Family Days Out: Farleigh Hungerford Castle
In less than an hours drive from Ramsbury you’ll find the romantic ruins of Farleigh Hungerford castle. The castle stands just to the south of Bath in the rolling Somerset hills. The castle was first built around 1380 by Sir Thomas Hungerford, a speaker of the House of Commons and a self-made man. His family continued to own it and occupy it for the next 300 years and the history of their affairs is a colourful one.
Visitors can view the restored outer walls, and the remains of the inner walls and towers which enclosed the inner court. The remains of the “Lady Tower” give a good impression of the scale and complexity of the 14th century castle. You can learn about the naughty children who burnt it down!
The grand domestic buildings included the Great Hall (the principal public and entertaining quarter of the house) and the substantial kitchens. The former parish church was incorporated into the castle as its chapel and contains impressive tombs, stained glass and murals commemorating various members of the Hungerford family. There is a large wall painting of Saint George and the dragon, supposedly copied from a lost original statue at Windsor Castle and an atmospheric crypt with rare lead coffins, from which Victorians once sampled the gooey embalming fluid using a straw! The Priests House next to the chapel contains an exhibition on the Castle, as well as archeological finds and armour.
The castle makes for an interesting afternoon out and there is a free audioguide provided with admission. This tells the story of the Hungerford family while helping you explore the ruins of the castle.
After Thomas Hungerford, the castle belonged to his son, Walter, who also enjoyed a distinguished career as a soldier and courtier and in 1426 was created Lord Hungerford and Treasurer of England. The “twin-tomb” of Walter and his wife, with brass effigies, can be seen today in Salisbury Cathedral. Thomas’ brother, Lord Robert, lies in the same cathedral, to which he added the Hungerford Chapel, with the family coat-of-arms and “Knight of the Garter” inscription in relief upon the walls.
The family’s fortunes took a turn for the worse during the Wars of the Roses when Walter’s grandson and great grandson were both executed by the Yorkists having side with the Lancastrian cause, and their estates were seized by the Crown. However, the family was restored to its property by Henry VII in 1486.
Further scandal beset the Hungerfords in the 16th century when Lady Agnes, wife of Sir Edward Hungerford, was hanged at Tyburn in 1523 for murdering her former husband and disposing of his body in the castle ovens. Edward’s son, another Walter, was then accused of imprisoning and trying to poison his third wife in a tower of the castle (now known as the Lady Tower). He was beheaded at the Tower of London for treason and ‘unnatural vice’. Finally, Edward’s grandson accused his second wife of adultery and attempted poisoning and, when his case was dismissed, chose to go to prison rather than pay her legal costs.
During the Civil War, the Hungerford family found itself divided with some members supporting King Charles and others the rival interest of Parliament. The head of the family at the time, another Edward, was an active though undistinguished Parliamentarian commander in the south west. However, his half-brothers Anthony and John supported the King and John garrisoned the castle for the Royalists in 1644 until Sir Edward personally received its peaceful surrender in 1645, following the fall of Bristol to Parliament. Sir Edward used the castle as a residence until his death in 1648 and is buried in the chapel. Anthony then inherited the castle and made his peace with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector.
In due course, the castle and its estates passed to another Sir Edward Hungerford, known as ‘the Spendthrift’, who led an extravagant life at the court of the restored King Charles Il and in 1686 had to sell the castle for the vast sum of £156,000 to pay his debts.
The Hungerford surname has spread throughout the world but primarily to America, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. We took a look at the visitors book at Farleigh Hungerford Castle and spotted entries from America, and Sydney as well as Queensland Australia.
Captain Thomas Hungerford settled in west Cork in the later seventeenth century. The Australian Hungerfords descend from Emanuel Hungerford (1785-1872). The Hungerford line in North America descends from one Thomas Hungerford of Cork who emigrated to the New World around 1639, but his links to the family are considered vague.