In the Domesday survey of Leicestershire, carried out in 1086, it is recorded that Hugh de Grentmeisnil held the manor of Ascebi, with one Ivo, who held one or two other manors in the vicinity as his subtenant. At that date there were living on the manor a priest and twenty socmen bordars and villeins [see the Glossary for a definition of socmen etc] This entry is the first indication of the existence of a settlement at Ashby- unless the termination- by the name is held to be sufficient evidence of Danish occupation. Grentmeisnil, who had accompanied William The Conqueror to England in 1066, had received at the subsequent distribution of confiscated Saxon lands over seventy manors, by far the largest single holding in the country. Ivo was a relatively minor figure, holding an unimportant fragment of a large estate, and in early medieval times Ashby seems to have had no defensive structure at all. There was no doubt a simple manor house somewhere near the castle site, surrounded by a fence. The site had little strategic value, and although possessing no natural defences, it does not appear ever to have been surrounded by a moat. In or about 1100, Robert de Beaumont, Count de Meulan, acquired the whole vast estate of Hugh de Grentmeisnil, becoming thereby the most powerful magnate in the country, and , being already a count, was shortly afterwards styled Earl of Leicester( earldoms with English titles were then very few). About the same time Ivo's subtenancy passed to one Robert Belmeis who may have been his blood heir, or may have benefited from the redistribution. This family flourished under the patronage of the Montgomery's in Shropshire and produced two Bishops of London, uncle and nephew, called Richard Belmeis. Richard and another nephew, Philip, founded the Arrousian Abbey of Lilleshall in Shropshire, in the 1140's, and Philip Belmeis, who inherited the whole of Ashby, gave the church to the Abbey. The Belmeis evidently held Ashby in chief ( directly from the crown); their status was by then much higher than Ivo's and their interests were much wider. For the centre of a Lordship of this increased importance it was apparently felt that a larger and more substantial house was required. Certainly the 'broad and narrow' masonry of squared rubble with wide joints, visible in the walls of hall and buttery, suggests that soon after 1150 stone buildings began to replace the timber structures of the early Norman Manor House. After the death of Philip Belmeis in about 1160, without male heirs, the manor passed with his daughters hand to Alan la Zouch, a Breton nobleman, descended from the Earls of Brittainy and Rohan. Alan was a considerable land owner in Brittainy, in addition to his holdings in this country. During the next two generations, the family acquired, in exchange for their Breton estates, lands in four other counties, principally Cambridgeshire. Their title to these lands is confirmed in Patent Roll entries for 4 March, 24 May and 15 August 1217. By the end of the twelfth century the Zouches had completed a hall and solar of stone on the site of the present hall and buttery. These were both two storeyed buildings, of which first floor was reached by means of external staircases, probably on the site of the porches to the present hall. The kitchen may then have been on the ground floor of the solar block or in a detached wooden building.


For a century or more after this there is little evidence of building, although the family continued to increase in importance. Entries in the close rolls for this period show that Roger la Zouch (1199-1238) spent much of his time abroad in the Kings service. Alan, who succeeded him, added to the family lands some estates in Shropshire and Devon, and successively held a number of important posts- Justice of Chester and of the four Cantreds, Justice of Ireland, and Constable of the Tower of London. There is also evidence of the growth of the town at this period, for in 1230 another entry in the Close rolls shows that the market was held there. It is of course from its connection with this family that Ashby acquired the suffix ' de la Zouch.' Which is absent from the earliest references to that place. In 1314 the elder branch of the family died out, and the Manor passed to Sir William Mortimer, of Richards Castle in Shropshire, who assumed the name la Zouch and was created Baron Zouch of Ashby in 1323. Soon after this change of ownership it was evidently felt that the existing buildings were inadequate, for it is apparent that considerable alterations took place at this period. An entry in the "inquisitions post mortem", on the death of Williams son, Alan la Zouch, in 1347 throws some light on the condition of the castle at that time. 'Within the dwelling house ( mansum) of the manor a ruinous old hall, a new chamber not yet roofed, to be removed so that the soil there may remain in the possession of the lord, and the said chamber to be rebuilt elsewhere on the soil of the said Eleanor, a long house called 'the bakery' 'brewhouse and kitchen' with an oast house in the same, and a well near the said house....' The meaning of this entry is somewhat obscure, but it is clear that not only had the hall become inadequate for its purpose, but also that it had been allowed to fall into disrepair. In the next few years it was completely rebuilt, only the outer walls of the old structure being retained. The scale of the building was made more impressive by redesigning it as a single storeyed hall, with its floor at the present ground level; entrance was by means of the existing screens passage at the west end of the hall. At the same time the arrangement of hall and solar was reversed: a new solar was erected at the east end of the hall, and the existing solar at the west end was adapted to serve as buttery and pantry. The fine kitchen building was added in the latter years of the fourteenth century.


