Britannia Castles: Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Somerset

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History of Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset
By Charles Oman


From Rags to Riches - and Rags Again

This, like Nunney, is a castle of the late fourteenth century: but it was not, like the former, a completely new structure built on a hitherto unoccupied site. It rather resembles Stokesay, in Shropshire, in that it represents the already existing domestic buildings of a great manor house turned into a castle under a "licence to crenellate". But the fates of the two have been different. At Stokesay the enceinte has disappeared, but most of the inner buildings survive. At Farleigh, it is the inner buildings which have practically perished, only the chapel remaining in good order, while the gate-house and the outer walls make a good show.

Farleigh was a manor of the knightly family of Montfort, from whom it was purchased, in 1369, by Thomas Hungerford, "citizen and merchant of New Sarum". He was a greater man than this modest designation would suggest as he was steward to John of Gaunt, and for a short time Speaker of the House of Commons. His father had been bailiff of Salisbury and his uncle, one of the King's Justices in Eyre. But clearly, Thomas Hungerford was a "new man" like his contemporary, Michael de la Pole, the son of a citizen and merchant of Hull, who came to be Earl of Suffolk and the King's chief minister. Thomas got himself knighted through John of Gaunt's influence and, in 1383, obtained a licence to crenellate his mansion, which was henceforth known as Farleigh Hungerford instead of Farleigh Montfort. He also purchased other manors in the neighbourhood.

His son Walter, a great fighting man, and a comrade of King Henry V at Agincourt and the Siege of Rouen, was raised to the peerage in the fourth year of Henry VI. He became a Knight of the Garter and rose to be Lord High Treasurer before his death at a good old age in 1449. This is a good parallel to the similar exaltation of the mercantile family of the De la Poles - and like that of Suffolk, the Hungerford peerage ended by the axe. The third Baron, a Lancastrian, as befitted the descendant of a steward of John of Gaunt, was beheaded after Hexham Field, where he had been taken prisoner. The last Hungerford, who bore the Baronial title, was a victim of one of the suspicious fits of Henry VIll and lost his head in 1541. As his attainder was never reversed, the barony disappeared, but Hungerfords continued to hold Farleigh down to the time of Charles Il, when they lost it by the persistent folly of the head of the house.

In its prime, Farleigh was a square castle of two wards. Leland gave careful observation to it during his Somerset tour. He notes the situation "was strong, set on a steep hill, with a stream in a ravine covering its rear." It had a gate-house and "divers pretty towers" in the outer ward. Also an ancient chapel, with a new chapel annexed unto it. The inner ward had also a fair gate-house, with the arms of Hungerford richly carved in stone, and, within, a hall and three great chambers, all very stately. Unfortunately, there remain today, only the outer gate-house, part of the enceinte with the stumps of two towers and the double chapel: the large chapel of St. Lawrence with the chantry of St. Anne built on to it. These are the only buildings of the whole castle which remain intact. They have been made into a sort of museum, containing not only the tombs of the founder and three or four of his successors, but a collection of armour, brought over when the old hall was destroyed in the eighteenth century, some Jacobean woodwork and fragments of carved stone from the vanished buildings. Also some early books and letters in cases.

In Tudor times, Farleigh saw some domestic tragedies, of which legends still survives. Lady Agnes, second wife of the Hungerford of 1522, was accused of poisoning her husband and hung, along with one of her servants, as Stow's chronicle records. Her step-son, the last Lord Hungerford - whom Henry VIII beheaded, for keeping a chaplain who called his sovereign a heretic, and casting the Royal horoscope - was apparently a domestic tyrant. He kept his wife immured for four years in the tower still known as the "Lady's Tower," allowing her to see no one but his chaplain, half starving her and (if she is to be believed in her petition to Secretary Cromwell) twice or thrice attempting to poison her. Local legend has it that he was jealous of attentions paid to her by a well-known local reprobate, "Wild Will Darrell" of Littlecote, but the dates do not at all tally. When her husband's head fell on Tower Hill, Lady Hungerford emerged, married Sir Robert Throckmorton and bore him four daughters and two sons. So her health would not appear to have suffered permanent injury from her imprisonment.

The Hungerford family was approaching its end when two seventeenth century knights, father and son, were its successive heads. Sir Edward Hungerford was a zealous Puritan, long commander of the Parliamentary levies of Wiltshire, "of eminent zeal for his country," as his tomb of 1648 in the chapel records. Revulsion against parental strictness may, perhaps, account for the lamentable career of his son, the last Sir Edward, best known as "Hungerford the Waster," who was one of the least worthy members of the court of Charles II. He gave 500 for a wig to which he had taken a particular affection and gambled away, in succession, twenty-eight manors. He is said to have paid 30,000 across the green cloth. His last attempt to get money was to turn his house and garden in London into a public market - known ever after as Hungerford Market. After this, he lived to a poverty-stricken old age on the one manor,- Black Bourton in Oxfordshire,- which he had not succeeded in alienating. And with the death of his childless son, in 1748, this unlucky house came to an end. The "Waster" sold Farleigh to a Mr. Baynton, in 1686, and since then it has passed through many hands. The main authors of its destruction would appear to have been a family named Houlton, who are recorded to have carried off its panelling and carved beams to their other house at Trowbridge. But the bulk of the stones went to build the handsome Farleigh House, in the park outside the castle. Earl Cairns saved the remnant of the buildings from complete destruction, by purchasing them and presenting them to the predecessor of English Heritage who now take care of it.

Edited from Charles Oman's "Castles" (1926).  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright ©2000, LLC