HENRY SOMERSET, MARQUIS of Worcester, died on 18 December 1646. He was aged about seventy. One week later, on Christmas Day, his body was laid to rest in the great chapel of St George in Windsor Castle. A marble tablet on the chapel wall still commemorates his passing.
A little over two years later, the marquis was joined by his king. After his execution, Charles I’s head was sewn back on to his body, and his corpse was brought to Windsor in the midst of a blizzard. Attended by only a handful of mourners, and without any form of ceremony, the dead king was interred in the same royal chapel, alongside the marquis, and amid the bones of his ancestors.
The Royalist cause, it seemed, was similarly dead and buried. Defeated in two separate conflicts by their Parliamentary opponents, the late king’s supporters were either imprisoned or had escaped into exile. Their estates were seized and their property impounded. In September 1651, the die-hard among them made a last-ditch attempt to reverse matters, only to be smashed with ease by Oliver Cromwell at Worcester. The figure they now championed, Charles I’s name-sake and eldest son, fled the field of battle, and was last seen hiding in an oak tree.
The Commonwealth regime, however, survived its royal victim for barely a decade. With so many competing voices and ideas in government, and so few genuine supporters in the country at large, the administration was held together only by the magnetic personality and iron will of Cromwell. When he died in September 1658, the revolution was undone. Quicker than anybody could have imagined, the monarchy was restored. On 29 May 1660, amid scenes of great rejoicing, Charles II was crowned king at Westminster.
Yet while the monarchy could be resurrected, the same was not true of the castle. The Civil War and the Commonwealth had dealt the ancient homes of the aristocracy a fetal blow. The destruction that had taken place at Raglan and Pontefract was repeated all over the country. Splintered and broken, undermined and collapsed, shelled, torched and smashed, castles everywhere were effectively written off. By the time the cull had finished, it was cheaper for the nobility to build from new than to restore the shattered homes of their ancestors. It was the dramatic end to a long, drawn-out process of abandonment. The aristocracy, who had been quitting their castles by stages and degrees for centuries, now deserted them en masse. After the Restoration, they invested in fashionable new stately homes, where the architecture spoke with a new vocabulary. Portcullises, drawbridges and battlements were consigned to the past. In came columns, porticoes and cupolas – neo-Classical elements for a new age.
When the grandson of the Marquis of Worcester decided to invest in a new home after 1660, he built just such a house: a grand new building in the fashionable Palladian style. But it was not at Raglan, nor even in Monmouthshire, that he made his new home. Like scores of other nobles, the new marquis moved on, leaving the old neighbourhood as well as the castle behind him. The future home of the Somersets would be on the opposite side of the Severn, in the Gloucestershire village of Badminton. The mansion he built is there to this day – as indeed are his descendants, who live in it.
At Raglan, time began to take its toll. Broken and exposed, the castle had to contend not only with the ravages of wind and rain, but also with the depredations of anyone seeking a convenient source of stone. The damage inflicted in the aftermath of the siege was compounded in the decades that followed by those in search of a nice fireplace or windowsill. In this respect the castle was no different to any other; almost every abandoned site suffered a similar fate. In some cases, destruction continued to be carried out for the sake of security – after the Restoration, Charles II countenanced the slighting of Caernarfon, Conway and Beaumaris. But in most cases, opportunistic pillage and plunder wreaked the most damage. The monarchy may have been welcomed back with open arms, but castles were still viewed with suspicion, hostility and contempt. Thomas Paulden, for example, escaped from Pontefract and lived to a ripe old age, but in the course of the siege he lost two of his brothers. Countless thousands of others like him had seen loved ones die in defence of castles, or fighting to reach their walls. While the memory of the war remained, castles could count on little sympathy.
There were, however, exceptions to this pattern – survivors among the general carnage. In the period between the end of the first Civil War and the restoration of Charles II, when the worst cases of destruction occurred, a distinction was observed between coastal castles and those in land-locked counties. The fear of invasion persuaded even the most extreme hard-liners to preserve those buildings that might prove useful in the defence of the nation. In the South-East, castles were left intact at Dover and Rochester, Bodiam and Arundel, Hedingham and Orford. Elsewhere, castles survived because they were simply too strong. The efforts made to pull down Edward I’s great Welsh castles fortunately came to very little, because demolishing their stone fabric was uneconomical.
In Scotland, castles fared far better than elsewhere during and immediately after the Civil War. Several tower houses suffered during Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland in 1650, including Borthwick, where the effects of the Parliamentary barrage can still be seen on the rear of the tower. Others, like Castle Urquhart, suffered as a result of later wars. Overall, however, Scottish castles were left far less scarred by the experiences of the seventeenth century than their counterparts in England and Wales. Yet while this may have protected them from total extermination, continuous occupation into the modern age has wrought its own change on these buildings. Very often they have had to endure radical customization and reconstruction by later owners, whose desire to modernize and improve their homes has altered many tower houses beyond all recognition.
Throughout the eighteenth century, castles continued to be dismantled, sold for scrap and plundered for stone. Where preservation occurred, it was down to individual eccentricities. In 1766, a noble twelfth-century tower at Bungay in Suffolk was destroyed in order to provide rubble for new roads. What remained of the gatehouse, however, was acquired by the wife of a local solicitor, and converted into a home. But even the best intentions could have regrettable side-effects. In Colchester, the great keep of William the Conqueror had been reduced to half its height thanks to the assiduousness of a local ironmonger. The surviving portion was purchased in the early eighteenth century and ‘restored’, but unfortunately the new owner believed he had acquired a Roman ruin rather than a Norman one. His new terracotta tiled roof, cupola and weathervane complete the catalogue of indignities inflicted on an already much-maligned building.
It was only really at the end of the eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth, that indifference to castles started to give way to genuine affection. The thirst for a forgotten, Romantic British past, encouraged by writers like Sir Walter Scott, made castles desirable places to visit. Picturesque painters like Turner made them identifiable. Railways made them accessible. Once again they became treasured possessions, not just for the handful of people who had once owned them, but for everybody in the country. Men, women andchildren of all degrees could now visit the great homes of the Middle Ages and contemplate a vanished world.
And now, almost a thousand years after their introduction to Britain, castles continue to exert a powerful hold on the public’s affection. We, however, can get nearer to them than our Victorian forebears. They preferred them as Nature had left them, all ivy-covered archways and crumbling walls. But in the course of the last century, the majority of ruined castles have been taken into the care of the state. Their walls have been shored up, their moats repaired and refilled, the trees and the bracken that had enveloped them have been cut back. Today castles stand closer in appearance to their original selves than they have done for centuries. It only requires us to visit them and use our imaginations, and their restoration is complete.