Winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture 2013
One of our most popular properties, Astley is solidly booked until the end of 2016. We will open bookings for 2017 in September 2015. The living accommodation is on the first floor and the bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor. A lift enables easy access for all. Astley Castle and its inhabitants have witnessed, and occasionally moulded, significant events in our national history. Dating back to the 13th century the site has been owned by three Queens of England. The local area is also rich in history, with Coventry and Warwick both close by.
A Landmark for the 21st century
The castle was on the verge of collapse after a fire in 1978 and far beyond a conventional restoration project. We held an architectural competition to design a Landmark for the 21st century, where unequivocally modern living accommodation was clasped within the shell of the ancient Castle. We aimed for the best modern architecture, unashamedly but sympathetically stitched into ancient fabric, today’s craftsmen and women linking hands with their predecessors.
Continuing a millennium of occupation
Astley Castle became a cause célèbre for us. This ancient moated site first came to our attention in the 1990s, when we tried, and failed, to find a workable solution for it. It grieves us to admit defeat, and in the year of our 40th anniversary, we returned to Astley, for another go at finding a way to continue a millennium of occupation. It was already too late to do more than consolidate the ruins that were left after the disastrous fire in 1978, so unusually drastic measures were called for. The rapturous reactions of those who have stayed there seem to justify our boldness. Astley has history in abundance waiting for you, but it is as likely that it is the melding of ancient and modern that will linger most in the mind after your stay.
‘Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the transformation of Astley Castle from a ruin to a gem must represent the crowning achievement of the Landmark Trust.’
From the logbook
A fortified manor
Strictly speaking a fortified manor more than a castle, the site at Astley Castle has been in continuous occupation since the Saxon period. As Grade II* listed, the castle is counted of national significance. Its site includes the moated castle, gateway and curtain walls, lake, church and the ghost of pleasure gardens in a picturesque landscape.
The early castle
By the early 12th century it was held by Philip de Estlega [Astley] from the Earl of Warwick. Philip’s grandson Thomas de Estleye was killed at the Battle of Evesham fighting with Simon de Montfort in 1265. The Castle was crenellated and moated in 1266, when it briefly changed hands before reverting to the Astleys. In 1338 Sir Thomas Astley founded a chantry in the adjacent parish church to pray for the family’s souls. In 1343 Thomas converted this to a college of priests and funded an extensive rebuilding programme of which only the chancel survives.
By 1420 the manor had passed through marriage to the Grey family and became entangled with the succession to the throne of England, thus earning its association with three queens of England.
The first Yorkist queen, Elizabeth Woodville, probably lived at Astley in the mid 15th century as Sir John Grey’s wife. Grey died fighting for the Lancastrians at the Battle of St Albans in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses. As a young widow Elizabeth caught the eye of Edward IV, the Yorkist claimant to the throne. She became his queen and bore him the ill-fated young princes who later died in the Tower. The second Astley queen was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, known as Elizabeth of York, who became wife of Henry VII.
Lady Jane Grey
It was under the Greys in the late 15th century that the Castle achieved its most mature form. However, after the death of Edward VI in July 1553, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk seized the initiative and placed his daughter, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Jane’s reign lasted just nine days, before Mary I’s superior claims prevailed. Both Jane and later her father were beheaded for treason – Lord Grey rebelled a second time in January 1554 and was captured in a hollow oak tree at Astley.
In 1600, the Castle was bought by Sir Edward Chamberlain. The Chamberlains restored the church and improved the Castle. During the Civil War in the 1640s, Astley became a garrison for Parliamentary soldiers. In 1674 Astley Castle was bought by the Newdigate family, who owned the neighbouring Arbury Estate, and the Castle became a subsidiary dwelling. In the 1770s, a Sir John Astley leased the Castle briefly and was responsible for the construction of the stables and coach house, together with his landlord, Sir Roger Newdigate 5th Bart, who was transforming Arbury Hall into the Gothick masterpiece we see today.
Inspiration for George Eliot
In the 19th century, Astley Castle became a dower house and was then let to a succession of tenants. It also inspired writer George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, who grew up on the Arbury Estate where her father was an agent. Astley is said to be the model for Knebley in Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life (1857). Eliot drew inspiration for several of her characters from those she grew up with.
An endangered site
Requisitioned during World War II for convalescing service men, a dilapidated Astley Castle was restored by the Tunnicliffes in the 1950s as a hotel. The Castle completed its slide from grace when it was gutted by a mysterious fire in 1978, just days after its lease had expired. Vandalism, unauthorised stripping out and collapse made its plight still worse. For many years, no solution could be found to give it a future and Astley Castle became a ruin. By 2007 English Heritage had listed it as one of the sixteen most endangered sites in Britain and a solution was urgently needed.
A Landmark for the 21st century
In the late 1990s, the Landmark Trust had tried to provide the site with a viable future through its usual solution of conventional restoration and conversion for holidays, but the site is so complex that such an approach proved impractical, both technically (there were no internal finishes or fixtures left to restore) and financially. In 2005, Landmark proposed a more radical solution: to reinstate occupancy of Astley Castle in a manner appropriate for the 21st century.
An architectural competition was held, the brief accepting that some parts of the Castle were now beyond restoration, but which sought to create good modern accommodation within the ancient ruins. The winning scheme, by architects Witherford Watson Mann, maintains the sense of life and living within the Castle, while making the most of the views both into and out of the site.
After careful recording, those parts of the building beyond pragmatic repair were taken down. The new-build introduced also consolidates and ties together what could be saved of the original fabric as unobtrusively as possible, leaving the Castle’s form in the landscape largely unchanged. There was further work on the wider setting, including repairs to the curtain walls and moat, and the 18th-century Gothick stable block. The historic parkland surrounding the moated site, much of which is a Scheduled Monument, has been opened up with public trails.
The Heritage Lottery Fund supported the restoration including an Access & Involvement Programme which enabled many people to learn about and help with the project. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers was active in site clearance and landscaping. Numerous schools visited and Astley Art Club was estblished with an artists in residence programme. Another competition was held to create a new knot garden, replacing a feature that had existed on the site in some form since the late 17th century. The new one echoes Astley’s ‘Three Queens.’ Astley Castle can finally face its future with confidence again, thanks too to all who will stay in it and so contribute towards its future maintenance.
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