Farleigh Hungerford Castle
over 600 years of history and a murder!
Lying just inside the Somerset border, less than 4 miles west of Trowbridge, we arrive at Farleigh Hungerford Castle. There are hundreds of years of history that this castle holds, and as I live just a few miles away, it’s time I revisited and shared this with you.
The castle is one of English Heritage’s properties. Parking is available after you drive through the imposing entrance and to the end of the castle grounds. I had booked and paid online the day before and, after being greeted by the friendly staff in the shop, collected a little machine that plays a description by pointing it at signs around the site. You will see this in the YouTube video below.
The weather was beautiful, and as you can see in the photographs and video, the sky was a gorgeous blue. The clear air allowed the wonderful colours of the surrounding countryside to be seen in all its glory.
Farleigh Hungerford Castle (often referred to as Farleigh Caste by locals) started life when construction began in 1377 by Sir Thomas Hungerford. The inner court was completed by 1383, the first phase of the castle. In case you're wondering, Sir Thomas named the village after himself.
In the 11th century, the land, the Manor of Ferlege in Somerset, was granted by William the Conqueror to Roger de Courcelles. The name Farleigh comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, faern-laega, meaning the ferny pasture.
William II gave the land to Hugh de Montfort, who renamed the area Farleigh Montfort, and no doubt why Hungerford, who paid £733 for the land, thought he should rename it too. Thomas Hungerford purchased the land from Bartholomew de Bunghersh, who obtained it in the early years of the reign of Edward III.
Hungerford built the castle in a quadrangular design on the site of an existing manor house. The castle looks down on the meandering River Frome. The lands below were turned into a deer park, a source of meat for the household. Sir Thomas did get into a spot of bother and required a pardon from the King in 1383. Before building, he had failed to ask for a licence to crenellate (build fortifications). And you think planning permission can be tricky nowadays!
Sir Thomas’ son, Walter Hungerford, built phase 2 of the castle. He extended the castle with an outer court, which enclosed the parish church. Walter died in 1449; by that time, the castle was richly furnished, and the chapel had been richly decorated with murals. I will tell you more about the murals later.
Farleigh Hungerford Castle was in the hands of the Hungerford family for over 300 years. There were periods when it was held by The Crown, including during the War of the Roses (1455 to 1487). An attainer was placed on the castle, and some members of the Hungerford family were executed for their support of the House of Lancaster. It was returned to the family by Henry VII in 1486 for services rendered to the Lancastrians at the Battle of Bosworth by Walter Hungerford (grandson to the aforementioned Walter).
The tales start to grow darker as we learn of murder and attempted murder at Farleigh Hungerford Castle. Sir Walter Hungerford died in 1516, leaving the estate to his son Sir Edward Hungerford. Edward also had good royal connections and was a prominent member of King Henry VIII’s court. Sadly for Edward, he died in 1522, leaving the castle to his second wife, Lady Agnes Hungerford. However, this lady was no angel of light. After Edward’s death, it was discovered that she had been responsible for the death of her former husband and first husband, John Cotell.
Agnes had two of her servants strangle the poor man at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, having his body burned in the castle oven to destroy the evidence. An exciting story that raises questions. What story was told to cover the ‘disappearance’ of her husband? Was she already having an affair with Sir Edward Hungerford? Did he know anything? These are questions that we don’t know the answer to. What we do know is that Agnes and her two servants were hung in London for murder in 1523. This woman’s possible motivation was the wealth and power that the new marriage brought her. It didn’t last that long.
Now that Agnes was no more, the castle was inherited by Sir Edward’s son, yet another Walter Hungerford. This family liked to move within powerful political circles in England. Walter became a political connection to Thomas Cromwell, the very powerful minister of Henry VIII. Walter did not get on well with his third wife because her father (who introduced him to Cromwell) became a political liability. His wife, Elizabeth Hussey, was kept in one of the castle’s towers for several years. Elizabeth claimed that she was being starved in the hope she would die, having to drink her own urine, and also that there had been attempts to poison her. Records show she was kept in the northwest tower, even though the southwest tower is called the Lady Tower, named after her.
Elizabeth wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, in part it reads, “Continually locked in one of my Lord’s towers of his castle in Hungerford as I have been these three or four years past without comfort of any creature, and under the custody of my lord’s chaplain … which has once or twice heretofore poisoned me … I have none other meat nor drink but such as cometh from the said priest … I have … drank … my own water, or else I should die for lack of sustenance”.
Elizabeth escaped this ill-treatment and marriage following the execution of Walter. When Thomas Cromwell lost the King’s favour and fell from grace in 1540, so did Walter Hungerford. His crimes include treason, witchcraft and homosexuality. The charge reads, “Replete with innumerable, detestable and abominable vices and wretchedness of living … and hath accustomably exercised, frequented, and used the abominable and detestable vice and sin of buggery with William Master, Thomas Smith and other of his servants”.
Hungerford was beheaded on the same day as Thomas Cromwell on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540. Their heads were mounted on spikes and displayed on London Bridge. Elizabeth remarried, and once again, the castle reverted to The Crown. Walter’s son, another Walter (there’s a theme here), bought back Farleigh Hungerford Castle in 1554 for £5000.
Moving on a few decades at the outbreak of The English Civil War (1642-1651), the castle was modernised in 1642 to the latest Tudor and Stuart fashions. The custodian of the castle was Sir Edward Hungerford. Edward declared his support for Oliver Cromwell and Parliament and took on the role of leader of the Roundheads in Wiltshire. Farleigh Hungerford was captured by The Royalists in 1643 but was retaken by The Roundheads in 1645 without a fight.
The final member of the Hungerford family to own the castle was another, Sir Edward Hungerford. It seems this family were short on imagination for boys’ names. He inherited Farleigh Hungerford Castle in 1657. He led an extravagant life and gambled his fortune and more away. He had an incredible income but finished up in deep debt that, in1683 forced him to sell many of his estates in Wiltshire. Over the next two years, he had not learned his lesson and accumulated more debt of around £38,000 (£5.25 million). In 1686 he was forced to sell his lands, including Farleigh Hungerford Castle, to Sir Henry Bayntun for £56,000, who lived there until his death in 1691.
Did you know? Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte visited Farleigh Hungerford Castle in 1846
By the eighteenth century, the castle was in decline. The Houlton family bought it from the Cooper’s who had purchased it from Bayntun. The Houlton’s broke up the stone walls and internal contents to sell as salvage. Some parts of the castle were used at Longleat House, and others for Houlton’s new property, Farleigh House. Local villagers also had a share of the salvage to use for buildings and walls.
In 1779 the Castle Chapel was repaired and became a Museum of Curiosities. The murals were also uncovered in its walls in 1884. In 1915 the property was handed to The Office of Works, and a restoration programme commenced. English Heritage took over responsibility for the castle in 1983
To visit the castle, please go to the English Heritage website. Visitors are requested to book tickets online. Members can enter for free but are also advised to pre-book. The cost for an adult is £6.00 with a reduction to £5.30 for senior citizens.
Upon returning the listening device, I decided to take advantage of an annual membership, at which point my fee for today’s visit was refunded. It won’t take many visits to English Heritage properties to effectively make the saving for the annual fee. There will be more adventures to many other places managed by English Heritage now that I have a membership card!
I always welcome comments and look forward to hearing from you.
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