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Things to do in Chartley Castle, Staffordshire

Chartley Castle
Chartley Castle © By Jeremy Weate [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is the story of Chartley, a prehistoric encampment since the dawn of Time.

The Very Beginning

The ground upon which it stands has yielded up Bronze Age weapons proving that, from the earliest of times, the instinct to get up on the high ground was considered to be a good thing.

Tribes came and went, as did the great Roman legions, and The Dark Ages set in with plenty of plunder, rape and pillage in whichever order one preferred.

What was undoubtedly not a good thing, for the site of Chartley, however, was the fact that the River Trent was a favourite drop-off point for Viking marauders, who, having laid Repton to fire and sword, wanted to test the mettle of the Chartley defenders.

Some splendidly unpleasant boggy land to the Northeast of the fort deterred Olaf and his boisterous blonde hooligans and Chartley was not taken.

View to Chartley Castle on horizon
View to Chartley Castle © Stephen Pearce [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By 1066, the land had passed to Aelgar, the Saxon. On a Sussex slope that September, Harold Godwinson clearly demonstrated that marching to Yorkshire, beating a Viking army to pulp and then turning around to try to do the same thing near Hastings five days later was, perhaps, a trifle optimistic.

William the Conqueror's standard bearer, Henry de Ferrers was awarded the Midland counties around Chartley for his good work, and Aelgar the Saxon learned much of the disadvantages of being on the losing side.

In 1090, Henry de Ferrers built a wooden Norman-style keep at Chartley, neatly placed between Stafford and Tutbury castles to keep a beady eye on any revolting peasants. Henry was created Earl of Chester.

He Who Ransacks Cities!

During the Crusades, the sixth Earl of Chester was one Ranulf de Blundeville who amassed a great fortune at Saladins expense. Ranulf de Blundeville, whose name means 'he who ransacks cities' had a great passion for building castles and he it was who built the stone motte and bailley castle, the remains of which stand on the hill to this day.

Chartley castle
Chartley Castle © stephen betteridge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ranulf died with twenty two castles to his name but not a single child and the estate reverted to the de Ferrers family.

De Ferrers Return

At this time (1199-1216) King John did not see eye to eye with the barons who believed that, while kings were alright in their place, once they got above themselves by demanding taxes, something ought to be done.

Robert de Ferrers, the great grandson of the one who came over from Normandy, owned Chartley at the time.

His idea of a day well spent was on the back of a snorting warhorse laying about him with a mace. He attacked the king's men at Worcester only to have his father's castle at Tutbury destroyed in retaliation. Robert later left Chartley undefended in 1263 and it was taken by the Prince of Wales.

Chartley Castle Ruins
Chartley Castle Ruins © stephen betteridge [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Robert however continued to wreak havoc until he was unhorsed at The Battle of Bolsover. He was placed in the Tower to cool off.

The following year Robert was out and leading another army. He re-took Chartley and marched on Chesterfield where on the 16th May 1266 it all went horribly wrong.

The Legend of Chartley Castle

He lost the battle and all his lands and created the dreaded legend of Chartley Castle.

Chartley has preserved a herd of extraordinary cattle directly descended from the primeval British wild ox or auroch. They are cream coloured with black noses and ears and black tips on their magnificent sweeping horns.

On the fateful day of May 16th 1266, as Robert was losing the battle of Chesterfield, a black calf was born at Chartley. It was said that, from that day, whenever a black calf was born in that heard it would portend evil tidings for the de Ferrers family.

Mere superstition, of course, but strange that just such a calf was born preceding the demise of the 7th Earl of Ferrers, the Countess de Ferrers, their son Viscount Tamworth and of their daughter, also preceding the death of the son and heir of the 8th Earl, his daughter, Lady Frances Shirley, and of his second wife.

The Chartley cattle derive from Needwood Forest which, in those days, joined on to Sherwood forest and there is tell that Robin Hood himself sought asylum at Chartley under the alias Robin of Loxley, the name of a village just down the road towards Uttoxeter.

Robin Hood

Tradition claims that Robin Hood was really the disinherited Earl of Huntingdon. This fits neatly into the scheme of things as it would make him the brother-in-law of Ranulf de Blundeville.

During The Hundred Years War, the de Ferrers family made up with the monarchy and excelled themselves, first at Crecy in 1346 and later, Edmund de Ferrers was with Henry V on the field of Axincourt (Agincourt) in 1415.

Castle Abandoned Forever

It was at this time that the family suddenly discovered that, actually, castles are drafty, uncomfortable places and a great new Chartley Hall, surrounded by a moat was completed in 1420. The castle was abandoned forever.

Edmund died leaving the new hall to his daughter Anne and her husband Walter Devereaux thereby opening a whole new chapter for Chartley.