During the second half of the fourteenth century little is known of the Lords of the manor. This is surprising, because the two Zouches whose lives covered this period must have been men of substance

and some importance, otherwise they could not have undertaken the extensive building programme just described. With the death without male heirs of Hugh la Zouch in 1399 this branch of the family became extinct, and during the next sixty years Ashby changed hands several times, ultimately coming into the possession of James Butler, Earl of Ormonde. Butler supported the Lancastrian cause in the Wars of the Roses and was beheaded after his capture at the battle of Towton in 1461; as a traitor, his estates, including Ashby, reverted to the crown. During this unsettled period no great building activity was to be expected, and apparently the only new work was an extension of the solar, which brought it to its present size. In October 1464, however, EdwardIV granted the manor to his Lord Chamberlain, William, Lord Hastings, and a new chapter in the history of Ashby opens. The career of Lord Hastings provides a good illustration of the rapid changes in fortune which were a feature of political life in fifteenth century England. Although descended from one of William The Conquerors followers, his family had not risen above an insignificant place among the Leicestershire gentry. Hastings himself, however, had the shrewdness or luck to throw in his fortunes with the winning side in the Wars of the Roses, and soon became the favourite companion of the Yorkist claimant to the throne, the future Edward IV. His reward came after the defeat of the Lancastrians at Towton; he was given lands, such as Ashby, and offices, such as that of Lord Chamberlain, but it was above all his value as a diplomat that raised him to such eminence at the Yorkist Court. His ambitions evidently included a desire to build on a scale worthy of his position; for in 1474 he obtained licences to erect fortified houses on his possessions at Ashby, Kirby Muxloe and Bagworth. At Kirby Muxloe, the seat of the Hastings family since the Norman settlement, he began to build a completely new structure, the symmetrically planned moated brick fortress, which can be seen there today. At Ashby, he added several new buildings to the existing manor house, of which the most important was The Hastings Tower.


Although little more than half the tower is still standing, it is by far the most impressive of the remains of the castle. It was built on a scale and with an elaboration of decoration previously unknown at Ashby. Also it illustrates the trend in the development of military architecture in the fifteenth century. During the previous 250 years the Norman idea of a strong keep, suited only to passive defence, had gradually given way to a system in which the principal line of defence was the curtain wall of the castle; this was strongly fortified with projecting towers at intervals. Ultimately these towers became self contained defensive units, while the weakest point in the curtain wall, the entrance, was provided with a gatehouse of exceptional strength. The most elaborate development of this system of defence was reached with the series of castles built by Edward I in the course of his conquest in North Wales: in some of these castles, notably Beaumaris, in Anglesey, the configuration of the ground allowed that the fortifications should take the form of two concentric wards, each with two gatehouses, and arranged so that the outer ward walls were commanded from the battlements of the higher and inner walls. After the developments in warfare soon made the Edwardian Castle obsolete. Although it was many years before the new invention of artillery became effective enough to menace the security of stone walls, changes in military organisation presented a more serious threat. Strongholds, which could survive sieges by the feudal levies ( enrolled men) and short term paid armies of Edward I's period, would inevitably be starved into surrender by the professional armies and the onslaught of the new artillery which were characteristic of fifteenth- century warfare. These new developments brought their own problems. The limited accommodation of the earlier castles, which was adequate when the peace time occupants were the Lord, his family and household, could not take in addition the permanent band of soldiers; nor was the lord prepared to live, with these hirelings, the communal life of the old feudal household. In many cases the problem was solved by providing accommodation for himself and his family in the upper storeys of the strongly fortified gatehouse; the gatehouse of Tonbridge Castle, erected about 1300, is an early example of this combination of living quarters with one of the principal defensive features of the castle. This gatehouse accommodation, however, lacked in comfort what it had gained in privacy and security, and was superseded by the imposing tower houses which are a feature of many English castles, that at Tattershall being perhaps the best known. Experience of the habits of the mercenaries also showed that separate accommodation was necessary for safety as well as privacy, and these towers were built of sufficient strength to resist attacks from disaffected elements in the garrison. In addition to these utilitarian considerations they reflect, both in their size and in their elaborate internal decoration, the ostentatious pride of the 'overmighty subject' who was the scourge of England during the Wars of the Roses. Hastings Tower illustrates admirably all these features which made the tower house fashionable in the fifteenth century. It was evidently intended to make a considerable addition to the total accommodation of the castle; for it was planned as to avoid the necessity for pulling down existing buildings during its construction, finally, a number of points show the importance attached to considerations of security. The tower has unusually thick walls on the ground floor, an absence of windows on the ground floor, and is entered from the south courtyard by a single small doorway, protected by a portcullis. Furthermore, despite the existence of two wells in the courtyard immediately adjacent to the tower, it was thought necessary to sink a well in the north wall, thus providing the occupants with an independent water supply.


