Herstmonceux Castle

Shaped by centuries of history, the story of Herstmonceux Castle is a fascinating tale of ambition, intrigue, murder, abandonment, and renewal.

Domesday Book

Written in the Domesday Book—a manuscript record of the “Great Survey” of England and parts of Wales conducted in 1086 by order of King William the Conqueror—is an entry stating that one of William’s closest supporters granted tenancy of the manor at Herst to a man named ‘Wilbert’.

Later accounts mention a lady called Idonea de Herst, who married a Norman nobleman named Ingelram de Monceux.

It was at this time that the manor became known as “Herst of the Monceux”, eventually corrupted to Herstmonceux—pronounced “Herst-mon-soo”.

Medieval knights

In 1440 an English Knight by the name of Roger Fiennes petitioned King Henry VI for the right to fortify his manor house at Herstmonceux in East Sussex.

He had fought alongside Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and risen to prominence, amassing a considerable fortune.

It was time to build a castle worthy of his family’s status.

Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt
Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt

Herstmonceux Castle would become the largest private home in England.

One of the oldest significant brick buildings still standing in England, it followed the French fashion of building in brick—considered bold by British standards of the time.

Herstmonceux Castle. Credit Tom Lee, flickr
Herstmonceux Castle. Credit Tom Lee, flickr

The architects of Herstmonceux Castle focused more on grandeur and comfort than on defense.

Fifteenth-century visitors would have been overawed with its breathtaking interior.

Adorned with visible symbols of seigniory, Herstmonceux was a leading trophy house of the period, reflecting the richness and vigour of the Lancastrian court.

Herstmonceux Castle by Colin Goss on 500px.com
Herstmonceux Castle by Colin Goss on 500px.com

Tudor intrigue

The Fiennes family fortunes continued to rise until the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1548).

One golden rule of Tudor high society worth remembering was never to outdo the King or get on the wrong side of him.

But the Fiennes family managed to do just that.

Young Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron Dacre, the castle’s owner at the time, became implicated in the murder of a neighbour’s games keeper.

Tyburn tree

Henry VIII saw his opportunity to seize Herstmonceux Castle for himself.

Although originally pleaing not guilty, Lord Dacre changed to a guilty plea and threw himself at the King’s mercy in the hope of a reprieve.

But alas, the unfortunate Dacre was hanged at Tyburn on 29 June 1541.

English lawyer and Member of Parliament, Edward Hall, wrote of the execution in his chronicle about the strife between the houses of Lancaster and York:

he was led on foot, between the two sheriffs of London, from the Tower through the city to Tyburn, where he was strangled as common murderers are, and his body buried in the church of St. Sepulchre’s.

King Henry VIII historical portrait sculpture by artist-historian George Stuart. Credit Mary Harrsch, Lieven Smits

Fortunately for the rest of the Fiennes family,  their estate was reinstated in 1558 under Elizabeth I and they again prospered.

Georgian asset stripping

By 1777, the reckless extravagance of  successive Fiennes family heirs left the castle in a sorry state of repair.

Architect Samuel Wyatt undertook an assessment and pronounced that it wasn’t worth saving.

The furniture was sold off, the wood panelling removed, and the interior walls torn down.

Reduced to little more than an ivy-covered gothic curiosity, even some of the bricks were used for other building projects.

Engraving of Herstmonceux Castle, 1845
Engraving of Herstmonceux Castle, 1845

Victorian tourism

The opening of the railways spurred massive growth for the new tourism trade, turning Herstmonceux Castle into a popular attraction.

Strolling through the gardens, climbing amongst the ruins, or enjoying a cup of tea, Victorians would visit Herstmonceux whilst holidaying in nearby Eastbourne and Brighton resort towns..

But the castle continued to deteriorate and by the early 1900s was in serious need of attention.

Hurstmonceux Castle, 1895
Herstmonceux Castle, 1895

Edwardian restoration

Transforming the ruined building into a residence took 20 years, beginning in 1913.

Undertaken initially by Claude Lowther, a conservative politician, and later by architect Walter Godfrey, it was refurnished and stocked with objets d’art.

Incorporating architectural antiques from England and France, the existing interiors largely date to the Edwardian period.

The apex of Godfrey’s architectural achievement, the restoration was described by the critic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘exemplarily’.

