Ludlow Castle is a stunning ruin, in private hands, but open to the public. It boasts fine walls, a huge outer bailey, an inner bailey with beautiful apartments and a round chapel based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Walking around the castle today, there are signs of a number of key moments in national history that played out within its walls.
A great escape
In the outer bailey, at the far left hand corner as you walk in, is the ruin of St Peter’s Chapel. This is accessible from Mortimer’s Walk, which runs around the outside of the castle walls, and stands next to Mortimer’s Tower. The Mortimer family were powerful barons in the Welsh Marches, the strip of land on the border of England and Wales. It could be a lawless place that attracted hard men out to make their fortunes.
The Mortimer family were originally based at Wigmore Castle, not far from Ludlow, but made Ludlow Castle their powerbase when they acquired it through marriage. They became Earls of March when Roger Mortimer backed Queen Isabella in deposing her husband, Edward II, in favour of her son, Edward III in 1327. Mortimer had previously fallen from favour under Edward II and ended up a prisoner in the Tower of London. He escaped in 1323 after getting his guards drunk and climbing out through a chimney in the kitchens.
Once he had become Earl of March, Roger had St Peter’s Chapel built to celebrate his breakout. The Tower’s chapel is dedicated to St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains), and Roger had made his daring escape on that saint’s feast day too.
In the 1450s, failures in the Hundred Years’ War with France were leading to problems in England that would become the Wars of the Roses. Ludlow Castle was, by this time, in the hands of Richard, Duke of York, the leader of opposition to King Henry VI. York’s mother was Anne Mortimer, and he inherited the vast Mortimer portfolio from his uncle Edmund, 5th Earl of March.
As tensions increased, York moved his family from their home at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire to the more defensible Ludlow in the Marcher heartlands, writing letters from here to gather support. It was here that York mustered his forces in 1459.
This moment is the first time we have a record of all of the sons of York gathered together in one place: the future Edward IV (then Earl of March), Edmund, Earl of Rutland, George, later Duke of Clarence, and the future Richard III. Their cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker, was there too. It’s incredible to walk through the grounds today where so many key players in the Wars of the Roses once gathered.
The result of this moment is known as the Battle of Ludford Bridge, named after the bridge not far from the castle. Ludlow was sacked by a royal army and the castle was looted. York and his allies fled, but returned the following year to claim the throne of England. The youngest children, Margaret, George and Richard, were left behind with their mother Cecily and witnessed the carnage that ensued.
Fit for a prince
York and his second son Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. In the following year, Edward took the throne and began the rule of the House of York. Although he was ejected from England in 1470 after falling out spectacularly with his cousin Warwick, Edward returned in 1471 to retake his crown, and to find that his wife had given birth to a son and heir in his absence.
Edward had been raised at Ludlow Castle with his brother Edmund, and when his own son was two years old, he was sent to learn to rule in a household here that used Wales to teach the Prince of Wales how to be a king one day.
Edward IV created a set of ordinances to govern his son’s household in 1473. He was to awake at a convenient hour, hear Mass, take breakfast, learn lessons, followed by dinner at 10am. After this, there would be more music, grammar and humanities lessons, followed by physical activities in the afternoon, including horse riding and weapon training suitable to his age. He was to go to bed at 8pm, until he was 12 years old, when he could stay up until 9pm.
Ironically, the king insisted his son should not be in the company of any ‘swearer, brawler, backbiter or common gambler, adulterer or user of words of ribaldry’. It’s ironic, because those were Edward’s favourite kinds of people.
This prince was to become Edward V, briefly proclaimed king but never crowned, and remembered now as one of the Princes in the Tower.
Another Prince of Wales was to make a home at Ludlow. Arthur was Edward IV’s grandson, the son of Edward’s oldest daughter Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Unlike the Yorkist Prince Edward, Arthur only arrived in Ludlow at the age of 15, in 1501. In November that year, he was back in London marrying the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon.
The newlyweds made their way to Ludlow where they would establish their court. The castle was extensively refurbished for them. You can still see the Tudor chimney stacks on the apartment block in the Inner Bailey. However, in March 1502 both fell ill with what was described as ‘a malign vapour which proceeded from the air’. Catherine recovered, but on 2 April 1502, Arthur died aged 15. His heart is buried in St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, and his tomb can be found at Worcester Cathedral.
Arthur’s untimely death made his younger brother, the future Henry VIII, heir to the throne. Henry would marry his brother’s widow Catherine. When he ultimately sought an annulment of their marriage, part of his claim was that Arthur and Catherine had consummated their union. Part of the testimony at the trial to annul the marriage was that Arthur had claimed ‘I have been in the midst of Spain last night’ and that ‘having a wife is a good pastime’. Catherine denied that they had slept together until her dying day. If only Ludlow Castle’s walls could talk.
The Council of the Marches
The remainder of the 16th century saw Ludlow Castle go from strength to strength. As other fortresses declined, its role as the focus of the Council of the Marches meant that it was used and well maintained, particularly when Sir Henry Sidney became President of the Council in 1560. A keen antiquarian, he oversaw a great deal of refurbishment.
In 1616, James I and VI declared his son, the future Charles I, to be Prince of Wales at Ludlow Castle, reinforcing its importance. Like many castles, it held for the royalist cause during the civil war but fell to a Parliamentarian siege.
When Charles II came to the throne, he re-established the Council of the Marches, but it was officially disbanded in 1689. Without such a vital use, the castle declined. Owned today by the Earl of Powis, it is open to the public, and is a stunning place to visit and to be amongst such a long and fascinating history.