Although the tower was his principal addition to the castle, Hastings was also responsible for the erection of the present chapel, with a small courtyard of domestic buildings which stood to the south of it. The layout of these buildings indicates that they were constructed a few years earlier than the tower, although the masonry and detail of the mouldings are similar. The size and splendour of the chapel is significant, for while large detached chapels are not uncommon in medieval English Castles they almost always serve a college of Priests, or as parish churches, in addition to their function as the private chapel of the castle. At Ashby there is no record of a collegiate establishment, while the present Parish church of St Helen is contemporary with the chapel; the only possible motive is some of that desire for the showy and the grandiose which played a part in the erection of the tower. Of the courtyard south of the chapel there remains only the much-ruined range of buildings, sometimes know as the Priests rooms, which formed its east side. The range forming the west side has disappeared, but its former existence is indicated by foundations and by the groove of its pitched roof, which can still be seen on the wall of the staircase turret at the southwest corner of the chapel. The south side, which probably consisted of wooden lean to buildings, has also disappeared; this range stood on the site of some earlier stone buildings of unknown date or purpose. After the construction of Hastings Tower this courtyard was enlarged by the completion of a range of buildings joining the tower to the kitchen. The formation of this court, dictated no doubt by the pressing need for more accommodation, marks a new development in the plan of the castle. Hitherto new building has been confined roughly to the line of the south side of the original court of the manor house. The exact limits of this court are a matter for conjecture, but its north wall was probably on the line of the modern north wall of the manor house grounds, in which can be seen a fragment of masonry, with a plinth, and the line of the west wall is shown where it is bonded into the north wall of the kitchen building. The main entrance must have been in the north wall, probably opposite the end of South Street, and the principal buildings lay along the south side. Now, however, with the formation of this new court and the construction of the Hastings Tower, the emphasis was switched to the other side of these principal buildings. Thus Ashby became a two-court manor house, the original courtyard forming a forecourt; the new main court lay to the south and was reached by the screens passage at the west end of the hall or by the passage between the kitchen and the buttery. This arrangement of the inner and outer courts is a common one in the fortified dwelling house of the later Middle Ages; the Derbyshire houses of Haddon and Wingfield are other examples.


Hastings did not live to enjoy the fruits of this activity for long- in June 1483 he was beheaded by Richard III. The lands and title, however, remained with the family and his son consolidated his position by supporting the winning cause two years later at the Battle of Bosworth Field. During the next century and a half the Hastings family prospered. In 1529 the grandson of the first Baron was created Earl of Huntingdon, while the third earl was Lord President of the Council of the North under Elizabeth I. During this period, for the first time, the history of Ashby becomes reasonably well recorded, revealing a number of events of more than local interest. Its royal visitors included Henry VII in 1503, Anne Of Denmark and Prince Henry in 1603, James I in 1614 and 1617, and Charles I and his Queen in 1634. A less willing visitor was Mary Queen of Scots, who on two occasions passed a night there, in 1569 and 1586. For the first time also it becomes possible to form an idea of the pattern of life in the castle. This was evidently luxurious; for in 1609 it is recorded that the household numbered no fewer than sixty eight persons, and the cost of running the establishment for the year came to the sum, enormous at that time, of 2855 pound and 13 shillings and 4pence. Entertainment was on a lavish scale. In 1606, for example, on the occasion of the visit of the Countess of Huntingdon's mother, a masque, specially written, was performed in the Great Chamber ( the hall), recalling the better known performance of Milton's Comus at Ludlow Castle. But all previous occasions were surpassed by the visit of James I and his court in 1617. The length of his stay is variously reported to have been three weeks to 2 months, during which time the nobility of the district were invited to Ashby to pay their homage. The expense of entertaining this gathering was a strain even for the vast resources of the Earl of Huntingdon. From time to time small additions and modernisations were made to the fabric: the north and south porches of the hall belong to the early years of the sixteenth century; the existing large windows were inserted in the following century. Also of this period was a set of rooms east of the solar, now demolished but shown in eighteenth century prints of the castle; it is traditionally supposed to have been erected hastily for the visits of James I. The wilderness or wild garden south of the castle was probably laid out during this period; the two corner turrets and remains of the garden wall suggests a date in the middle of the sixteenth century. Originally it had a bowling green, which enjoyed a more than local reputation as late as 1720. The earthworks in the eastern half are the remains of the ornamental ponds.


