Thornbury Castle is a magnificent retreat located in South Gloucestershire that is proudly proclaimed to be the only Tudor castle to presently operate as a hotel, a unique novelty that serves as a powerful selling point. As someone who recently stayed at the castle I can personally endorse Thornbury as an incredible place to visit and should be added to the bucket list of all who read this.
In July 1510 Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, obtained a royal licence to undertake work at his manor of Thornbury, located on the edge of the Cotswolds. The manor had been in the Stafford family for generations and the ambitious duke sought to transform his pleasant retreat into a palatial home without rival anywhere else in the kingdom.
The proud and arrogant Buckingham was a descendant of the Plantagenet kings of England and had an impeccable bloodline through which he was not only well-connected, but also exceptionally wealthy. Nonetheless he had effectively been exiled from holding any power at court due to the pre-eminence of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and the king’s favourites such as Charles Brandon and William Compton. With an egotistical desire to attract attention and with money to burn, Buckingham set about a building campaign that would ensure his castle would be the grandest noble home in the kingdom.
The reasons for Buckingham’s desire to base himself at Thornbury, as opposed to one of his many other estates throughout England, are unclear but may be connected in part to his childhood. The duke’s father, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, had been an ally of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1483 and helped Gloucester claim the throne as Richard III. Within months the 2nd Duke turned against his king and launched a farcical rebellion to unseat Richard. After the collapse of his uprising the duke was captured and summarily executed in Salisbury.
The young Edward Stafford’s uncertain future was somewhat secured when the seven-year-old’s wardship was given to Margaret Beaufort in 1486, the mother of the new king Henry VII and the esteemed matriarch of the Tudor Dynasty. It is a possibility Margaret placed the young boy at Thornbury Manor, a claim lent credence when taken into consideration the marriage of the duke’s mother Katherine Wydeville to Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford and uncle to the king. It is known that Jasper based himself at Thornbury and would die there on 21 December 1495. His ghost is stated to roam the property.
After a childhood spent in close companionship with the royal family, Edward Stafford emerged into adulthood as a strong-headed and ostentatious character fully aware of his noble grandeur. It was such a boastful disposition that would inspire Thornbury Castle which was designed to rival the king’s own Hampton Court Palace as the greatest home in the kingdom.
Attempting to upstage the king however was not a recommended tactic. Work was still ongoing in 1521, more than a decade after it had commenced, when the arrest of the duke suddenly caused tools to be downed and construction halted. The duke’s crime had been to rouse suspicion of treason in the mind of the increasingly paranoid king he had attempted to upstage – Henry VIII.
By 1521 the king was entering his 30’s and had yet to produce a legitimate male heir. Thoughts were slowly beginning to form about the event of a succession crisis and many were allegedly turning their heads towards the Duke of Buckingham, who it may be argued had a greater claim to the throne than Henry VIII. A foreign ambassador stated admiringly ‘my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler’.
Furthermore the duke possessed substantial wealth, evident from his transformation of Thornbury into a palatial home. The king’s finances meanwhile were in disarray and the treasury empty. The combination of these factors left Buckingham exposed to the king’s ruthless nature, which erupted in April 1521 when the duke was summoned to court and placed in the Tower of London. His downfall was swift; he was charged with intending to kill the king and executed on Tower Hill on 17 May. His wealth and property, including Thornbury Castle, was seized by the crown and became King Henry VIII’s.
After this period the castle was occasionally used by the king’s daughter Mary, who would regularly stay in Thornbury during her teenage years whilst she was a student of the Bishop of Exeter. It was during the summer of 1535 however that the castle received notoriety when Thornbury played host to King Henry VIII and his new queen Anne Boleyn for 10 days. The pair arrived on 14 August and departed to Acton Court on 22 August, the 50th anniversary of the Tudors accession to the throne at Bosworth Field. Whilst at Thornbury Henry was visited by a delegation from nearby Bristol who brought him 10 oxen and 40 sheep whilst Anne was presented with a gilt cup containing 100 marks of gold.
Thereafter the premises gradually fell out of favour, even after it was restored to the Stafford family who nonetheless never regained their former position. By the 19th century the ruined estate was in the hands of the Howard family, ironically kin to Anne Boleyn, and renovated as a home for a minor branch of the family. It was further restored in the 20th century by various owners and eventually reopened to the public as a hotel.
The Castle Today
The castle today still possesses many features which would have been recognisable to King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn during their progress in 1535. The main surviving wing of the castle is what would have been the southern range, which would have been the heart of Buckingham’s project.
The rooms that today constitute the Lounge, Library and Dining Rooms were a core part of the Duchess’ Bedchamber and Drawing Rooms. The Lounge possesses wonderfully wooden panelling and a giant fireplace which would have played a crucial role in warming the rooms. The intricate five-bay window in the middle of the room floods the room with light during the day and would have done the same five centuries ago. The octagonal dining room, replete with arrow slit windows and another fire place, would have been a bedchamber and occupy the ground floor of the castle’s great tower. These rooms as a whole would have hosted Anne Boleyn in August 1535, now utilised by the hotel as an atmospheric area to enjoy wining and dining.
The second floor of the great tower contains a room christened the Duke’s Bedchamber and it is within here Henry VIII slept during the same stay. The room is accessible via a spiral staircase and is also an octagonal chamber with fireplace and impressive views of the gardens. Elsewhere the castle is a myriad of corridors and doorways to wander through and explore, each room respectfully furnished in the Tudor style.
Outside the castle the Tudor gardens are stated to be the earliest extant example of 16th century gardens in the UK, and offer a great view of southern range’s rear. Particularly noticeable is the five-bay oriel window in its glory, the tower along with the ruined gallery which had previously connected the bedchambers to the nearby church, and the chimneys atop the range. These chimneys are a particularly noteworthy feature of Thornbury Castle, replicated only at Hampton Court.
Thornbury Castle is a truly a Tudor masterpiece that offers an unrivalled experience to the visitor. In total there are 26 luxurious chambers to stay in, many with four-poster beds, plus an award-winning chef and extensive wine cellar to enjoy. With its impressive array of heavy oak doors, breathtaking architecture and picturesque gardens, Thornbury and its captivating history is certainly worthy of a visit from any 16th century aficionado.