Tag Archives: English Civil War

Chirk Castle

Catching-up time: I’m off to England soon, so I’m posting about places I will not see because I’ve seen them before. For a hopeless Anglophile like me, England has way too many stellar sights. Chirk Castle is one of my favorites.

Construction began in 1295, under Roger Mortimer. He was an English army captain who received the land from Edward I, with a mandate to show the recently-subdued Welsh who was in charge. A powerful ring of fortresses grew within a few years on the Marches, the brooding borderlands between England and Wales.

Most of these stone piles are now picturesque ruins, but Chirk has been continuously inhabited since it was finished in 1310.

I’d like to think this emblem, showing a hand above a crown, is from the days of the Mortimers. I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. Was Roger Mortimer the “Hand of the King?” No, actually the hand emblem is from the late 1500s, when the Myddelton family owned the place and bought themselves a title.

When they added to King James I’s coffers by paying for the title of Baronet, they were entitled to add a red glove to their coat of arms.

The original Roger Mortimer and his namesake nephew both turned against the Crown. The first died in the Tower, and the second was executed as a traitor by Edward III. Three other owners of Chirk were also executed as traitors over the years. It’s easy to imagine the castle being haunted.

In Tudor times, in 1563, Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favorite, Robert Dudley. Some rooms and parts of the gardens still have a distinctly Tudor look.

After Robert Dudley died, the castle was eventually sold to Sir Thomas Myddelton I. His son, Sir Thomas Myddelton II, found himself in the peculiar position of being ordered to break in and occupy his own castle in 1643. It had been taken by Royalists under Charles I in the English Civil War. Myddelton was ordered to retake it, which he could have done with artillery. But he didn’t feel like bashing his own home to smithereens. Eventually, the Royalists were bribed to leave peacefully, Charles I was executed, and Chirk went on as before. If these walls could talk!

Later, subsequent generations of Myddeltons were forced to rent out their castle to make ends meet, but the family managed to hold on until 1978. Even after giving the castle to the National Trust, family members lived there, and they still actively help manage the castle and grounds. That’s a Lady Mary Myddelton above, circa 1613.

One of her descendants sits, wineglass in hand, in the Bow Drawing Room.

The room is furnished as it was for posh parties in the twenties and thirties.

A gramophone plays dance music, and visitors are invited to make themselves at home.

Maybe we should take a turn in the Long Gallery?

Wait, I heard the dinner gong!

The dining room, last decorated in the 1930s, has entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Augustus John, and any number of other people I would love to meet.

I’m not big on romantic castle ruins, but I’d go back to gloriously UN-ruined Chirk Castle anytime.

The exuberant Baroque Davies Gates, made by two local blacksmiths in 1712, will be waiting.

Why I Love England: History in Bits and Bobs


In the Oak Gallery at Blickling, a Tudor house in Norfolk, I came across a tall chair upholstered in red velvet. It had no label, just the usual polite note from the National Trust asking the visitor not to sit on it. (Actually, the NT has so many unsittable ancient chairs that they often just place a dried thistle or a pinecone on the seat).

I asked the friendly room docent, a lovely white-haired lady, if there was anything special about this chair. “Oh, yes!” she said. “That was the coronation chair of Charles the Second.”

Really? The coronation chair of the King whose reign ended the bloody Civil War in England didn’t rate a placard? Charles II was the English king crowned in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was executed–for treason. How could a king be guilty of treason? Charles I wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, levying taxes without consulting Parliament. Thus began the bloody English Civil War. Charles I lost.

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Charles I was executed in public, with all due ceremony, in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, in 1649. It was a cold day in January, and reportedly Charles’s main worry was that he would shiver and the crowd would think he was scared. He wasn’t.


Charles I was an unpopular king, but there are countless images of him. I can spot one at twenty paces.  The painting above is at Blickling, but I forgot to take a picture of the caption so I don’t know the artist.  I think the future Charles II is shown with his unfortunate dad. The pointy beard at the bottom of Charles I’s long narrow face is always a giveaway. I’m sure I’m being way too hard on the man, but to me he always looks very aloof, with his head in the clouds.

After Charles I lost his head at Whitehall, a Commonwealth of England was declared, but it was really more of a dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell.  Before too long the people wanted their monarchy back. This is a huge simplification of events and people that are still hotly debated, of course. Oliver Cromwell was dug up and beheaded for treason after he was already dead, but many people consider him the father of British democracy.  Anyway, once again England had a hereditary King, Charles II.  I’d have thought the coronation chair of Charles II was an important piece of furniture.

I was pretty sure the kindly docent was mistaken about the tall red velvet chair.