Without doubt the most stirring chapter in the history of Ashby is that which deals with its part in the Civil War. Neither the aged fifth Earl Of Huntingdon nor his eldest son, who succeeded to the title in 1643, played an part in the struggle, but his second son, Henry Hastings, became the main champion in the Royalist cause in Leicestershire. Shortly after the battle of Edgehill, Hastings occupied the castle and placed the garrison on a war footing. For more than three years it was to be the centre of operations that covered most of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and this earned for Hastings the nickname of Rob Carrier among the Parliamentarians. Several improvements were made on the defences, notably the building of the Mount House which stands to the east of the castle on the Leicestershire Road, and some underground passages. According to a contemporary diary the former was erected in 1644, not only as a fortified outpost, but also as accommodation for reinforcement of Irish troops, to avoid racial and religious disputes between them and the English members of the garrison. The same source mentions the underground passages, intended to improve communications in the event of a siege; one apparently ran from the kitchen to the Mount House and another, now restored, joins the kitchen with the Hastings Tower. The latter, however, may have been in existence before the Civil War. By the end of 1644 the Parliamentary forces were gaining the upper hand in the country, and the castle was closely besieged, the town for having been occupied by Parliament. For a year the fortunes of the opposing forces fluctuated, but after the battle of Naseby, the situation became desperate for the Royalists. Although the castle proved too strong to be taken by storm, an outbreak of plague and dwindling food supplies took their toll of the garrison which was finally compelled to surrender on 28 February 1646. The terms of surrender were remarkably generous, suggesting that the Parliamentarians were relieved at the removal of so great a thorn in their side. As was usually the case, these terms included provision for slighting of the castle, but apparently none of the principal buildings was damaged at this stage. In November 1648 a Committee of the House of Commons, sitting at Leicester, recorded the Hastings Tower was still habitable and defensible, and resolved that the garrison of Ashby de la Zouch be forthwith slighted and made untenable. The slighting of thetower and the kitchen building was carried out in the following year on the usual lines, one complete wall of each building being destroyed by undermining and gun powder. It is this and not age that accounts for the ruinous state of these buildings. After this the Hastings family abandoned Ashby as a residence in favour of their other seat at Donnington Park. Certain portions of the castle seem, however to have remained habitable throughout the eighteenth century. The Bucks views of 1730 show hall, solar and chapel still roofed, and a three storeyed building on the site of the butteries; views of 1759 show another building east of the solar. During the course of the century these apartments were probably superseded by Ashby Place, a large house that was built on the site of the present manor house, possibly in 1724; in that year a document mentions the great improvements were being made at Ashby. For many years this was the home of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who was a prominent figure in the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. It disappeared in 1830 to make room for the present manor house, now part of the grammar school. The coming of the nineteenth century brought with it promise if better treatment than the castle had received in the previous century. The turning point was the publication of Ivanhoe in 1819; Scott was well aquainted with Ashby, and his choice of the town as the site of the famous tournament aroused public interest in the long neglected castle. The town evidently benefited indirectly from the success of the novel, and it enjoyed sufficient vogue as a spa during the early years of the century to justify the erection of pretentious terraces of houses still standing in South Street and Station Road. Under the first Marquess of Hastings (1754-1826) work on the preservation of the castle ruins was begun and it continued sporadically during the rest of the nineteenth century, In 1907 the east part of the chapel was screened off as a mausoleum for members of the Hastings Family, then in 1924 some stained glass, formerly chapel windows which retained their glass until late in the eighteenth century, was placed in four windows of the parish church. In 1932 the castle ruins and the Wilderness were placed in the guardianship of HM works. Since 1984 the castle has been in care of English Heritage.

( Glossary Of Medieval Terms On The Next Page)

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