sudeley’s Housekeeper, Mrs Cox, who was rewarded for her efforts when the king offered a commission in the Guards to her son, William.

In 1782, a lead coffin was uncovered bearing the inscription Here Lyeth Quene Kateryn, Wife to Kyng Henry VIII. When opened, the remains of Katherine Parr were said to be ‘entire and uncorrupted’, but after her coffin was opened several times they began to decay. By the time they were relocated to the restored chapel in the 19th century, they were no more than ‘a little brown dust’. Sudeley is still the only private home to have a Queen of England buried in the grounds.

1837-1969

Ownership: Brothers John and William Dent, John Coucher Dent and his wife Emma Brocklehurst. Most of the castle was habitable again. Henry Dent-Brocklehurst and Major Dent-Brocklehurst

The brothers John and William Dent – two wealthy glove makers from Worcester with a passionate interest in antiques – purchased the estate (the castle and 12,000 acres) from the Duke of Buckingham, who balked at restoration costs, in 1837. During their ambitious renovation, the brothers decided to leave the medieval buildings as untouched as was possible, and compiled a veritable trove of Tudor treasures that they stored at the castle.

The Dent brothers died childless, and the castle passed to their nephew John and his wife Emma, who for 45 years worked single-mindedly to improve Sudeley, planning the gardens and extending the collections - and researching the castle’s extensive history. She and John built almshouses and a school in Winchcombe, and after John died she rebuilt the road from Winchcombe to the castle and created the town’s first piped water supply.

Emma died at the age of 76 having toiled endlessly to revive the castle, and having exhausted her considerable energies on countless philanthropic projects within the town. She planted the avenue of beech trees along the main drive so that they ‘would cast pretty shadows…even when there was no one left to remember the old lady who lovingly planted them.’

On her death, the castle passed to her nephew, Harry Dent-Brocklehurst, who she and John had wished would become ‘the perfect country gentleman.’ Though Harry’s son, Jack, was sent to fight in France during WWI, he survived, but death duties meant that when Harry passed much land belonging to the estate had to be sold off.

During WWII, the area that is today known as the visitors’ car park served as a POW camp – complete with wire fences and watchtowers – where Italian and German prisoners toiled in the fields. The Tate Gallery stored numerous pictures in the castle, safe from the inferno of the Blitz. The Gallery’s Director and the Curator (together with their families) came along with the pictures, having themselves little desire to face the bombs and flames.

1969-present

Ownership: Mark Dent-Brocklehurst and his wife Elizabeth succeeded his mother as owners. Elizabeth was widowed in 1972 but remarried Lord Ashcombe in 1979. She remains in residence with her 2 children, Henry and Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, and their families.

Little work was done on the castle after the 1930s until Mark and Elizabeth decided to open the castle to the public and embarked on a massive programme of restoration and refurbishment. Taxes and death duties meant that many historic houses across the country were thrown into a state financial precariousness, but Sudeley’s unique history – plus large investment in its infrastructure, and willingness to sell acreage to balance the books – meant that the castle remains open to the public to this day, whilst simultaneously serving as a family home for Lady Ashcombe, her children and grandchildren.

Image credits:
Castle View, Chandos Bedroom & Ruins by Nigel Schermuly
Banqueting Hall & Knot Garden by Val Corbett