Sherborne Old Castle

Issue 47: October 1987

‘I’m one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit’ admitted Marie Lloyd in one of her music-hall songs. She died in 1922, long before English Heritage was born of the Department of the Environment, or perhaps she would be preserved as England’s most popular music-hall entertainer and we could pay 50p to view her and judge for ourselves whether ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’.

Sherborne Old Castle

Young courting couples, unaware of Marie Lloyd, are happy enough to pay 50p each for the pleasure of prostrating themselves within the walls of Sherborne Old Castle. An English Heritage sign instructs ‘please keep children under control’ but draws the line at defining decorum for lovers.

This is a romantic place, after all; the open spaces around the central ruins cannot prevent images of past events tumbling through the mind. SIR Walter Raleigh smoked England’s first pipe in the grounds of the castle. So they say and who is to argue? Henstridge people?

They maintain that Sir Walter alighted from his horse and Henstridge cross on the A30, discovered a pipe and baccy about his person and there and then introduced the art and pleasure of smoking to an astonished audience. Thereafter the spot was known as Virginia (After the baccy) Ash (after he tapped out his pipe on a hoof of his horse, although a fine old ash tree which stood there for centuries tends to cloud the issue).

Raleigh travelled this road on his journeys between London and the ports of Devon. He set his heart on acquiring Sherborne castle and in 1592 Queen Elizabeth granted her favourite his wish. He immediately set to repairing it and adding new windows but suddenly changed his mind and decided to build a new house on the site of an old hunting lodge to the south of the castle. A very fine house it became; originally it was known as Sherborne Lodge, but as succeeding owners added wings and fineries and made it very grand indeed, it was felt more fitting to name the house Sherborne Castle. SO the real castle that Cromwell later knocked about a bit has even lost its name; Sherborne New Castle would hardly suit m’lords and ladies of the lodge, so Sherborne Old Castle was the name insolently thrust upon the ruins.

The castle and much land around Sherborne was granted to Raleigh but he was to lose it all, and his head too. Ownership of the castle included inheritance of the curse of the Normal prelate, a curse extended to all owners outside the church.

The site was first a Saxon stronghold which William the Conqueror bestowed upon the prelate, and the castle was built by Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury, early in the 12th century. The prelate’s curse worked its way through the centuries: the Montacutes, after a chequered career, died abroad; the Duke of Somerset was arrested at the Castle and removed to the Tower of London, which he left only for the scaffold on Tower Hill; Sir Walter Raleigh was to fall foul of the jealousy of King James; and the infamous Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, who helped his promiscuous lover to poison the man who declared she might do for a mistress but not for a wife, lived out his life shamed and shunned.

AS we stand in the castle grounds we can use these few fragments of historical record to conjure up the past. Knights returning, their horses blowing, into the courtyard to be met by tradesmen at the anvil and forge, servants with beer and wine. Assignations in turret rooms; the smell of roast pig or lamb from kitchens; the clatter of hooves on stone, of hammer on sword. Of pewter pots and pans on thich oak tables.

The historian Leland passed this way in 1545: ‘The castelle of Shirburne is in the east end of the toun, upon a rokky hillet. There be four great towres in the castelle walle, whereof one is the gate house. Every one of them hath three lodgginges yn hight. The great lodging is yn the middle of the castelle court, very strong, and full of voultes. There be few peaces of work yn England of the antiquitie of this that standith so whole and so well couchid’.

Or cast on exactly 100 years, to 1645, the the second siege of Sherborne castle in the Civil War. On 15th August, after 16 days, Fairfax and his men stormed the garrison with flares, shot, sword and connon ball, Mendeip miners having undermined the walls. Of Royalists captured we could name three noblemen, three colonels and three members of Parliament, and captured with them were commisioners of array, 9 captains, 11 lieutenants, 3 cornets, 5 colours, 55 gebtlemen of Wilts & Dorset, 10 clergymen, 600 rank and file, 1,400 stand of arms, 30 horses, 18 pieces of ordnance, a mortar, a murtherer and 60 barrels of gunpowder.

Cromwell’s Puritans were not above benefit from booty: the last following day their loot was auctioned in Sherborne. Every man captured was ‘stript’, except the Commissioner of the Castle, Sir Lewis Dyves, and his wife.

Among the clergymen was the rector of Wareham, William Wake, ‘a merry true-hearted parson’. The Puritans had seized his property and turned his wife and family out of their house; finding him amongst the Sherborne garrison they now stripped him naked and paraded him through the streets of the town. On 21 August Parliament ordered the ‘slight’ of Sherborne castle. The following October this order was carried out. It was shattered by gunpowder. Fallen stone was used to build Castleton church and new wings on Sherborne Lodge.

TODAY. The gatehouse, parts of the walls and ruins keep and ‘great lodgging’ remain. Plus extras. English Heritage fills the castle with useful things. Two large black huts, padlocked; rusted wire fencing, a dumper-tipper; empty Dulux paint cans and empty red fire buckets containing empty crisp packets. Full black plastic rubbish bags, ample stores of sawn wood, sand and cement – and – an abandoned stainless steel sink.

Rarely used scaffold towers disfigure the ruins, but these are merely another test of our imagination as we strive to render them invisible.

And before the gatehouse entrance, there is the English Heritage hut full of pamphlets, booklets, charts, badges and a lady to take your 50 pence except between 1pm and 2pm when she takes her lunch. Please do not expect drinks, foodstuffs or toilets. Not yet. Toilets have been erected it is true, for a year or more, but they are not plumbed in – English Heritage prefers to spend millions on Stonehenge and other great archaeological sites and has little to spare for Sherborne Old Castle.

The town council is concerned about the unconnected toilets (all town councils are concerned with toilets) but it is not prepared to actually do anything about them. The town council and English Heritage share a concept: attract the tourists by maintaining the nations heritage, but leave it at that. Can you imagine the council response to the request of an ice cream/cold drinks retailer to set up stall in front of Sherborne Abbey? On hot summer Sunday afternoons a cold drink is precisely what tourists want, as Wells Cathedral discovered to its profit – but Sherborne is not Wells.

Nor are the grounds of Sherborne Old Castle at all like Sherborne town. The town’s narrow grey stone streets are claustrophobic, introspective, authoritarian; the castle grounds offer unsophisticated freedom. Now is the best of seasons to visit the castle.

Other visitors will be few in October and if you pick a day of wind and rain, so much easier will be the mind’s transition to the time of the Civil War and earlier, to days before the invention of the waterproof capes, window glass for plain rooms, lighting, and instant hot water for teapot or bath.

In such weather even courting couples will be elsewhere.