Ampthill Castle

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Ampthill Castle: Long gone but not forgotten!

“Where is that castle now, whose thick-ribbed walls

The foe’s assault so oft unshaken bore ?—

Its battlements are swept away, its halls

Are sunk, — its very ruins are no more !

Extract from Henry Luttrell ‘Ampthill Park: A Poem’ (1819)

Despite it being several hundred years since even the ruins of the Castle were visible, its presence has remained an integral part of the town’s history. In 1992 the castle received the national recognition it deserved when it was added to the list of scheduled ancient monuments. This means the castle site has been recognised as being of national importance, particularly due to its connections with important and influential people. While some aspects of the Castle’s history are well known, others await confirmation and there is still much that awaits discovery.

Early in the 15th century Sir John Cornwall (later Lord Fanhope) built the castle and created the Great Park. He was an important man who became a Knight of the Garter in April 1409 and was married to Princess Elizabeth of Lancaster (sister of Henry IV and aunt of Henry V). Sir John distinguished himself in the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and it is believed that the construction of the Castle was financed from ransoms received from French prisoners captured during the battle. Following Sir John’s death in 1443 the castle appears to have been purchased by Ralph, Lord Cromwell (treasurer to Henry VI) another Agincourt veteran. However in 1452 a legal dispute arose when the Castle was seized by Henry Holland, Duke of Exeter, a step-son of Sir John. When Lord Cromwell regained his property two years later he sold it to Edmund Grey, Lord Grey of Ruthin, in whose family it appears to have remained until 1524.

In this year Henry VIII became the new owner and the castle became a royal palace, with Henry and his entourage making regular visits. Ampthill was renowned for its healthy clean air and of course had an excellent deer park. During his lifetime Henry organised the construction of new apartments and made many other improvements. The castle was obviously well appointed as the king had at least two close-stools with backs and flushing cisterns! A close stool was a pewter chamber pot set in an elaborate boxed seat and was a great improvement upon the usual garderobe built into the outside wall.

In 1532 Henry brought Anne Boleyne here, and she appears to have made a favourable impression on the French Ambassador who hunted with her from the partially glazed stands within the Great Park. It was also in the Castle that Katherine of Aragon received the news in May 1533 that a special court meeting at Dunstable Priory had annulled her marriage to Henry. This process has been claimed to be ‘one of the most crucial events of English History’. This aspect will be covered in David Starkey’s new series on the wives of Henry VIII begins on September 13th with Katherine of Aragon.

The Castle fell out of favour with Henry’s successors and by 1605 it was ruinous and certainly following ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping of Ampthill Park in the 1770s, nothing above ground was left visible. There have long been stories of parts of the building being used by townspeople in their houses or to line driveways, who knows perhaps there’s part of the Castle in your house? Today the site is marked by the gothic Katherine’s Cross, giving visitors a small clue as to the history beneath their feet. Sadly no illustrations of this fine building have come to light, however several plans purporting to be Ampthill Castle have. Unfortunately they are all different! To date the only contemporary description is that of John Leland, who travelled the country between 1535 and 1543. However this isn’t sufficient to build up a clear picture of what the castle was like.

“…Lorde Fanhope builded this castelle as it is now stonding stately on an hille, with a 4. or 5. faire towers of stone in the inner warde, beside the basse-court, of such spoils as it is saide that he wanne in Fraunce”

Originally published in Around the Pump, September 2001

   
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