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.