The above was my first view of Stokesay Castle, but the first time I saw it I was on a road trip with a friend, sometime in 2015, and we were on a castle budget (that is, a timetable of approved castles in a time limit – the nearby Wigmore Castle, and then Ludlow, were actually where we were heading). So we jumped out of the rental and had a brief gander at the exterior. Suffice to say, obviously I would return.
And I did, in August 2017. Much like the time when I wrote a futuristic SF script based in York, before I’d ever been there, just on the basis I knew it was the right place, Stokesay already served as my setting for Rowan Manor in the HWIP, and the home of Sir Christopher d’Avenal and his wife, Elizabeth even before I set foot in it. It is a modest building when compared to great baronial castles such as Ludlow – or the gobsmacking Goodrich Castle well south of there on the Welsh border – and, technically, it is actually a fortified manor house, not a castle.
There is no keep – the tall building is actually just a tower, and there is no outer bailey or perimeter wall. The castle’s border is represented by its dry moat, which may once have had water, it is unclear, and the current low walls of the courtyard giving a clear view of the fine 17th century gatehouse, were much higher, and there were battlements the whole way round. What was there before the current gatehouse is also unclear, but there would have been some kind of protected and defensible entrance.
The gatehouse itself is worth an extended look–it is ornately carved blackened wood, which depicts some interesting and ghoulish creatures and people.
One of the finest parts of the building, however, and likely what attracts many visitors, in the preserved 13th century great hall, which gives a clear sense of a medieval space used in every wealthy and important household. The great hall at Ludlow is not much bigger than the one at Stokesay, and considering the size of both castles, that is saying something.
It retains its extraordinary wooden cruck roof (the wood across the castle has been dated to the 1280s, and linked to the same 24 oak trees) and its glorious windows, which would have flooded the room with light during the day, surely saving much fuel as well as blaring out the owner’s wealth and taste. There is still a good amount of plaster on the walls too, reminding us that these stone rooms we associate with that era were decorated over just as we would do today with large, potentially cold rooms.
What’s great about this hall, is it is so fine it gives an idea of what all the non-extant great halls very possibly looked like, and felt like, in their heydays.
On the floor (bottom right) the location of the hall’s fire can be seen by the stone circle – into the 14th century open fires were lit in front of the dais where the lord and his family sat. Later decades saw huge fireplaces constructed, like the double-flued one of Ludlow and other fine palaces. At the end of the hall would have been a screen, separating the activity of the kitchen and scullery servants from the rest of the hall.
Sir Christopher of my HWIP is the youngest son of a lord, and a great hall this size also gives an idea of how many servants Stokesay would have borne – in this case, approximately 25. For the knighted youngest son of a baron, this is a respectable and admirable standard of living – if there were many sons between you and your eldest brother, you would be of little consequence, and to be honest, gain a bit more freedom than you might have had. The reason for Christopher’s good fortune I shall, currently, keep to myself… He does, however, live at Rowan Manor with his wife, and four children, and with the amount of rooms at Stokesay, luckily I didn’t have to invent any.
My HWIC heroine, Philippa, visits Stokesay to see the Lady of the Manor, Elizabeth, whose friendship she has gained, but the circumstances are not ideal. The below room is the one chosen as Christopher and Elizabeth’s bedchamber. It is the room that sits behind the timbered walls of the castle, which makes Stokesay famous.
As you can see there is no external stone walling by the windows – the room is built almost entirely of wood. The fireplace rests against the wall that splits this tower from the Great Hall, and its flue disappears through the roof, though the plaster hood is gone. It is 13th century, and so we know that this particular room was in use since the castle’s inception, exactly what for I’m not sure is known. It is bright and huge, and comfortably cool in summer, and though I can’t comment for the winter, I’d expect that fire had a good run at keeping the occupants warm.
It may well have been Laurence of Ludlow (weirdly enough, who didn’t own Ludlow Castle) himself who slept here, and it is a fine a room as any in the castle, as well as being private, bright, and convenient for getting to meals. As a greeting room for personal visitors I doubt anyone would have been disappointed. The castle also has a private solar block on the other side of the Hall, which was restructured in the 19th century, but retains many medieval features.
Finally, the South Tower, the commanding feature of the castle, is too a spacious and comfortable environment. It has three levels, one of which is a basement, and wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. The fireplace on each level is a later addition, but the medieval flues show that there were original structures prior. Ample seating and lighting, and also a privy situated behind the wall of the window next to the fireplace on each level, meant that even if these rooms were used only by guests, those guests would have likely been impressed with the space and size of their accommodation, and private loos.
Stokesay has the advantage over many other castles and ancient buildings, of being majorly intact. I can get a kick out of the smallest of rocks in the ground that used to be a castle, but it’s rare to find such an intact and unlived in building in this day and age, that gives so much insight into medieval life. It’s in the perfect state of being, in my humble opinion. And remember, privies and steps are what bind us as human beings.