• Lucy

Farleigh Hungerford Castle (Somerset, England)

The word ‘Farleigh’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘faern-laega’, meaning ‘ferny pasture’.

Overlooking the River Frome, the land the castle stands on belonged to the Montford family from the 11th century, naming it ‘Farleigh Montford’ and building a manor house on the site. The property then passed to the Burghersh family in 1337, who subsequently sold the land onto Thomas Hungerford in 1369. By 1385 the area was no longer Farleigh Montford and was known as Farleigh Hungerford, to be intimately linked with the Hungerford family for the next 3 centuries.

The castle was built in two phases. The inner courtyard of Farleigh Hungerford was constructed between 1377 and 1383 by Sir Thomas Hungerford in a quadrangular design, with documentary evidence for this in 1383 with a royal pardon for Hungerford to turn the pre-existing manor house into a crenelated fortress.

The castle is notable as the site does not offer any outstanding natural defences like earlier castles, and is overlooked by higher ground to the south. Combined with the fact that Thomas Hungerford was more of an administrator than a warrior, this would make it very likely that the castle was built as a status symbol instead of a serious fortification; similar castles such as Bodiam and Bolton were built in the same period for similar reasons.

After Thomas Hungerford’s death in 1397 his son, Sir Walter Hungerford, further extended the castle with an additional outer court, enclosing the parish church in the process. Walter Hungerford elevated the social status of the Hungerford family, being knighted by Henry IV in 1399 and being involved in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. After serving Henry V in France for 5 years, Walter was created the first Lord Hungerford in 1426.

The third Lord Hungerford, Robert Hungerford, became involved in the War of the Roses on the side of the Lancastrians. In 1460 he failed to hold the Tower of London from the Yorkists and went into exile. In 1461 he returned to take part in the disastrous Lancastrian defeat at Towton, and as a result of this loss he was deprived of his titles and lands. He fled to Scotland and continued to fight for the failing Lancastrian cause until he was captured and beheaded in 1464. His son Thomas Hungerford suffered the same fate in 1469, deprived of his lands and titles and hanged, drawn, and quartered in Salisbury for allegedly plotting against the life of Yorkist King Edward IV.

As a result of this disastrous support of the losing side in the war of the Roses, the Hungerfords lost Farleigh Hungerford Castle to the Crown. In 1462 the castle was granted the King Edward IV’s brother Richard duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). In 1483 Richard III granted the castle to John Howard, duke of Norfolk.

The second son of Robert Hungerford (the third Lord Hungerford who was beheaded in 1464) was Walter Hungerford. Unlike his father and older brother, Walter Hungerford avoided involvement with the failing Lancastrian cause and instead supported the Yorkist King Edward IV. When Richard III seized the throne from Edward’s sons he joined the revolt against King Richard III. When this revolt collapsed Walter was pardoned but detained in the Tower of London. He escaped the grasps of Richard III when Henry Tudor invaded in August 1485 and fought on Henry’s side in the Battle of Bosworth.

The victorious Henry VII knighted Walter 3 days after his victory at Bosworth and early the following year Walter regained Farleigh Hungerford.

After a tumultuous 26 years the castle was finally back in the hands of the Hungerford family.

Walter’s son Sir Edward Hungerford was embroiled in a scandal when he married a local lady named Agnes Cottel, a widow. Agnes had previously been married to a John Cottel, a steward at Farleigh Hungerford, who she had killed in conspiracy with two castle servants. An open secret locally, it is said that she strangled her first husband with his own neckerchief before destroying his body in the fire in the castle kitchen. She and her accomplices were not punished for this crime until after Edward’s death in 1522. In 1523 all three were hanged for their crimes at Tyburn in London.

The castle then passed to Walter Hungerford III, the only son of Edward and his first wife. After his third marriage to Elizabeth Hussey Walter started to creep up in social standing; Elizabeth’s father Lord Hussey recommended him to Henry VII’s rising Minister Thomas Cromwell, resulting in Walter being created the first and last Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury in June 1536.

After Lord Hussey fell from favour in court Walter began persecuting his wife Elizabeth. She was continually locked in towers of the castle, starved and mistreated. Increasingly losing grip, Walter Hungerford was executed alongside Thomas Cromwell in 1540 for treason, witchcraft, and the capital crime of homosexuality. With him died his title and the Hungerford’s ownership of the castle. Once against Farleigh Hungerford Castle was in possession of the Crown.

Walter and Elizabeth’s son, another Walter Hungerford (IV), bought back the castle for a considerable sum in 1554. His grandson, Edward Hungerford III sided with the Parliamentarian cause, although he played very little role other than to lose the castle to Royalist troops led by his own half-brother Colonel John Hungerford. Seeing the only military activity in its long history, Royalist forces garrisoned the castle and later the castle was recorded as a site for storing Royalist army equipment.

In 1645 the castle was retaken without any fighting by Parliamentarian forces but Sir Edward refused to garrison.

When Sir Edward died childless the castle passed to his half-brother Anthony Hungerford. When he died a rich man in 1657 his son, Edward Hungerford IV, became the last of the Hungerfords to own the castle. He was notorious for extravagant purchases and frivolously losing money, and in 1686 he had to sell his estates and the castle to Henry Baynton in an attempt to clear his debts. He died penniless in 1711.

The castle quickly fell into ruin and disrepair, and in 1705 was sold for salvage to the Houlton family. Over the next 3 decades they systematically removed any materials and fittings of value from the castle, including elaborate fireplaces and marble floors. Inner walls were taken down to provide stone for a new manor house on the far side of the village. Once the Houlton's were done the castle was further scavenged by locals. The castle became a ‘Romantic Ruin’ with very little of the original structure left.

Today the castle is in the care of English Heritage. Below is a very useful site plan taken from the English Heritage guidebook, showing the inner and outer courts -

English Heritage Farleigh Hungerford Castle Site Plan
English Heritage - Farleigh Hungerford Castle Site Plan

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