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

I found a coronation portrait of Charles II with a much grander coronation chair just visible behind him.  He was crowned at Westminster Abbey in the full splendor that the English have always done so well. Now I think the chair I saw may have been used for something else–maybe a grand banquet following the coronation, built high so that everyone could see the new King.  Or maybe Charles II just had especially long legs and this was his favorite chair. I’m not willing to give up the idea that Charles II sat in that chair.

Anyway, I love the way the British love their history.  I would not dream of contradicting a lovely, friendly docent who is working as a volunteer in a National Trust property. If I heard a mistake, I would always just let it slide.  But if a Brit heard a howler of a mistake, trust me, there would be a swift and stern correction. People in the room would immediately gather round and join the debate. Events from 400 years ago might as well have happened yesterday. They are lovingly preserved in memory and in physical objects.

The Oak Gallery at Blickling is magnificent. For the price of a National Trust pass, a visitor can trace the footsteps of Henry VIII and several of his queens. When Henry was gone, Queen Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor. Anne Boleyn was most likely born on the property, though not in the present house.  On the anniversary of her death, she is said to arrive at the house in a ghostly carriage, sadly carrying her head.   Did Charles I or II walk this gallery? I’m not sure.  I’d better go back for another visit.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Sudeley Castle: Home of Three Queens

Katherine Parr, Public Domain

Katherine Parr, Public Domain

King Henry VIII died in January of 1547, leaving his 6th wife, Katherine Parr, a generous settlement. Within a few months of Henry’s death, Katherine secretly married Thomas Seymour. There was a bit of a scandal because of the unseemly haste and secrecy of the wedding, but they rode it out. Thomas was the brother of Henry’s 3rd wife, Jane Seymour. She had married Henry after Anne Boleyn’s execution. She died after giving birth to Henry’s long-awaited male heir, Edward. Many people believed that Katherine had planned to marry Thomas Seymour all along, and had only married Henry out of a sense of duty to her monarch. (I have to wonder whether anyone ever got away with saying “no” to Henry about anything, including marriage).

Henry had entrusted Katherine with the care and education of Elizabeth, the orphaned daughter of Henry and the unfortunate Ann Boleyn. Thomas Seymour, who had high political ambitions, became the guardian of young Lady Jane Grey, who was a minor and cousin of the late Henry. (Later, Thomas was part of a plot to place the innocent pawn Jane Grey on the throne. The doomed plot cost Lady Jane her head at age 17). For awhile, though, the couple and their young charges lived in apparent harmony at Sudeley Castle. I can imagine the two young women and their older guardian studying together in the sunny rooms and peaceful Queen’s Garden.


The harmony did not last long. Soon rumors flew that Thomas Seymour was overly interested in the young Elizabeth, and she in him. She was packed off to live elsewhere.


Katherine died a few days after giving birth to her first and only child in 1548. Thomas Seymour was off to bigger and better things. He abandoned the infant daughter, who was taken in by a friend of Katherine’s and essentially never heard from again. Katherine was buried in St. Mary’s Chapel at Sudeley, mourned mainly by young Lady Jane Grey. But a hundred years later, during the Civil War, the chapel was ruined and her body was lost. A farmer found her coffin in 1782. He opened it, found her body well-preserved, took a lock of hair, and reburied her. The coffin was dug up again and reburied several more times, once upside-down by drunken hooligans. Finally, in 1817, her body was moved back to Sudeley, the chapel was rebuilt, and eventually a magnificent tomb was built as a final resting place for Katherine.


A ghost adds immeasurably to the elegance of any castle, especially a royal ghost. Sudeley’s is believed to be Katherine Parr. Tour guides report that a lady dressed in green has appeared to numerous people. I doubt I will ever see the ghost, but I have seen a Green Lady–or, rather, two of them. On the pathway from the castle to the chapel stand topiary figures of Katherine and her dear companion, the young Lady Jane Grey. Tour guides explain that the two women attended chapel every day during the short time they had together.


Royal or not, women in the Tudor and Elizabethan era lived in perilous times. Between political machinations controlled by men, and the dangers of childbirth controlled by no one, they often lived short and tragic lives. I’m looking forward to a new historical fiction account of Katherine Parr’s life, Queen’s Gambit, by Elizabeth Fremantle. I’m sure it will relate the stories of Lady Jane Grey and the young Elizabeth to Katherine Parr’s life. A Wall Street Journal article about the writer’s process of telling this remarkable woman’s story is at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323610704578627820370655036.html.

Join me next time for more on the art, history and literature of Europe and the British Isles!