Thornbury Castle – a knotty controversy.
Back in January the estimable Professor Ronald Hutton, in his presentation on Henry VIII, mentioned that Thornbury Castle had been de-roofed following the execution of Edward Stafford in 1521. (De-roofing the castle having much the same effect as de-roofing Edward Stafford.) Meg Wise of Thornbury and District Heritage Trust pondered the veracity of this and did some research, the findings of which were part of her talk to the April gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeology Society. To maintain the suspense a little longer, first the backstory on Edward’s execution.
Edward Stafford was the son of Henry Stafford, 2nd duke of Buckingham, and Katherine Woodville, who was the sister of Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV. The heraldic symbol we associate with Edward is the Stafford knot, (a symbol which may go back to Saxon times as the same decoration was found on pieces of the recently unearthed Staffordshire hoard), but this is only 1 of 18 heraldic symbols that Edward was entitled to use. Another was the de Bohun swan, as seen on the badges of Henry V. Edward was a descendant of Eleanor de Bohun and Thomas, duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III. So, as well as a goodly stash of heraldic bling, Edward Stafford had more than a finger tip of royal blood in his veins.
As his father had been executed (an unfortunate genetic condition), Edward had been brought up in the court of Henry VII. Henry made him a knight of the garter at the tender age of 17. He had money, status, connections. He dressed in the most sumptuous fabrics of red and black, daringly sporting a royal-purple number at a meeting with the emperor Maximillian in 1513. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold, however, he was outshone by a certain cardinal Wolsey (and look what happened to him). Edward built Thornbury Castle to impress, with large windows for his wife’s apartments on the ground floor, and even larger windows for his own apartments on the first.
While Henry VIII failed to produce a son and heir, Edward Stafford, who had a son and grandsons, was seen by some as a possible heir to the throne. Henry would do anything to uphold the succession of the Tudor dynasty, and was becoming practised in the art of removing obstacles. Edward was executed for treason in 1521 at the age of 43. Henry took all his properties.
So, back to the roof. Henry gave away or sold most of the properties of Edward Stafford, but he kept Thornbury Castle for himself. It had no less than 3 deer parks and was convenient for the bridge. He appointed Sir William Kingston (later constable of the Tower of London) as constable of the castle. So why would Henry have the castle de-roofed if he owned it himself? Princess Mary stayed at the castle on her way to live at Ludlow, and of course we all know that Henry himself stayed at the castle with his second wife Anne Boleyn in 1535.
Many of the Staffords suffered from the genetic defect of being executed but Edward’s son Henry managed to survive, and in 1554 Queen Mary gave Thornbury Castle back to him. Delighted at being restored to the ancestral pile, he proceeded to asset-strip the place in order to fund projects at other properties. So it was in fact the Staffords themselves who de-roofed Thornbury Castle. Part of the castle was maintained, however, and it was even reinforced and garrisoned during the Civil War. In Victorian times the romantic remains were restored to give us the castle we now see.
Today you can wander through the grounds (they don’t mind) looking for the symbols of Stafford knots and Bohun swans and royal garters, admiring the large, ornate windows and chimneys. And keep a look out this summer for the new book on Thornbury Castle produced by the Thornbury and District Heritage Trust. Many thanks to Meg Wise for her research and unravelling of this knotty problem. At the May meeting, on Tuesday the 14th at 7:30 in St. Mary’s Church Hall, Dr. Toby Jones will give a talk on Newport Medieval Ship. Guests are welcome. If you are interested in finding out more about the Society you can find us at http://www.mythornbury.co.uk/thornbury/thornbury-local-history-society and www.facebook.com/thornburyhistorysoc
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall.
Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.
NB during the uncertainty caused by Coronavirus pandemic the Society is not holding meetings at St Mary’s Hall but Zooming their meetings free of charge! Please contact Jenny Ovens, Secretary at for log on details.