Last Photographed: Tuesday 11th July 2006
Other Names: Stokesay Court
Dating back to the 12th Century, Stokesay Castle is England's oldest surviving example of a fortified manor house.
At the time of the Norman conquest, the site was the home of a settlement known as 'Stoke' (meaning 'dairy farm'). It passed into the ownership of Roger Montgomery when he was appointed Earl of Shrewsbury by William the Conqueror. Montgomery granted the manor of Stoke to his retainer, Roger de Lacy.
Under the ownership of De Lacy, the tenancy of the manor was leased to the de Say family - from whom Stokesay takes its name. They occupied the manor from 1105-1240 - the two lower stories of the North tower being all that survives from this era.
Following the death of Walter de Lacy in 1240, his son-in-law John de Verdon inherited the ownership of Stokesay. He obtained the tenancy from Hugh de Say in exchange for lands in Ireland. Building of the North tower may have begun around this time.
Verdon's tenant - John de Grey - sold on his tenancy to Lawrence de Ludlow in 1281 for "the price of a juvenile sparrowhawk". Lawrence was a wealthy, self-made wool merchant, who was rich enough to have lent money to the marcher lords and even to the king. Although still a tenant, Lawrence enjoyed many of the trappings of a feudal lord, even obtaining a royal hunting charter in 1281.
It was Lawrence who was responsible for much of Stokesay as it survives today. He finished the work of transforming Stokesay into a grand medieval manor house, building the great hall, the South tower and the living quarters. This work is believed to have been completed by 1291 when Edward I granted Lawrence a 'license to crenelate'. The building of defensive fortifications was controlled by the crown at this time, and in order to fortify the walls with battlements, royal permission was required. The fact that such permission was granted may be related to Lawrence's standing with the king and the lawless nature of the border territory. Despite Edward I's defeat of the Welsh in 1282, the Marches were still a relatively lawless area. While marauding Welsh princes no longer posed a threat, armed raiding parties or robber bands were still a distinct possibility. Lawrence probably had this in mind when he added the outer curtain wall and moat. While not a castle in the strict sense, Stokesay was well equipped for fending off a small-scale assault. It would not have fared so well in a conventional siege.
Unfortunately for Lawrence, he didn't have much time to enjoy his new status as an almost-lord, drowning in a shipwreck in 1294. The house passed to his descendants though, and they remained in residence at Stokesay until 1598.
From then, Stokesay passed through a number of hands before settling with William Craven, who in turn sold the lease to Charles Baldwyn in 1630. Baldwyn was responsible for building the colourful and distinctive Jacobean gatehouse that survives as the current entrance. He was also responsible for a number of outbuildings which have since been demolished.
During Baldwyn's occupancy, Stokesay saw its only military encounter. In 1645 when Shrewsbury fell to Parliamentary forces, Cromwell's troops were en route to Ludlow. Stokesay was garrisoned by Royalist troops, but they swiftly offered their surrender following a brief siege. Subsequently, the order was given for the manor house to be 'slighted' (destroyed). For some reason lost to us, the order was never carried out and only the curtain walls were levelled.
Stokesay passed to Baldwyn's son, Samuel. He passed it in turn to his own son, Charles. After Charles died in 1706, the building became deserted. During the 150 years that followed, Stokesay fell into ruin - its only use being as storage for local farmers.
Fortunately, a Victorian interest in gothic architecture led to Stokesay being purchased by Mrs Stackhouse Acton. She began work to restore the building, and this was continued when ownership passed to the Allcroft family in 1869. Unusually for the period, the restoration was carried out with sympathy for period detail - thus preserving many important aspects of the buildings that might otherwise have been lost. Stokesay remained with the Allcrofts until 1992 when it passed to English Heritage.
Stokesay as it survives today is a wonderful piece of heritage. Walking through the gatehouse, the layout of the site is virtually unchanged since its completion over 700 years ago. The integrity of the manor's buildings is remarkable, and the magnificent, peaceful backdrop of the Marches countryside lends a serenity to this little corner of Shropshire that makes every visit a memorable pleasure.