Herstmonceux Castle by Terry on 500px.com
Herstmonceux Castle by Terry on 500px.com

The parks and gardens of Herstmonceux Castle and Place together with the walled garden to the north of the castle, and the Herstmonceux Science Centre are all Grade II* listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

Having extra legal protection within the planning system, listed buildings are of national importance.

There are three types of listed status for buildings in England and Wales:

Grade I: buildings of exceptional interest.
Grade II*: particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
Grade II: buildings that are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them

Herstmonceux Castle's garden by Bela Paszti on 500px.com
Herstmonceux Castle’s garden by Bela Paszti on 500px.com
The Gatehouse, Herstmonceux Castle. Credit Poliphilo
The Gatehouse, Herstmonceux Castle. Credit Poliphilo

Heavenly bodies

For over 30 years, beginning in 1957, the Herstmonceux grounds were home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory until it was moved to Cambridge in 1988.

Housing the Equatorial Telescope Buildings, the estate now plays host to an interactive science centre for schoolchildren, the largest dome of which can be seen for miles.

Herstmonceux Observatory. Credit Lee Roberts, flickr
Herstmonceux Observatory. Credit Lee Roberts, flickr

Today’s Herstmonceux

Learning of the castle’s vacancy in 1992, Alfred Bader, an alumnus of Queen’s University, Ontario, offered to purchase the castle for his wife, who declined, joking that there would be “too many rooms to clean”.

But he managed to convince then-Principal of Queen’s University, David Chadwick Smith, to make Herstmonceux Castle into an international study centre.

Giant sundial at Herstmonceux Castle
Giant sundial at Herstmonceux Castle
Interior corridor, Herstomonceux Castle. Credit 6mat1
Interior corridor, Herstomonceux Castle. Credit 6mat1
Herstmonceux Rose Garden
Herstmonceux Rose Garden
Herstmonceux Castle, Dining Hall. Credit 6mat1
Herstmonceux Castle, Dining Hall. Credit 6mat1
Herstmonceux Elizabethan Garden
Herstmonceux Elizabethan Garden

Home to events throughout the year, the annual England’s Medieval Festival is held on August Bank Holiday weekend.

Held over three days, the festival features jousting, falconry, knights battles, medieval camping, traditional and modern folk music, medieval banqueting, re-enactments, battles, horses, theatre, crafts, workshops, shopping, medieval food, drink and real ale.

Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton
Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton
Preparing for battle. Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton, flickr
Preparing for battle. Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton, flickr
Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton, flickr
Herstmonceux Medieval Festival. Credit Vicki Burton, flickr

Daily Rates Gardens & Grounds Castle Tours Gardens & Grounds + Science Centre
Adults £6.00 £2.50 £13.00
Children Under 16
Students £3.00 £1.00 £8.50
Children Under 5
Carers Free Free Free
Concession:
Senior Citizens
Disabled £5.00 £2.50 £10.50
Family Ticket (2 adults + 3 children or 1 adult + 4 children) £14.00 N/A £40.00

Where to stay

2.1 miles from Herstmonceux Castle, the Horseshoe Inn offers traditional Tudor-style accommodations that include breakfast and free parking.

Some rooms have beamed ceilings and 4-poster beds with en suite bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, satellite TV, and tea/coffeemaking facilities.

Classic British dishes and real ales are served in the old-world pub.

The Horseshoe Inn Herstmonceux
The Horseshoe Inn Herstmonceux

A 16th-century former coaching inn, the Lamb Inn at Wartling is only 1.3 miles from Herstmonceux Castle and offers stylish en-suite rooms and a restaurant priding itself on using local seasonal ingredients.

Owned and run by BBC antiques expert James Braxton and his sons Charlie and Ned.

Lamb Inn at Wartling, East Sussex
Lamb Inn at Wartling, East Sussex

Less than hald a mile from Herstmonceux Castle, Cleavers Lyng is a luxurious country house dating from 1577.

Individually styled with features including balconies, ceiling beams, original fireplaces or antiques, the classy rooms have flat-screen TV, free wifi and tea/coffeemaking facilities.

This photo of Cleavers Lyng is courtesy of TripAdvisor
This photo of Cleavers Lyng is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Complimentary English breakfast featuring local and home-grown produce is served in a wood-beamed dining room with inglenook fireplace.

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