Walter Devereaux took the title Lord Ferrers, 1st Baron of Chartley but, like Aelgar the Saxon, Walter learned drawbacks of being on the wrong side and was hacked to pieces at Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485 fighting for the hapless, hopeless and horseless Richard III.

Mary Queen of Scots

His grandson, also named Walter was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I for his dubious exploits against the Irish and was made Earl of Essex. He built a beautiful Tudor Hall over the house that Edmund built a century earlier. Here it starts to get complicated.

Essex married the Queen's cousin, Lettice Knollys (pronounced Knowles). Lettice was having a raging affair with one of the Queen's favourites, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Essex dies suddenly, probably poisoned, and Lettice and Dudley are straightway married.

Young Robert Devereaux, just 17 succeeds as the 2nd Earl of Essex in his father's stead and, via his new step-father has access to the Queen. Young Essex rapidly replaces Dudley in her affections.

In 1585, the Queen commanded that Mary, Queen of Scots, be moved from the austere Tutbury Castle to the comfort of Chartley. Young Essex, now 18, was appalled at the prospect realising the huge costs this would incur. He ordered all the bedding and furnishings to be removed and pleaded poverty.

Queen Elizabeth was keen to settle a personal score with Essex for his blatant indiscretions with other ladies at court.So it was that Mary Queen of Scots came to spend Christmas 1585 and the next nine months as an unwilling guest at Chartley.

Across the Chartley moat, empty ale casks concealed hidden notes from Mary to the Jesuit Francis Babington in a sinister plot to overthrow the government, kill Elizabeth and co-ordinate a full Spanish invasion from The Netherlands. All the time Wallsingham and his spies were intercepting them.

Babington and his followers were arrested with Babington himself receiving a particularly gruesome execution at Lincoln's Inn after throwing himself on Elizabeth's mercy.

The upside-down horse shoes by the front hall at Chartley commemorate the fact that when Mary was moved to Fotheringay to await execution, their horses were shod backwards to fool any supporters who might try to rescue her. She was beheaded on 8th February 1587.

A subsequent search of Chartley provided all the codes used in Mary's correspondence implicating her in every detail of the plot.

Essex then made the first of a series of fatal errors. He married a ward of Court without the Queen's permission. Elizabeth hated sharing her favourites with other women and posted Essex to Ireland on a disastrous campaign.

Recalled in disgrace he dared to attempt to raise a rebellion against the Queen. When this collapsed, Elizabeth had no option but to add her signature to his death warrant bringing to an abrupt end the colourful career of the 2nd Earl of Essex.

Oliver Cromwell and the Hidden Treasure

Robert Devereaux, 3rd Earl of Essex led the first Roundhead army against Charles I.

After his death the estate passed by marriage to Sir Robert Shirley, a pious man who rebuilt the local church but refused Cromwell's demand for money to build a ship.

He was imprisoned, something that so displeased him that he pledged his entire fortune to the Royalist cause. He was then taken to the Tower and tortured to death.

Cromwell's men searched Chartley brick by brick but never discovered where he had hidden his treasure. To this day the treasure lies buried and undiscovered in the Chartley grounds.

Unfortunate Earls

After the Restoration, Charles II added the title Lord Chartley in gratitude and Queen Anne added The Earldom of Ferrers to the Shirley line.

The 4th Earl of Ferrers was a bit strict with the servants and in a rage one night he murdered his steward. The Earl was tried by his peers in Westminster and went to his execution dressed in white silk and rode in his own white landau drawn by six white horses.

Another hapless Earl of Ferrers was sued in 1845 for breach of promise of marriage to a local girl named Mary Smith. The Earl's impassioned letters were read out to a shocked court in a scene straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury. The Earl was fined a monstrous £5000 - a fortune at the time. The letters were later discovered to be fakes!

Later Inhabitants

Two years later the house was badly destroyed by fire and was restored to the condition which remains today.

In 1907 the house passed out of the de Ferrers hands and was bought by Sir William Congreve whose father had won the VC at the Battle of Colenso during the Boer War.

William 'Billy' Congreve won the MC in 1915, in 1916 he was awarded the DSO for capturing 70 German prisoners. At the Somme, in 1917 his luck ran out and he was awarded the VC pothsumously for continued acts of gallantry. Both father and son awarded VC's.

In the 1930's Chartley was purchased by Alfred Johnson, the great uncle of David Johnson who became Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1998.

Should you visit Chartley you will find yourself standing on the same ground where ancient Britons hunted aurochs, Vikings came to plunder, feudal barons fought, royal visitors hatched treason, Cromwell's men rampaged and servants were murdered.

Chartley - two thousand years of history.

Description by Graham Dalby

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